Fourth Way Perspectives

Book Review
Redemption from Redemption
Coming to Our Senses:
Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West

by Morris Berman
Simon & Schuster

Carl Jung, the renowned 20th-century psychiatrist, often warned that Western civilization had become obsessively rational—its values and action based too heavily on mental abstraction. Such narrow one-sidedness in a world that is dynamic and multidimensional creates a fundamental disharmony and disease, inevitably leading to individual and societal decay if not balanced by an opening to the feeling, intuitive and erotic sides of human nature. Jung explored the unconscious by means of dreams and symbols, discovering there the animus and anima. These are two primary archetypal principles that order and influence our personal and collective lives. The animus is masculine, linear, logical, capable of a high degree of abstract reasoning. It is the system builder. The anima principle is feminine, mysterious, rooted in feeling and empathy. Its center is relationship.

System Break

When any system—be it the psychosomatic one of the person or the matrix of public and private institutions that comprise society—loses the relationship between its parts, when the parts exist only for themselves, that system's days are numbered. Having literally "lost touch with itself," the system hardens, overreacts, and either changes or breaks apart. The increasing numbers of homeless and addicted newborn babies in a country as wealthy as the United States, the recent democratic movements in the Soviet bloc, the 'corporatization' of the global and domestic economies, the destruction of the rainforest in the Amazon and the protective ozone of the planet—these all can be seen as perhaps presaging a breakage of monumental proportions. Simply put, none of the world’s systems (psychological, political or ecological) seems to work any longer. Kali yuga, iron age or not, we appear to be coming to a crossroads in the modern human experiment. That we are in fact in the initial throes of just such a historical discontinuity, or system break, is one of the theses of Morris Berman's Coming to Our Senses. A former mathematician and history of science professor, Berman sees our time as not only one of breakdown of old systems and paradigms and the patterns of perception upon which they build and feed, but also one pregnant with genuine new possibility. "In our ends are our beginnings," said the poet T.S. Eliot.

Somatic Deprivation & "the Other"

Unlike Jung, who centered humans in the psychological, Berman maintains we’ve been in our heads too long. It's time to come into our bodies, to live in our senses rather than in mental concepts and dreams. "We are somatically deprived. We live virtually a disembodied life," argues Berman. Ironically (while unconsciously rejecting the somatic experience of the body itself) we mentalize, idealize and lust after the body image. But in a culture of talking heads, the body is a hidden taboo. Society conditions us to keep the body at arm's length, devaluing it and its intelligence. Berman traces this trend to the 1500s, when bodily impulses were seen as animal and therefore in need of repression. The human body, as a result, became "the other." And so for Berman it isn't so much that we are unconscious of the Jungian animus or anima but that we are unconscious of our bodies, our senses.

This fact, so simple on its surface, constitutes a major reorientation and restatement of the human dilemma. Because we live our lives cut off at the neck, we go through the needless dramas of human life depicted as sterile, cerebral, harsh, empty, trivial, meaningless. Little wonder the lack of completion we all feel, the fact that, as Thoreau noted as early as the 1850s, most of us "live lives of quiet desperation." This lack of body wholeness, in turn, creates deep-seated longing, psychic conflict, and paralysis that projects itself into and is then mirrored back to us via our institutions. Big Brother lives—inside us! Common sense being rooted in the kinesthetic sense of who we are—"That fellow has his feet on the ground," we say—our rites of passage seem to be a series of identity crises. We don't know who we are because we have no feeling, no sensation, of who we are. Looking at all the world and ourselves as objects (objects we manipulate), we fear becoming a "this" or "that."

But Berman delves still deeper here, intuiting that our root fear is that we are empty, nobody. This horror of emptiness—which Berman perceives as lying between the immediate me of the body and the mentalized me of the mind—we hide from ourselves. If we would watch ourselves, we would see that the focus of our attention and energy is consistently beyond our body. In a neat trick of compensation, our head culture obsesses body image, our own and the other person's. Thus, we live a life of compensatory images, becoming possessed by a thing, cause, religion, cult, corporation. Each a mental image, each an escape from the feeling of self, and each experienced intensely. "Devotion to secondary satisfaction," points out Berman, "is intense precisely because it ultimately provides no satisfaction." Most of us are too busy working on our tans to care. As the poet W.H. Auden put it: "We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and see ourselves."

Release of Archetypal Energy & Knowledge

When systems, be they personal or societal, reach the point in their development where a catastrophic breakdown is possible, then tremendous archetypal energy and knowledge is released, believes Berman. (Think of the Berlin Wall.) It is a time, then, of enormous possibilities, but dangers, as well. He warns against this new, saving energy and knowledge being co-opted by a fanatical political movement, a la Hitler, or by scientism or the corporation. This is not woolly thinking. Think of Pacific Telesis's $30 million experiment to educate public employees with the esoteric teaching of Gurdjieff. Ponder Werner Erhard's est-based consulting business divorcing powerful Eastern spiritual techniques from their religious mooring and moving them wholesale into American boardrooms. Consider Digital Equipment Corporation spending $1,200 a day having its executives taught to visualize white light, then planning global product strategy. This is a bastardization, a mixing of the sacred and profane. Give ego the sacred and you don't get a sacred ego. You get black magic—the bending of energy by the priests of money for the sake of the business chakra, the numinous bottom line. Tomorrow's CEO may be keynoting a sales conference on the use of the visualization of St. Ignatius Loyola to increase market share. Don't laugh: Himmler had the S.S. doing just that.

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