Consider participation mystique, a term coined by anthropologist Lucien Levy-Brühl and used extensively by Carl Jung. In such a state, our beliefs and the objects of our beliefs are experienced as one undifferentiated mass. Thus, for example, we can experience an inanimate object (or even living things like trees and animals) as having intentions, feelings, thoughts, spirit, and other qualities of consciousness.
This stands in contrast to what some would call anthropomorphism, thus revealing their allegiance to nihilism, which I will discuss shortly. In participation mystique correspondence is identity; there are no symbols, only literalism.
This mode of relationship enables us to experience the living magic of the cosmos (for surely participation mystique is a vehicle for the riches of imagination), but it also enables some very backward and hackneyed thinking, for example paranoia, denial, and superstition. The world is mystical, but if we are immersed without reflection in that world then we can get into trouble. For we then lack perspective on the sense or otherwise of our beliefs and deeds.
At the other extreme from “primitive” mysticism we have modern nihilism: when all our attributions, projections, and beliefs are radically withdrawn from the world around us, are seen purely as products of our isolated consciousness. Consequently we risk experiencing nothing as satisfying, comforting, joyous, or meaningful. Participation mystique enables the very possibility of communication, by conjuring for us a “theory of mind for the Other” and therefore implying the existence of relationships. That possibility is lost in nihilism, which is stuck in an endless, narcissistic, self-examining regress.
Nonetheless, great self-understanding and insight can come from the reflectiveness of nihilism. Once we withdraw our raw and undifferentiated acceptance of our experience of the world, we can develop subtle perception and deep appreciation of complexity. We can assess the implications of our thoughts and deeds, evaluate them, and refine them.
So if the supposedly premodern consciousness of participation mystique has reverence but not sense; and if the supposedly modern consciousness of nihilism has insight but wallows in the despair of abstraction, what are we to do?
Contra Levy-Brühl, who saw participation mystique as being culturally “primitive,” I do not believe that these two modes of consciousness are mutually exclusive. Rather, throughout history their symbiosis ebbs and flows in complementary tides. They exist in each of us, all the time, and weave around one another in complex and subtle patterns. Both can be active in a single belief or action, engaging together like multifaceted computer programs interfacing over the Internet; like two chess masters of equal ability but totally opposed styles and methods; like Odin’s ravens Thought (nihilism) and Memory (mysticism).
Participation mystique invariably collapses. Either its own irrationality causes it to dismantle (consider the Protestant Reformation of an insane Catholic church); or it is so absorbed in the “world of its concern” (c.f. Martin Heidegger’s work) that it cannot cope with a sudden dramatic change of game (as happened to many indigenous cultures when European invaders turned up with guns, grog, and the Cross). Eve always ends up eating the apple and, though it can be unpleasant, the fall into ego consciousness is a necessary potentiality on the horizon of sacred oneness.
The Faustian fall into the clutches of the Devil’s isolated ego leads to a different kind of disaster than those which haunt participation mystique. Once we forget that our actions have consequences in the causal web that binds everything together, we begin to do incredibly stupid things. For example, burn dangerous quantities of fossil fuels, or base our society on disposability, unsustainably exponential “growth,” and other illusions. We layer abstractions upon abstractions, until stratospherically arbitrary conventions such as legality and economics conjure plenty in the midst of poverty…and, as we have seen so keenly in recent years, poverty in the midst of plenty.
Nonetheless, with the self-reflection of nihilism we are afforded an opportunity to, as Jung would say, withdraw our projections from the world. We can begin to recognize that our emotions, attributions, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings about the world are distinct from the objects in the world to which they pertain.
This is not dissimilar to what Edmund Husserl called the phenomenological turn. He correctly intuited a strong streak of participation mystique, of absorption in objects without reflection, in all the sciences (it continues today). In response, he called for a phenomenological revolution – to go “back to the things themselves” – to the projections which are the meat of all human experience.
A simple example: we all have an intuitive idea of what this “life” thing is that biology studies, and that intuition implicitly guides the very shape of all biological study. But try to draw out that intuition into a clear, explicit statement that doesn’t, in some fashion, already presuppose the shape of the field of study! Not so easy to do, least of all if you are a biologist. Husserl warned that often our implicit understandings quietly but fatefully determine the way we experience and interpret reality. Modern research on cognitive bias – on the dangers of the tendency thumbnailed by Robert Anton Wilson as “the prover proves what the thinker thinks” – is a powerful, if somewhat narrow, contemporary scientific exploration of this problem.
So Husserl invokes this turn, away from the world, to the phenomena themselves. In the process he puts the question of reality “as such,” “in truth,” aside. Which is in a sense nihilistic (or at least a kind of epistemological agnosticism). Yet it allows us to clarify how our unconscious beliefs frame and occlude the experiences we have. This in turn opens us, enables us to experience reality with a lot more open-mindedness, wonder, curiosity, acceptance, and equanimity. At least, it does if we set it to good use and do not allow it to become a hall of mirrors ala postmodern philosophy (which indeed partly emerged as a critical successor to Husserl’s ideas).
If we do not stop at a narrow and cramped state of nihilism (withdrawal of meaning from the world into the perceiver), but instead use that state to clarify how we relate to the world, then we find ourselves drawn, as Husserl was, to appreciate both the Forest and the Trees. Thus instead of being stuck with only mysticism, or only nihilism, we are given the gift of a bigger picture and a rapprochement of what seemed at first to be fundamentally irreconcilable kinds of consciousness.
For Jung, this all has a psychological dimension. Psychological well-being is achieved once we have systematically withdrawn all our projections from the world, grasped them as projections, as objects themselves (“to the things themselves!” we again hear Husserl cry).
This gradually enables us to see how our experience is shaped by our expectations, habits, and unconscious beliefs. Through this process we come to realize that it is not the world, not events, not other people that make us happy or unhappy, but rather our ability to achieve peace within ourselves; we become less dependent on the arbitrary whims of fate in order to feel whole. Of course, we then have to reintegrate ourselves so that the breach of psyche and cosmos is resolved into a new, far more robust relationship between mind and world.
(This is not to say that life events of a negative character somehow magically “shouldn’t” have a traumatic consequence, but to rather say that the person who achieves something close to Jung’s ideal of individuation is able to accept, cope with, and resolve negative situations more effectively and with less suffering).
Jung saw this process of withdrawal and rebirth in the symbolism of alchemy. He felt that the alchemists – sometimes purposefully, sometimes instinctively – used the state of participation mystique as a framework within which to experience their psychological withdrawal, transformation, and reintegration. Their medium? The myth-laden operations of their paraphernalia. Here we see the brilliance of alchemy: it distills the best of nihilistic, detached consciousness by establishing it within an environment of mystical literalism!
(Psychotherapy is almost identical, except that it substitutes the temenos of the therapeutic relationship for the retorts, alembics, and chemicals of the pseudo-scientist. The analogy was certainly not lost on Jung).
So: we begin by being immersed uncritically in the world, unable to separate our consciousness, our emotions and beliefs, from that which is around us – other people, other places, other things. Then we separate and become self-conscious – we detach ourselves from the world around in order to come to self-awareness. Finally we reintegrate, so that our newfound perspective serves to open and enrich our experience, while imparting a fresh sense of inner wholeness.
In this way we can enjoy the mystical sense of all existence as a sacred and interconnected whole without the blinders that we suffered prior to our quest for self-awareness. And naturally this is actually a recurring cycle, without alpha or omega.
The three stage model (withdrawal, transformation, reintegration) can be seen in the three stages of alchemy. We begin with the Prima Materia, the raw stuff to which we apply our Art. Then we enter stage one, nigredo: blackness, death – the detachment of self from world. Our gestation produces stage two, albedo: whiteness, in which we are transformed until we are pristine, unsullied by the world; but also isolated, disconnected. Finally comes stage three, the rubedo: reddening, where our pristine nature is redeemed to the world, and vice versa. Thus the lead becomes gold.
It is significant in this connection that Mercurius, the arch-patron of alchemy, is both Prima Materia and the Philosopher’s Stone; that is, he is both lead and gold. We begin with the lead, we finish with the gold, but Mercurius shows them to be the one thing. We complete our alchemical or psychological journey back where we started…yet at the same time everything is totally different. In this sense, alchemy depicts a spiral movement: our circular orbits nevertheless also describe an ascending path, with the Self or the Stone as the axis of the spiral. The same holds for any sound process of spiritual or psychological development.
The Philosopher’s Stone, the goal of alchemy, is that which is wrested from the chaos of the world, refined in isolation, and then reintegrated with the world from which it was wrenched. In a sense, this psychological redemption touches all of objective reality, for they are one even as they are distinct.
It is from Jung that I draw the analogy of the Self to the Stone – snatched from the blindness of naive projection, refined in the isolating reflection of the therapy room (or other life experiences), and then returning to the world in such a way that it is connected with, but no longer dissolved into, everything around it. It no longer needs to attack or defend or justify itself or anything of the sort. It is its own singular foundation and yet simultaneously utterly integrated and one with the universe as a whole.
I had a vision tonight. Woden appeared to me younger than he ever has – no beard, and two eyes. He led me through a forest to a clearing. In the clearing was a phoenix (a symbol of the Philosopher’s Stone, of the goal of psycho-spiritual wholeness and perfection).
Woden explained that it is a mistake to think the phoenix dies and is reborn. Rather, he said, if you look closely you can see an almost invisible membrane around it: its egg. The phoenix can expand and contract this membrane at will. When its egg is expanded it contains the whole universe, and thus we perceive the phoenix and think it alive. But when needs be, the phoenix can contract the egg until the bird is tightly enclosed. Then it seems to us to have disappeared, to have died, only to be “reborn” when the phoenix is ready to “participate mystically” through projection once again, which is to say, only when it again expands its membrane to encompass the world around.
This is the model which Woden, in his almost Mercurial form, encouraged me to pursue psychologically and spiritually. The eternal phoenix, neither born nor unborn, in the world, loving the world, but not owned by the world. Shamanistic but not superstitious; realistic but not cynical.
That the three-part process of withdrawal – transformation – reintegration is common in premodern cultural imagery suggests that participation mystique was never as absolute as Levy-Brühl proposes; otherwise it would never have been posed as a problem or questioned at all. That the three-fold process here discussed is so resonant even in modern times suggests that nihilism does not hold total sway even in this, its ascendant age. We can have hope.
Yet none of the foregoing means anything if we do not act on our hope. Learn to meditate. Keep a journal. Get psychotherapy. Join a community of like minded seekers. Reflect. Pray. Make art. Find the divine in small things and hidden places. Be your own inner alchemist. This is the purpose for which we have been made.
For when we invert the alchemical way – when we run things inside out and try to observe participation mystique within a cocoon of nihilism – then we expose ourselves to danger. For then we reduce ourselves to mere armchair practice; to being talkers and not doers. Although we may sound like we have undertaken the necessary work, the truth is we are just making ourselves vulnerable to the worst aspects of both mysticism and nihilism, under the spell of for our laziness, fear, hurt, arrogance, self-hatred, and all the rest. We might even make ourselves worse off than when we began, for we risk flagrant hypocrisy as well. Alchemy was considered a dangerous art, and these are some of the pitfalls of proceeding incorrectly.
I have made such mistakes too readily in my life. Now is the time, now is always the time, to undo the ills of armchair “wisdom” and roll up my sleeves. Join me.