This a large topic, and I am a small person. If I were not a small person, or if this were not a large topic, I probably would never have needed to learn anything about balancing insight. But as it is, I am not only a small person, but a small person with an almost insatiable craving to understand the worlds about me, a need to make sense of my observations and experiences, a desire to know. Now to have such a large and curious appetite is by and large a blessing - as I'm sure you know, because you wouldn't be here tonight if you weren't similarly blessed. I would not trade my curiosity in for anything. I follow the far-from- straight path it leads me on with much serendipity and delight, regularly rewarded with small epiphanies, and a fitting together of pieces of raw experience in ways which make sense and thereby, literally, expand my reality in this world.
Occasionally, however, I have hit pay dirt in the form of major insights in which many diverse pieces, in several different realms of reality, have suddenly fit together in ways I never expected them to, but in ways which suddenly became perfectly and beautifully clear. When this happens to any of us, it can of course can be tremendously exciting and energizing, and through such insights we can experience joy and ecstasy.
We value perfection and beauty. We tend, as a culture, to see energy and excitement, joy and ecstasy, as positive and desirable qualities. But energy cries for a channel of expression, it hardly lets us sit still, and excitement itself is an out-calling, a strong impulse - perhaps a fundamental psychic necessity - to articulate, to go out into the world, to shout from roof tops, to show others what one has seen. We find, as did Nietzsche's Zarathustra, that like a bee that has gathered too much honey, we need hands outstretched to receive it.
But to receive is difficult for many people, and what is honey for one might be vinegar - even poison - for another. (Think of Galileo! Think of Darwin!) Even our closest friends may find our excitement difficult to take and quickly turn their backs on it, stop listening, stop trying to see and understand. And then we can experience what Heraclitus called an enantiodromia, a swing to the opposite, and all that seemed so positive and beautiful turns suddenly dreadful and problematic, for all the excitement and energy is still there and, without an appropriate channel to flow in, becomes at best annoying, at worst dangerous. Experiencing this, we understand what Rainer Maria Rilke means, writing in the First Duino Elegy,
And we know too that William Blake shook when he wrote:
Many scientists as well as poets have expressed such moments of insight, as have mystics and philosophers, musicians and painters, and some at least have achieved through their talent a balance in their human lives and personal relations. But others have not. David Halliburton, in his book on Heidegger titled Poetic Thinking, writes
On this Heidegger comments that "The too great light has plunged the poet into darkness."
You can each, I am sure, think of other examples where this is true, not only among poets and philosophers, but among scientists, among visual artists of every sort, even among psychotherapists.
Indeed, at the level of deep insight, insight into deep levels of reality, perhaps there is no essential distinction between poet, philosopher, mystic, scientist, painter, psychologist, musician, theologian. Each - as Geoffrey [Bishop] showed here in September - has been following some basic curiosity, some basic need for understanding, using mathematics or prayer; painting or poetry; prose or philosophical postulate as a vehicle for exploration, and each has been rewarded by insight that shocks, that startles. Each is a philosopher by Nietzsche's definition in Beyond Good and Evil, for each is
And perhaps what each discovers
at some point, is what the Nobel physicist Niels Bohr discovered: that
if any others could
The human psyche protects itself against such shocks. As Joseph Campbell wrote in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
("God" and "devil" being used metaphorically here, of course). Or as Campbell said elsewhere:
But what of the philosopher (using
the term broadly now) who, through her or his insight, has entered a sanctuary
where others may not venture? The insight has changed her perception of
reality, and thereby
And suddenly - terribly - even if the insight gives her a picture of the interconnectedness and perfection of all being, even if she sees and experiences Oneness and her place within it in a moment of 'complete clarity' (to use Wittgenstein's term) or 'absolute satisfaction' (to use Kierkegaard's) she is at the same time removed from the realm of consensual reality in which those around her live, and this is something which paradoxically can defy the understanding by which she lived her life up to this moment.
We think of insight as a synonym for understanding. Indeed understanding is an integral part of the definition of insight. In my Webster's it is defined as:
is clearly connected with insight, but it is understanding of the
What was sought was understanding in, and of, the world of the Globe and Mail and London Streets, the world of sun and moon and revolving stars, of apples falling from trees, of strange finches in the Galapagos. What was found instead, suddenly, was a world beyond, with the normal world seen through as though it had become transparent, an illusion, insubstantial, no longer object for the senses. Something extraordinarily complex has become extremely simple, the One is directly perceived, but how does one walk within it?
In a poem called Icarus I describe such as experience:
Plato, too, knew this territory. In the Phaedrus he writes:
The solid ground. The stoneground of Wittgenstein that Petra [von Morstein] spoke of here in September, the stoneground which turns back one's spade. One has "bottomed out" to use the term of her Religious Realism paper presented last year, and here - for those of you who weren't here, or don't remember - I quote from part of this paper:
You have, in other terms, made a descensus ad inferos - a descent into hell. From too much light you have plunged into darkness. You have experienced the enantiodromia. In the metaphor of a friend who is an Anglican priest, "By putting together all the pieces of the puzzle you have seen the face on the other side. What you didn't realize is that the face on the other side is the face of God. And if you see the face of God, you die."
Death here is of course not literal, though I suspect it could be. What has died is the Ego: that which is personal and human about me or you; that individual centre from which we must operate in order to cross a London street or deal with the world of Globe and Mail reality. Death of the Ego, in psychological terms is called an inflation, which means that the Ego has been invaded by archetypal energies - collective patterns of being each of us carries deep within our psyches - and which some call the gods and goddesses. Such energies can be positive (expansive) or negative (annihilating); indeed, because each archetype has both a positive and negative face, it is common in times of extreme insight to experience the rapid and direct flipping between purest ecstasy and deepest despair, as the metaphysician Gurdjieff and many others have documented.
In a rather lengthy footnote within his classic paper The relations between the Ego and the Unconscious, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung - drawing on personal experience as well as experience with patients - writes of inflation:
Forsaken of God and men. How closely this resonates with Rilke's
And can you not also hear
the words of the Psalm of David which Christ cried out on the cross?
Forsaken of God and men, unable to turn to angels or humans, we want nothing more than to need neither, to be totally self- sufficient. Our insight, whatever it may have been, has at best lost all personal meaning, at worst has become an instrument of torture, for surely "it" is responsible for this pain of isolation from our fellows. Here, while outwardly we may cling desperately, in stranglehold, to the relationships and social positions we do have, inside we erect walls behind which, and within which, we hide in shame from our fall, shame of our difference from those around us, shame of our unwantedness. Such psychic walls form a tomb to contain that which has died within us. Or we might better call it a chrysalis within which our old identity begins to dissolve, without anything yet to replace it. In his poem East Coker, T.S. Eliot speaks of this experience:
Yes, in the stillness the dancing. For in the dark tomb of a chrysalis change takes place on a microscopic level. Cells dance in the dark, and there comes a point of no return (technically, in biological parlance, the "imaginal stage") when there are no more caterpillar cells, and as yet no butterfly cells. In the language of alchemy and depth psychology this stage of living death is well known and called, descriptively, the *putrefactio*. In more common parlance we may simply speak of depression. We are far indeed now from perfection and beauty, energy and excitement, joy and ecstasy. And yet even within such a space we may experience surprises of self-connection, and secret mysterious pleasure. In an early poem, one of the "Book for the Hours of Prayer," Rilke writes:
and in another of the same period
Like legends. In this psychically dark space, this space of unknowing which Petra reminded us is literally "innocence," a new structure is beginning to form and be sensed. A structure is forming out of a "decomposed" sense of identity, and this new structure now has its own internal cohesion, as a legend or a myth has.
Those of us who were here last month for Peter [Fitzgerald- Moore]'s talk on Self-Organizing Systems may recognize the process by which such a new form emerges as "autopoietic." An autopoietic process is one in which there is an integration of information gathered in a previous state, this previous state characterized by an almost indiscriminate influx of information through permeable boundaries. As Peter so beautifully elucidated, autopoeisis could only proceed by closing and guarding the boundary, allowing an exchange of energy - but not information - with the outside, making the closed system within self-referential.
Those of us who were here may also remember that, in connection with this, Petra remarked that Hegel recognized self-referential and self-reflective closure as feeding the next dialectic step.
A dialectic process is one which implies a dialogue and relationship. Hegel also used the term specifically to refer to
It is therefore extremely close
to our original term enantiodromia except now a synthesis of
the opposites is implied. Indeed "synthesis" is similarly implied
in the very term
This developing embryo inside us, is true understanding: understanding (to paraphrase an early ideal of Rilke's) in which we may quietly confirm the existence of our insights without experiencing anything more or different than facts. Having thus embodied and literally articulated them (articulation being the process wherein elements are both distinguished from one another and conjoined) we may begin to trust the validity of our original insight without needing to shout it from rooftops, without needing - desperately - the understanding of others to balance our being in the world of the Globe and Mail and London streets as we did when the lightning bolt of insight - of understanding the inner nature things - was so overwhelming we had difficulty perceiving the outer reality of the things themselves.
This may outwardly seem like a "chicken and egg" situation, but it is not. It is the dialectic process at work. It is the emergence of consciousness as the term consciousness is used in depth psychology to mean the capacity to carry within oneself the tension of the opposites.
Here, in the emerging embryo which carries opposites in tension, we have what - in alchemical terms - is given the symbol of the "hermaphrodite." Yet paradoxically this "hermaphrodite" which contains all opposites, is far from whole.
The point at which we realize this in our innermost beings is our deepest place of solitude and isolation. We come face to face with a woundedness which seems, at times, to have been formed by a tearing apart of the very fabric of our souls. It is the raw and exposed surface of soul with nothing to protect it from our gaze, nothing to anaesthetize it from our sensation.
Here we are face to face with the ugliness of our imperfection, as far as we can imagine from energy and excitement, joy and ecstasy. There is nothing in our culture (despite the current "cult of the victim" which pervades it) to tell us these are positive and desirable qualities. Yet it is this that the Buddha must have seen when he said "life is suffering" for here, in a way we have perhaps never known before, we are face-to-face with Life.
The challenge here is to stay with the pain, to recognize that there is something extraordinarily important about this raw and exposed face of the soul. Perhaps the fact that, as a Palaeontologist, I spent many long hours many years ago piecing together many fragments of fossil bone in which the greatest labour and challenge was to get a broken surface to exactly this state without breaking it, helps me appreciate the intrinsic value of such a surface, for now it is ready - in a way unimaginable before - for bonding into wholeness. What is needed here is to keep the surface clean, to stay with the anguish "in attention to and consideration of" it - which, as Petra pointed out in her paper on Religious Realism, is the stance in the world which is both religious and realistic. In this place, in the words of a poem by Nellie Sachs which arrived out of the ether as I was thinking about this the other day:
In the gorge, at the rocky bottom
Should another enter with us. Not just any other, but another able to see and hear and sense the raw, exposed face of our soul, to match it with his or her own. A soul-mate.
All fundamental insights, all insight into the deep levels of reality, show us the interconnectedness and perfection of Being. This, as I have said earlier, is as true if the insight is expressed mathematically or poetically, in painting or in music. In touching the raw, exposed face of our soul, of our very Being, it should therefore not surprise us that those (often, and perhaps necessarily, more than one) who might enter with us in the place of intimité, are close, physically and outwardly present in our worlds. In some mysterious fashion we develop with them a dialogue, a relationship, in which a Third - a We that is far from fusion of I and You but rather a dance between them - comes into being. This dance, this dialectic, in turn facilitates the process of emergence. From the realm of the dark night of the Soul, we enter now into the realm of Spirit. Hegel captures this beautifully (if in terminology which requires close attention) in his Phenomenology of Spirit:
Octavio Paz, near the end of his epic poem Sunstone, expresses something very similar in these words:
And so we discover that the embryo which has been emerging into the "spiritual daylight of the present," this embryo by which we have come to understand ourselves, is not in fact an I alone, but a We, an Us. We have come to understand in embodied living experience the "concrete transcendental I" of Husserl where, in being as fully myself as possible, I am also You, and You are me. In the clarity of such wholeness, we have come paradoxically, to the living mystery of life which, as Jung wrote in a letter a few months before he died, "is the true mystery that words cannot tell and arguments cannot exhaust."
In this way - and I believe only in this way - may we achieve a true balance of insight.
This may seem to have taken us far from our theme of Science, but I believe in reality it has not. Every scientist who experiences a major insight will discover a force - a force far greater than he or she - which strives to balance, through his or her own being, the implications of the insight. This is a shocking claim with which to end (and I certainly do not claim that in all the balance is achieved), but I would like to close with a short example from the life of Niels Bohr which I believe succinctly summarizes the full circle of this talk. I take this account from the book The making of the atomic bomb by Richard Rhodes.
Bohr as a young man came repeatedly close to nervous breakdowns as he faced the implications of his insights into the deep structure of matter. Specifically what happened was that he could not find an "I." Or rather he could find so many of them - "a terrifying infinity of 'I's" - that he could not determine where he was. He finally found this problem mirrored in a novel by Poul Martin Møller which he encountered as a student at the University of Copenhagen. This helped Bohr a great deal. One passage in particular he often quoted in describing the condition to others:
But it was not in Møller['s novel] that Bohr found solid footing. He needed more than a novel, however apposite, for that. He needed what we all need for sanity: he needed love and work.
© M.L.Richardson, 1994, 1999