3.WISDOM AND THE SOLITARY LIFE
The Four Kinds of Wisdom
Through withdrawal and return we seek four distinct kinds of wisdom: creative accomplishments, self-knowledge, spiritual insight and physical healing.
1) Creativity. Creative breakthroughs in the arts and sciences fit the withdrawal-return pattern very well. Stages of preparation, gestation, insight, and implementation follow each other. Together they bring into being a work of art, an invention, a theory, a new paradigm. Koestler’s bisociation, Getzel and Jackson’s divergent and convergent thinking, Poincare’s account of his own creative work all follow this pattern.
2) Self Knowledge. Personal growth, integration, self-realization, psychological insight, balance and maturity also move along the inward-outward route. Here personal growth comes in re-sponse to the breakdown of the personality in the depths. One’s values and constraints, motivations and coping mechanisms can be pushed to their limits in horrifying situations, real or imagined. Under these pressures, the self decoheres and falls into chaos. The wisdom process draws on inherent neural somatic functions of disassembly and reassembly. The body brings them to bear when it needs to right itself in trying situations. The crisis William James suffered in the course of his medical studies took this route. Notice how the strong interoceptive bias promoted the play of his imagination.
“There came upon me, without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously, there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient I had seen in the asylum, a black haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic… That shape am I, I felt, potentially. Nothing I possess can defend me from that fate if the hour should strike for me as it struck for him… it was as if something hitherto solid in my breast gave way, and I became a quivering mass of fear. After this, the universe was changed for me altogether.”
For Freud, psychological growth came when unconscious contents were brought to consciousness in what amounted to a withdrawal-return process supervised by a psychoanalyst. In Jung’s psychology, the withdrawal and return process was marked by the appearance of a series of archetypal figures emerging from the depths of the collective unconscious and breaking into consciousness. Their integration enlarged the conscious self. All personal growth, seen dynamically, involves two-way communication between the periphery and the center, and this is homologous with and an extension from the biology of individual cellular functioning writ large in whole body systems.
3) Religious Inspiration. The road of withdrawal/return informs religious conversion experiences too. In withdrawal, we pass through a series of crises that take us beyond ourselves to what William James described in The Varieties of the Religious Experience as the experience of the “More”. The spiritual seeker breaks ties with an old way of life, and then by an inward solitary exploration struggles to discover a new center. The More sweeps in to reveal a deeper meaning, a redemptive purpose to life, hitherto inaccessible. St. Augustine’s Confessions contains the clearest, most wonderful account of this withdrawal-return process I know. He was full of backslidings, reversals and spiritual discoveries.
But the withdrawal-return rhythm, though it manifests in our experience of spiritual access, has a deeper aspect still. According to Jewish mystics, God’s withdrawal created the world. That act, what Isaac Luria (Safed, 1534-72) called Tsimtsum, made room for the universe. Gershom Scholem described it as “one of the most amazing and far-reaching conceptions ever put forward in the whole history of Cabalism.” He explains that “according to Luria, God was compelled to make room for the world by, as it were, abandoning a region within Himself, a kind of mystical primordial space from which He withdrew in order to return to it in the act of creation and revelation.” And later that “every new act of emanation and manifestation is preceded by one of concentration and retraction.” From this come the basic rhythm underlying the mystical experience of withdrawal/return.
4) Healing. Self-directed healing follows the wisdom path. Whenever we are deeply injured, either physically or psychologically, our healing process becomes a wisdom project if and only if we take it on with specific intentions involving a search for its causes and origins in self-examination. In successful cases, we either induce or accompany the cure with a turning point in the depths. Reports on spontaneous remissions show that ill persons regularly turn illnesses around through the power of intention, sometimes helped by imagery or prayer or by placebo medications. The “crisis in the illness” marks a turning point. In those moments, a person’s conscious qualities can come into the mix of influences on the body with special force
Breakdown in the Depths: Dark Night of the Soul
Western spiritual seekers sometimes experience the transformation at the turning point of deepest withdrawal as a harrowing crisis of loss. St. John of the Cross called it the Dark Night of the Soul. He dreaded the emptiness and loss of self he experienced in it.
“This is one of the most bitter sufferings of this purgation. The soul is conscious of a profound emptiness in itself, a cruel destitution of the three kinds of goods, natural, temporal and spiritual, which are ordained for its comfort. It sees itself in the midst of the opposite evils, miserable imperfections, dryness and emptiness of the understanding, and abandonment of the spirit in darkness.”23
One encounters moments of cruel destitution in every kind of wisdom quest. It unpins us. It disrupts our creative efforts, harrows us and fills us with doubt. The membrane between inwardness and outwardness grows porous. We experience ourselves as unstable, multifarious, and threatened. We break into factions. The parts of us go to war with each other.
“Now I found myself dividing into parts,” Lawrence of Arabia writes of his transformation. “The spent body toiled on doggedly and took no heed, quite rightly, for the divided selves said nothing I was not capable of think-ing in cold blood…they were all my natives. Telesius, taught by some such experience, split up the soul. Had he gone on to the furthest limits of exhaustion, he would have seen his conceived regiment of thoughts and acts and feelings ranked around him as separate creatures, eyeing, like vultures, the passing in their midst of the common thing that gave them life.”24
Accounts linking wisdom with disintegration and reassembly go as far back as we care to look. They surface in myths of physical dismemberment, as when Isis tried to reassemble the parts of Osiris’ body but could not find his penis.
In the Gilgamesh tale, Enkidu dreams of dismemberment. He tells Gilgamesh:
“Last night I dreamed again, my friend. The heavens moaned and the earth replied; I stood alone before an awful being; his face was somber like the black bird of the storm. He fell upon me with the talons of and eagle and he held me fast, pinioned with his claw, until I smothered; then he transformed me so that my arms became wings covered with feathers.”
If the quest journey makes the self decompose, reassembly is wisdom’s response. In one furnace, character splits apart. In another, it amalgamates. The physiology behind the experience of dismemberment and repatterning comes from rhythmic breakdown and restoration. Under the stress of withdrawal, when we are most in turmoil, and are functioning in near chaos conditions, our body rhythms are particularly vulnerable to perturbations. All kinds of resettings, extinguishments, bifurcations and rhythmic reorderings occur then, arising from the dynamics of interacting nonlinear bio-oscillating systems. In the creative crises associated with turning points in wisdom, the modular components of our personalities force themselves into view.
If we attend closely to the experience of fragmentation and dismemberment, we will discern behind it clashing personality parts. We will feel them struggling for dominance. Each fights for its own style of access, contesting the use of organ systems, imposing its postures and physical attitudes on the body. The meek part of us wants to run; the bold part wants to fight.
The withdrawal-return process, as it functions in the depths, allows the physiological turbulence to break personality into its modular parts adaptively. It pulls us apart in order to let us become whole in a new way. In response to sustained shifts in the needs and conditions of life, it breaks the arrangement of part-personalities down and builds it up again differently. In the process, meaning, identity and life choices change.
Michael Gazzaniga, a pioneering neuroscientist who worked under Roger Sperry doing split brain surgeries for epileptic patients, describes modularity as follows: “Human brain research urges the view that our brains are organized in such a way that many mental systems coexist in what may be thought of as a confederation. “25
Moreover, they are not hardwired. They keep changing. They develop differently in each of us. They compete to command body energy. They struggle to occupy frontal consciousness.
The Passing Rules
Each module commands a different sense of space and time and has different hopes, fears, apprehensions, regrets, involving differential access to episodic and semantic memory, hence different allowances and prohibitions and subtly different expectations for life. What we call identity, then, are those discrete neural organizations that have a history and a sense of future prospects that, burdened with hopes and fears, have at some stage of their development broken from their transient flowing absorption in the field and learned to think, worry and wonder for themselves, to want and avoid, forget and remember.
Each identity state, it follows from this, commandeers its own personal history.26 It does this by establishing what I call passing rules between the part personalities that come together to form it. It shifts between certain modular complexes with relative ease under the selective pressure of changing fields. Others it prohibits. From this perspective, our character is an operational device compounded of incumbent and insurgent semi-independent “personalities” evolved to shift into and out of frontality as needs change by following a set of self-organizing passing rules.
The passing rules direct the neural pathways along which nerve traffic moves between personality modules. The passing rules serve as the stage directions by which our partial personalities, with their distinct vocabularies and values, make their entrances and exits in the frontal drama of life. They’re the way the I-sense, the feeling of consistent identity, is passed from one leading character to another.
The passing rules establish pathways for dealing with change. The culture teaches us from earliest childhood when it is right to override one personality module in favor of another. The passing rules incorporate these structures. They tell us which part of us ought to be in charge in different circumstances. The you that drives the car is different from the you that loves your wife. The predatory business person in the day becomes the couch potato at night. Parents display a different face with their children than they show to friends or strangers. The occasions on which it is proper to switch from one module to the other are shaped by the culture, mapped by sensory distances and inscribed in the passing rules.
The modularization of the mind occurred along with language acquisition. The functional ordering of the mind into modules quickened as we acquired rudimentary use of language. larynx We store our inventory of internal voices, built up from the voices of others, from our own speech heard through our own ears and internalized, and from the sounds of nature, in modules. Our access to them, as to other kinds of memory, is limited, oriented to present needs and state-dependent. The clinical evidence for language recovery following trauma, as for the retention of singing and swearing in aphasic patients, supports this point of view.
Language expression uses not only the meanings and connections between words, it animates the tongue and breath and vocal cords; it expresses its force and urgency in motor activity. We communicate not primarily as an intellectual activity. You open your mouth when you have something to say. Language use rides on will and desire. You carry expressiveness as much in word tempo, emphasis, rising or falling pitch, tremolo and other timbral qualities as in vocabulary and word order.
A carefully conducted experiment would distinguish each front-facing component of our modular personality system by its vocal characteristics, its inflections, vocabulary and semantics, its frequency of word use, and its facial gestures and habitual expostulations, sighs, grimaces, and tonalities. We would almost certainly come upon subtle differences in skeletal-muscular bearing and carriage, autonomic underpinnings, hormonal and neuropeptide secretions, and even styles of breathing and heart and blood vessel regulation.
We maintain our sense of ourselves by the smooth succession of modular parts. It proceeds under the illusion of a constant “I”. The I-sense, organized and stabilized by the passing rules, floats from module to module. The passing rules insure that the present is always “my present”, and that there is always a “me” in it to comprehend, respond, suffer, enjoy and take responsibility for it. In ordinary circumstances on the long legs between major turning points, the neural networks, being robust, swell, shrink and compete without generating global breakdowns in function. Certain preferred companion personalities (almost like a social system of temporary alliances in primate bands) cooperate. They pass the lead back and forth without great competition. These make up the passing rules. However, in great turnings, the old alliances decohere, trusted bonds fail, and agreements end. During these times, we fight major battles between modules in the electrochemical fields of the brain. The passing rules come under increasing strain. They split into competing fragments until they eventually reform and stabilize in a new more adaptive configuration.
The passing rules are not hard-wired in the brain. They form part of its modifiable software. They are adaptive. They show our neuroplasticity. Stable passing rules keep the self together on the long legs following the turning points in love and wisdom. They shape memory and motivations. They persist until the next big turning impends. Then they destabilize and break down again.
The passing rules organize my modularized memories into a selective almost fictional set of narrative devices that, despite its distortions and deletions, feels real to me in the flow of the moment. But while in my present “I-sense”, I can only trace one set of memory strands. In reflective moments, I may recognize that my history and goals have many strands and that many paths wind back to different pasts. But today, at this moment, in the heat of action, because I can only countenance one me, the one I am now, I forget my other memory trains. Tomorrow I might toss out another net to catch the memories of another me, but when I did that, I would forget the me that is saying this now. On both occasions, a somewhat different “I” would be present but without special training, I could not tell the difference. However, one can learn to thread the labyrinth.
The wise person knows how fortunate we are to have this illusion of constant identity as a practical aid. It is an island of stability rising in a sea of ceaseless change. Without it, the waking life would seem as malleable and unpredictable as our dreams.
William James in one of his letters catches a glimpse of it when he speaks of the function of an “enveloping ego to make continuous the times and spaces not necessarily coincident of the partial egos.”27 In practice, we sustain the illusion of identity by filtering out all kinds of borderline perceptions that might let us see out through the cracks in ourselves. Without the narrowing of attention, we would be overwhelmed by data.
When we narrow the focus, we do more than cut down the flow of data. We re-channel it to conceal contradictions from ourselves. Even toward these contradictions, the wise person is tenderly supportive. Nevertheless, s/he knows that the evolved illusion of the “I-sense” can become bloated beyond its own utility. When that happens, s/he feels herself seduced away from the doing of deeds. Instead, s/he wants to preen and fuss in the mirror. But the false face, though it makes for a pleasing mirror image, fastens us to false needs and foolish posturing.
Given how we come together to make a self, the wise person knows that it is sometimes serves our real needs to let the illusion of wholeness go. However, you have to know when to let go and when to hold on to it. To rise to the occasion one has to know when the occasion arises. Much can go wrong.
Three Root Dualisms
The passing rules build a map of the psyche by organizing three root dualisms into a system of basic relations. They are: mind/body, self/world, and I/you. Each gives a distinct perspective on experience. “I am me, you are you”, says one thing, “this is my mind, this is my body;” says another as does ,“this is me, this is the world.” Each gives structural integrity to the flow of qualia. They interact to conjure up a continuous reality.
Spiritual teachers tell us the dualities in the three root dualisms are illusions, part of Maya, measure, separation. Underneath the world is One.
Duality may be an illusion but I am sure we cannot function without it. We may get transient moments of non-dual awareness, but they do not last. The three basic dualisms, as Ken Wilber analyzed them, do not point to a way out of illusion so much as describe our experience of the binding energy of our gestalts.
"At the Existential Level, man imagines himself separated from and therefore potentially threatened by his own environment. At the Ego Level, man fancies that he is also alienated from his own body, and this the environment as well as his own body seem possible threats to his existence. At the Shadow Level, man even appears divorced from parts of his own psyche -- from the point of view of the spectrum of consciousness, these terms all refer to the same process of creating-two-worlds-from-one which repeats itself, with a new twist, on each and every level of the spectrum."28
When the passing rules fail and the rhythmic interplay that makes the mind cohere falters, it is the I/you, mind/body, self/world structures that break apart. They reveal themselves as illusions.
In our transformational crises the moral sentiments held in the three stable dualisms in the different modules of the personality – our current gut understanding of what I owe to myself, and what I owe to others – gets reconfigured. New resonant systems throw neural nets across the brain. The I/you, mind/body, self/world eventually stabilize. But they’re not what they were. Our core beliefs, we find, have shifted. In the aftermath of the wisdom turning, our moral intuitions seem new to us. Some are held over; some are revised, from earlier times; some after falling out of favor come back again.
Personality parts affiliate differently. Foreground cultural values recede, while background values surge forward. We reprioritize. Our motivations shift. But we never really heal the root dualisms. Even in successful turnings, the resolution is temporary, an interim solution, good only until the next big turning, whose contents are unknowable.
The breakdown of the passing rules and the reorganization of memory that follows it, constitute the main changes in the turning points in life.
In the lead-up to the turning, turbulence loosens the organization of the parts of the identity. Even parts of me that the world has reaffirmed through consensual validation start to fade and fail. After the turning, the pieces come together in new configurations. I redeem lost meanings. What once made no sense reveals its deeper purpose. But at a cost: much that was prized is lost or suppressed.
The wisdom turning “at heart” serves as a reworking of the connections between the parts of the personality. At “mind”, it offers a reworking of our cognitive take on reality. It shifts our hopes and fears. Our senses of time and space and even our access to our memories change. At “muscle”, it reworks our understanding of what we can and cannot do.
Metaphorically, rough handling from life has separated the wholeness of our genius into parts, each secluded in a fragmentary personality center, split off from the others by the organizational needs of the psyche. Embedded in the fragments, state dependent voices cry out from behind their walls. The I-sense, disempowered, having now lost its glamour of enchantment, searches for them, and searching, blundering more than searching, reenters the physiological-psychological substrate from which each state dependent voice cries out from its module.
But the walls between identities have become latticed, softened in the seismic shaking of the turning process. The words and passions mingle. The energies, skills, and beliefs from one part of our personality combine with others. The bereft I-sense casts about in the babble of voices, trying to make sense of the noise.
We can look on the entry of fragmentary personality centers by a roving “I” as acts of integration. In these moments, neural reorganization brings personality components closer together. The minimal “I” left over in the final stage of the turning drama hears the voices and learns the vocabularies, and by so doing transfers them from limited to less limited personality systems, moving them from small state dependent loci to larger ones. Identity states acquire each other’s vocabularies in the fluidity of the turning process when the walls of possibility fall.
For a brief time afterward, in the blessed relief, one experiences the special wholeness that mystics have attributed to an influx of the divine. In these moments, wisdom is potentiated. A person’s face changes; expressive lines appear; gestures, posture and bearing alter. Character is cooked in the high stress heat of the turning.
A wisdom crisis well resolved produces a deep organic rearrangement that brings with it a new way of coping with the circumstances that drove the withdrawal. However, the new attitudes and understandings held in the newly revised and stabilized root dualisms overseen by the passing rules do not float freely. The body anchors them. The breakthrough represents the outer face of a somatic reordering.
As the turning crisis abates and the root dualisms stabilize, a new cast of part-personality modules moves into position under the aegis of a new set of passing rules. In the biggest upheavals, they produce new balances between the solitary and social tendencies, between approach and separation and withdrawal and return, between the sense of time and space, closedness and openness, hope and fear.
The Ox-herding Pictures of Kaku-An
The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures of Kaku-An, a Chinese Buddhist document of the 11th century Sung dynasty, gives a particularly clear view of the wisdom journey from an Eastern perspective.
The first picture “Searching for the Ox” shows a youngish man in the open countryside. It depicts the early stages of the withdrawal.
“His home is ever receding farther away from him, and byways and crossways are ever confused. Desire for gain and fear of loss burn like fire; ideas of right and wrong shoot up like a phalanx.”
“Exhausted and in despair he knows not where to go, He only hears the evening cicadas singing in the maple woods.”
In the second picture, the young man sees the ox. He chases after it. A long time passes before the ox-herder can tame and ride the ox, but by picture six, the man is riding on its back playing the flute.
The painting shows a kind of graceful competence, not arrogantly framed as power over the animal, but spontaneous, relaxed, in the moment, and it shows the young man playing the flute as he rides the ox at his ease. He makes music, relaxes and travels on. Toward what goal?
Next, we find the little man living in a hut, his hermitage in the woods. The ox is gone. He experiences deep withdrawal. Kaku-An calls picture seven “The Ox forgotten, Leaving the Man alone” He comments: “Though the red sun is high up in the sky, he is still quietly dreaming, Under a straw thatched roof are his whip and rope idly lying.”
By picture eight a transformation has occurred, but we don’t see it. The world is shrouded behind a circle of white light. Kaku–an captions it “The Ox and the Man Both Gone out of Sight.” There is some tension here, some extremely energetic exchange proceeds in the field of light. But what is actually happening in this mystical moment? The standard explanation for this kind of symbol is that the white circle represents the ineffable; the state cannot be represented; it has gone beyond pictures or words. Moreover, the accompanying poem seems to confirm this:
All is empty—the whip, the rope, the man, and the ox: Who can ever survey the vastness of Heaven?
But the next two lines veer unexpectedly:
Over the furnace burning ablaze, not a flake of snow can fall: When this state of things obtains, manifest is the spirit of the ancient master.
Whence the burning furnace? Does the white circle represent a blazing energy field? What is the fuel? Does the little ox-herder generate the energy? Who is the ancient master? Kaku-An does not say.
We can conjecture that the circle of white light conceals the transformation of the ox-herder. Kaku-An paints the circumference of the light as vibratory, not firm. A collision of complex physiological wave fronts occurs. Confusing tidal currents butt up against each other. Each generates its own set of hopes and fears; each stirs emotions in the body (as in the James-Lange theory of emotions) and deals with the alarm reactions to those changes.
The incandescent storm surge goes on with an intensity reflecting the transforming power of the moment. Training in meditation in the Eastern spiritual traditions makes these moments tolerable to their practitioners. They are less inclined to frame their experiences in the language of torment than Western spiritual seekers in the same situation.
In the next picture, “Returning to the Origin, Back to the Source”, a blossoming tree appears. The exteroceptive senses begin to stir. The painting shows a world coming to life. The tree is flowering vividly red. There is a wide flowing stream. Herbs grow among rocks. A clear sky shines above. A tremendous sense of relief and peace. The poet comments:
Sitting alone he observes things undergoing changes. With his senses alert, clarified of delusion, exteroceptive, he is happily part of the world. No longer concerned with gain and loss, he’s attuned to the life outside and around him.
Strangely, unexpectedly, Kaku-an calls this attunement a mistake: “To return to the Origin, to be back at the Source—already a false step this!” Why? Because the journey must not end in the hermitage. Peace is not the goal. The withdrawal has its limits. It serves to nurture the energy for continued journeying.
Walt Whitman touches on this same sensibility in his Song of the Open Road.
Allons! we must not stop here, However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here, However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here, However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.
In picture ten the ox-herder, now a full-bellied, hairy middle-aged man, smiling and carefree, strides to the city with a great pack on his back. He returns to the world. The artist calls the picture “Entering the city with bliss bestowing hands.” He walks into the market place. Kaku-An informs us, “He is found in company with wine-bibbers and butchers, he and they are all converted into Buddhas.”
The transformed man carries a big pack. He has supplied himself with everything he needs, everything that counts. All his abundance is portable. It does not weigh him down.
But look. Entering the city, he meets a young man leaving for the countryside. Perhaps they exchange a few words. Or only share a glance. But with “bliss-bestowing hands” a brief encounter counts for much. Have you met a bright spirit on the road yet?
Wisdom turnings can fail in various ways. They may not complete themselves. Events may stymie the seeker on the return leg. The world may not be ready to receive the gift gained in the turning. Black Elk, a late nineteenth-century Ogalala Sioux, painfully recollected his own failures as a shaman this way.
“To the center of the world you have taken me and showed me the goodness and the beauty and the strangeness of the greening earth, the only mother - and there the spirit shapes of things, as they should be, you have shown to me and I have seen. At the center of this sacred hoop you have said that I should make the tree to bloom. With tears running, O Great Spirit, Great Spirit, my grandfather, with running tears I must say now that the tree has never bloomed. A pitiful old man, you see me here, and I have fallen away and have done nothing.”29
When our love turnings fail, we lose our lovers. When our wisdom turnings fail, we lose the part of ourselves that nurtures our creative élan.
We do not get the gift of wisdom unless we endure self-transformation. Self-transformation leads to it. When we haven’t reached into our souls deeply enough to discover our sources of strength, we cannot change. Nor can we truly accompany others through their changes. There’s too little of ourselves left over to give. We have not gone deep enough to discover more.
Wisdom turnings break down in different ways. Some people never want to go on the inward journey in the first place. Others never want to come back. For some, identity confusion dominates the withdrawal and deepens as the withdrawal proceeds. What presents as a clinical depression is often a stuck turning. I’ve known people so firmly anchored in the opinions of others that, when interoception was strong and the sense of the presence of others stretched too thin, they felt they had no choice but to deny themselves or go mad. They scurried back to the consensual world. They lost courage. They couldn’t take the first step on their own. They came back to live on the surface of life with empty posturing.
I have known others who went down and hung in bravely in withdrawal, but could not make progress. Over the long run, stress and irresolution got to them and they became ill. Others made the turning but suffered on the way back because every step of the return terrified them and they refused the help that was offered, or in their terror couldn’t see it, and out of fear of self-assertion or fear of rejection clung to themselves inside themselves and wallowed in fantasy or became cynical, angry and depressed. It’s hard to live with yourself when you refuse your own powers.
Some people start back resolutely but never get far. They may have bad luck. Or die on the way. Or the world resists them and they cannot stand the conflicts, especially when they come from the persons closest to them. Some almost get home, but find it too hard to cross the return threshold. The world does not want them. It is hard to keep going then. Great disappointment can follow even a well-received return.
But many have come back invigorated, better suited to their world, more purposeful, more useful, clearer in intention, happier, less compromised and less compromising and yet more adaptable. They have made great contributions, some hidden, and some known.