3.WISDOM AND THE SOLITARY LIFE
Joseph Campbell wrote the clearest description of the wisdom journey I know. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, he divided the quest into three stages. “The first step, detachment or withdrawal, consists in a radical transfer of emphasis from the external to the internal world, macro- to microcosm, a retreat from the desperation of the waste land to the peace of the everlasting realm that is within.”15 The second is the “supreme ordeal” at the center, through which we accomplish transformation. Campbell tells us: “When [the hero] arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward.”16 He describes the central turning experience as a triumph. “The triumph may be represented as the hero’s sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition of the father-creator (father atonement), his own divinization (apotheosis), or again—if the powers have remained unfriendly to him—his theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom).”17
The third stage “is to return then to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed.” But the turning, upon which transformation rests. interestingly (and importantly for our study,) is a thing of the moment. Gilgamesh kicks the weights off his feet. He floats up with the herb of immortality. The sea throws him on the shore.
The quickness of the starting deed usually seems insignificant compared to the size of the quest as a whole. But this decisive stroke marks the turning moment. In every telling it is emphasized. Intention alone will not do. Only a deed can cap the long interneuronal process paralleling the withdrawal. Only a meaningful action will bring together, by deep tissue and organ changes, the intention to act with a sufficient implementing gesture.
Without the actual deed, we make empty choices, but without the consciousness of choice, we leave our deeds hollow.
Ethical authenticity, therefore, develops from our conscious presence in our own turning processes and results in the coalescence of intention, choice and action.
This brief outflow, however, only provides the first impetus for a long homeward journey full of perils.
The way back can take strange twists. Often the new self assembled in the depths, which is neither simple, single nor unbreakable, has to undergo great ordeals to survive with a sense of its present purpose intact. Moreover, one may not have the
Theseus Slays the Minotaur
strength to do it. One may not be able to offer oneself repeatedly in the face of rejection.
As it turned out, Gilgamesh never did bring back the herb of immortality. On the way home, a serpent stole it. Gilgamesh reentered Uruk empty handed. All he could do was tell his story. He engraved it in stone. By doing so, he became the first to record the depth journey, and this turned out to be his real accomplishment.
Human beings acquired inwardness a long time ago. It happened when personal withdrawal and return became distinguishable from larger group dispersal/aggregation rhythms.
Jung, drawing from Levy-Bruhl, referred this condition as the breaking of the “participation mystique”, a necessary precursor for individuation.
At some venue deep in the past, we were thrown upon ourselves in solitude. The daily pulse of group dispersal and aggregation fell into the background then. We knew we were alone. From that felt solitude, in those settings, we remembered rather than encountered others. We reassured ourselves that, though absent, they had not ceased to be. At first, the situation may not have been quite clear. As Julian Jaynes pointed out in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, we may have heard voices in our heads that we attributed to the presence of the gods. According to Jaynes, it took us scores of thousands of years to own these experiences by assimilating these auditory hallucinations to consciousness.18
It took aloneness to make us aware that we belonged. The others had not abandoned us. We may even have kept our composure by recalling the perceptions of the voices, faces, bodies and expressions of those closest to us: mother, siblings, father, group leaders, and companions. At some illuminating moment, we came to understand the significance of the recollected voices as something distinct from the persons to whom they belonged, as reminders not presences. Once we had that perspective, we very quickly started engaging in imaginary conversations with our mental companions. We do it still, rehearsing arguments and exploring our possibilities through a dialectical process in dialogue with imagined others.
Language must have become a basic processing unit in the withdrawal-return cycle, one of the narrative vehicles with which the adventure in solitude was conducted. The language buzzing inside us must have had its parallel in real-life exchanges. In conversation, we could lay down the markers of our values much more clearly. We could throw a conceptual net over a moment, a day, or a lifetime. Just imagine the creative insight it took to devise words for time, space, belief, truth, choice, spirit, energy, soul, etc. – and how long ago it occurred and how permanent an endowment it has become.
As familiarity with the inward experience developed, some of our forbears must have been better at it than others. Some must have intentionally sought out places of solitude in order to explore inward consciousness, to think deeply, to model possibilities, to commune with the gods, or to become possessed by waking dreams and fall into trances. They became our first bards and shamans.
To acquire their professional powers, shamans needed periods of isolation. The American Indian vision quest illustrates this vividly, as does the even earlier tracery of the Australian aborigine dreamtime. Everywhere isolation of some sort becomes the road to spiritual attainment. The shamanic sensibilities revealed in the cave paintings of the high Paleolithic must have had a developmental history going back scores of thousands of years. A penchant for solitude must have been strong in human evolution.19
Shamanic wisdom is directly responsive to the rhythms of life. It seeks a resonant relationship with them. The Paleolithic shaman saw birth and death as the most powerful, mysterious manifestations of the rhythms of nature.
Birth was the first aggregation, death the last dispersal. The killed being, human or animal, once dispersed, could not aggregate to the group again. Through death, the dispersal door, the male door, all life passed into another realm, the underworld. The female, by contrast, was the gate to life.
The vagina and the grave were the doorways through which the greater aggregation and dispersal rhythm swept into the world. They were the apertures between our middle world and the upper and lower realms. Life aggregated through the sex door of the female and dispersed through the death door. A killed being, human or animal, was dispersed. S/He had a journey to take; s/he could not aggregate to the group again without being born again. The shaman’s calling was to keep both approach-and-separation and withdrawal-and-return balanced on the greater turning wheel of dispersal and aggregation. The secret was to correlate these with the broader rhythms of nature, read from the cosmic wheel in the starry sky, the retreat and return of the light, the passing of the seasons, and the journey of the sun through the firmament. As Giorgio de Santillana speculated, these observations, conducted over centuries and millennia, encouraged the naming of constellations and the partitioning of the heavens into the twelve signs of the zodiac.
By a journey of withdrawal and return the shaman tried to keep the social order running smoothly. Shamanic wisdom saw all creatures sweeping back and forth through the birth and death doors, dispersing, aggregating, separating from, and approaching on the stage of the living world.
The shamans sought the secret doors and went through them. They knew that the membranes separating life and death could sometimes, on certain occasions, soften and become permeable. With their esoteric skills they could travel between the worlds in dream, trance and hallucination. Siberian shamans, for example, in a dream or trance state, ascended a ladder pole representing the world axletree set between our world, the underworld and the over-world.
The shaman, moving in the fields of dispersal and aggregation, was the intercessor with the dead, the seeker of lost souls, human or animal. The lost soul could be caught between the membranes, sometimes held captive by other dispersed beings among the dead. The shaman could travel in the underworld and induce one who could not fully die to die, helping them find what they needed to complete their journey, or by helping one who could not be born to get born or one who was ill, whose soul was stuck between the worlds, to return and heal. The shaman might meet with an esteemed ancestor and persuade it to yield special wisdom needed by the group.20
The shamans made seasonal journeys. They timed their séances to coincide with the solstices, the appearance of migrating herds, or if need be to the rhythms of the crisis in a patient’s illness. The shamanic séance itself was immersed in rhythm. Drums and rattles accompanied it.
The shaman succeeded by actually influencing a turning point in broader nature by means of a withdrawal-return turning point of his or her own. The shaman aligned his or her moving whirl, the vortex of ascension and descent, into the greater rhythm of dispersal and aggregation that formed the vortex of the cosmos itself.
The wisdom process, judged from the great antiquity of shamanism, preceded dramatic changes in the tool kit by many thousands of years. The evidence indicates that the achievements of the High Paleolithic period came from essentially non-material inner and interpersonal advances, not from advanced tool technologies. By my reckoning, the shamanic techniques, and the inwardness they relied on, culminated the emergence process by which love and wisdom rose from embeddedness in dispersal/aggregation and entered the cultural world as independent properties of human nature.
We became human by virtue of the realizations we made in the turning points at the extremes of approach-separation and withdrawal-return, not by cognitive processing alone or “problem solving abilities”, but by prototypical love and wisdom. Shamanism was the first cultural fruit of wisdom.
Our disposition for love, as we have seen, goes back farther still. We see its form in parent/offspring relations and pair bonding in other species. Love as we know it in the human experience, like wisdom, breaks free from the rhythmic hold of dispersal/aggregation. It becomes not only a personal attainment, but is also lauded as a virtue of life.21
In my story of human origins, then, the cultural explosion that gave us love and wisdom came in the high Paleolithic when ongoing trends in conscious approach and separation and withdrawal and return converged on each other, surmounting the participation mystique. In the blinking of an eye, our species destiny became open-ended.
After that, change comes quickly. It is no longer millenial, but generational. The cultural environment fills with art and invention. Calendrics, agriculture and husbandry and settled towns appear, then written script. An evolutionary instant later astonishing urban centers and governments appear, with bureaucracies, priesthoods, laws, literature, trade and war and all the provisions of a civilized life fed by memorable individuals, creators, inventors, leaders, tyrants, slaves and workers.
69Arnold Toynbee saw the individual withdrawal and return journey in this larger context and we can return to him for a further reflection on its historical significance. To Toynbee, the journeys were part of a challenge and response dynamic that underpinned civilization. He wrote, “the withdrawal makes it possible for the personality to realize powers within himself which might have re-mained dormant if he had not been released for the time being from his social toils and trammels.” Each civilization he studied thrived to the extent it made successful responses to environmental, demographic, geopolitical and economic challenges during its ‘Time of Troubles’. Not everyone joined in the process. It took the members of a creative minority, often independently of each other, to complete the journey. In his view, the return of the creative minority from withdrawal shaped the course of civilization.
Toynbee recognized that the pattern only worked as a whole; withdrawal needed a return.
“A transfiguration in solitude can have no purpose and perhaps even no meaning,” he relates, “except as a prelude to the return of the trans-figured personality into the social milieu out of which he had originally come…The return is the essence of the whole movement as well as its final cause.”22