Friday, November 30, 2007

#25. Ontogenesis: Phase Three

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On first hearing, the third phase of ontogenetic development makes little sense for many people today. The static worldview of previous centuries has been so strong and so persistent that we're simply not used to thinking about our personal growth in any context, let alone trying to make sense of it in terms of ideas such as "culture," "cosmology" and "ontogenesis." So here's a quick review of those key terms.

"Ontogenesis" is a fancy word from anthropology which recognizes that our growth and development takes place within the context of a culture's cosmology. Psychology also deals with personal development, of course. In the Jungian perspective it's called "individuation," but the focus is more on an inner sense of personal development rather than on the fact that our personal growth takes place within a cultural context.

"Culture," for anthropologists, includes everything which is not part of our genetic inheritance: all the knowledge and understanding we have which is passed on to us from older and more experienced members of our group.

"Cosmology" refers to a culture's response to the basic question of our place in the scheme of things; the focus of any cosmology is on how we are related to the rest of reality.

As I said, these ideas make little sense to many people today, and once we begin thinking in terms of "our place in the scheme of things" the reason becomes obvious: for many centuries western culture has lacked a coherent cosmology. It's for this reason that the emergence of the New Cosmology is of such great significance.

Thanks to modern science, the New Cosmology can be shared by all humanity. And it offers a perspective which includes the whole of the cosmic process-- from the Big Bang and the formation of stars and planets to the emergence of life on earth, the eventual emergence of self-awareness in humans and the continuation of the evolutionary process via the creativity of the human spirit.

That's the broad cultural and cosmological context in which Biogenetic Structuralism sees our personal growth and development taking place. Easy tags for the three stages (or levels or phases) of the development of consciousness are belief, experience and participation.


I described the first two stages in the previous post (#24). This one deals with the third phase, participation.

As the third stage of ontogenetic development, participation differs from both belief-- the conscious understanding of ourselves and of our place in the world which we have received from others-- and from that kind of personal experience we have by which we compare what we have been told with what we have personally observed to be true.

Working out the relationship between knowledge which has been passed on to us and knowledge we have from our personal experience is, of course, a major part of growing up.

In earlier cultures, where awareness of this third phase of development was still part of the culture's tradition, the growing up process was usually completed during the teenage years. By contrast, as a result of the several-centuries-old divorce between science and religion, in modern western society the maturing process often continues well into an individual's 30s.

The problem is that western culture has been caught in the trap of thinking that we have to make a choice between science and religion. That was, unfortunately, the one thing early science and traditional religion agreed on. The reason I find the insights of Biogenetic Structuralism to be of such great value is that these insights make clear-- from a scientific perspective-- that we don't have to make that choice.

Because it combines evolutionary and anthropological understandings with neurological information, Biogenetic Structuralism allows us to recover this third phase of ontogenetic development as a normal part of our personal growth and development.

And it's precisely the perspectives of the New Cosmology-- which sees the world not as static but as developmental, and recognizes that we do indeed have a place in the evolutionary cosmos-- that allow us to move beyond the impasse of scientific rationalism and religious fundamentalism.


By referring to the third phase of ontogenetic development as participation, Biogenetic Structuralism intends to indicate that it means something more than personal experience.

As usual, the words we have available tend to get in the way. In this case, however, the distinction really isn't a difficult one. It's a distinction we make every day. Participation means doing something, not just talking about it.

When we're first learning to drive, for example, we have a lot of conscious information about how to drive, but it's only when we're behind the wheel and actually driving that we are participating in the driving process.

That phrase-- "participating in the driving process"-- sounds strange because we don't usually talk that way. But we need to here, if we are to understand clearly the difference between knowledge about the evolution of the universe and personally participating in it.


It sounds confusing because we still lack good terms for this third phase of ontogenetic development. Biogenetic Structuralism uses words like "trans-personal experience," "advanced individuation" and "contemplation" to talk about our conscious participation in the cosmic process. While none is the ideal term, each is worth our attention.

"Advanced individuation" is a reference to the Jungian term for personal development. Calling it "advanced" is a way of saying that Biogenetic Structuralism is referring to the same growth process but is looking at it, as I mentioned earlier, in the very broadest cultural, cosmological and evolutionary context.

"Contemplation" is a more explicitly religious term; for many it brings to mind spiritual writers such as Teresa of Avila or Thomas Merton. Its original meaning is something like what's meant by the familiar saying, "as above, so below." The image evoked is the construction of a temple being built on Earth in accordance with the architectural plan of the temple in heaven. So it's contemporary meaning is something like "making myself in accordance with the divine plan."

That contemporary meaning is similar to the meaning of "meditation" as it's used in Eastern religious thought: coming into contact with ultimate reality and ultimate values. So the contemporary and the ancient meanings of "contemplation" aren't all that different. And neither is the Biogenetic Structuralist use of it-- except that the emphasis in the Biogenetic Structuralist perspective is, again, on the fact that the construction process (or contact with ultimate values) takes place in the broadest cosmic context: the evolution of the universe.

The third term, "trans-personal experience," has been in use for several decades; there are academic journals devoted to Transpersonal Psychology and some schools offer courses in it. But it's a misleading term in the sense that the third level of ontogenetic development isn't something beyond personal experience so much as personal experience which takes place in a much larger than usual context. That context is described well in Native American tradition by the phrase "all my relations." So the term "trans-person" is meant to emphasize that the context for our personal development includes all of reality.

Perhaps a better term than "trans-personal experience" might be "trans-ego experience." But even that isn't quite right. As with the jargon found in every branch of science, we need to keep in mind that "trans-personal" is shorthand for an idea-- just as are "contemplation" and "advanced individuation." In this case, it's shorthand for the concept of conscious participation in the developmental process specifically as it's taking place in a relational-- rather than ego-isolated-- context, and that the relational context excludes nothing.


In any case, whatever name we give to it, this third phase of conscious development is understood to be a shift in awareness; and it's a shift so radical that its results are often described as an "altered state of consciousness."

Even that term comes from the mental framework of 19th-century science, however, where our mind's thinking function was considered as the norm of ordinary awareness, and the other functions of consciousness, such as feeling and intuition, were dismissed as being of little significance. (Or even worse: as being feminine!)

But there's really nothing extra-ordinary about the third stage of conscious awareness. From the broader evolutionary and neurological perspectives available to us today, it is as normal and ordinary as are the other phases of our growth and development. It does, however, feel extra-ordinary when we first get into it, in much the same way that puberty, for example, feels like an extra-ordinary development for a teenager.

Even the reason why the third phase of ontogenetic development feels so extraordinary is similar to the early adolescent experience of puberty: they both take us out of the very narrow focus of our ego-centered concerns and allow us to enter into a world of relationships which were previously unimaginable.


What's going on in the brain during the third phase of our developmental experience is fascinating. Just as in the biological evolutionary process generally, living things survive via adaptation (assimilation and/or accommodation) to the external world, so ego-consciousness develops in precisely the same way at the second phase of ontogenesis. But in the third stage there's a difference in that, while the same process is operative at both levels, it's the process itself (rather than the external environment) that's the focus at the contemplative level. I hope to spell out this kind of fascinating information in some detail in future posts. (Such optimism!)

Meanwhile, I'd like to offer some basic thoughts about what Biogenetic Structuralism understands to be the very means by which we enter into our participatory experience of the cosmic process. I'm referring, of course, to symbol, myth and ritual.

In post #22 (The Other Half of Person) I called myth, ritual and symbol "in-between" ideas because on one hand they are found in every culture on the Earth and are part of every religious tradition; even religious groups which formally shy away from them make use of them in practice (the Quaker "meeting for worship" would be a good example), and of course anyone involved in a regular meditation practice makes use of them. On the other hand, precisely because symbol, myth and ritual are significant aspects of religious practice throughout the world, they are also objects of study in the human sciences.

So as odd as it may sound, what bridges the gap between science and religion is ritual, symbol and myth.

As I also pointed out in post #22, they are "in-between" concepts in a second sense: they tend to be dismissed by the rationalist-materialist worldview-- along with belief and the intuitive and feeling functions of consciousness -- as little more than childish superstitions.

It's important that we recognize that the dismissal is itself a belief. In academic circles, this major component of western culture's materialist-rationalist cosmology has been described as the "disenchantment of the world". In the mid-20th century it was considered a sign of progress, a gain for humanity.

But while that disenchantment continues to pervade western culture, it is itself in the process of being deconstructed, as a result of the findings of post-rationalist science.

A central aspect of the re-enchantment of the world is that we are rediscovering the "other half of person": the fact that we are communal-relational beings. And along with it we are seeing a recovery of an understanding of the place of myth and ritual in our lives.

As I observed in an earlier post (#21 Struggling with Words), for most of us, the terms we have available to talk about these things are both familiar and fuzzy. We're in the process of updating basic words such as "science," "religion" and "person." And we're also in the early stages of updating our understanding of myth, ritual and symbol.

I need to emphasize that it really is a kind of "deconstruction of the deconstruction" that's happening. So before sharing some thoughts about a positive understanding of myth, ritual and symbol, I first want to say a few words about what they are not. Since I began these blog postings in the last days of 2006, I have intentionally avoided expressing negative attitudes as much as possible; but this is one place where some negative thoughts are appropriate. Think of them, if you will, as a contribution toward the effort to "disenchant" rationalist materialism's disenchantment of the world.


In that disenchanted worldview, "myth" only means "something which is not true." It can refer to anything from a deliberate lie to common misunderstandings, but also to stories like urban legends and tall tales told for our entertainment (such as stories about Paul Bunyan or Bigfoot). "Myths" usually refer to events of the past, involving Greek gods, magic swords and flying dragons, but Santa Claus, King Arthur and the Parting of the Red Sea are also "myths" in this sense.

The word "ritual" in this same disenchanted worldview almost always includes the idea of repetition. From the rationalist perspective, "ritual" is the name for any kind of repetitive gesture or any activity which is repeated on a regular basis. Rituals are usually described as being "empty gestures" and are often considered compulsive or even pathological.


The word "symbol" is a little more complicated. It has a valid use in science and math where it means "something which stands for something else." In this use, symbols are a shorthand for more complex meanings. We couldn't do chemistry, for example, without chemical symbols such as NaCl and H2O, and we couldn't easily summarize Einstein's understanding of the physical equivalence of matter and energy without his famous equation, e = mc2.

But when this legitimate use of "symbol" is extended into other areas, we end up with silliness and nonsense: that a circle, for example, "stands for eternity" or that a dove "is a symbol for peace." This use of "symbol" exemplifies the rationalist disenchantment of the world. We need to keep in mind that like the conventional meanings of "myth" and "ritual," it has nothing to do with our ontogenetic development or with our participation in the evolution of the universe.


For that reason, I want to conclude this blog entry with at least a brief introduction to a positive understanding of myth, ritual and symbol. I hope to spell out why the Biogenetic Structuralist perspective sees myth and ritual as the tools by which we participate in the cosmic process in the third stage of our ontogenetic development.

In this more positive understanding, myth simply means a story: a description of anything that has happened or that people are involved in, and which illustrates or expresses in some way the culture's cosmology. Gods or spirits may be involved, but the story is not about them, it's about us. Myths in this anthropological sense help us to understand our place in the scheme of things; they are stories which help us to enter into the mystery of our human condition.

And ritual in this anthropological sense simply means telling the story. The telling can be around a primitive campfire or a Thanksgiving table, and be as complicated as a three-day Tibetan Buddhist rite or the three-hour Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. It doesn't even have to include words. It can be told in gestures and actions, like a dance, or even by no action, like the zazen practice of "sitting quietly doing nothing."

While "mythos" is a Greek word, "ritual" comes from a Sanskrit term: rita. The basic meaning of rita is something like "the order of the universe" and "the round of the seasons." It's the way the world works: what we call today the scientific rules by which the universe operates.

Clearly, the meanings of "myth" and "ritual" aren't all that different. They each have to do with the telling or acting out of a story which is of significance for our human self-understanding. A good brief definition of both might be simply: enacting a story which has meaning.

What makes the story significant is that it somehow allows us to enter into the meaning of our lives. It somehow speaks to us in such a way that we are transformed beyond what's conventionally called "ordinary" consciousness to an "altered" state of awareness. Which is, of course, what the third phase of ontogenetic development is all about.

I've no doubt that my use of the word "somehow" twice in the previous paragraph resulted in a strong response from many readers: "Somehow? Well... HOW?"

That's where symbol comes in.

We can easily understand "myth" as a story and "ritual" as its telling, but there is no similar equivalent term for "symbol." Symbols seem to be neither things nor actions but can be perhaps best described as a kind of communication. They are like body language-- in this case, the "language" of myth and ritual.

As a form of communication, symbols are the mechanism by which a story influences us. They are whatever grabs our attention. So symbols can be anything: words, actions, pictures, gestures, things, places, persons-- whatever helps us to enter into the meaning of our existence. 

They are whatever aspects of the story touch us and affect us at a deep level. This is why Biogenetic Structuralism understands symbol to be the means by which the mind-brain works to bring about our personal transformation.

I am aware that these are greatly oversimplified ideas with regard to symbol, myth and ritual, but I don't think they are inaccurate. I offer them as basic ideas to build on in our attempts to understand symbol, myth and ritual as means by which we participate in the cosmic process.

Nowadays, most traditional religious rituals are understood from the secular perspective to be nothing more than empty gestures; and for large numbers of contemporary people, traditional religious symbols have become what T. S. Eliot calls them, "a heap of broken images." 

They have been lost to western culture with the rationalist-materialist disenchantment of the world.

But they are being recovered again, thanks to the New Cosmology.

1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.