Living Myth: (1) Symbolic Consciousness
This series of posts is adapted from D. Stephenson Bond's Living Myth: Personal Meaning as a Way of Life (Shambhala, 2001).
I have a stone in my pocket. That surprises people. Most folks don’t really know anybody with a stone in their pocket. At least not in Boston. Then again, I wonder if maybe others are secretly strolling with a stone in their pocket down the long, tree-lined avenues in the Back Bay in the cool of a spring day. Or if there might be someone sitting under an umbrella at a Newbury Street café who sips from a wine cooler in one hand and rubs a stone with the other. You never know about these things.
That is what one does with a pocket stone. You rub it with your thumb until it grows warm, until it feels oily and smooth. And then you feel better. My stone is granite. It could have been an arrowhead. Not the fancy kind you see in the museums, but a very primitive arrowhead. It could have been. That is the key. It could be utterly natural, carved by nature, in a way that seems eerily conscious; although I wonder how a stone in a creek or ground by glaciers might appear to have five distinct ridges, a base, and a point.
So it is an ambiguous stone. It cannot make up its mind to be of human or natural origin, conscious or unconscious. This ambiguity is precisely what makes my stone a mythological stone. I’m sure that’s why I picked it up absentmindedly one day in my backyard. What is this? An arrowhead? No, just a rock. But wait, perhaps it could be an arrowhead after all. And the ambiguity held me captive. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, my imagination, through a process as old as our species, transformed this rock into a mythological stone.
I say mythological because the way I find myself wanting to relate to this stone feels religious. I didn’t notice anything had happened until I’d been carrying it around with me for several months and realized I was upset at even the thought of waking up one morning and not being able to find it. So I began to be a lot more careful about the attention I gave to it, during the day and during the night. The care developed into ritual because I had to put it in the same place every night, in the same pocket every morning, and check it at various intervals through the day. Before long I realized that if my wife or kids saw it, they might take it away or, even worse, ask for an explanation. Then I had to hide it. All of a sudden I had a secret. All of a sudden I had a mythological stone.
SUBJECTIVE PARTICIPATION: LOST IN THE FANTASY
Attributing power to a stone is a projection, of course. The stone is just a rock. Projection, one of the most straightforward psychological concepts, is the basic confusion of object and subject, outer and inner. Something on the inside, a piece of myself, is perceived on the outside—projected onto an object. The inanimate object is simply a mirror, reflecting an image in myself back to me.
Keeping object and subject straight is not as simple as it may appear. For instance, the film in the theater is not the picture you watch on the screen, despite your perception. The film is in the projection booth, inside the projector where no one sees it. What you watch and respond to, laugh and cry with, is only the projected image of the film on the screen. Much of the drama of our outer lives is but an image of our projected inner film—perhaps more so than we care to know.
My stone is like a screen carrying my projection. Herein lies the mystery of projection—in this transformation of inanimate and lifeless matter into a living soul. One minute it was a rock, and the next a talisman, a charm, a fetish, a relic. It became a stone made sacred by human imagination.
Surely it is the ambiguity that draws the projection. My stone could be an arrowhead. It could be meaningful and important. The ambiguity invites the projection. Every good “screen” has that quality—a likeness and verisimilitude to an inner content, a hook upon which our hates, loves, fears, and desires are hung. As with magnetic attraction, the proper alignment of the charges pulls the object and our subjective contents inexorably toward each other. Once fused, they are difficult to separate.
The sociologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl used the French term participation mystique for this “mystical participation” of subject with object. He thought of it as something that happens in primary cultures (I use the term primary cultures because so-called primitive cultures are not primitive but marvelously sophisticated). A man dances in a lion mask, and although to us it may seem he is pretending to be a lion, in his subjective experience he becomes a lion. A woman builds a death house out at the edge of a village for the spirit of her late mother, and even though the demands of raising her children are great, still she takes time every day to put food by the house to feed her mother’s soul. She may go a mile out of her way down to the creek to get water to avoid the house during the full moon.
The experience of participation mystique is not so remote as we might think. We have only to look back to our own childhood and recall how vigorously we protested when somebody touched “my” toy. “My” comes in just at the point where the “toy” is not experienced objectively as “toy,” but as an extension of “me.” The toy and I are merged. Or think of the boy who hits a home run with a certain bat. From then on he wants to use only that bat. It has become a magic bat. If he’s really excited, he wants to keep that very ball as well. It has become a powerful ball because it flew over the fence. This is how objects take on a life of their own.
If you’ve ever been the child whose worn, ragged velveteen rabbit came to life, you’ve tasted it. And it doesn’t stop when you grow up. If you’ve ever fallen in love, you’ve felt the boundaries of object and subject dissolving. If you’ve ever cried at the passing of the flag on the Fourth of July, or cursed a blown field goal, or cheered a man on the moon, you’ve felt it. If you have a stone in your pocket, you’re in it.
THE FANTASTIC AND THE OBJECTIVE
When you find an active projection, find yourself relating to an object in an emotional way, you can dig up the subjective link, the connection to a buried yearning, hurt, or attachment, through the process that Jung called fantasy thinking, or nondirected thinking. In this case, “thinking” has very little to do with what we call cognition and more to do with imagination. Fantasy thinking is first and foremost an autonomous, subjective process. It is our internal experience unmediated by social structures—simply images and emotional intensities restlessly churning like a white-water river. Experiences are linked by associational patterns rather than logical concepts.
Now, there are gifts and strengths of modern objective consciousness. I say “consciousness” because the prerequisite for this kind of thinking is the ability to maintain the distinction between subject and object. Perhaps the first act of consciousness is the emerging awareness of an “I” that is distinct from “Not-I.” In the participation mystique there is no “I,” only fusion. I say “objective” in the sense that only when we are aware of our own identity as a subject can we have any awareness of an object. For instance, only insofar as I am conscious that the intensity I feel with the stone is subjectively within me am I able to experience the stone as a rock rather than a fetish. Consciousness limits the projection. Meanwhile, fantasy thinking has many dangers. Our ancestors lived in a mythological world in which virtually every task, every aspect of life, was regulated by fantasy thinking—the trees and dark places to be avoided, the trees and rocks to be worshiped. As our own obsessions and compulsions teach us, projections of fantasy thinking are an obstacle to innovation.
Objective consciousness allows us to innovate, to vary the instinctual patterns. It allows us to withdraw the projection from the object, thus freeing up a new “objective” relationship to the object. The object is “demythologized,” and we have made the first step toward science in the sense of creating an “objective” relationship to the natural world rather than a “subjective” participation in it. The origins of modern subjective consciousness lie in the penetration of the hazy veil of the medieval sacramental world by the hard light of rationality, beginning with the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. Slowly and surely, our world has grown ever more demythologized as objective consciousness has overridden the instinctual pattern and allowed for innovation and science. We live in a time when presumably we no longer need to worship stone.
I suppose I should demythologize my stone and give it a proper burial—although truly demythologized rocks do not require burials. But then, I suppose, neither should people. Apart from public health requirements, burial is a thoroughly mythological idea.
Technically, modern objective consciousness requires not so much that I demythologize the stone as that I demythologize myself. The stone is just a stone. The mythologizing comes from me. Objective consciousness brings with it the possibility of a psychology, because I learn something about my internal process. After all, only when I’m aware of the object as an object is there the possibility of being fully aware of myself as a subject.
So my stone is just a rock. Dumb granite. A common mineral indistinguishable from a billion tons of the stuff piled up in various corners of the earth by the geological movement of the continental plates. Objectively, that’s all it is. I am left with a demythologized stone. And the world becomes a coldly “objective” place.
I stand on a lonely cliff overlooking the ocean. There is a place, just north of Rockport, Massachusetts, called Halibut Point where a nice promontory of granite forms one arm of Cape Ann. Granite quarries from early in the century stand strangely silent there. Deep, icy water fills the void left where slab after slab was hoisted away. I stand by a few trees, flattened by the ever-present wind. To the left I can see all the way up the New Hampshire coast to the mountains of Maine. To the right, around the great horn of Cape Cod, a lighthouse blinks, just barely visible. Behind me is the empty quarry. Below me, so far below I cannot hear it, the ocean crashes against the rocks.
I take the stone from my pocket. Just an effortless toss and it would be forever lost to the sea. I balance it in my hand, testing its weight, guessing its trajectory. Once I have demythologized it, shall I throw the stone away?
I rub it one last time. What is it I am touching? What is this I hold in my hand? A piece of stone—or a piece of soul?
We stand upon a precipice. Upon the edge of fate. Objective consciousness has freed us from the tyranny of projection. Will it also forever imprison the imagination? That is the modern dilemma. With too little objective consciousness, we live in the tyranny of the unconscious—the loss of soul that makes us crazy. We are lost in a complete identification with the object. Yet with too much objective consciousness, we live the tyranny of objectivity—the loss of soul that makes us neurotic, for the loss of imagination is also the loss of soul. When you can’t feel the tug in your psyche toward a stone, something essential is lost: a connection, a sense of meaning, an imaginative spark. The touch of myth.
SYMBOLIC CONSCIOUSNESS: AWARENESS OF THE GAME
The problem with my mythological stone is finding the right attitude or relationship with it. Without sufficient consciousness I am in danger of worshipping it. I could conceivably set it aside in a sacred site, maybe with little candles burning. Convincing others of its magical power, inviting them to join me in this participation mystique, I could heal with the touch of the stone. After my death, followers would venerate the stone, making it a sacred relic. Given the way of the world, they would probably sell plastic copies of the stone, or at least have little shops with stones cut from my backyard that people could wear around their necks like crystals. Too little consciousness makes for good disciples.
But too much glare of objective consciousness, and the halo of projective aura vanishes. Realizing that whatever I feel for the stone is “just” a projection, something inside of me, I might as well get rid of it. I’ll have the subjective material in me regardless of the stone. Who needs it?
But could I consciously touch the living experience without the stone? That remains problematical: how to allow the projection to touch me and yet maintain awareness. The projection only makes it alive to me (fantasy thinking engages the subject). I break the spell of the projection insofar as I consciously distinguish myself from the stone (directed thinking engages the object). What, then, is the value of the projection, when I already have the subject and object well in hand? There is a third consideration—the projection-making factor itself. The stone not only engages the subject and the object, it engages the fantasy that lies between the two. Fantasy is an autonomous factor in itself. The “value” of my stone, then, lies not only in the nature of the subjective material it draws from me and its usefulness as an object, but in the fantasy process it stirs in me.
The third alternative arises when I discover a different level of consciousness—symbolic consciousness. If subjective participation means living in a projection (merging with the psychological intensity) and objective consciousness means knowing a projection for a projection (losing the psychological intensity), then symbolic consciousness is the ability to hold the projection and awareness at the same time (maintaining the psychological intensity). I did not “choose” the projection. I simply picked up the stone and something sparked. Subjective participation starts a dire. Objective consciousness rushes to put the fire out. Symbolic consciousness stands back to watch the fire, to see what happens.
Symbolic consciousness is thus a mode of awareness focused on the play of imagination, rather than the subjective and objective aspects of the experience itself. On the one hand, we must distinguish this symbolic awareness from fantasy thinking. Fantasy thinking is preconscious; in the participation mystique, there is no differentiated standpoint outside of the fantasy, no observing ego. In fact, from “inside” the fantasy (so to speak) there is no “fantasy,” no “mythology.” The fantasy phenomenon is experienced as “reality”—the pocket stone is “really” alive. On the other hand, we also have to distinguish this symbolic awareness from directed thinking, which relates to fantasy as an “object.” It takes an observer standpoint sufficiently outside of the fantasy to reduce it to a mental object, an object of study, research, and theories. To directed thinking, fantasy and myth become illusions and evasions of objective “reality.”
Symbolic consciousness, by contrast, participates in the subjective process of fantasy while at the same time maintaining awareness of the process as an objective, autonomous factor. In other words, it lives in a myth while knowing it as a myth; it experiences the fantasy process neither as “reality” nor “illusion,” but rather as meaning. Symbolic consciousness shifts awareness to the field of imagination that is stirred within me by my stone.
In this psychological field that forms as I rub the stone, I find myself playing a game with the stone. Yet it is not “I” who willfully act, but something in me that plays the game. Something that is internal but not my usual conscious ego comes into play. As in a ball game, “I” have to assent and participate if this imaginative game is to develop. I have to “allow” my ego to play, assent to the fantasy that forms, and play as if the game were real—as if three strikes really means I’m out, and an imaginary line really means fair and foul.
Objective consciousness has the great advantage of maintaining distance from our projections. The disadvantage is that it kills all the fun. It’s the death of the game, like a player’s strike.
The trick of symbolic consciousness is in allowing yourself to maintain the distance—I am aware that I’m pretending, gaming, imagining—while at the same time preserving participation.
So I allow this game with the stone. I allow the symbolic game space at a different level of consciousness. Then it becomes an imaginative field upon which to play, a soul-space to be explored.
NEXT POST: LIVING MYTH: (2) MYTHOLOGICAL CONSCIOUSNESS