Updating our ways of knowing (Part 3): The journey of unfolding consciousness—the mythical and mental-rational structures

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Part 3 of a multi-part article about Integral consciousness. Watch this space for part 4, coming soon.

This post picks up where the last one left off, examining the mythical and mental structures of consciousness. The latter structure—the one which we are most intimately acquainted with, as it prevails in today’s world—is treated in two parts: ‘mental’ consciousness and ‘rational’ consciousness, respectively the efficient and deficient modes of our prevailing consciousness structure.

The mythical structure

As we reach the third mutation, we can start to see the process whereby consciousness gradually differentiates and individuates, as each structure leads inexorably to the next through a loss of identification with an aspect of its surround. The individual gradually releases itself from the nurturing matrix of its origin.

Latent in each structure lies the potential for the next mutation. Loss of the wholeness and identity of archaic consciousness leads to the disengagement from nature and awareness of the external world which we saw in magic consciousness. The mythic structure leads to the emergent awareness of the inner world and the awakening of the soul.

Prince of Lillies – Knossos

Polarity and the circle

Just as the archaic structure was an expression of zero-dimensional identity and original wholeness, and the magic structure was an expression of one-dimensional unity and man’s merging with nature, so the mythical structure is the expression of two-dimensional polarity, which Gebser symbolises with the circle (also an age-old symbol for the soul).

The individuated point of the magic structure is expanded into an encompassing ring on a 2-dimensional surface. It encompasses, balances and ties together all polarities. This spiralling cycling through polarities moves inexorably through the entire mythical age, bringing the dawning of the mental structure nearer with each cycle.

Much can be learned of mythical consciousness by leaning into the interplay between some of the polarities at play:

The presence of polarity in mythical consciousness brings also the emergent awareness of time—not in the linear, directed way we experience today, but as a polar phenomenon of cycles (the cycles of the seasons, of daylight and darkness, the rising and setting orbits of the planets, the Hindu yugas) and eventfulness (destiny). There is a dawning awareness of the Earth’s counter-pole: the sun and the sky.

One of the hallmarks of mythical consciousness is ambivalence (‘ambi’ = both; ‘valence’ = valid). This can be appreciated in the ambivalent relation between time and timelessness (a residual feature of magical consciousness) which defies our rational understanding, underlining the difference between the polarity of the mythical structure and the duality of the rational. For the mythical, both time and timelessness simultaneously exist and complement each other without contradiction.

Where magic consciousness was the domain of emotion, mythic consciousness opens up the domain of psychic space. New adaptive capacities emerge: memory, feeling and introspection.

To quote Gebser: “Myth is the closing of mouth and eyes; since it is a silent, inward-directed contemplation, it renders the soul visible so it may be visualised, represented heard and made audible. Myth is this representing and making audible: the articulation […] of what has been seen and heard. […] What is viewed inwardly, as in a dream, has its conscious emergence and polar complement in poetically shaped utterance.”

Nausicaa’s dream, from Homer’s Odyssey

The essential subjective medium is imagination, reaching into self (introspection) and beyond self to the objects of the world, to fashion through image a coherent whole which stands out as insight.

Every emergence of consciousness presupposes the externalisation of something that presses or is pressed towards awareness. In the case of mythic consciousness, what is being pressed towards awareness is Myth, formed in the psyche of the collective as unconscious processes until expressed in poetic form by certain gifted individuals— the Homers of the ancient world. It is the repetition of these myths that brings the latent contents of the psyche into the light of consciousness in the listeners. Like a hall of mirrors, most myths themselves reflect the emergent awareness of the soul.

Having discovered and traversed his own soul, mythical man finds the “other”. Awakening towards the self proceeds circuitously through the awakening towards the “thou”, and in the “thou” the entire world opens up. Where previously there had been an egoless world of total merging, there is now a capacity for private feelings and empathy: the capacity to place oneself in the inner terrain of a fellow human being. This gives rise to a powerful social sentiment as part of the collective psyche of mythical human.

Will-driven action—passive endurance:
The emergence of consciousness requires the capacity to endure suffering. Emergent individuality is sensed through acting and being acted upon. Passive suffering is also present, as the polar complement of the active aspect: the suffering of loss endured corresponds to the joy of the considered act of discovery and invention.

The soul’s manifest brightness finds its counter-pole in the shadowy nocturnal part of the psyche that today we call the unconscious.

Mythical consciousness brings forth the mythical life-world

Mythical consciousness emerges against a backdrop of huge changes in the life world of mythical human. This transformation is itself wrought by the emergence of this new and much more lucid consciousness, responsible for the development of agriculture, the domestication of animals and the establishment of sedentary communities; professional specialisation and social classes; religious symbolism focusing on sacrifice and fertility.

Newly emerged imagination brings forth technology and language. Because of the potent presence of awakening soul within humanity, both technology and language are mana-charged and sacred. Mythical consciousness unfolds in sacred space and time—this is religious consciousness: memory reaching back into the past and the feeling of social sentiment. Space has loci of sacred power (e.g. stone circles). All activity is embedded in a matrix of meanings that points beyond appearances to their archetypal correlations. The psyche intuits destiny or fate.

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

Mythic consciousness remembers itself through myth and participatory ritual, imagination (literally creating inner pictures) and self-expression, attuning the self to sacred space and time; psychic participation in the kinship with all life. Woman, too, is perceived as a locus of mana, but now also experienced as part of the social power structure with the ability to bless or curse.

The move towards patriarchy begins the bridging into the mental structure. From 40,000 to 10,000 years ago.

The mental structure

The emergence of the mental structure coincides with a shift from matriarchy to patriarchy: the male of the species is awakening. (10,000 BC to 500 BC).

Perspective and 3-dimensional space

The mental structure ushers in the perspectival world. It is the intensified awareness associated with the emergence of ego, and its principal characteristic is directedness and perspectivity, which unavoidably brings with it a partitioning of reality. Perspective fixes both the observer and the observed: fixing (and isolating) the human on one hand and the world on the other.

Mental consciousness brings a tremendously vigorous dualistic, objectivistic, linear mode of relating to the world. The mental structure sees the emergence of directed, discursive thought. Discursive thought is radically different to mythical ‘thinking’, which was a shaping or designing of images in the imagination, occurring within the confines of the polar cycle from which it gained its energy. Discursive thinking, by contrast, is directed towards objects in a dualistic way, seeing things not as polarities but as mutually exclusive opposites, creating and directing this duality and drawing its energy from the individual ego.

As discursive thought becomes capable of the directed emotional expression associated with a heightened sense of individuality, it bursts the protective psychic circle of mythic polarity and enclosure, and opens up into 3-dimensional space, which mental human will attempt to master with his thinking.

Birth of the dialectic trinity

Secure within the polar embrace, the mythical world neither knew nor needed laws—these arrive on the scene with the advent of the monotheistic religions and the ambitions of empire. Monotheistic religions emerge, as the collective counterpart to the awakened ego. In the “axial age” from 800-400 BC, the spiritual foundations of humanity are laid, simultaneously and independently, in China, India, Persia, Palestine and Greece.

The monotheistic religions also usher in dualism. Man and God stand opposite one another. Duality is the mental splitting and tearing apart of a polarity. From the correspondences of polarity, duality abstracts and quantifies the oppositions as antitheses. This splitting constantly calls for a reconciling synthesis at a higher level of abstraction—which synthesis instantly becomes a new thesis and its antithesis, forcing thought into every higher realms of abstraction (another defining characteristic of the mental structure).

This movement brings forth the trinity—another characteristic of the 3-dimensional mental structure. The symbol chosen by Gebser to represent the mental-rational consciousness structure is the triangle.

Man, the measure of all things (the slippery slope towards rational consciousness)

The search for identity begins: what does it mean to be human? Man becomes the measure of all things. Man himself thinks and directs his thought. And the world which he measures, to which he aspires, is a material world—a world of objects outside himself with which he is confronted. Here lie the rudiments of the grand mental abstractions which take the place of the mythical images, mental man’s idols: anthropomorphism, dualism, rationalism, utilitarianism, materialism.

Another characteristic of the mental structure is quantification, or measuring thought. All that is unmeasurable is negated. Everything that is measurable or moderated by consciousness is strengthened, at the expense of the ‘unconscious’—the immeasurable and immoderate. Without a bridge, what cannot be measured does not exist.

The rational mind looks beyond mythical destiny to seek causal connections between things and events; man is seen as born free, able to shake off the burden of the past and look to the possibilities of the future. As thinking man turns away from the past, Christianity invents universality and hope, pointing humanity ahead to the moment of salvation at the end of time.

Time itself assumes independent value that can be translated into spatial metaphors, taking on great social significance. Quantified time also becomes something to fear, as it begins to limit and undermine human life, bringing death to hang over all living beings: self-conscious humanity must face mortality.

Repression of the soul

Man begins to experience a dichotomy between matter (body) and consciousness (soul/spirit). The exercise of reason makes nonsense of old beliefs, without allaying insecurity and anxiety. Just because the invisible cannot be seen, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist… But the future-oriented mental human responds by repressing the soul/inner life and focusing on action in (and manipulation of) the outer world.

The Romans achieve the heightened individualism of mature mental consciousness capable of imperialistic ambitions, whereby power becomes an abstract force which can be utilised in self-assertion. The collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD demonstrates the fragility of civilisation, just as the slow recovery of European humanity demonstrates the utmost resilience of human consciousness and its momentum toward every greater lucidity.

Rational consciousness

Far from being a separate structure, rational consciousness is the extreme crystallisation of mental consciousness. Gebser considered it deficient to the extent that it has become exclusive, denying the validity of, and then repressing any other ways of knowing and enforcing its own forms of realisation as ultimate and absolute. The beginning of this deficient phase of the mental structure can be marked as Leonardo’s development of perspective, with its emphatic spatialisation of human’s image of the world. Space becomes something we can play with conceptually, as well as experience.

Leonardo’s Last Supper

With the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, humanity begins to assert itself in external, objectified space, piling invention upon invention and transforming society and the face of the earth. Its focus is almost exclusively on the external world, as it turns ever further away from the inner space of the psyche that was the purview of mythical consciousness.

Materialism emerges victorious over the Church, in the guise of modern scientism. By the 17th century, the cult of reason rules supreme; God is dead; human faith is placed in reason. The word ‘reason’, derived from the Latin ratio, denotes quantification: the cutting up into ever smaller pieces, the atomisation, of reality. Wholeness is sacrificed as the ratio divides and dissects everything in pursuit of the ego’s self-serving purposes.

The individual becomes fragmented; the locus of identity shifts from the heart to the brain. The intelligence of the heart and the gut are obliterated. Emotivity is devalued and split off, and the body is isolated from the rational subject. This amounts to a complete negation of all structures of consciousness other than the rational—a denial of humanity’s evolutionary history encoded in the body-mind.

Rembrandt – The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

What the human being wishes to become is assigned to the man, whereas what he no longer wishes to be, or wishes to suppress, is delegated to the woman, and a savage misogyny ensues.

While there is nothing intrinsically problematic about the mental structure of consciousness, our task now is to understand this attitude of rationalism as an evolutionary dead-end. It behooves us to recognise the projections of rational consciousness as the deficient, hypertrophied manifestations of the mental consciousness; the divisive, atomizing force of ‘ratio’ which is inherently self-destructive and antagonistic towards wholeness. We can cut reality into ever smaller pieces in an attempt to find the illusive mystery of life. We can kill life – but we can’t restore it, because life resides in the whole.

Jean Gebser, writing in the 1940’s, was prophetic: “If a new mutation does not take effect—and only a completely new attitude will guarantee the continuation of the earth and mankind, not some sectored partial reforms (reforms are always merely efforts to revive something)—then the consequences of the deficient residua of an age such as ours, which is itself deficient, will soon assume forms […] that will make the previous events of our time look like mere child’s play.”

Gebser wrote those words in the aftermath of the second World War. With another 70 years of history under our belts, we find ourselves where we are today, in all its complexity, gradually awakening in the liminal space between worlds…

The next part of this series will look at the emergent Integral structure of consciousness.

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