We do the best we can, but when you think about it, nothing in the modern world really makes any sense – not our insane private worlds (be honest, admit it) and certainly not the global ocean of insanity that’s out there.
What if both of these are reflections of a flawed way of comprehending the nature of reality itself? And how sensible is it to see these inner and outer realities as entirely separate problems?
Well, let’s examine it rationally. As collective offspring of the whole of Western civilization, that’s what we do. Surely, most of us would agree with scholar Richard Tarnas that faith in rationality is the very hallmark of the modern world.Tarnas, in town to give a workshop this weekend, has literally written the textbook on the history of Western thought (The Passion Of The Western Mind), so he could tell you in great detail how modern rationalism all started about 500 years ago with the likes of Copernicus and Galileo figuring out that the Earth revolves around the sun.
Back then, a huge sticking point for the whole idea was that our bodies couldn’t perceive our own constant planetary motion. That’s why Galileo wrote in praise of his predecessor Copernicus that he had made “reason conquer sense.” That seemed like great progress at the time.
Tarnas gives a feel for how, once Descartes and Newton amped up the scientific revolution, we in the West have all been born “knowing” certain things about the universe. And he thinks we are mistaken.
“Human beings have a capacity for meaning and purpose and interiority,” Tarnas tells me on California time. “The world outside of the human being is seen as being devoid of all those qualities.”
As the crazy times we live in continue to unfold, more of us see the logic in the idea that we are part of, not distinct, from the natural world. So here’s the question: if we have an inner life, doesn’t that mean the cosmos must as well?
Tarnas places all of us living at this time on the cusp of one of those rare turnarounds when one age’s certainties become the next’s absurdities. His new book, Cosmos And Psyche: Intimations Of A New World View, pretty much walks that line. It argues that since we are part of nature, our deepest inner experience is part of nature’s, too.
When you think about it, being a complete anomaly in the universe has been lonely for us humans for these last several centuries. But it was liberating in a certain way. Science, with lots of help from its political, military and corporate connections, got the big thumbs-up to conquer the intrinsically meaningless natural world. And that’s where we are today, living in a supercharged techno-world while the natural conditions that sustain the planet’s current life forms are near their breaking point.
“The cosmological level affects how you view the human condition and the way you relate to other beings,” says Tarnas, his voice hoarse from all the talking he’s been doing lately.
He’s just come back from the Alliance for a New Humanity conference in Costa Rica, founded by President Oscar Arias Sánchez. Just before that, he was in the Netherlands addressing members of parliament about creating a sustainable society.
But don’t let that fool you into thinking that the ideas he’s asking us to absorb aren’t completely outrageous and challenging to every modern bone in our body.
Mind you, he doesn’t need to pull out his most controversial views about, for example, the validity of astrology, at every talk. Just putting the senses back on an equal footing with reason can take you pretty far.
“All our faculties are important parts of our ability to know the world and enter into it. By giving only reason the pride of place, and displacing the relevance of all other parts of our selves, we’ve engaged in a kind of colonizing of the full human being."
In this emerging world view, Tarnas posits, we need to count more than just the money and achievement in our lives. Since Freud, it’s been understood that as humans we have a vast inner life that’s largely unconscious. But the challenge of expanding our awareness of it, and thus enhancing our relationship with it, has remained a marginal, even suspect, preoccupation.
Too bad, since this is what really counts in our day-to-day experience.
That’s why Tarnas credits the insights about human psychology ushered in by Freud and furthered by Carl Jung for really puncturing the modern bubble. How can we rationally justify any faith in our own objective rationalism once we acknowledge that we are beings driven by our untamed psyches.
But that is just the starting point of Tarnas’s cosmological intimations. For the last century, those who have found themselves fascinated by the human psyche have come across the even more challenging, esoteric reality that once we go deep inside, the division we concretely perceive in the modern world between the individual and the larger cosmos gets less and less distinct.
Jung coined the term “synchronicity” to describe one aspect of this phenomenon – the recurring coincidences in the life events of his therapy patients that seemed to occur to support breakthroughs in their inner development. This and other similar observations convinced Jung that not just the psyche, but all of nature, including the planets and the stars, is negotiating some kind of common, meaningful journey.
By now, you can learn about stuff like this from watching Oprah. The only surefire reality check to distinguish between the ridiculous and the sublime has been private experience.
But Tarnas takes it past the personal. To him, the whole larger story of human intellectual history says that we humans fit into some grander scheme. For example, he sees the entire thrust of the Western mind as “driven by a heroic impulse to forge an autonomous rational human self by separating it from the primordial unity with nature.”
Now, he figures, we’ve been there, done that. The new cosmology will need a framework that is big enough for the mind and the soul to meet and make sense to each other.For that to happen, he argues we actually have to invest the cosmos with the same sense of intelligence we claim for ourselves. But how on earth do you prove that in a way that actually satisfies the rational mind we’ve spent so long developing?
Through what started as a curious experiment several decades ago, Tarnas stumbled on an empirical methodology that straddles the border between the sense and nonsense of colliding world views. I’m talking astrology.
In Cosmos And Psyche, Tarnas charts the intellectual history of Western civilization as it corresponds with specific planetary alignments that seem to support specific kinds of world change. I know – it’s a stretch.
It was for him, too. But decades ago, out of curiosity and respect for Jung’s interest in the subject, Tarnas started to play with tracking astrological connections, despite sharing what he now considers is a “common cultural prejudice” against it. The results astounded him, and so he kept going.
“If you haven’t had an initiatory experience or other good reason to think there could be any meaningful relationship between the movements of the planets and the patterns of human experience, well, it’s going to seem obviously delusional and ridiculous and a superstitious way of looking at things.”
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily negate the results. Just so you know, Tarnas’s fat study is not saying the planets cause specific events.
He says, “A more plausible explanation of the evidence rests on a conception of the universe as a fundamentally and irreducibly interconnected whole, informed by creative intelligence and pervaded by patterns of meaning that extend through every level.”
And what about evidence? Well, in his world view, each moment of time is much more than an empty container. It actually has a specific character. By connecting history and astrology, he makes, if nothing else, a hugely intelligent case that we and everything else in the cosmos are affected by the cyclical energies of the times we live in.
For an example, there’s no time like the present. Astrologically, we have just entered a time that is characterized by some of the potent energies that seem to happen whenever Uranus and Pluto move into alignment. Last time it happened was from 1960 to 1972. This time it goes from late 2007 until 2020.
Consistent with this alignment, says Tarnas, “there seems to be an intensification of an impulse for radical change and an empowerment of reformist forces, but also a tendency for more social and political turmoil. Technological advances are accelerated, but so also are demographic and social disruptions. Typically, there are more liberation movements and civil rights movements and feminist impulses at work. It has been very, very consistent.”
So are you surprised that a woman and a black man are fighting it out for the U.S. presidency?
“Already, we see so many signs,” he says, “even beyond those present when I finished the book.”
But there’s more. We have also just entered a T-square of three planets – Saturn, Uranus and Pluto – that will last until 2012.
“The last time we had those three planets in a similar configuration,” he says, “was 1964 to 67. Before that, the same configuration began in late 1929 and went to 1933.
“Archetypically, this configuration tends to be destabilizing of existing economic, social and political structures, creating major crisis,” he says.
“Now, out of these crises enormous changes can happen that can be very productive and life-enhancing, but on the way to getting there, it is usually a pretty challenging time. The fact that there is basically a kind of meltdown happening right now in the American economy, with ripples and repercussions through much of the world, is very characteristic of this particular configuration.”
Okay. In the middle of already tough times, what’s it like risking living in his cosmology?
“What motivates me day after day is my sense of this larger purpose within our time.
“You could say that the spirit of our time is working itself out through us as individuals. The future is kind of cracking us open in order to be able to burst into being,” he says.
Richard Tarmas on the human mind and the cosmos:
Richard Tarmas on his motivation: