All posts by Robert M Ellis

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

When we were very Jung

It was about 2 years ago now when I first read Jung’s Red Book, which had been published in 2009 after sitting unpublished for nearly a century. Although I previously had a long-standing interest in Jung, reading that extraordinary text brought me to a new level of engagement with Jungian ideas, in recognition of their potential strength of connection with the Middle Way. The first fruit of that engagement was a series of blogs (1,2,3 & 4), but then there were also new reflections on Christian symbols that contributed to The Christian Middle Way, the giving of a talk at the Bristol Jung Lectures, and also the writing of a book on the interpretation of the Red Book which I am currently trying to find a publisher for (The Jungian Middle Way). The other aspect of this engagement that I want to reflect on here, though, has been increasing engagement with Jungians. Who are the Jungians? How do they understand themselves? I’m not sure I can really answer that question, but can only give you some impressions. I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite so baffled by a group of people who in any way shelter under the same label.

There does seem to be a Jungian community – one that gathers in major cities across the Western world for talks or therapeutic training, but that also has a significant online presence. There are a number of Jungian groups on Facebook, and one of their distinguishing features is often how vast they are. The core of that community seems to consist in therapists, but there is obviously also a wider audience from a public that has been grabbed, as I was, by the Red Book, or by earlier popular Jungian writings such as ‘Man and his Symbols’ or the autobiographical ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’. Anyone with an imagination can be readily intrigued by Jung.

What I have found most baffling is the range of people and the range of their attitudes. This probably reflects the ambiguities in Jung himself. At his most clear and reflective, Jung is committed to writing only on the basis of experience, whether that takes the form of psychological evidence from patients or from his personal experience. He is unsurpassed, in my view, in his understanding of the meaning of that experience. At his best, he clearly separates archetypal meaning from projections of that meaning onto the world – so, for example, the Shadow is clearly an archetypal form representing our own hatred and rejection, which we should avoid projecting onto people or other entities, but rather symbolise in its own right as Satan or another evil figure (see my earlier blog on evil). In other places, however, Jung relaxes this distinction and drifts into metaphysical assertions (for example in the Gnostic Seven Sermons, near the end of the Red Book), or into groundless empirical assertions – famously including the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, and also including some very dodgy generalisations about gender, nationality and race.

Jungians, I’ve found, are similarly very varied. Some Jungians are balanced, sane, wise, thoughtful, pragmatic people whom I’ve been grateful and honoured to meet. Others are not so wise or discriminating. I am not going to mention any specific names, but here are some of the less balanced types I’ve encountered: the New Age intuitive who takes astrology seriously as a guide to the future; the spiritual intuitive who claims to just KNOW God; the obsessively rigorous scholar who won’t accept anything not clearly proved in the text of Jung’s writings; the pseudo-historian who has a detailed account of a past matriarchal civilisation that he believes could teach us all peace; and the self-appointed online authority who insists that I must be ‘overthinking’ and not using my feeling and intuition if I dare to criticise anything Jung said. Sometimes the Jungian community seems like the nearest we have to a substantial Middle Way community, but at other times it seems like a bunch of credulous hippies, and at other times a rather sinister cult.

It seems to me that perhaps the biggest issue creating this diversity, apart from the inconsistency of Jung’s own writings (and the tendency of some Jungians to absolutise them as a necessary source of truth), is the question of the status of intuition. Intuition is the means by which most of us are able to deal with complex experience readily. We ‘get the gist’ of a situation, or a perspective, or a person through a holistic overview that unconsciously draws on lots of previous experience of similar situations. Those of us who are more inclined to rely on our intuitions may thereby gain an advantage in understanding and preparedness, when compared to someone who tries to work everything out by laboriously matching concepts to what they sense. Intuition also gives us archetypal meaning by unconsciously formatting what we experience. So intuition is not flakey – it’s necessary and everyone uses it. Jung and Jungians, though, perhaps rely on it more than most as a source of insight into psychological forms and relationships.

The crucial issue is that of what intuition can justifiably tell us. On the one hand it can provide a ready access of meaning with which we can understand our experience. However, the problem with Jungianism at its flakiest is the way in which people feel they’re justified in deriving absolute facts directly from intuitions. The meaning gets translated directly into beliefs about the world without going through an intervening process of critical reflection. So that’s why we get people who believe in astrology, think they ‘just know’ God, or know the essential characteristics of, say, Germans, or women, through the operation of intuition. In the terms of Middle Way Philosophy, they are absolutising.

The research on intuition discussed by Daniel Kahneman also shows how unjustified this is. Kahneman compares studies done on the intuition of firefighters and stock traders. Experienced firefighters had excellent intuitions about when a burning building was about to collapse, because the conditions in burning buildings follow a predictable enough pattern to make unconsciously processed information reliable. However, stock traders performed worse than random when they followed their intuitions about which stocks would do best. In the past I’ve written a story about this contrast. The more complex the thing you have intuitions about, the less reliable they are, and the more important it is to slow down and actually think about it and consider the evidence.

Jungianism unfortunately has a bad reputation amongst many people who are scientifically or philosophically trained, because of this unjustifiable use of intuition to draw absolute conclusions. These hard STEM types are missing out on a good deal of very helpful material in Jungian thought. I would urge them to reconsider. But I also really wish that respect for empirical evidence was a more widespread and consistent feature of Jungian thinking than it is. You really don’t have to give up on the riches of Jungian meaning to expect adequate justification for your beliefs. You really can have your cake and eat it here. So perhaps we should all grow up.

 

Some other resources on Jung on this site:

Jung: Middle Way Thinkers Series

Podcast Interview with Stephen Farah: Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Applied Jungian Studies, Johannesburg

Podcast Interview with Helena Bassil-Morozow on Jungian Film Studies

Jung and Nazism

 

Picture: Carl Jung by Charles-Henri Favrod (CCBYSA 3.0)

 

The Buddha’s Breakthrough

What was the Buddha’s breakthrough? He gained enlightenment, right? Well, actually I’ve no idea. Just as I stay agnostic about the existence of God or its denial, likewise with the Buddha’s enlightenment. But recently I’ve been looking again in some detail at the sources on the Buddha’s life in the Pali Canon, and been thus reaffirmed in my view that the Buddha’s breakthrough was not enlightenment (or awakening, or however else you want to translate it) at all. His breakthrough consisted in the recognition of a method.

Let’s consider almost any other case of a historical figure who discovered a new method and then successfully applied it. Do we consider their method to be their most significant achievement, or what they did with it? Let’s take Picasso: was it more significant that he developed cubism, or that he painted Guernica or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon? Or Gandhi: was it more significant that he developed techniques of  non-violent direct action that inspired many others, or that he made such a big contribution to the struggle for Indian independence? The further away we are in time and place, the more we are likely to see the significance of the method as far more important than the achievement. Why should the Buddha be treated any differently from that?

However, I’d say the case is actually much stronger with the Buddha than it is with either Picasso or Gandhi, because the Buddha’s method is of such universal importance. The Middle Way, understood as a principle of non-absolute judgement, can be applied by anyone anywhere to make progress from whatever point they’ve reached. By identifying and avoiding absolutisations, whether negative or positive, we can avoid delusions and thus make tangible progress, right now, being aware that absolutisations are our own projections. But enlightenment? It’s clear from human experience that we can make progress with greed, hatred and delusion, but profoundly unclear whether we could ever hope to eliminate them altogether. The description of the state of enlightenment as given in the Pali Canon also depends on metaphysical beliefs in karma and rebirth, because the Buddha is depicted as becoming enlightened by breaking them. Most importantly, no other human state is completely discontinuous. We can make breakthroughs, but they are never completely discontinuous, nor final, and never result in perfect knowledge of any kind. Belief in the Buddha’s enlightenment as an absolute is in conflict with confidence in the Middle Way.

Looking at the Pali Canon account of the discovery of the Middle Way, though, makes it clear how powerfully symbolic that discovery can be, because it involves such a dramatic puncturing of delusion. The Buddha has gone forth from the Palace where he began, and gone forth again from the cults of two different spiritual teachers, Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta. In each case, the social context involved people insisting that they had the whole story, and the Buddha recognised that they did not. Then he began to practise asceticism, and he describes trying to stop himself breathing and then nearly starving himself. He’s obviously in a closed, rather obsessive loop whereby absolute beliefs are violently in conflict with his body. So what makes the difference? How does he get out of that state and discover the Middle Way instead?

“I considered: ‘I recall that when my father the Sakyan was occupied, while I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhana, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion.’” (MN 36:20)

He gets back in touch with a memory from his earlier life in the Palace, showing that the Palace was not all bad. This memory is an experience of jhana – of an absorbed meditative state that, crucially, could only have been developed through deep acceptance and relaxation of his body. He has moved decisively from grasping after absolute, disembodied ideals that only produce conflict, to an embodied point of view. From that will follow that he must develop in ways that are possible and realistic for people with bodies, rather than sharing the delusions of those who forget that they have bodies. Not only is his need for nourishment, and the body-awareness that forms the basis of meditative practice, part of that recognition of this embodiment, but also the Middle Way itself, with its sceptical and agnostic awareness that we cannot have perfect knowledge, but instead need to work incrementally and provisionally to integrate the energies, meanings and beliefs of our interrelated mind-body.

When he gives his first address to others following his enlightenment, the Middle Way is the first teaching he then gives:

Bhikkhus, these two extremes should not be followed by one who has gone forth into homelessness. What two? The pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble, unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata [Buddha] has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. (SN 56.11.421)

The version of the Middle Way that he gives here is one applicable to his audience: that is, the five ascetics, his previous comrades, who need to recognise that asceticism is not a helpful path. But it is already clear from the Buddha’s story that the path he has discovered is one that involves the capacity to question any claimed absolute, whether that consists of a belief about oneself, about ideology, about salvation, or any other matter. To show how much the Buddha uses this wider Middle Way, in his conduct, in much of his teaching, and particularly some of his similes, is a longer discussion, but it will form part of the book I am currently writing about the Buddha’s Middle Way.

It will no doubt be pointed out that whenever the Buddha refers to the Middle Way, he also describes it as the way to Nibbana (enlightenment), as he does in the quotation above. There is a positive way we can interpret this without accepting absolute beliefs about Nibbana, which is to see Nibbana as meaning the notional end-point of the Middle Way, pand thus effectively standing, archetypally and symbolically, for the Middle Way itself and the more integrated states that it can help us to develop. Just as God can be interpreted as a glimpse of our potential integration, so can enlightenment – as long as we separate these archetypal relationships clearly from beliefs about the existence of these entities, or indeed of any absolute (revelatory) information that is supposed to come from them. So, we can easily continue to be inspired by the figure of the Buddha, even if in some ways the term engrains an unhelpful emphasis on absolutes into the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha represents the potential integration of our psyches.

Though the Buddha ‘discovered’ the Middle Way in the sense of being the first person, as far as we know, to talk explicitly about it, he did not of course create it, any more that Newton’s ability to label ‘gravity’ and explain how it works magicked gravity into being. The ways in which it can be (and has been) discovered by others with varying degrees of explicitness needs just as much emphasis as the Buddha’s discovery. Nevertheless, that discovery itself, it seems to me, deserves a lot more celebration. The first thing the Buddha ate after discovering the Middle Way was rice porridge: why not eat that ceremonially in remembrance of the Middle Way (a sort of Buddhist eucharist)? His vital recollection of his experience under a rose-apple tree makes that tree perhaps just as important in our associations as the better-known bodhi tree. Here is an example. Eat a rose apple and think of the Middle Way.

 

Pictures: (1) Buddha by Odilon Redon, (2) Rose Apple tree (Syzygium jambos) photographed by Forest and Kim Starr, CCSA 3.0

 

Double Vision

When we try to think critically and to open our imaginations at the same time, a kind of double vision results. At one and the same time we develop our awareness of potential alternatives, making our thinking more flexible, but still remain aware of the limitations of our beliefs, and do not allow our imaginativeness to slip into credulity. We develop meaning but also control belief. It seems to me that developing this double vision is one of the hardest parts of the practice of the Middle Way: but if we are to avoid absolutizing our beliefs we need to develop both meaning and belief. Those of an artistic disposition will find it easier to imagine, and those of a scientific disposition to limit their beliefs to those that can be justified by evidence: but to hold both together? That’s the challenge.

I’ve been reflecting more on the metaphor of double vision, since I heard it used recently in a talk by Jeremy Naydler in the context of the Jung Lectures in Bristol. Naydler used this metaphor in a talk called ‘The Inner Beloved’, which was about the way in which visionary men of the past have maintained images of beloved women that were actually projections of their own psyches (what Jung would call the anima). He spoke of Dante’s vision of Beatrice in the Divine Comedy and Boethius’s figure of Philosophia in The Consolations of Philosophy. These were not ‘real’ women, or had the slightest of relationships to real women, but rather became powerful archetypal symbols of the part of themselves that remained unintegrated. They were the focus of yearning, but also the path of sublimated wisdom – never possessed but always beckoning and challenging.

The capacity for double vision is central if one is to cultivate such a figure: for if a man were to project it onto a real woman (or vice-versa) the results could be (and often are)disastrous. “Being put on a pedestal” probably creates conflict when the real person starts behaving differently from the idealisation – for example, needing time of her own away from a relationship. It is only by maintaining a critical sense of how the mixed up, complex people and things in our experience are not perfect and do not actually embody our idealised projections that we can also give ourselves an imaginative space to engage with the archetype itself. Recognising that the archetype puts us in touch with meaningful potentials, showing us how we could be ourselves, and how we could relate to the world, can provide a source of rich inspiration that I see as lying at the heart of what religions and artistic traditions can positively offer us without absolute belief. 

The annunciation, a Christian artistic motif that I’ve previously written about on this site, for me offers an example of the archetypal in its own terms. For most of us, it is much easier to look for the archetypes in art, and separate this mentally from trying to develop balanced justified beliefs with the real people we meet every day, rather than prematurely over-stretching our capacity to separate them by risking archetypal relationships with real people. That’s why lasting romantic relationships need to be based on realistic appraisal rather than seeing the eternal feminine or masculine in your partner, and also why venerating living religious teachers like gods may be asking for trouble.

Personally, I do have some sense of that double vision in my life. My imaginative sense and relationship to the archetypes has developed from my relationship to two different religious traditions (Buddhism and Christianity) as well as from the arts and an appreciation of Jungian approaches. On the other hand, my love of philosophy and psychology provide a constant critical perspective which also provide me with a respect for evidence and a sense of the importance of the limitations we must apply to practical judgement. Sometimes I find myself veering a little too far in one direction or the other, slipping towards single vision rather than double vision, and then I need to correct my course. Too much concentration on cognitive matters can make my experience too dry and intellectual. Underlying emotions and bodily states can then come as an unpleasant surprise. On the other hand too much imagination without critical awareness can reduce my practical resources in other ways, as my beliefs become less adequate to the circumstances.

Our educational system overwhelmingly only supports a single vision, with the separation of the STEM subjects on the one hand from arts and humanities on the other. But a single vision seems to me an impoverished one, even within the terms of that vision. Those with a single vision based on scientific training and values tend to have some understanding of critical thinking, but to think critically with more thoroughness it’s essential to be aware of your own assumptions and be willing to question them – which requires the ability to imagine alternatives. There are also those with a single vision who are willing to imagine, but tend to take the symbolic realm as in some sense a key to ‘knowledge’ of ‘reality’, and thus uncritically adopt beliefs that they can link with their imaginative values. For example, those who, like Jung, find astrology a fascinating study of meaning, often seem to fail to draw a critical line when it comes to believing the predictions of astrology – for which there is no justification.

If it is not simply a product of limited education or experience, a single vision is likely to be associated with absolutisation; because absolutisation, being the state of holding a belief as the only alternative to its negation, excludes alternatives. We avoid allowing ourselves to enter the world of the other kind of vision, then, by regarding ours as the only source of truth, and by disparaging and dismissing the other as ‘woo’ (from the scientific side) or as soulless nerds (from the imaginative). Rather than accepting that we need to develop the other kind of vision, we often just construct a world where only our kind of vision is required. Then we share it with others on social media and produce another type of echo chamber – alongside those created by class, region, educational level, or political belief.

Developing a double vision, then, is an important part of cultivating the Middle Way, and thus also a vital way beyond actual or potential conflicts. A failure to recognise your projection onto someone, for example, creates one kind of conflict, but a failure to imagine may take all the energy out of it and lead to another type of division between you. We may not be able to develop double vision all at once, and it’s best not to over-stretch our capacity for it, but the counter-balancing path is open to you right now from here. Here are some follow-on suggestions on this site: if you’re a soulless nerd, go to my blogs about Jung’s Red Book. If you’re more of credulous “woo” person, try my critical thinking blogs.

Pictures (both public domain): double vision from the US air force and Simone Martini’s ‘Annunciation’.

Are you too busy to read this blog?

Recently I attended two job interviews in the course of the same week, but was shocked to discover subsequently that neither informed me of the outcome – so,  of course, I just have to assume that I was unsuccessful. Of course, I don’t really know why they failed to do so, but I can easily imagine the excuses: either it’s “not policy”, or the individuals expected to perform that role for the institution are “too busy”. There seems to be such a huge gap between my experience of applying for a job, with my personal dignity being given such low priority once I was no longer likely to be of any use, and the attitudes of modern institutional culture, that this episode has encouraged me to think further about the whole business of people “being busy”, their perceptions of time, and our expectations of communicative courtesy.

The idea of “being too busy” seems to be dependent on the idea of time as a commodity that we can have lots of or little of. If we’re busy we “don’t have enough” time, as if we’d taken out our time wallet to pay cash for the transaction and found only odd bits of small change in it. The idea of time as a commodity is a metaphor – one that has become an ingrained part of the operation of capitalist culture – but it’s not the only possible way of looking at our relationship to time. Indeed, it’s quite possible to absolutise that metaphor if we don’t consider alternatives (which is where the Middle Way applies in relation to this issue).

So, when someone claims to be “too busy”, it could be an indication that they’re absolutizing an idea of time in support of an over-dominant and obsessive idea of their priorities. Perhaps they’re just “pulling rank” – reminding you of the higher social status that is often bestowed on supposedly “busy” people because they already have so much social capital that they can afford to squander your goodwill. Or perhaps they are obsessed with certain priorities that you are not instrumental to, so being “too busy” just means that you are outside their limited view of their goals.

But there are also many cases for which this would be an uncharitable interpretation, because the metaphor of time as a commodity does not have to be absolute or obsessive – it could be merely used helpfully to provide a reasonable degree of structure to someone’s life, and help them cope with their limitations. If we try to recognise people as embodied humans with limitations, then it is obvious that there are many things competing for their attention, and they have to prioritise that attention according to values that they find in their experience. So, them “being busy” may just be a way of maintaining a sense of integrity in the way they use their attention. For example, I know several writers who are bad at answering emails, and I suspect that this is because they give priority to maintaining a creative space in which they can focus on their work. I can respect that because it is a prioritisation made with awareness and a sense of integrity. More basically, people may just be busy meeting their everyday needs, doing a full-time job that is required to support their family. However, we also have to bear in mind in such cases that people are still making voluntary prioritisations when they choose, for example, to give over a large amount of their time and attention to a demanding full-time job in order to service an unnecessarily large mortgage or car payments.

The idea of “having time” for something also seems to be a substitution for other things we value. If we “give” something time out of a sense of duty, when we have a repressed desire to do something else instead, then it becomes increasingly stressful because we’re having to use energy to hold down those conflicting desires. Giving time to something we don’t feel we want to do then becomes “emotional work”, whether or not it is actually “work” in the conventional sense.  So you could be too busy, not only to inform a candidate for a job at your workplace that they have been unsuccessful, but also to read that blog recommended by a friend because it seems a bit abstract, or to phone your mother because she goes on so much about details you don’t want to have to listen to. A need for “emotional relaxation” or “emotional space” could just be a helpful re-balancing, and we could be “too busy” just to look after ourselves and avoid undue stress. On the other hand, though, it is also possible to absolutise that need, making the avoidance of stress an end in itself.

The way that we choose to prioritise our time is central to the ongoing development of our lives. What we spend time doing, we become. If you spend lots of time reading, you become more literate and informed. If you spend time exercising, you become fitter, and so on. But at the same time we need to cope with social conventions about how we give our attention to people, and often those social conventions are important both for social harmony and long-term psychological balance. That’s why I think I have some justification for feeling slightly offended that I was not contacted to be told that I was unsuccessful in a job interview. We need to maintain a basic respect for others by recognising them and their most important needs when we come into contact with them – and totally ignoring those needs and expectations creates a sense of hurt. “Being busy” is not really an adequate excuse for ignoring those healthy conventions in most circumstances.

If you’re too busy to read this blog (which you’re obviously not, given that you’ve got this far), then I’d suggest just an examination of the reasons why. Is it because any alternative to the things you give priority to instead is unthinkable? Is there no room at all for serendipity, for just responding to what comes up, in your life? Or, on the other hand, is it because you have a balanced awareness of the priorities in your life, and reading random blogs doesn’t accord with that awareness? If the latter, fair enough. I hope you’re benefitting from whatever it is you’re doing that is not reading this blog. 🙂

 

Picture: Clock by Mossbourne01 (CC – Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

New retreats for 2018

We’re pleased to announce two new weekend retreats for 2018.

At Easter 2018, Barry Daniel will be leading a walking retreat in the English Lake District, combining walking in the mountains with meditation. An opportunity to get lots of exercise, make friends and develop mindfulness, all with a Middle Way theme and at the same time! Please see this page for more details.

In July 2018, Robert M Ellis will also be leading a retreat on the Christian Middle Way – for anyone (whether self-identified as ‘Christian’ or not) who wants to work positively with appreciating the meaning of the Christian tradition whilst avoiding absolute beliefs. This retreat is timed to coincide with the release of Robert’s new book ‘The Christian Middle Way: The case against Christian belief but for Christian faith’ and will include several talks by Robert, as well as discussion and meditation. Please see this page for more details.

There are also still a few places left on our Autumn Retreat: Compassion, Imagination and the Middle Way led by Nina Davies (Nov 10th-12th 2017). Book now!