Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Noise and The Numinous: August/September 2006

I write a column for the Tehachapi Mountain Signal...and have decided to start posting them to my blog. I will catch up as time permits.

My first two columns follow:

The Noise and The Numinous (August)

“It is altogether amazing how little most people reflect on numinous objects and attempt to come to terms with them…” —Carl Jung, Answer to Job

Carl Jung introduced me to the word numinous, an adjective indicative of an awe-inspiring manifestation, one that elicits an experience that is at the root of all belief, the experience of the wholly other, a sense that you have come into contact with the divine, transcendent, the sublime. Jung did not coin the term: that honor goes to the great German scholar of comparative religions Rodolf Otto. Otto created it from numen, a Latin word associated with divine power. Numinous describes – free of dogmatic and specific religious context – the experience of coming into contact with the wholly other (Otto’s ganz andere). That which is numinous is powerful beyond our day-to-day experiences. It is this contact, this mysterium tremendum et fascinans (further explored in Mircea Eliade’s Sacred and Profane), that has brought about the belief in gods, the supernatural, the creation of religions, myths, art and stories that tell the fascinating history of human consciousness. Jung would even say that the creation of religious dogmas, rituals, and practices has been necessary to protect some people from the sheer power that is experienced when coming into contact with the numinous. But dangerous or not, the experience of the numinous and the belief it brings about in something wholly other, is at the heart of creativity and the evolution (and the telling of the evolution) of human consciousness.

The word first grabbed me fourteen years ago when I read it in Jung’s Answer to Job. I had begun the onerous task of writing an oratorio that would take its musical form from his book. I put the project away after repeated warnings from the I-Ching that I was headed for a great abyss if I continued (Hexagram 29). Before you think I’m some odd occultist who takes oracles literally…I don’t. At least in this case. Although there is a numinosity to it for some people, I use the I-Ching as a brainstorming partner. I don’t put faith in the literality of oracles, but I do find personal value and a sense of meaning through exploring the ideas surrounding/involving the totality of our inner world. (I.e. the conscious and unconscious images brought from our inner world into our outer physical world through the arts, psychology, mythology, and religion.) Answer to Job is a very dark book, written in a flurry by Jung in a feverish state (as the story goes) while suffering from kidney disease. It is his personal struggle with the dark side of the Christian God. Through brainstorming with the I-Ching, I decided there were enough struggles in my life at that moment and decided to put the oratorio away for a while. I recently started working on it again for a commission. So, once again, I’m in the midst of Jung, Job, the dark aspects of God…thinking about the experience of the numinous.

Being a former protestant minister, I use to dwell on the ideas taught to me defining specifically what the experience, and knowledge, of God was about. Then came the modern Gnostics into my life (Jung and Joseph Campbell) telling me I could experience the numinous on my own. Depending on which of my friends you talk to, my studies in Jung, Otto, Eliade, Campbell, James Hillman, and others, either led me astray from the path of orthodoxy or showed me the limitless possibilities and depth to be explored in human consciousness and its rich history. So what keeps, and has kept, people from experiencing and attempting to come to terms with the numinous? Why do we settle for spoon-fed dogmas, instead of exploring for ourselves? For those of religious conviction, Jung says, it might be the uncomfortable feeling of doubt that analyzing the numinous object of their faith could bring about. For the non-religious Jung says in Job, “…it is hardly possible to admit the numinosity of the religious object…” as the very numinosity could shake their non-belief.

What is it that kept me from exploring earlier in life? Why did I wait until my thirties to change paths? I don’t believe it was just fear. Distractions from the numinous surrounded me, and still surround all of us, drawing attention away from the contemplation of the inner world and its images, and making us blind and deaf to the numinous in the midst of our physical world. The beauty and power of this technological age also brings about a curse: a plurality of distractions from the numinous. And for me, there is a prevalent one that kept me from looking/reflecting on the numinous.

The Noise and The Numinous (September)

“The gods are personifications of the energies that inform life—the very energies that are building the trees and moving the animals and whipping up the waves of the oceans…Most traditions realize this—that deities are personifications, not facts. They are metaphors. They’re not references to anything you can put your finger on, your eye on…But in our religious training we are not put in a position to understand how the gods are seen in other religious traditions so we have lost this language of the spirit. We do not recognize the gods.”
—Joseph Campbell

Looking at the “gods” this way enables us to realize that they are everywhere, all around us and in us. Not physically literal anthropomorphic manifestations, but metaphors for the unknowable, unseeable, unhearable, untouchable. A relationship with these metaphors will keep us in contact with the numinous; conversely, if there is no conception/relation of the metaphor we are kept distant and removed from the numinous. My traditional religious training taught me about the literality of God, God as the great anthropomorphic Father geographically located in Heaven. But in that literality I lost the mystery, and in losing the mystery, I lost the honest first-person connection to the numinous. I did not recognize the gods. Here I was: I thought God would lead to knowledge, but gods don’t. Gods lead to mystery and the unknowable. Hades points to the underworld, Poseidon to the sea, Zeus to the skies…

The great mystics of all traditions had relationships with the gods and chose their metaphors to describe them from the cultural tableau available. Yet somehow we ended up in a culture that no longer supports mystics and their place in society. We are in need of a re-discovery and new relationship with metaphor on the cultural level as a whole. The re-discovery of metaphor and the numinous is difficult in this day and age. It actually takes effort, as activities around us seek to distract and divert our attention.

Driving through Los Angeles the other day I was once again struck by the bombardment of images related to everything external. Everywhere I looked: a billboard, a sign, a bumper sticker, a t-shirt, a hat, a bag, even in the sky a giant banner towed by a plane, all giving me messages about my external existence telling me what to wear, drink, eat, drive and where to be.

And noise pollution: the biggest distraction for me.

The sound of construction, the stereo in the car blasting bass beats, the over-caffeinated soccer moms at the coffee house loudly discussing their children’s successes, the NASCAR dads revving up their un-muffled motorcycles at the campsites, the screaming children in the grocery store, the barking dog in the parked car as I walk from the grocery story, the music inside every business, the music being piped outside the businesses, commercials and video being played loudly while in line at the grocery store, the constant hum of the freeway a mile away…

Are these simply distractions?

Or worse?

Today’s noise pollution could be an incarnation of the gods: the Sirens of Greek mythology…leading us to destruction on the rocks.

The search for a message-free line of sight and one free of unwanted auditory input go hand in hand with a search for the numinous, for a direct experience of the gods. Brother Lawrence may have been able to experience God in the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, in the washing of the dishes, but I believe for most of us focused, distraction-free time is needed.

My attempts to find silence began in earnest in the 80s. I found myself staying for a few weeks at a mountain monastery. The silence was at first restful, then uncomfortable. Then, in quiet contemplation, I was able to free myself from distractions, look at what I believed, and open myself to the numinous – outside of dogmatic classification. In finding silence, I experienced the numinous.

Do I write merely to complain about noise pollution? Is it just about being disturbed and annoyed? There is something insidious about noise pollution, the danger is greater than being disturbed and annoyed. Yes, I do get bothered when the yelling begins at the once peaceful coffeehouse as the banal become boisterous through caffeine. But the danger is in distraction. And distraction keeps us from seeking out and experiencing the numinous. When we experience the numinous, we begin self-reflection. And inner-growth can occur through the awareness self-reflection brings about. We begin thinking about our relationship to the earth and its populations outside of our immediate realm of perception, as well as those people in our immediate presence. We begin dealing with questions of mortality. Empathy begins. And empathy begets a change in the way we treat ourselves, others…everything and everyone. The experience of the numinous has led to, and could lead to greater, societal evolution. And while the experience of the numinous can happen anywhere, it seems to be most encouraged by stillness and silence. Which are sorely lacking in society today.

And it requires work on two levels: commitment to seeking distraction free space. And being one that doesn’t add to all the distractions…and that is difficult.

1 comment:

Debra Moolenaar said...

You might be interested in Kenneth Gergen's 'saturated self' - a self that is so torn apart by the constant bombardment of external stimuli that it's lost its centre. Recently (for a course) I investigated how this saturated self resembles the ox tamer in the ancient Zen parable about the oxtamer and his ox (the pursuit of enlightenment). It's interesting you mention we live in a society that no longer supports mystics - for the ox tamer's journey is just that - the journey of the mystic. I believe modern day (psychologically oriented) spirituality seeks aspire to the same journey - yet they go only part way - they only reach the part where the oxtamer tames his ox - but of course the oxtamer's real journey is to transcend his ox - leave it behind - and attain union with the divine. You also might be interested that the University of Kent (Canterbury, UK) offers an MA in the Study of Mystical and Religious Experience. I am nearly finished with the program - and it is excellent indeed.