Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Game of Becoming

Part 43 of Prisoners of the Real

Although history illustrates that the ashes of one civilization may be buried beneath the foundations of another, this isn't always the case. Sometimes just the ashes remain. If human society is to be rescued and transformed, moving from the aggressively “rational” to the receptively Dionysian, many of our psychic road maps will have to be redrawn. Dionysian capacities are latent possibilities. But they may or may not become actualities.

One step toward the necessary change is honest reflection concerning our fundamental assumption about ourselves. The heart of the rational thesis is the belief that humans are essentially self-serving beasts. This belief has produced fear of our neighbors, and led to wall-building and extreme defensiveness. It has been safer, or so it has seemed, to turn control over to impersonal structures than to trust human nature. Gradually, each village, city, state and nation has come to look upon its neighbors as threats, "aliens," competitors who will either dominate or be controlled. Domination means defeat. And defeat, at the hands of the dehumanized beast called the enemy, normally means destruction.

Fear has given power to elite competitors who claim that control over others – in other words, victory – is the only route to independence and security. But in a hostile world, independence actually turns out to mean isolation. And the "rational" people who achieve the mastery they seek so diligently through self-discipline, ethical neutrality and mechanical effort find at the end that a beast confronts them still. The arrogant dragon has become themselves.

But this beast, who also whispers that everyone else is a brute, is no more than a nightmare image brought into the "real world" by our own minds. It is imagination run amok within a psyche that fears imagination and other natural impulses.

And can be changed. Reshaped by human will into a pleasing form.

Trust and love aren't merely options that we can take when we have finished with hard-nosed business dealings in the "jungle.” They are demands of the self for warmth and aceptance and "irrational" emotions.

To this rational managers reply, "Of course, that may be so, but it is also important to be prepared for the unexpected. We have to watch out for those who have rejected their better angels. That's why we need a strong defense to ward off predators, and an aggressive offense to push 'em back." Some also argue that intuition, while acceptable in those not in positions of power, is no substitute for facts. And after all, they will add, it's no crime to guard your flanks, lock up at night, keep a weather eye out, or even to get ahead of the game. "You see," they claim, "the name of the game is winning."

But is it? Just as we teach our children about the value of competition we also tell them that it isn't winning but how you play the game that really matters. Perhaps our task then is simply to figure out what the game of living really means to us as individuals and as a group of potentially beautiful beasts.

There is a life's work for all of us.

In the end, the purpose of the game isn't winning. It is playing well. In order to do that in any group experience, as most athletes know, you must work both against and with competitors. The most exhilarating moments aren't those in which you devastate an unwary opponent, but rather occur when the outcome remains in play. Then you feel a dynamic tension of united opposition, a cooperative exchange in which the elation of winning emerges from the excitement generated along the way.

Overcoming the fear that others will dominate us, let us down, steal affection like some finite commodity, and rob us of time, we must begin to build a new faith. Neither time nor love is finite. When our boundaries expand far enough beyond our physical borders, they can become infinite. Dragons need not be fire-breathing beasts. They can breathe life-sustaining warmth if they wish, if they are convinced that is their purpose.
When Konrad Lorenz wrote On Aggression, many readers confused the word "aggression" with "violence," even though the ethologist emphasized that most animals actually avoid killing. He subsequently realized that in translating his title from German the connotation of the word "aggressivity" had been lost.

Lorenz' insight is that animals and humans do seek some sort of dominance, in the form of a drive that differentiates all of us as individuals. "If you lack personal aggressivity," he wrote, "you are not an individual. You have no pride in yourself and you are everyone else's man." The collective enthusiasm that, unfortunately, produces war is also the motivator for our most creative achievements. "Without the instinct of collective enthusiasm, a (human being) is an emotional cripple; he cannot get involved in anything."

The point is that aggressivity is actually a potential force for spontaneous invention, and doesn't necessarily imply hostility or evil. But when aggressivity lacks purpose, dominance can produce devastation. Purpose tells us where we are heading, and when we have arrived. Its absence leaves us roaming the planet, searching for victories we won't even recognize.
The key to our purpose is intuition, more reliable as a guide than analysis alone has been. The Dionysian approach – spontaneous, lunar-centered, reflective rather than reactive – rests upon the naturally aggressive nature of any inspired idea that struggles to impose itself upon reality.

Intuitive processes demand intimate involvement with the subject of one's attention. You can't be a detached, disinterested observer and maintain the necessary intellectual sympathy. Centuries ago rational men resigned themselves to watching and reacting to what they observed. They called it the "practical" path. In contrast, the Dionsyian path is a "romantic" alternative, one that recognizes the value inherent in the infinite variability of individual acts.
The Receptive brings completion to the Creative.
And feels the pulsing rhythms of matter in space
which is nature.
Creativity is the light power of consciousness;
thinking and seeing.
Receptivity is the dark power of what is inside;
unconscious and
Invisible. What I cannot see may feel threatening.
By yielding, the dark mystery is revealed.
My Creative spirit soars to Heaven and leads with
energetic ideas.
As I am Receptive and absorb them in practical and
Earth-bound work.
A doubled Earth signifies fixed lasting conditions
and mysterious
Powers within that have strength to bring Creativity
to birth and nourish it devotedly.

-- Adele Aldridge, I Ching Meditations

The image of harmony within duality is the root of many knowledge systems. The first two hexagrams of the I Ching illustrate the need for both aggressive creativity and intuitive receptivity. The hexagram on which the meditation above is based, the six broken lines known as K'un, The Receptive, says that although The Creative begets things – ideas, plans, machines – they are brought to life through the complimentary action of The Receptive, which helps us to act in conformity with our situation. This bespeaks an attitude of acceptance.

As Richard Wilhelm explained in his commentaries on the Chinese oracle, the "superior" person allows him or herself to be guided, learning from each situation what is demanded and then following this intimation from fate. This calls for both effort and planning. The Receptive is a planner who uses solitude to discover plans that grow from unique experiences.
Both formal and intuitive knowledge are valuable in building humane institutions. As Bergson wrote, instinct and intelligence, manifested through voluntary and reflex actions, embody two views of a primordial, indivisible activity which can become both at once.

"As a rule," he explained, "they have been developed only in of them will be clung to first; with this one we shall move more or less forward, generally as far as possible; then, with what we have acquired in the course of this evolution, we shall come back to take up the one we left behind." Of course, cooperation would be preferable, with each one intervening when circumstances require. But the signs don't point in this direction. For several centuries we have relied on the rational, the predictable, the efficient, the material, the absolute. Therefore, it is likely that, as we fully realize the physical and psychic costs of this approach, we will turn – perhaps too much – to the intuitive, the spontaneous, the romantic, the spiritual, the relative.

Still, there is always hope. If we are wise the pendulum will not swing too far this time around from the cool, harsh light in which we now stand toward a fiery darkness. If we are wise the rational and Dionysian will not become antagonists again.

The two are, after all, complimentary opposites. They could fuse into a new synthesis of intuition and analysis and create a community of subjects, a flexible whole in which science and art merge, in which infinity is glimpsed in its temporary structure, and through which we humanize our machines rather than allowing mechanisms to destroy us.

In such a New World, we would replace static order with dynamic tension, re-energizing the dialectic of spirit and matter. In that world, Apollo and Dionysus unite to play the endless game of becoming.

Until then, let us dream.
To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey