Finishing the taught portion of the MA Economics in Transition at Schumacher College in April, I am taking the next month to make my way to Nepal where I’ll be engaged in dissertation inquiry for several months. Slow travel – meeting the world as it comes one step at a time, observing the gradual change in cultures as I move East. I’ve been walking on the Camino de Santiago for the past week, and thought I would share one of my final essays at Schumacher … delving into the nature of pilgrimage and the fundamental ambiguity of a creatively unfolding universe. Walk with me, if you like…
We are the mirror as well as the face in it.
We are drunk on this life of God.
We are both the pain and its cure.
We are the fresh, cool water and the jug that pours.
Summer in Shikoku can be brutally hot and humid, typhoons often rolling in off the Pacific Ocean bringing rains that last for days on end. The relentless heat and thick atmosphere of fecundity can make sitting, let alone walking, an arduous and uncomfortable affair. Summer also brings forth the ripening rice and a stillness dense with the cycles of life and death. It is the perfect time for a walking pilgrimage.
In the summer of 2009, I walked nearly 900 miles around this rural island of Japan, following an ancient Buddhist pilgrimage route known as the hachiju hakkasho meguri, or the 88 Temple Pilgrimage. This route circumambulates the coast of Shikoku, connecting some 88 sacred places said to have been visited by the Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi in the 8th century. Shikoku, meaning “four lands”, consists of four prefectures, each with its own distinct history and subculture. Crossing through these four regions, the pilgrim is also said to pass through four spiritual stages: Awakening Faith, Spiritual Discipline, Enlightenment, and Nirvana.
As I discovered, the pilgrim’s journey is always one step at a time. Each footstep, the unfolding of the entire journey; the next step always into a radical uncertainty where the quantum potential of the universe lies latent and as yet unexpressed. This path can be understood as a metaphorical representation of an unfolding-enfolding order of reality, a continuous movement from an undifferentiated wholeness into the light of expression and back. Treading the world into existence, each footstep on the pilgrim’s path seeks a return to that creative source where mind and matter are but reflections of each other, manifestations of the same underlying patterns. And in his acceptance of a fundamental uncertainty, the pilgrim’s reality becomes unfixed and the possibility of embodying a living wholeness emerges.
This essay will explore, through personal reflection and the metaphor of pilgrimage, a dynamic journey into the experience of wholeness, elucidated through a diverse range of perspectives and traditions; and demonstrate how this very diversity is itself a direct expression of a fundamentally creative and dynamic order of reality, a universal “multiplicity in unity” in the words of Henri Bortoft and C.G. Jung. Following the contours of the land and the pilgrim’s way, we will walk the ground of the seemingly disparate disciplines of physics, psychology, mythology, anthropology, and spirituality. While each offers a distinct universe of thought and symbol, these various traditions arrive at a common insight into the continuous dance between the knowable and the unknowable, the latent and the manifest, the unfolding and enfolding orders of reality. In our overly structured and rational world, the journey through a radical uncertainty followed by the pilgrim, the ritual passenger, and the quantum particle all offer a path to experiencing and re-inhabiting a unified wholeness.
The Great Mystery: Ritual, Myth, and the Collective Unconscious
“Only an unparalleled impoverishment of symbolism could enable us to rediscover the gods as psychic factors, that is, as archetypes of the unconscious…”
For most of our existence, humans have inhabited an ensouled, animate world in which a living consciousness pervades the universe. Pre-modern cultures across the world evolved a reciprocal and participatory relationship with the living cosmos, themselves but a small thread in the larger fabric of Life. Finding particular expression in the unique cultures of each land, from the Greek Anima Mundi to the Native American Great Spirit to the Chinese Tao, the pre-modern experience of reality was infused with a deep connection to the flowing current of Life.
Myth and ritual have been used nearly universally to express what is by its nature directly inexpressible – the unmanifest ground of being, the creative wellspring of Life from which all the perceptible world has sprung forth. A wide variety of practices to express and make sense of the world co-evolved within the various cultural and physical landscapes of the globe: in the divination practices of the I Ching and the ritual journey through Separation, Liminality, and Return common to many tribal people, we find recurring mythic symbols and motifs used to embed a people in their place. More recently, these archetypal forms have been examined by modern psychology, shining light on the potentially objective ground of Mind, the collective unconscious.
In following the footsteps of many pilgrims before me, I undertook a ritual journey to re-embed myself in the unfolding web of life; retracing an ancient path, both physical and spiritual, I passed through a state of undifferentiated liminality and back into an ensouled cosmos. While my journey into wholeness was through pilgrimage, modern societies’ lack of mythic or ritual connection to a living earth is both expressed through and an expression of the mechanistic and materialist worldview that has come to dominate. Given our “impoverishment of symbolism” to connect and embed us in the larger community of life, what language and conceptual tools do we have to regain this connection? If the emerging science of wholeness can offer a language and set of symbols more congruent with the current scientific paradigm, through which we can walk the same archetypal journey into a living unity, humanity has an opportunity to return to right relationship with our dynamic source of being.
Into the Belly of the Whale: Thresholds, Liminality, and ‘Unfixing’ Reality
“It’s an extraordinary, indigenous idea that to find an authentic centre we have to wonder lonely beaches and sleep under hedges, longing for something we know is lost.”
At the start, my backpack weighed 25 kilos, possibly more. I was prepared to live rough for several months and had brought the basic equipment I thought I might need. Seven weeks later, my backpack was a small fraction of that size, my mind a great deal freer as well. As with all ritual “passengers” undertaking a journey of initiation, I entered the pilgrimage with a fixed and rather static perspective and status in the world. I came from a world of control and separation where reality was taught to be composed of ‘building blocks’, the cogs of the world machine. Even as a rather inquisitive thinker exploring the teachings and practices of Zen, I was still the product of a Western education system preaching a mechanistic view of the world, a willing subject to the ‘tyranny of reason.’
However, in crossing the threshold into the “belly of the whale” (in the words of Joseph Campbell), travelling through a state of liminality and symbolic death, I completely unfixed my sense of reality in order to emerge again in the presence of a completely new and creative experience of the world. My experience of this pilgrimage into the unknown can also be understood as the journey of modern science, a reflection of the same fundamental journey explored by the Taoist masters of China, the Ndembu tribe of Zambia, the patients of C.G. Jung, and countless other cultures and traditions throughout history.
The realisation of personal truth often requires such a journey, a movement through. The ritual process, as evolved over countless centuries and in many cultural contexts, is both a metaphorical representation of life’s coming-into-being out of chaos, and a formative unfolding into that deeper ground of being, the “dancing ground of radical uncertainty” in the words of mythologist Martin Shaw. In the ritual process of many traditions, the journey of the spiritual pilgrim, and the actualisation of quantum particles out of the underlying quantum potential of the universe, it is the movement through a fundamental uncertainty – an ontological liminality – that allows for a creative wholeness to express itself in the form of the particular. Every expression of this “creative ordering” must by its nature be unique, though always a reflection of the underlying patterns and symmetries of the universe.
The language of myth and ritual process has shed new light on my own personal experience of walking the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage. The stage of Departure or Separation is the crossing of the threshold into radical uncertainty, where one symbolically undergoes a process of “self-annihilation.” Through the passage from a fixed position within society, and indeed a fixed understanding of the nature of reality, into a completely undifferentiated and thus unknown position, the pilgrim and the ritual “passenger” pierce the veil of the manifested world and (temporarily) enfold back into a state of latent potential in which the creative essence of the universe can again unfold through them.
We find this ritual process embodied by both the humble pilgrim and the heavenly king. In the Ndembu tribe of Africa, for example, the chief-to-be must pass through a state of liminality before assuming his new rank within the tribe. Moving to a small hut beyond the village walls, he undergoes a ritual separation and debasement, both physically and symbolically existing outside the normal social structure of the village before triumphantly returning as a transformed chief (studied by Victor Turner). Similarly, in donning the symbolically white coat of the pilgrim – the cloak of the dead – I walked away from much of what I knew of myself, my habits and conditioned behaviours, my previous relationships and social identity. And only in letting go of all that I had once been, emptying myself of accumulated patterns and assumptions, did I make space for more subtle truths to speak through me. In other words, my understanding and experience of reality transformed from one of fixed and static truth to a living, dynamic, creative relationship with an inexpressible force.
Pt. 2 will explore the links between this understanding of ritual and pilgrimage with new scientific understandings of the underlying order of the cosmos – quantum theory and Jungian psychology to be specific.