Mandalas, Nixies, Goddesses and Succubi: a neuroanthropologist Looks at the Anima

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Thus the anima and life itself are meaningless in so far as they offer no interpretation. Yet they have a nature that can be interpreted, for in all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order, in all caprice a fixed law, for everything that works is grounded on its opposite. It takes man’s discriminating understanding, which breaks everything down into antinomial judgements, to recognize this.

Jung (1968a:66)

Coming to terms with one’s anima is a hermeneutic process (Jung 1968a:32-41). Meanings do not adhere in the contents of the unconscious, but are attributed by conscious reflection to contents. Yet there is an ordered -- one might even say lawful -- regularity to these contents. It is the task of the engaged ego to apply meaning that as closely as possible approximates the hidden order expressed by the anima – and to do so in a dynamic, growing and non-ideological manner. For, as we have said, the anima is not the unconscious itself, but only the expression of processes forever hidden from our sight. As a northward flying wedge of geese is the harbinger of spring, so too is anima imagery the harbinger of processes in the self. The sight of a flight of geese is only a harbinger to the mind that associates this phenomenon with a much welcomed change of seasons. In other words, the phenomenon is interpreted as a sign, and as it happens is naturally associated with seasonal changes.

Just so, we learn to interpret our own anima imagery in a way that both accurately reflects the underlying processes of the psyche, and builds a shared repository of meaningful imagery by means of which the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind-brain may communicate with each other. It is as though there is room for only one library of symbols within memory, a repertoire of images that both the conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche may use to communicate. The problem is that the grammar of the communication differs drastically between the two, and it is the task of the conscious mind to learn to read the unfamiliar rules of the unconscious, for the unconscious cannot and will not adapt out to the grammar of the higher cortical functions of the brain. In time, there develops a corpus of shared meanings by which the unconscious may express it’s deepest processes, and the consciousness may use to penetrate to and engage unconscious processes. For example, if I close my eyes and focus my attention upon the spontaneous dance of the bindus, I will better be able to interpret what is going on in my psyche. In that way I am privileging the communication from the unconscious. But alternatively I can use visualization techniques to trigger desired activities normally outside the direct control of consciousness. For example, suppose that I am feeling stressed. If I focus my attention upon a radiant cool blue, pea-sized bindu in my “third eye” region and then suddenly drop the sphere into my navel region, my body will almost instantaneously calm. In this way I am privileging the executive function of the conscious ego over the unconscious.30

The Traditional Cycle of Meaning

For my conscious ego and for my unconscious, the meaning of the bindu and other anima related images (nixies, goddesses, succubi) have developed out of their nascent, relatively undifferentiated forms into a virtual dictionary of symbols, based upon a lifetime of experiences associated with them in memory. If I had been born and raised in a traditional society with an intact mystical worldview, and had I undergone many of these experiences, I likely would have interpreted them within the local cosmological context – a cultural process we have called the cycle of meaning:31

The cosmology, which people mainly carry around in their heads, is imagined and expressed by way of their culture’s stock of symbolic material in such a way that people are able to participate intimately in their version of a symbolically pregnant mythic reality.32 As Alfonso Ortiz (1972:135) noted, the associations, principles and assumptions upon which a traditional cosmology are founded are rarely, if ever, created anew by individuals. Rather, most people accept and participate in accordance with the worldview they inherit from their culture. This participation results in real life experiences that are in turn interpreted in terms of the cosmology, thus completing a negative feedback loop33 which instantiates the cosmology in individual experiences and which also confirms the truth of the people’s system of knowledge.

Let me suggest a good example of an intact traditional cycle of meaning from the culture of the Navajo people of the American Southwest – a people amongst whom I have lived and researched for years. While it is true that many Navajo people today do not entirely subscribe to the traditional worldview, and may in fact know little about their traditional roots, traditional Navajo cosmology exhibits many of the features common to such cosmologies world-wide (see Laughlin and Throop 2002). Moreover, the cosmology is thoroughly syzygistic both in religious iconography and in its appreciation of the antinomous, yet unitary nature of reality. Much of Navajo philosophy is organized around the postulate that all perceivable things in the world have invisible aspects that may be imagined as "Holy People" -- for example, the Mountain People, the Star People, the River People, the Rain People, the Corn People, etc. Most of the humanoid of Holy People have a male and a female representation; e.g., Blue Corn Boy, Blue Corn Girl, etc. For more philosophically inclined Navajo thinkers, these Holy People are thought of as anthropomorphized symbols for the normally hidden and vital element within all things, which traditional Navajo philosophy equates with "Wind" (nilch'i; see McNeley 1981). As real people, we also have such a hidden dimension called "the Wind within one" (nilch'i hwii'siziinii). All these Winds are really part of the one all pervasive and all encompassing Holy Wind. Winds are never understood to be distinct entities, since energy is thought to be flowing in and out of even the most apparently enduring objects. It is the coming and going of wind that accounts for the tapestry of reciprocal causation typical of this particular understanding of the cosmos. The choice of "wind" as the central metaphor is an explicit recognition -- common to many cultures on the planet -- that there are forces that normally cannot be observed, save by inference from their effects.

At the root of the sacredness of Navajo cosmology, and of the Holy People who represent the essence of reality, are the many myths recounted down through the generations. It is very much the function of myth in societies like Navajo to reveal and explicate the hidden dimensions of the world. The hidden energies that are the essence of the world are given a face – a countenance that may be contemplated, that is “pleasing to the mind,” that may be enacted in ritual (e.g., in the elaborate and ingenious Navajo system of hitaal, or healing ceremonies), and that may be imagined in daily life as the efficient cause of significant phenomena and events. For those members who are well versed in their society’s mythopoetic system, the core myths and their various symbolic extrusions are often understood to be all-of-a-piece. They form a single, ramified “cognitive map”(Wallace 1966) within the context of which events in their everyday lives make sense and are easily related to both other events in the contemporary world, and archetypal events that unfold in the context of mythological narratives.

As I said, Navajo cosmology is essentially syzygistic. The main tension and complementarity characteristic of the world are attributed to the interplay of the male and female principles. Complementarity is emphasized, each pole requiring the other in order to maintain viability. There are even myths that tell the story of what happens when the male and female principles get out of synch (see e.g., Matthews 1994:71-74). Even the famous Navajo ceremonials are divided into complementary sets, the Blessingway ceremonies -- given female attribution and concerned with harmony -- and the Enemyway ceremonies (given male attribution and on about protection; see Griffin-Pierce 1992:40-41). Within each of these sets, there are male and female elements – like the male bindu in the female field and the female bindu in the male field in the yin-yang symbol. Hence anyone reared under the influence of these stories and ceremonies would come to interpret relationships as characterized by both polarized tension and unity of complements. Moreover, both men and women are conditioned to think of themselves as both embodying male and female principles, and being essentially whole and spiritually empowered by the one, all pervasive Holy Wind. The most important concept in Navajo philosophy is hozho, which is usually translated as “beauty” or “blessing,” but which also connotes harmony, health, unity, good, etc. (see Farella 1984). Men who have knowledge about, and participate in the traditional ways will explicitly interpret their state of hozho in terms of the male and female principles being in harmony within their being. Their anima (they would not speak in these terms of course) would be related to the female Holy People and especially to Changing Woman, the Navajo’s most revered goddess and beloved Earth Mother (see Schwarz 1997).34

Charlie’s Transpersonal Cycle of Meaning

But many of us in modern Euroamerican society do not have such an intact syzygistic cosmological tradition into which we have been nurtured and enculturated, and to which we can have recourse when interpreting our inner imaginings. Thus part of the spiritual path for many of us requires that we discover some sensible context within which to lodge and integrate these meanings. This quest for an integrated context of meaning is required by the holistic operator of the brain (d’Aquili and Newberg 1999), or what Jung called the archetype of wholeness, which he held was indistinguishable from the image of the divine (Jung 1959:40, 1968a:388). Jung found his own context by way of a careful reconstruction of latter day alchemy (1968b, 1970). I on the other hand, like so many these days, have borrowed extensively from Easter mystical teachings and have combined them with various aspects of modern science, including knowledge about how human brain works. Still others have found the required context in charismatic Christianity, Sufism, or in shamanism, wicca and other so-called “new world religions.”

The result is that I, like many who spend years tracking their inner psyche, have developed a quite personal, and essentially transpersonal cycle of meaning. Recall the mandala experience with which I opened this paper. The first time I encountered this experience, the only context of interpretation I had in my head was that a friend had dosed me with a psychotrope. In other words, I had no appropriate cycle of meaning within which a transpersonal experience made any sense. But later on – much later on – my life course had led me through various avenues and adventures, and I ended up thinking about things out of an essentially transpersonal worldview in which not only mandala experiences, but ecstatic union with ladies in red shifts and dancing bindus make perfect sense. The major difference between both mine and Carl Jung’s paths on the one hand, and those of people raised in traditional cosmological cycles of meaning on the other, is that mine (and I read Jung’s as well) is relatively dynamic and plastic, while most traditional systems tend to be extremely conservative of meaning.35 In fact, adepts in traditional systems tend to place strict controls on the types of experiences that are allowed to occur and the range of interpretations available for those experiences. For instance, professional Moroccan oneiromancers always interpret the more important dreams of their clients in terms of the symbolism and teaching of the Koran, whereas a proper Jungian approach to dream interpretation is appropriately individual and dynamic (see e.g., Jung 1997; see also Maidenbaum 1998).

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