The Great Journey, The Great Work

Thomas Berry has written a very fine book entitled The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future, which is full of wisdom and which I highly recommend. Here, I want to relate this Great Work as Berry describes it to what we might call The Great Journey of Awareness as we find it described by cultural philosopher Jean Gebser in his The Ever-Present Origin.  The Great Journey and the Great Work are one and the same path — the autobiography of Awareness which is “the Universe Story” as much as our story.

Journey or Great Quest stories are fundamental to our self-understanding. Homer’s Odyssey is the archetypal journey, rich in spiritual significance. So is the story of the journeys of the Prodigal Son, who is the human ego consciousness as much as Ulysses is the human ego consciousness. One of the contemporary great archetypal journeys or quests is Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. I know some people who have been personally transformed by it, and treat Tolkein’s book as their Bible. Frodo’s heroic journey to Mount Doom in order to destroy the Ring of Power and so release the world from its spell is the archetypal Sacred Journey as “The Great Work”. In a few short words, for example, the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins captures the essence of the Great Journey: “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.” Indeed, that theme of the Prodigal Son as our own autobiography.  If you don’t keep your feet, you’ll lose your marbles and be swept away.

And that is, in essence, Gebser’s prophetic warning to our times. Keep your feet, or lose your grip and be swept away.

Gebser’s EPO is an attempt at our autobiography as the Great Journey of Awareness as being also The Great Work of Awareness, from its origins in the archaic through its “mutations” or transmutations as magical consciousness, mythical consciousness, and the mental-rational consciousness; or, correspondingly, through vitalism, animism, psychism, and mentalism. What are these things? They are the soul testing its powers or “faculties” within the terms of physical existence — sensing, willing, feeling, thinking as modes of its expression and realisation. These “moods” of the soul become the structures of consciousness as milieus or habitats of being that make what we call “civilisational types”.

This Journey of Awareness is not man’s alone to make. Happily, today, we now speak of the co-evolution of life, even of the co-evolution of consciousness and cosmos. “We”, meaning all sentient beings, are on the Road and upon this Great Journey together.

The Great Journey which is also the Great Work is the evolution from consciousness AS “being-in-the-world” to consciousness OF “being-in-the-world”. Magical animism, psychic mythology, or rational mentalism are just so many ways of becoming conscious of being-in-the-world, each valid in its own terms. When we speak of “being-in-love” or “being in a tizzy”, we are speaking truly. These feelings or conscious moods as realities form milieus in which we then occupy as the truths of our experience of reality. Awareness, or soul if you prefer, harvests that experience of itself as its food, for its food is meaning.

Consciousness OF being-in-the-world is what we call “conscious” proper, by which we mean “reflection”. This is not the originary state of awareness. We may say that consciousness AS being-in-the-world is the intentional mode of awareness, while consciousness OF being-in-the-world is attentional (or mindful) mode of awareness. This latter, though, which we call “reflective” or “intellect” has become so highly exaggerated or hyper-trophied in its sense of detachment or disinterestedness that it now threatens to lose contact with its roots in life — in consciousness AS being-being-in-the-world — that is to say, as “being a living soul.” This is what it means to be “trapped in the mirror” of reflexive consciousness — the image, which is the narcissistic condition.

We may say that archaic origin corresponds to the “field” — the pervasive sense of consciousness AS being-in-the-world that is not yet self-aware, corresponding to that state that Blake describes as the time “when the soul slept in beams of light”. Since awareness was only consciousness AS being-in-the-world, but not OF being-in-the-world, this is a state of non-duality called by Gebser “archaic wholeness”, before the separation of Earth and Sky, or of the waters below from the waters above, and so on. Awareness simply IS. But it is not yet aware of Itself as awareness. From our perspective, this vitalistic state of the awareness would be called “unconsciousness”.

Then comes the first great mutation — the emergence of magical consciousness we call “animism” — the earliest incipient dawning of a sense of a self-awareness out of the world soul — the Anima Mundi. In fact, the very perception of this “world soul” as Nature is already an indication of a distinction, for until animism awareness and world soul are identical. This is the cosmic dawn, in consciousness terms, and corresponds to the awakening of the will. The first consciousness is not mental but willful. The pre-conscious state was sensuous, but the magical is willful. This is the earliest state of that process called “individuation” of awareness, although there is a paradox here, since the truly individuated state was archaic wholeness.

This apparent contradiction in terms can only be reconciled if it is not man becoming ‘individuated’, but the world soul that is becoming aware of itself as individuated in man. Awareness becomes self-aware in and through man.

In these terms, it becomes quite obvious what is wrong with the strictly Darwinian or neo-Darwinian accounts of evolution, particularly in regards to the definition of man as “homo faber” or the discoverer of tools. It was the discovery of will that constituted the first great mutation that becomes human awareness. The tool followed the awakening of the will, and not vice versa. In animism, the life force, as will, is born in the limbs, and cave drawings often depict the limbs (arms and legs) highly exaggerated. It makes perfect sense since willing and movement are closely related, and strength of arm and leg, and dexterity of hand were critical to survival — to run down quarry, to throw a spear or rock required the kind of mana that we call, today, “stamina”. Before tools and spears were of any use, endurance, strength of arm and fleetness of foot were mandatory, and these were directed by the will. Magical cultures are about learning the uses and limits of will as magic.

The next great mutation or metamorphosis in journey of awareness was myth. Myth is the discovery of the life force as “soul” and the shift is from willing to feeling as the mode of awareness of being-in-the-world. The world is dream that is not yet conscious of itself as a dreaming. The world is not the often harsh world of magical will and power and the terror of awakening to self-consciousness in a harsh world of power. For magic, the malevolent or benevolent spirits were spirit powers in the world and of nature. In myth, they are the high or low gods, corresponding to “lofty” feelings or their contraries in the Chthonic gods of the underworld or the deeps. The reality is psychical and the major and minor gods have their reality in those terms. The word “enthusiasm” (en-theos) means to be filled with a god or possessed by a god. Feelings come. I no more make them than I make awareness or will, for that matter. As will is something I use but not what I make, so feelings come and go as they please. I enjoy or I suffer their presence, but I do not make them. Those feelings as the form of the gods are not unique to the individual either. No one has unique feelings. They are of universal human experience despite how they are represented in different cultures, as Jung has shown in his archetypal psychology of the “collective unconscious” (two badly chosen words for this, as a matter of fact, and for what is called “world soul”). The gods are patterns of psychic energies, and in those terms, are real. They can come to dominate awareness completely, in which case we talk about someone as “possessed”. But as “projections” in a special sense, as the gods of sky above or earth below, the awareness was able to maintain some measure of detachment from them and yet an intimacy via ceremony and ritual that did not result in possession (except as the ritualised orgy or the berserker).

With magic, awareness was learning the power of will, and with myth awareness was learning the power of feelings. With the rise of the mental or “the discovery of the mind” awareness began learning the power of thinking, and eventually, as “Universal Reason”, to come to clarity of itself in terms of Consciousness OF its own being-in-the-world — that mode of awareness called “contemplative”. Again, thinking, like willing or feeling, is not something we have made ourselves. It just happened to us, so to speak, and we do it well and skillfully or we do it badly and unskillfully.

The Great Journey of Awareness has been, from its origins in the archaic, the discovery of the power of will as life force and as magic, and its organisation as ritual; the discovery of the soul as the power of feeling in myth, and its organisation as story; and the discovery of mind as “Universal Reason”, and its organisation as logic, but in its deficient phase now as techno-science or “technocratic shamanism” and “mythomania”.

The Great Work isn’t just something that awaits in the future. We’ve been doing it all along. The journey of Awareness is our human autobiography. Each age or structure of consciousness eventually exhausted its possibilities for further articulation of itself, decayed, and a mutation then occurred by which a new faculty of the awareness was discovered and elaborated. We are clearly approaching the same endgame with the mentalistic aspects of the awareness. People speak today of the crisis of our age as a “spiritual crisis” or “crisis of consciousness”. But for Gebser, and perhaps Rosenstock-Huessy (and Nietzche and Blake and Aurobindo too), this crisis is preliminary to yet another mutation of awareness — the conviction, well-founded it seems, that awareness will now take the only untried path available to it — integral, by which it will consolidate by way of an integration everything it has learned about itself over millennia in terms of sensing, willing, feeling, and thinking into a higher level structure. This is called the “fulfillment of the times”.

If we don’t get carried away, that is, fulfilling Bilbo Baggins’ warning about the journey — keeping our feet or being swept away. That’s quite akin to Gebser’s warning too about the danger of “automatically fulfilling the law of the earth”. “It’s Now or Never” takes on a certain fateful poignancy when put in that way.



14 responses to “The Great Journey, The Great Work”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    All of the above might be summarised in saying that the Great Journey or Quest is not just about the discoveries. It’s also a chronicle of man’s enthusiasms become obsessions that lead to his downfall, for hubris is another name for ob-session. Yet, “all things must pass” and downfall and deadfall is as much necessary to growth and health of the whole as not. More likely than not, the causes of downfall are already implicit in the discovery.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    Thank you for a nice mental journey. It seems we are processes of interaction between thoughts and actions and our purpose is to turn our thoughts into embodied actions like god who turned his thoughts into the embodied cosmos we see and the embodied human as the tool to make the journey to the original thought. This is the journey god described in the saying that he is a hidden treasure and made humanity to dig this hidden treasure through hard and tiring work and deep contemplative and sober reflective thoughts. I see in your post a journey in that digging. We are both Gebser and Berry if you like in search of that treasure. The illusive part is that there are so many obstacles in the way that need us to watch our steps and keep our feet firm lest we get swept away, as all the sages of the world put it.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    Yes we have not kept our feet firm in his path and thus we have been swept away as a result of our lies and misplaced attention and intention. God says I oppress nobody but people themselves inflect oppression on themselves and everyone is pawned by his thoughts that make his actions. There is nothing more blessful than self-honesty the only path to Him.

  4. Scott Preston says :

    Mystica Sofa, today, in an older post pointed to an essay by Henri Bortoft on “counterfeit and authentic wholes”, which is very much a theme of this blog in terms of the confusion of whole and totality. Very useful essay, too

    • abdulmonem says :

      Thank you very much Scott for this very excellent digging in the treasure. I saw god in the whole and his creatures in the part and realized how very important is the part for the whole, and how important the human in the process of discovering the limitless content of the treasure. In the spiritual path comes a moment at which all that we have learned becomes no longer relevant. The point of radical reversal when one feels his presence with absence the invisible presence, when one feels he is being watched by the things he is watching. Reason can not embrace creativity that is why we need a non-conceptual mode of understanding to approach the whole. Our non-conceptual understanding is our laser beam to the divine photography that gives to every thing its clear form without blotching or ill-definition, This is a fly and that is a butterfly. It is a search for the integral. God is the gravitational force of our universe so we read and he seizes the heaven from falling on earth, the earth that sends up what we put in it to grow, and if it were not for that we would not have enjoyed the world of plant. The hermeneutics is our way to the whole while the analytical way is the way of the part that is why we see our culture is incapable to see the whole and it is lost in the details. The frightening fragmentation is everywhere. The whole which is un-thinglike or un-partlike and not nothing therefor it is not an area of study for those who are only involved with studying things. God that has no comparable and nothing resembles him but his invisible absence is felt by the attentive sensitive human(the part). God is the awareness that is present with everything, the knower that encompasses every known that is why the human awareness that holds to things can never understand the whole and this is the dilemma of our science that does not start from the whole but want to make the totality out of collecting the parts mistaking that for the whole. Anyway the article despite it does not use the word god for the whole and refuse to call the study mystical while quoting some sufis sayings, is a very good article in the search for the phenomenon of the whole and its utmost importance in our life.

  5. Scott Preston says :

    Can somebody help me out here? A while ago, someone posted a link to an essay on how scientific instruments become metaphors for thinking about reality, but then we forget they are metaphors and they become models of reality. I can’t recall who posted that link — Mystic Sofa by chance? For the life of me, I can’t seem to find it in my search of the comments. I should have printed it out.

  6. wtquinn says :

    I’m not convinced the gods represent inward psychic energy only. Or as Joseph Campbell once said similarly, “the gods are not out there, they are in here”. The implication of this is an absurd earth populated by solipsistic humans praying to gods that don’t exist. One cannot prove or disprove either position a priori. Brave souls created secular space free from violent theocrats. I am privileged and grateful to live and learn in that space. I am charioteering two steeds of experience (theism and atheism), having been born into a faith which I later rejected. I have been influenced by both good teachers. The path is known by those who have gone before us. Hope is the gift fuel left in Pandora’s jar enabling successful completion of a redemptive human journey requiring much endurance.

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