The Wings of Perception: Castaneda, Blake, Gebser
“For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern” — William Blake
“Unfolding the wings of perception” is a lovely phrase, I came across it in one of Castaneda’s books. This was essentially what Castaneda’s teacher, who he calls “don Juan”, was attempting to teach him and which don Juan described as “seeing“. We may say that this “seeing” is what Blake knew of when he wrote that “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees”. It is the seeing of the Seer — a mode of perception that is direct and immediate, which is to say not mediated by the personal or “collective representations”. It is the mode referred to as “insight”.
What hinders us here? What are the impediments and obstacles to our “unfolding of the wings of perception”? It’s pretty clear that this unfolding (or “e-volution”) is also the reality of what Jean Gebser calls “diaphaneity” or “the transparency of the world” in his The Ever-Present Origin.
A basic premise of The Chrysalis is that narcissism is the human condition, and seems to be the inevitable fate and challenge of creatures such as ourselves who become self-aware. It’s a matter of degree and, in many cases, can become quite pathological. This fall into the stupor of narcissistic consciousness is what we understand by Blake’s statement above, that “man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern“. This condition we might describe as a thickening or reification of the ego-consciousness. Virtually all our problems presently arise from this thickening which we now call “narcissism” following the myth of Narcissus and Echo.
If we expect to overcome and transcend this miserable state and the problems it generates for us, we need, of course, to understand it. We expend an enormous amount of energy embellishing and defending this narcissistic self when that energy could be put to far better, more creative, and healthier uses.
In earlier posts, we described narcissism as the confusion of the “true self” or identity with what is only the conditioned self-image or self-representation, which we described as a “phantom”. If there is a real concern with a seeming loss of “the ground of being” it is because we have overidentified with this phantom called “the false self”, as it is called in some circles. Our contemporary concerns with authenticity and the lack of it are a reflection of our realisation that this “self” has no foundation, and is little more than a dungeon in the air and a spider’s web spinning incredible fantasies about itself and its reality.
Narcissism is what Gebser means by our “distantiation” from the “vital centre” when he writes that “when any movement tends to the extremes it leads away from the center or nucleus toward eventual destruction at the outer limits where the connections to the life-giving center finally are severed.” This was of course, the fate of Narcissus in the myth from which we derive the word “narcissism” and it is the fate of what Christopher Lasch earlier described in his book The Culture of Narcissism.
For what it’s worth, though, the best book I have read on narcissism and its transformation is A.H. Almaas’s superb and supremely insightful book The Point of Existence: Transformations of Narcissism in Self-Realization. It is very thorough on this issue and makes a fine companion volume to Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin.
Here, though, we are faced with something of a paradox, and it is a paradox reflected in the times we live in. The term “narcissism” is scarcely a century or so old, meaning it became notable and noticeable only in the late 19th and early 20th century — precisely the time when the yoga doctrine attests that we were leaving the spiritual dark age of the Kaliyuga and entering into the new age of the Dwaparayuga (as discussed earlier). We might even say that narcissism is the chiefest feature of the Kaliyuga. But the fact that it did become notable and noticeable attests to what is already a certain degree of detachment from the condition, signifying that — to a certain degree at least — the ego-consciousness was becoming more transparent to itself in some quarters.
Needless to say though, this increasing transparency of the ego consciousness and its narcissistic state is not welcome in all quarters, where it is even considered an existential threat leading to rage. Again, Almaas is brilliant in showing how this rage is connected with the deluded attempt to protect the narcissistic ego consciousness and the great anxiety about its dissolution which is, for Gebser, connected with the “irruption” also of a new form of consciousness.
If narcissistic delusion characterised the Kaliyuga, a “natural clairvoyance” characterises the new age called the Dwaparayuga, according to the Yoga doctrine. This fortuitous description corresponds to “unfolding the wings of perception” (or seeing in Castaneda’s works), and to what Jean Gebser calls “diaphaneity” or “the transparency of the world” and is also described by Blake as his own “New Age” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
One of the merits of reading Almaas’s work with his own students in overcoming this narcissistic thickening of the ego-consciousness is that their personal path is an exact reflection of what can be expected from the culture and the society and the civilisation as a whole as we transition into this new age. The whole is reflected in the part and vice versa. Almaas refers to the narcissistic self as “the shell”, which is very fragile, but which we might refer to equally as “the cocoon” in keeping with the theme of The Chrysalis.
The discomfort, anxiety, even rage of some of Almaas’s students in their own transition beyond narcissistic consciousness (or the emancipation of the “Essential Identity” already encased and ensnared within it) can be expected to follow the pattern of the culture as a whole. This is what makes The Point of Existence a very worthwhile read.