Is the Modern Psyche Undergoing a Rite of Passage?

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By Richard Tarnas

“A mood of universal destruction and renewal…has set its mark on our age. This mood makes itself felt everywhere, politically, socially, and philosophically. We are living in what the Greeks called the kairos – ­­the right moment­­for a “metamorphosis of the gods,” of the fundamental principles and symbols. This peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our conscious choosing, is the expression of the unconscious human within us who is changing. Coming generations will have to take account of this momentous transformation if humanity is not to destroy itself through the might of its own technology and science….So much is at stake and so much depends on the psychological constitution of the modern human.” – C. G. Jung


What are the deep stirrings in the collective psyche of the West? Can we discern any larger patterns in the immensely complex and seemingly chaotic flux and flow of our age? Influenced by the depth psychology tradition founded a century ago by Freud and Jung, and especially since the 1960s and the radical increase in psychological self­consciousness that era helped mediate, the cultural ethos of recent decades has made us well aware how important is the psychological task of understanding our personal histories. We have sought ever deeper insight into our individual biographies, seeking to recover the often hidden sources of our present condition, to render conscious those unconscious forces and complexes that shape our lives. Many now recognize that same task as critical for our entire civilization.

What individuals and psychologists have long been doing has now become the collective responsibility of our culture: to make the unconscious conscious. And for a civilization, to a crucial extent, history is the great unconscious­­history not so much as the external chronology of political and military milestones, but as the interior history of a civilization: that unfolding drama evidenced in a culture’s evolving cosmology, its philosophy and science, its religious consciousness, its art, its myths. For us to participate fully and creatively in shaping our future, we need to better understand the underlying patterns and influences of our collective past. Only then can we begin to grasp what forces move within us today, and perhaps glimpse what may be emerging on the new millennial horizon.

I focus my discussion here on the West, but not out of any triumphalist presumption that the West is somehow intrinsically superior to other civilizations and thus most worthy of our attention. I do so rather because it is the West that has brought forth the political, technological, intellectual, and spiritual currents that have been most decisive in constellating the contemporary world situation in all its problematic complexity. For better or worse, the character of the West has had a global impact, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Yet I also address the historical evolution of Western consciousness because, for most of us reading these words, this development represents our own tradition, our legacy, our ancestral cultural matrix. Attending carefully and critically to this tradition fulfills a certain responsibility to the past, to our ancestors, just as attempting to understand its deeper implications fulfills a responsibility to the future, to our children.

A paradox confronts every sensitive observer about the West: On the one hand, we cannot fail to recognize a certain dynamism, a brilliant, heroic impulse, even a nobility, at work in Western civilization and in Western thought. We see this in the great achievements of Greek philosophy and art, for example, or in the Sistine Chapel and other Renaissance masterpieces, in the plays of Shakespeare, in the music of Bach or Beethoven. We see it in the brilliance of the Copernican revolution, with the tremendous cosmological and even metaphysical transformation it has wrought in our civilization’s world view. We see it in the unprecedented space flights of a generation ago, landing men on the moon, or, more recently, in the spectacular images of the vast cosmos coming from the Hubbell telescope and the new data and new perspectives these images have brought forth. And of course the great democratic revolutions of modernity, and the powerful emancipatory movements of our own era, vividly reflect this extraordinary dynamism and even nobility of the West.

Yet at the same time we are forced to admit that this very same historical tradition has caused immense suffering and loss, for many other cultures and peoples, for many people within Western culture itself, and for many other forms of life on the planet. Moreover, the West has played the central role in bringing about a subtly growing and seemingly inexorable crisis on our planet, a crisis of multidimensional complexity: ecological, political, social, economic, intellectual, psychological, spiritual. To say our global civilization is becoming dysfunctional scarcely conveys the gravity of the situation. For humankind and the planet, we face the possibility of great catastrophe. For many forms of life on the Earth, that catastrophe has already taken place. How can we make sense of this tremendous paradox in the character and meaning of the West?

If we examine many of the intellectual and cultural debates of our time, particularly near the epicenter of the major paradigm battles today, it is possible to see looming behind them two fundamental interpretations, two archetypal stories or metanarratives, concerning the evolution of human consciousness and the history of the Western mind. In essence these two metanarratives reflect two deep myths in the collective psyche­­and let us define myths here not as mere falsehoods, nor as collective fantasies of an arbitrary sort, but rather as profound and enduring patterns of meaning that inform the human psyche and constellate its diverse realities. These two great myths in the collective psyche structure our historical self­understanding in very different ways. One could be called the myth of progress, the other the myth of the fall.

Read more via Cosmosandpsyche.com


Richard Tarnas featured in the film ‘Time is Art’ and is the founding director of the graduate program in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where he currently teaches. Born in 1950 in Geneva, Switzerland, of American parents, he grew up in Michigan, where he received a classical Jesuit education. In 1968 he entered Harvard, where he studied Western intellectual and cultural history and depth psychology, graduating with an A.B. cum laude in 1972. For ten years he lived and worked at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, studying with Stanislav Grof, Joseph Campbell, Gregory Bateson, Huston Smith, and James Hillman, later serving as Esalen’s director of programs and education. He received his Ph.D. from Saybrook Institute in 1976 with a dissertation on LSD psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, and spiritual transformation. From 1980 to 1990, he wrote The Passion of the Western Mind, a narrative history of Western thought from the ancient Greek to the postmodern which became a best seller and continues to be a widely used text in universities throughout the world. In 2006, he published Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, which received the Book of the Year Prize from the Scientific and Medical Network in the UK. Formerly president of the International Transpersonal Association, he is on the Board of Governors of the C. G. Jung Institute of San Francisco. In addition to his teaching at CIIS, he has been a frequent lecturer at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, and gives many public lectures and seminars in the U.S. and abroad.

One thought on “Is the Modern Psyche Undergoing a Rite of Passage?

  1. I met Richard Tarnas in Vancouver in 2010 when the Tipping Point conference introduced him and his work including Cosmos and Psyche his published book. I read the book before hand and had much admiration for his research and premise of the sync with which history has unfolded. Masterful indeed.

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