A bird flies past the window. The bird has its life, and I, here, have my life. Self takes one form within the bird and another within me. As the bird flies past I sense a kinship that can only come from knowing one’s own limited place in the system. I got to know birds when young, and I got to know me. Their way of living, my way of living. For some reason, sharing the very fact of ‘having a way of living’ with the bird, with the tree, with the dog, with the squirrel, and that all those ways are different, caused a deep delight in me, a delight I later spread even to rocks and named ‘worldness’.
This may have been influenced by the number of fictions I happened to read when young that featured ‘worldbuilding’. Building a believable world has become an important literary skill. Larry Niven says the more astrophysics you know, the more fun the worldbuilding gets; Tolkien would have said the same of philology. Literary worldbuilding is the ability to produce something having the quality of reality necessary to sustain the sense of worldness, the sense of many things with different agendas, some of them human and some of them decidedly not, sharing a space/place.
In spiritual terms the human systems throw up various forms of shamanism first, and the settled life produces polytheisms of direct experience directly from the shamanisms. A shaman is one to whom spirits will come, but longer traditions begin to pass spirits between generations of shamans. If the ordinary person can access the spirits via shrines, and these become fixed in a settled agrarian situation, you then begin to have polytheistic ‘paganism’. Again, the life is shared: life in Athena and life in Hermes, each a different life and a different agenda. All is woven into the fabric of the human living situation.
When Christianity came, this appreciation of difference ended. The bishops ordered the crucifixion of those who would not convert, and whipped up mobs against them. (See my review of Ramsay MacMullen’s “Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries”.) Concurrent with monotheism, utopia entered the fray — the promised land, here on earth. All subsequent revolutions that promise heaven on earth (French, Cultural…), and are prepared to kill to get it to happen, owe their thinking to the Christian revolution.
With the advent of systems thinking and ecology in our culture, we have finally a way of beginning to understand worldness that makes sense also to the intellectual mind. The culture, set on its over-linear course, is not noticing it much, although if you analyse systems-wise many of the reasons for world events become far clearer. John Michael Greer is doing a systems-based translation of Tao Te Ching.
Mediation between multiplicity and unity (which is also mediation between time-process and eternity) is central to most of the spiritual psychologies that interest me. Assumptions of unity tend to be bound up with monotheistic utopianism. Jung and Assagioli both saw the subconscious as multiple, but by far the best system to have arisen on those lines, for me, is the Internal Family Systems model of Schwartz. At last an end to the monotheistic demand for one single mind each. Here is a man who designed his therapy with Bateson’s ‘Steps towards an Ecology of Mind” at his elbow and laboriously perfected it with increasingly successful work on people whose systems were out of wack. Now you can see yourself as an internal ecology on the psychological level, and effectively harmonize your unfolding process within and without. We have many different subpersonalities inside us, with many different agendas, and normally these do not concert; the magic of Self, with its connectedness the Infinite, is the key to harmony.
The relation of this to the spiritual is long and noble. Spiritual systems and psychologies that see only one-ness have a problem understanding why the Egyptians so carefully laid the internal organs of a mummified Pharaoh into Canopic Jars, arranged in a four-directions pattern. They browbeat Hinduism into not being polytheistic. They don’t see why the internal organs need to be addressed in Taoism, each operating as a part of the system with its own psychology, nor how the recycling of energy can be important throughout the energy body. They don’t always see that the process of mind turning into matter and back is forever ongoing. They don’t understand why the Stoics needed to talk about harmonizing the senses and faculties. If only one thing really exists and is interesting (even if it happens not to be a ‘thing’), there is never a need to understand asymmetric multiplicity forming patterns in time. To know both the joy of being small in a big system, and the underlying creativity that exists and feeds each thing, at the centre, the big thing in the small thing… this becomes impossible.
Lao Tzu says one of his major treasures is ‘daring not to be first in the world’.
I have been a blue salmon,
I have been a dog, a stag, a roebuck on the mountain,
A stock, a spade, an axe in the hand,
A stallion, a bull, a buck…