Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The allure of the phone

I’m in awe of mobile phones. My fascination, after many years of observation, is undiminished. 

Riding on public transport, I watch the way that so many people are transfixed by their smart phones: scrolling through their emails, checking news headlines, playing games, looking at photos, listening to music. Sometimes it seems at least half the people on my tram are tuned into their phone, held in a bubble, encapsulated in another world. A chattering couple who get on the tram fall silent as each of them whips out a phone and is mesmerised. The phone is like Mandrake the magician, a snake charmer.

I’m bothered by this; it irks me that people are so slavishly captured by a technology, and that much of the content that pours out of it is, to put it bluntly, crap. Recently I was standing in a tram next to a young man who was with a young woman. Both were intently engaged at their smart phones. Their only exchange in 10 minutes was when the man showed the woman a picture on his phone of “a fat streaker” at a rugby league game. This is what our civilisation has reached in its glorious advancement over thousands of years, the apogee of the progress of liberal ideas, education and democracy: peering at fat streakers and rifling through Facebook status updates.

The truth is that civilisation has always dragged a long tail behind it, a shadow it has never cast off. The ancient Greeks, the Western cultural pioneers, were dependent on slaves and in constant tribal warfare with each other; the Romans, who kept the torch of Greece aflame, subjugated and enslaved entire peoples; Christianity repressed women and the body and persecuted minorities and heretics; technical progress and the colonisation of the “New World” resulted in the genocide of Indigenous people; the industrial revolution meant the pillaging of nature and the transformation of agrarian lifestyles to wage slavery; the contemporary globalised world has come at the price of two world wars, an enormous rich-poor divide and an accelerated plundering of the Earth’s natural resources. All progress has come at a cost and fuelled a corresponding shadow.

Modern technology, as much as it aims to improve peoples’ lives, feeds that very shadow. Perhaps we have reached the point at which we need to reckon with all the implications of our actions, with the fullness of what it means to be human, to face the shadow squarely and honestly. The stakes couldn’t get any bigger – in our time, it is the very survival of life on the planet that is the issue. 

There’s a certain liberation of consciousness that’s required in this undertaking. The aura of the mobile phone is created by the human physical availability for stimulation – our complex brains and nervous systems respond to the complex stimulations technology provides. Stimulation creates distraction from the dull vacuity of modern life, from the spiritual emptiness of the work-consumption routine, from individual isolation and lack of warm social interaction, and from the sensory poverty of urban environments. American hip-hop band the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy once famously described television as a “cathode ray nipple”. In that sense, smart phones are like small, portable TVs. 

The spell cast on individuals by mobile phones is itself part of a much bigger “spell” of collective psyche. When one person performs an act of some kind it has a certain resonance, but when that act enters into the general psyche its power is magnified immeasurably. Humans are at one level herd animals and respond to group dynamics – when others around me are playing with their phones, I feel an urge to do so as well. Most people most of the time are in step with a kind of mass agglomeration of beliefs, morals, thoughts, prejudices, fears, desires etc. that have evolved over the millennia. Within this, each individual has little differentiation or meaning, being simply minute threads in a vast and wide weave of social fabric. By following the conscious and unconscious norms, a person fulfils the general direction of their society. 

Human history has been changed radically and immensely by individuals who have dared to step out of collective norms – the Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad are just three examples – and human evolution is dependent on rupture and disjunction that lead to new, more enlightened ways of life.

In our time undifferentiated mass consciousness is immensely problematic because media and advertising, through communications technology, create powerful currents of suggestion with little aim other than the perpetuation of consumption and self-interest. The vortex of “spin” that envelops much of our culture makes it harder for us to face reality and take the difficult collective choices to heal and liberate our world.
Mass consciousness is also extremely dangerous from a planetary ecological point of view. The human footprint on Earth is enormous and it continues to grow because en masse we blindly follow along the old, rutted paths of convention; we perpetuate without discernment thought patterns and instincts that are not helpful for life on the planet. What would happen if we put a limit on the human population and decided that other species had as much reason to exist as we did? What immense changes would be set in play if we looked up from our own biological necessity and basked in the beauty of all life?

To hold a mobile phone in your hand is to be in the presence of a technology created by human minds, with all that entails. If the phone has an addictive quality it is because in some part of us our being is diminished. Like cigarettes, the habit can be kicked, but it requires a broader, fuller opening to the possibilities of life.     

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Shifting ways of the psyche

What makes consciousness change?
I ask this question after having decided, with much deliberation and angst over a long time, to move out of the flat I’ve been renting for five years. It’s expensive nowadays to live on your own in the inner neighbourhoods of a large city but I value my space, and so had been balking at the prospect of moving out to share with others. I also know that in some ways it is emotionally easier to live on your own.  A hefty increase in rent and a meaningful conversation with a friend suddenly turned the tide in my mind: next month I will do the obligatory cleaning, turn the key in the lock and say goodbye to the flat.
And so, what brings about a change when for months or years we toss and turn without resolution, beating our heads against an impasse?
Consciousness rests on the shifting tectonic plates of the unconscious which, as Carl Jung pointed out, is a vast reserve of impulses and energies beyond the threshold of the conscious mind. The psyche consists of myriad relationships between consciousness and the unconscious – where consciousness moves one way, the unconscious responds, and vice versa.  We can see this, for instance, in the way that dreams and fantasies compensate for attitudes and realities that exist in the conscious world, ensuring that there is an overall psychic balance.
Though consciousness and the unconscious are in constant relationship, it is our ability to become aware of this that is crucial. The more insight we bring into our lives, the more light we shed into dark corners, the more vital and energised is the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious. It’s not a matter of expelling the dark, but rather allowing it to be in a healthy relationship with the facts of the created world, or mediating it for the greater good of life.  
Consciousness can benefit immensely from this relationship: it brings meaning and depth to life. As an example, a person may spend years changing careers until they find something that truly suits them, which is the correct alignment with energies moving deep inside. Or the ending or beginning of a personal relationship can mean previously blocked channels are opened, benefitting life. When the inner world is drawn into greater harmony with the outer world, a developmental leap occurs individually and collectively.
Jung and other depth psychologists after him have pointed out that human consciousness developed over millennia from the unconscious natural state of instinct, and the unconscious is still very much with us. Religions helped to channel and refine inner energies to create living cosmologies in which consciousness and the unconscious coalesced. The world was rich with unseen forces, spirit and meaning. In the past few centuries in the West, however, Christianity has increasingly lost relevance and atrophied. The decline of religion and triumph of materialist secularism has meant that in our society consciousness is privileged and stands apart from the unconscious. Banished from a full life in our world, unconscious energies bubble and seethe below the surface, affecting us in ways of which we are largely unaware.
I think there is an evolutionary imperative in bringing the unconscious back into a healthy relationship with consciousness.  The ascendency of human reason and the independent ego has meant unprecedented mastery over our material conditions, but it has come at a frightful cost. We are destroying life on our planet not because of a deficiency in reason, but because we are not fully awake to the unconscious drives and forces that motivate us. Greed and the drive to power are dominant in our society even as we continue to think of ourselves as civilised, sophisticated and technically progressive.
When we face any situation in our lives, we bring to it the energies that are at play inside us – our full personality is a dynamic amalgam of conscious and unconscious. The unconscious is along for the ride no matter what we do, and so it is vital to be aware of it. When a dilemma appears, such as the one I have faced with my living circumstances, the unconscious is part of the solution. I might think about a problem for a long time, talking with friends or family about it; I may take certain steps like attending a few share house interviews or driving to some suburbs to ascertain what it would be like to live there – every conscious action stirs the energies of the unconscious and in turn propels it to affect consciousness. The information that is gathered in the conscious mind from such a process is heavily inlaid with unconscious energy.
A resolution arrives because a transformation has occurred in which consciousness and the unconscious are aligned. When there is no alignment the potential exists for destructive behaviour: if consciousness attempts to force a resolution or, conversely, if it is too weak or fragile before potent inner drives. Blocked conscious attitudes can lead to the damming of unconscious energy, forcing it to spill outwards. Alcoholism and other addictions are consequences when inner energy cannot find adequate, meaningful expression in the conscious world.
The key is to maintain healthy channels between consciousness and the unconscious, to make sure there is a vibrant flow both ways. Psychology has developed many methods for self-analysis and self-knowledge, including ways to interpret and work with dreams and fantasies. Eastern religions and philosophies offer profound help through such means as meditation and yoga. The arts are a channel for conveying the unconscious. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, ritual and ceremony acts as a conscious-unconscious bridge. Ultimately, all life is a dance of mystery in which opposing forces interact, shaping and reshaping each other, meeting in union and opposition, transcending and being reborn anew.