Category Archives: Spiritualism

The Political Economy of Preternatural Parapsychology: From ESP to Extraterrestrial Civilizations

Man’s longing for the marvelous: the underground of the human psyche finds its counterpart in the meanderings of a mythical labyrinth, the subterranean meetings by candlelight, secret passages hidden within the double walls of castles, treasures concealed in gullies.

—  The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz by Johann Valentin Andreae, Joscelyn Godwin (Translator), and Adam McLean (Contributor)

Orientation

In my two-part article on neoliberal psychology, I named three orientations to the self. The first was realistic neoliberal psychology which is mainstream and results in the development of an “entrepreneurial self”. Then I discussed two types of rebellious romantic psychology that developed in the 1970s through the 1990s. The first type came out of the human potential movement and gave birth to what I called the “expressive self”. Then in the early 1980s, as part of a conservative reaction against the 1960s movement, an upper-middle and upper-class form of psychology coalesced around the work of Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. This resulted in what I call a “mystical self”.

But what was also a big part of a romantic reaction against neoliberalism was an interest in the paranormal or parapsychology, which straddled the boundary between psychology and the occult. For example, where does reading other people’s minds (telepathy) fit within neoliberalism? What about those who claim to see into the future (clairvoyance)? What about psychics who claim to move external objects with the power of their minds (psychokinesis)? What about those who claim to have astral bodies which exist outside the physical body? How do we make sense of an increased interest in ghosts who inhabit haunted houses?

What about paranormal phenomena whose advocates claim that alien spaceships have landed on earth? Or authors who claim that extraterrestrial civilizations built the Egyptian pyramids? Or Hoagland’s “Face on Mars” claim? I call the interest in parapsychology or paranormal events the preoccupations of an “adventurous self”. The purpose of this article is neither to debunk parapsychological or paranormal claims nor to attack the individuals who believe in them. Rather it is to ask:

  1. Why do these beliefs continue to exist despite being dismissed by scientific methodology time and again?
  2. What political and economic conditions might have existed in the United States between 1970 and 1990 that might make these beliefs especially appealing?

Natural, supernatural and preternatural

In Western history, according to Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park in their book Wonders and the Order of Nature, St. Thomas distinguished between three kinds of physical occurrence. The first is events in nature which are predictable and subject to natural laws. These natural laws are formulated and studied by scientists. At the other extreme, there are physical events which are deemed “supernatural” or miraculous, divine events caused by God, without physical intermediaries. But in between these poles are “preternatural” events such as marvels or wonders which are anomalies within nature and science and might be subject to control through intermediary forms. The intermediaries are claimed to be either humans performing magic or demons thought to control nature through physical intermediaries such as the elements or vapors.

While natural events are predictable, supernatural or preternatural events are not, but for different reasons. Further, those events which are subject to natural law occur frequently and are part of everyday life. Both preternatural and supernatural events are rare and, in some way, they occur beyond the world of everyday life. Copernicus’ description of the relation between sun and planets is part of a natural law. The claim by Catholics of God’s intervention at the healing sites of Our Lady of Fatima are considered miracles. Claims for ESP or telepathy are considered to be natural wonders. Medical diagnoses based on astrology and the use of correspondences are examples of preternatural events.

Paranormal and parapsychology fall under the category of preternatural. While supernatural religion appeals to some kind of divine intervention that keeps us passive and awe-stricken, interest in the paranormal requires actively probing an unseen world using our supposedly unexpected powers which come out of a sense of wonder. This is why I call people who have an interest in the paranormal or parapsychological processes “adventurous selves.”

Who believes in paranormal phenomena and parapsychology?

In their book, How to Think About Weird Things, authors Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn give the following statistics about people in the United States:

  • 55% believe in psychic or spiritual healing.
  • 41% believe in ESP.
  • 32% believe that ghosts or spirits of dead people come back in certain places and situations.
  • 31% believe in telepathy or communication between minds without using the traditional five senses.
  • 24% believe that extraterrestrial beings have visited earth at some time in the past.
  • 26% believe in clairvoyance, or the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future.
  • 21% believe that people can hear from or communicate mentally with someone who has died.
  • 25% believe in astrology, or that the position of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives.
  • 21% believe in witches.
  • 20% believe in reincarnation, that is the rebirth of the soul in a new body after birth.

The right-wing political and economic setting mid 1970s to 1990s

When social life is relatively prosperous and the economy is expanding, people in the middle and upper-middle classes tend to gravitate to the moderate or liberal spectrum of their religion. However, in the hard economic times beginning in the 1970s and to the 1990s, when the economy is contracting and there is some kind of ecological and/or political crisis, the traditional religions are implicated, the center does not hold and people are scattered into the left or right wings of fundamentalist religion, cults or parapsychology.  There are at least four possible reactions:

  1. The working-class joined a more fundamentalist religion as happened in the Christian churches in late 1970s.
  2. The upper-class and the upper middle-class who were established professionals were drawn to the conservative psychology of Carl Jung, the esoteric religion of Eliade or the mythology of Joseph Campbell. The results of these involvements culminate in what I’ve called a “mystical” self.
  3. Those in the middle-class and upper middle-class who have not found a satisfactory professional position or have been by-passed in their professional life, those who have status anxiety, often strike out on their own and become interested in parapsychology and paranormal phenomenon. These folks maintain their individualism by not attaching themselves to traditional religious or scientific organizations. They may even start their own organization.
  4. Those middle-class and upper middle-class people who are hypercritical thinkers and who criticize all the world’s religions are drawn to social spiritual movements that want to create a revolutionary life on earth. These people have been burned by organized religion, think in terms of conspiracies but want to be part of a new spiritual community. They will likely be drawn to cults.

Adventurous vs the mystical self

Like the mystical self of the Jungians, the adventurous self has an anti-modern view of life. Those who believe in parapsychology often imagine that modern life has dulled their natural psychic abilities and they imagine that people in tribal or ancient civilizations were able to read minds or move objects without touching them. The Jungians are more straightforward about being anti-science. Jung never tried to make his concepts like the collective unconscious, or his archetypes scientifically verifiable. Followers of ESP and psychokinetics, however, do make attempts to test their participant’s ability by using scientific methods. As we shall see, parapsychologists do a very bad job of it, but they do try. Both Jungians and parapsychologists are opposed to organized religion. Jungians explicitly reject patriarchal religions for pre-Christian, pagan traditions. Those who investigate parapsychology are more individualistic and critical of all religions. Many see any kind of spirituality as attempts to repress the exploratory powers of human beings.

By why are Jungians and those who are interested in the paranormal not able to appeal to a more popular audience? Some smug Jungians claim that their knowledge is esoteric and is not fit for popular consumption. However, those interested in the paranormal are not just critical of organized religion. They tend to believe that political and scientific elites intentionally get in the way of cultivating paranormal skills. After all, if people could produce altered states of consciousness themselves the religious authorities would be out of work. In the case of UFO enthusiasts imagine that the US government is hiding secrets of UFO visitations. Both Jungians and parapsychologists are anti-intellectual and trust their intuition more than their reason, although parapsychologists make some attempts to use rationality in their attempts to set up experiments.

People interested in paranormal phenomenon will rely on groups, attend conferences and form clubs for emotional support. These groups will often support and even create collective experiences through UFO conferences as people in attendance may even report seeing UFOs if these conferences are held in the open air. The class origins of the two groups are different. The Jungians consist of upper middle-class and upper-class people who have established themselves professionally and are looking for a worldview that simply supports their achievements and gives them serenity. Those interested in parapsychology are usually young, and as Zusne and Jones say in their book Anomalistic Psychology, have either not established themselves in a profession or have been rejected professionally in a particular field. They are attempting to find a place for themselves in a new field with fewer professional demands. For example, Madame Blavatsky’s followers and the followers of the Society for Psychic Research were disproportionately upper-class women looking for activities to fill their time.

Jungians and their followers tend to be very well educated and have at least master’s degrees. Followers of parapsychology tend to be self-educated and get their reading lists from occult bookstores located in large cities. The leaders of parapsychology may or may not have their degrees in psychology and have found their way to parapsychology by doing their own reading. It is not possible to receive advanced degrees in parapsychology in the US. The major players in archetypal psychology are Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. In parapsychology the leaders have been Charles Tart, Stanley Krippner, and Uri Geller, and for alien abduction, the psychiatrist John Mack. Their historical influences have been Mesmer, Madame Blavatsky and William James. Please see Table C for a fuller contrast between the mystical and the adventurous self.Limitations of parapsychology in using the scientific method

There are many, many reasons why parapsychology does not measure up to scientific standards. First, we will examine why they don’t and then we’ll discuss why people continue to believe in parapsychology and paranormal phenomenon anyway. To begin, the evidence given for paranormal experience is not statistical nor have double-bind tests been undertaken. Instead, anecdotal evidence is offered such as case studies, testimonials and celebrity endorsements. Parapsychologists take advantage of the evolutionary biases for stories over statistics to sway people.

Secondly, the quality of sense data is usually nebulous. Imagining seeing a UFO or a face on Mars usually occurs when visual conditions are cloudy. In good science, the sense data is crystal clear and is verifiable.

Thirdly, in parapsychology, different types of data are thrown together eclectically without the recognition that some data might contradict others. Good science dialectically criticizes and eliminates contradictions within the data so all the evidence is logically connected. Another problem with parapsychology is that it violates the principle of conservatism. In providing a theory which explains one thing, parapsychological theory, it throws into question what is already known. This means that you solve one problem but you’ve created new problems. Science at its best has theories which explain new phenomenon while keeping in place all the knowledge about the past.

In good science, one of its major expectations is that you state the conditions under which you will admit that you are wrong. This is called falsifiability. A scientific theory that is proven wrong is better than a theory that is not provable because failures allow science the opportunity to eliminate one theory from the field. With parapsychology, what is being measured does not usually lend itself to quantification so that it cannot be proven right or wrong.

In order for a scientific theory to be testable, it has to be able to be replicated in order for other scientists to test the phenomenon and see for themselves. In parapsychology, phenomenon often happen spontaneously or under conditions not likely to be replicated. This means the theory cannot be solidified and stabilized by other scientists. Another vital characteristic of a scientific theory is that it keeps its assumptions realistic and close to the surface of the data. Too often in parapsychology, their theories are so complex that you would have to provide more empirical data to support all the assumptions in between the surface data. So, for example, if you believe that there really is a face on Mars instead of just weird topographic sand configurations, then you have to explain what kind of civilization did this, what tools they used and for what purpose. Weird sand configurations are far more down to earth.

In parapsychology it is very common for experts in one field to use their expertise in one field to claim authority over a field in which they have no special knowledge. For example, imagine a medical doctor using their position to speak authoritatively about the relationship between quantum physics and consciousness. In legitimate science an expert in one field sticks to their field and doesn’t claim expertise in another field.

Typically, before a scientist publishes a book, the manuscript goes through peer review. Because parapsychologists mix together many fields, a peer review of their work is not easy to come by. Unfortunately, cultivating scientific generalists is not supported by corporations or federal governments. In any event, those claiming unusual theories, instead of finding peers to evaluate their work, go directly to the media in the hopes of directly reaching the public. Because parapsychology theory is exotic and not too technical, it has mass media and public appeal. This is what happened with Velikovsky’s book Worlds in Collision, published in 1950. The problem then, is that skeptical scientists are left wasting their time doing control damage and refuting theories with no scientific foundations.

There are pros and cons to being affiliated with an organization. For one thing, a scientist’s real research interests might not have trouble being funded. But at the same time, working for an organization requires that people keep their feet on the ground because the reputation of the institution is on the line. Unconventionality is looked on with suspicion. Parapsychologists are most often not affiliated with a respectable, established organization. Some parapsychologists who are wealthy or know how to tap wealthy donors may start up their own institutions. If not, in classical romantic style they call themselves “independent researchers”. This is a sign they are free-floating. They also present themselves as “heroic mavericks” whom no institution could contain.

Another tendency of parapsychologists is to imagine established scientists as stodgy old people set in their ways who feel threatened by parapsychologists’ “revolutionary findings”. This is a very unfair characterization. Most working scientists have a mixture of creativity and prudence.  There is a field of psychology called “anomalous psychology” which explains extraordinary happenings by known psychological causes. In the best of all possible worlds, parapsychologists would be familiar with all the current anomalous psychological explanations before coming up with a new theory.

Often times, for example, UFO buffs are not familiar with the various accounts by scientists as to why people see UFOs. In other words, UFO enthusiasts should exhaust all scientific explanations before introducing a parapsychological explanation. Most often these enthusiasts don’t know what the range of scientific explanations are.

In addition, parapsychologists imagine that the authorities are out to get them. They can only imagine it is because their discovery would threaten the “powers that be”. They don’t consider the reason their theory is not paid attention to is they haven’t played by the rules of the scientific method. Unconventionality is not always a virtue. More times than not, it be a sign of incompetence.

Parapsychologists often have a romantic notion that scientists are lonely geniuses who struggle in isolation apart from everyone. But working scientists participate in a community of scientists where peer review doesn’t hold them back, but rather it actually improves their work. Because parapsychologists often don’t have institutions to answer to, there is little at stake if their theory doesn’t hold up. For practicing scientists, they have invested a great deal of their careers developing or protecting a theory. It is natural that they would have more to lose if they were wrong. It makes sense why they would be slow to incorporate a new theory, especially if it played fast and loose with the scientific method.

Parapsychologists are often anti-modern. They like to refer to the “ancient wisdom” of tribal or agricultural civilizations as if something that’s old assumes something inherently good about it. In critical thinking, parapsychologists commit the fallacy of “appeal to tradition”.

Most working scientists are modernists and think that modern science has made advances based on what people in the ancient world developed.

If you notice the claims and tones of parapsychologists, they are usually dramatic, quick, simple and painless cures for our problems. Scientists, on the other hand, are very careful about making promises. They proceed by trial-and-error, working slowly and claiming no more than probability for their hypothesis. Parapsychologists usually do not use neutral language. Their language is loaded with virtue words like “holistic, balanced, right-brain and intuitive”. Vice words are “mechanistic, dualistic, left-brain, linear and intellectual”. The problem is this vocabulary does not make it easy to be objective and to weigh things in such a way that the language doesn’t give away which side you are on.  Lastly, parapsychologists see themselves as open while scientists are depicted as closed, smug and cynical. Scientists usually see themselves as Carl Sagan did, combining skepticism and wonder. They see parapsychologists as gullible and sensationalistic.

But all these criticisms of parapsychology don’t seem to stop people from flocking to the latest book party, movie or media event of a parapsychologist.  In the next section we turn to the political, social and psychological reasons why interest in paranormal events and parapsychology persists.

Decline of living standards in Yankeedom: parapsychology as a psychology of reactance

“Reactance theory” is a psychological response to a perceived loss of freedom to act and to think. The discoveries of modern science can appear to be either deterministic constraints on individuals or the individuals are thought to be subject to chance probabilities. Neither of these theories support a notion of individual freedom so dear to Yankees.  Becoming interested in preternatural phenomenon or using parapsychology to find out about it is seen as adventurous and restores the individual’s sense of freedom.

Economic, political and ecological life in the United States seems to be falling apart and it is difficult for people to understand why.

 As a socialist, I have an explanation for why things are falling apart but most people do not have the will and the patience to really study systems analytically in order to make sense of them. Yet people don’t want to give up. Believing in the existence of ESP or clairvoyance gives people hope and an escape from difficult material circumstances. The paranormal world restores a mystery to life that has been lost by the commercialization of ritual and myths. Paranormal psychology, with its foundation in a psycho-physical unity, gives people a structured explanation of why things are as they are. At its worst, parapsychology is running away to other worlds instead of facing and dealing with the real world and its problems.

Though most people interested in parapsychology are upper-middle and middle-class who are represented by both political parties, there is a sense that the political system has nothing to do with what they were taught about democracy. They believe that the world is run by people behind the scenes.

This leads to a sense that appearances can be deceiving. If the state can lie about what is going on in politics, it can also lie about what it knows about paranormal UFOs.  Generally, there is a consensus among parapsychologists that what’s on the surface can be deceiving and the official authorities cannot be trusted on any level. This leads to a paranoid, conspiratorial mindset. At its worst, everything the authorities do is a conspiracy and there is no room for coincidences or ruling class incompetence.

Science has not delivered on its promise to make a better life for all.

Because most people do not understand the capitalist nature of science, those interested in the paranormal see science as a separate field which they judge negatively. Instead of criticizing the capitalists’ use of science, paranormal proponents blame science as a field for the failure to make a “better living through GE.” This leads among those interested in the paranormal to an anti-science romanticism. According to this way of thinking, science is mechanistic, cold, mathematic and too hard to understand. A mystical occult framework is hopeful, emotional and has definite answers (rather than probability) to the big questions. They fail to notice that science in the 20th century from quantum physics to relativity theory, from General Systems theory to complexity theory is anything but mechanical and dead.

There is an increasing sense of our personal lives being out of control with an unpredictable work-life and growing debt.

This leads to a completely understandable sense of wanting to have control over our personal lives. Some paranormal philosophies suggest that we “create our own reality”. Our mind can heal our physical problems and we can travel to other times and places through past life experience or astral projection. These are compensations for a perception that our lives are not in our control.

Cross-cultural surveys of happiness show people in the United States are not very happy.

Especially since most people interested in the paranormal are economically comfortable, if not wealthy, there is a sense that resources and money are not the only things in life. This drives them into parapsychology. It is common to hear testimonials of people who are “born-again” CEOs renouncing their former materialism and seeking to find meaning in ghost-hunting, extraterrestrial conspiracies or talking to their dead relatives.

Lack of security and unity in personal life and with the family.

It is no secret that Yankee family life is in shambles. The demands of work scatter families all over the country and leave scant time for connecting. Even before children mature and move out, family life is characterized by lack of quality time together, overwork, school debts and drugs to cope with anxiety and depression. It is no accident that stories of people talking to the dead have the same scenario. Who doesn’t want to hear from a psychic that their dead family members are happy on the other side and waiting for them with open arms? Funny how no psychic reports that the other side is about the same as this one or, even worse, as they find out your family is still upset with them for marrying who they married. It’s very clear and sad that people have to imagine another world in order to have conversations with their family that they couldn’t have in this one.

Difficulty finding adventure and mystery in current work life.

People want adventure and mystery in everyday life and want to have fun. Because they don’t understand that the scientific process of discovery is full of wonder and adventure, they seek it in other worlds. ESP, telepathy, clairvoyance and ghosts give some sense of mystery and hope that is missing from work that is either meaningless or, if it is meaningful, is dulled by the difficulty of working in a corporate culture. It makes complete sense that the popularity of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter is partly due to the championing of  rebellion against the muggles and their deadening life.

People in the US seem so passive compared to people in other countries and are willing to put up with anything.

The box office blockbuster, The Hunger Games shows how rebellion is not far from people’s minds. Today of course, there is a current uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement, so rebellion is on the table. But during the 80s and 90s rebellion was hard to imagine. Feeling they are part of a secret society, a UFO organization or a spiritual organization helps people to feel they are not passive automatons. They know what is going on and they are active in doing something about it, if not in the political economy, at least in their private lives.

Fear of death, clinging to life.

People interested in paranormal phenomenon or in developing parapsychological skills want answers to the big questions. If we believe in past lives and reincarnation the belief is that we will never have to face dying. Unsatisfied with the answers religion gives about life after death, those interested in parapsychology want to find out for themselves. Is there life on other planets? Not satisfied with science’s answer of “no, not yet”, they wonder if the state and the scientists would tell us if they had gotten an extraterrestrial signal? Maybe extraterrestrials have already come here?

Personal troubles don’t seem to have a single cause. Multiple causations and chance are unsatisfying answers.

All the movies referred to (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the Hunger Games) have characters that are clearly malevolent and help to explain the main character’s difficulties. As strange as this may seem, having malevolent characters is better, imagining that chance might be operating. At least you can see the contending forces fighting and at the end you will know who won, who lost and why. Unlike personal life, where there are too many variables to track, imagining your life like these movies can be a relief. Scapegoating, believing in ghost possession, believing in sorcery for good or bad and conspiracy theories gives life drama, hope, and clarity.

Lack of universal health insurance makes hospital care brief and gives doctors scant time to visit with patients.

In the light of the pharmaceutical industrial complex, it is understandable that people are drawn to alternative medicine such as homeopathy or acupuncture.

Both these alternatives seem to bypass the hospital bureaucracy, the impersonal switching of doctors and medication where the side effects are often worse than the illness. Hospitals are divided into specialists, many of whom do not consult with other specialists so that the patient feels like no one is driving. The benefit of holistic medicine, apart from whether it works or not, is the fact that whoever you work with seems to have the big picture in mind and you can understand the general principles of what they are trying to achieve just from reading a book or two.

Conclusion

There are many psychopathological reasons why people might believe in parapsychology. My purpose is not to tear people apart, but rather to try to explain the logical reasons why people are drawn to parapsychology. Their motives are expressions of the deep unhappiness that people feel about life under declining capitalist societies during the 1980s and 1990s.

The bottom line is this. Good science develops slowly, accumulates information by trial-and-error, is very careful in its claims, its evidence and its method for proving hypothesis. It makes no promises for happy endings, continuous adventures and razzle-dazzle. Its best claims are matters of probabilities. Scientists will happily admit when they don’t know something, often being able to suspend judgements for the present. But for those living in economically unstable times, governed by decadent political parties, in debt, with insecure professional job prospects, a fractured family life, and a chaotic health care system, the promise of science is weak medicine. These people need something dramatic, hopeful, mysterious, quick, comforting and thrilling. Paranormal phenomenon and parapsychological claims fit the bill and are a stronger remedy in darkening times.

• First published at Planning Beyond Capitalism

Neoliberal Psychological Romanticism: From the Primal Scream to the Collective Unconscious Part II

Orientation

In Part I of this article, I begin by grounding neoliberal psychology in the political and economic reality of neoliberalism between 1970 to 2020. First, we discussed the historical origins of neoliberalism, and then its economic exploitation, mystification and ideological use to control people. I briefly discussed the realities of the practice of neoliberal economic policies which has resulted in cannibalization of the infrastructure. Further, I show thirteen instances in which neoliberalism shows its class bias. Neoliberalism is an ideology because the upper and upper middle classes of society do not use neoliberalist economic policies on its own class. It is only applied to neoliberal practices when it comes to middle-class, working-class and the poor who experience this cannibalization.

In practice, neoliberalism strips the individual of his social, qualitative, historical and cross-cultural connections so that all social life can be reduced to a quantitative, measured and calculating cost-benefit analysis. Everything is saleable and reduced to a price. At a micro level, neoliberal psychological realism results in what is called the “entrepreneur self”. This entrepreneurial self is manifested in at least five areas in which neoliberal psychological realism takes place:

  • in the thinking processes of the working class;
  • in the commercialization of child development;
  • in the relationship between Barbie-doll toys and the obsession with being thin;
  • in hookup sex; and,
  • in the preoccupation with living in the present through its ideological use of “mindfulness” psychology.

In this Part II article, I discuss two forms of romantic resistance to neoliberal psychological realism: humanistic psychology and the human potential movement on the one hand, and New Age spirituality on the other.

To counter the entrepreneurial self of realist psychology, romantic psychology develops an “expressive” self that was the result of the work of Maslow, Rogers, Fritz Perls and Arthur Janov. This expressive self peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The other kind of romantic psychology is in cultivating what I call a “mystical self” as embodied in the work of Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. This “spiritual psychology” peaked in the early 1980’s and continued to cultivate followers at least well through the 1990’s.

In the next few pages, I will review selectively some features of romantic neoliberal psychology as they relate to the humanistic psychological construction of an expressive self. Please see Table A for a deeper comparison between the entrepreneurial self of Part I and the expressive self.

The human potential movement early years: New Deal liberalism

 Abraham Maslow

The seeds of romantic psychology began in the United States, not in the 1960s, but decades before. Maslow was very influenced by the anthropological, cultural relativist work of Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. Both anthropologists challenged the progressive theory of cultural evolution. They were extremely sympathetic to tribal societies and each championed what they thought were their liberating sexual practices. (This anticipated the sexual revolution of the 1970s). The neoliberal political and economic movement began with the Freiburg Circle in the 1930s at roughly the same time. Abraham Maslow began his optimistic quest to rescue psychology from the clutches of what he felt was the pessimism and determinism of Freudians and behaviorists. Maslow first mentioned his famous “peak experiences” as far back as 1946. According to Joyce Milton (The Road to Malpsychia), Maslow was a New Deal Liberal, and as late as 1960, Maslow maintained a respect for Marx. Among his most enthusiastic students was Abbie Hoffman who switched his major to psychology and took every class Maslow offered.

Carl Rogers

Parallel to Maslow, Carl Rogers, another humanistic psychology heavyweight, began studying at a liberal theological seminar in NYC in 1924. Five years later he worked for twelve years on the front lines of counseling, working with problem teenagers and abused children as a staff psychologist in Rochester, New York for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He developed a following among social workers and pastors.

In the early 1960s, Rogers published On Becoming a Person which outlined his version of Maslow’s self-actualization. Increasingly, Rogers was critical of most institutional authority including psychiatrists, and this translated into how he did therapy in the 1960s and 1970s. Rogers did his best to level the playing field, insisting that a person’s emotions and personal experience were the most important guides to health. Rogers became a champion of self-directed therapy in which the client determined the goals, processes and when they ended therapy.

Esalen Institute

The home of the human potential movements in the 1960s and 1970s was Esalen, located in Big Sur, California.  The two co-founders, Richard Price and Michael Murphy had different ideas about where Esalen was going. Michael Murphey identified more with a mystical tradition, having studied with Sri Aurobindo in India. Richard Price was more sympathetic to the experiential, drug-taking wing of Esalen. Throughout most of the 1960s, Esalen was closer to what Murphy wanted. This changed in the latter part of the 1960s with the wave of LSD use on a mass level and the growth of a counterculture.

Shift to romantic neoliberal psychology

By the early 1970s Esalen had moved from a more moderate, discipled approach to a drug-using, “winging it“ orientation. There was a willingness, and, in fact, an expectation by group leaders that people experiment with LSD. Fasting, trance states rebirth rituals, dream work, social nudity and group dancing were par for the course. Sexual encounters within group sessions were common.

The cathartic theory of the emotions

The foundation for virtually all humanistic psychology was the cathartic theory of the emotions. However, the venting approach to the emotions did not originate with therapists. It has roots in the Greek concept that audiences watching a stage play and emoting along with the story serves a cathartic purpose. Aristotle felt that viewing a tragic drama would allow catharsis to occur for the audience, draining off pity and fear. According to Joyce Milton, the cathartic method as a mental practice within the field of medicine was introduced in 1877 by Josef Breuer, perhaps best known for his theory of hysteria and his use of hypnosis. Later these ideas were taken up by Freud. In the hands of humanistic psychologists, the cathartic theory states that emotions are like steam under pressure. If not released, they will explode. Emotional ventilation is supposed to relieve inner frustrations.

This theory was carried on in groups with Will Schutz’s encounter groups and Fritz Perl’s Gestalt groups. Therapists taught people to scream, beat pillows and confront each other. This also occurred in individual therapy with Janov’s Primal Scream therapy along with a spinoff group, “Center for Feeling Therapy.”

Group Cathartic theory: Will Schutz and Fritz Perls

Social psychologist Will Schutz helped to transfer relatively tame “sensitivity groups” in the 1950s to the dramatic encounter groups that began in the mid-sixties.

Schutz conducted the groups as marathon weekend-long events in which sleep deprivation eroded inhibitions. After 24 hours without sleep, open and honest expression as well as actual tears, seemed to flow more easily. (Encountering America, p. 195)

Fritz Perls was trained as a psychiatrist and Reichian therapist and led his first encounter groups in the mid 60s: Jessica Grogan tells us:

In contrast to traditional encounter groups that relied on the self-direction of the group, Perls held the reins in his groups. He utilized the concept of the “hot seat,” a position in which the seated individual received his full attention. Another empty chair was set beside the seated individual and served as an object of projection (it became the victim’s mother or father).

Perls then proceeded in the words of one Esalen historian to take the person apart by noticing and commenting on every defense mechanism, every body posture, every quiver of voice or eyes. Instead of allowing group members to interact with the hot-seated individual, Perls assumed full control while the group watched on in silence, and often, awe. After a brutal dissection of his subjects, Perls measured his success in tears. He then attempted to re-integrate the fractured person in order to create all new gestalt or whole person (Encountering America, p. 197)

Arthur Janov and the Center for Feeling Therapy

About the same time humanistic psychology was “letting it all hang out” at Esalen, in Los Angeles, Arthur Janov was developing what he called “primal therapy”. According to Janov, almost all of people’s problems centered around their parents not giving them the right amount of attention. The way Janov took his clients back in time to the original parental deprivation was a three-week isolation regimen with no external stimulation. When alone and not in therapy sessions the client was not to smoke, drink alcohol or coffee, watch TV, listen to the radio or talk on the phone. They were now raw enough to be taken back to the primal scene. As they got closer, they screamed more and more at their imagined parents. The idea was that once you got the screaming “out of your system” it was possible to begin living a full life instead of through muffled anger at parents.

In early 1979 A spin-off of Janov’s emerged, the Center for Feeling Therapy.  They followed Janov’s method of having the new client stay in a secluded motel room alone for three weeks. A new client of the center met with a therapist in marathon three to seven-hour individual sessions during which the person was attacked and criticized. Over the next 10 years, the center grew very successful. There were 350 patients living near one another and sharing homes. As often happens in cults, the demands of the therapists grew more bizarre and at the end all twelve therapists associated with the center lost or surrendered their licenses.

The problem with the construction of a romantic, expressive self is not just that the therapists had no scientific basis for the cathartic theory of the emotions, but that they stirred people up on marathon weekends but offered no structure for them to integrate all of what was stirred up after the weekends were over. Several suicides at Esalen in 1968-1969 served as painful indications of the Esalen staff’s inability to provide comprehensive services for the mess they had created. For more on the dark side of the human potential movements, see Singer and Lalich’s book, Crazy Therapies.

The sun sets on the romantic expressive self

The numbers of those involved in the counterculture during the 1967 Summer of Love was no more than 100,000 people. But by the early to mid-1970s “flower power” had become mainstream and hippiedom had arrived. As the counterculture became a more mainstream phenomenon, psychology found a new life in self-help books. From 1972 to 1979, self-help books mushroomed across bookstore shelves, but many were written by authors untrained in psychology. Nevertheless, as in any large bookstore, the psychology section contains at least 10 shelves of self-help books for every shelf of books that attempted to uphold some scholarly standard. Many self-help books actually disparaged psychotherapy directly.

By the mid-1970s, the humanistic movement seemed more self-indulgent rather than awakening a higher and deeper self. After 1975, Association for Humanistic Psychology (AHP) participation began to decline. In 1976 and 1977, the annual conference attracted about 2,000 participants. By 1980 that number was 1,000. Literary critics turned on the field and John Updike wrote that the American ride had run out of gas. The expressive self was withering on the vine.

Neoliberal Romantic Spiritual Psychology: The Mystical Self

In the early 1970s, feminist women’s spirituality was in crisis. On one hand, women fought for more inclusion within Protestant, Catholic and Jewish religious institutions. But for other women, all the world religions were patriarchal. They were drawn to pagan and neo-pagan traditions. Many joined already existing magical groups that centered on people like Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawn, while others like Starhawk started wiccan groups from scratch. At the heart of this movement were goddesses and gods and their mythology. Psychologically, all these groups were more or less influenced (whether they knew it or not) by the psychologist Carl Jung, the historian of religion, Mircea Eliade and the mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Commonalities between Jung, Eliade and Campbell

All three were anti-modern, rejecting science and materialism. Their idealistic past was either the medieval world (Jung), 19th century Romanian peasant culture (Eliade), or the early American West, including Native Americans (Campbell). Jung and Eliade rejected democracy and flirted with fascism. Campbell dissociated himself from the 60’s anti-war and civil rights movements. He was not sympathetic to minorities, feminists or toward liberal social programs. Campbell once said he would flunk any student who took part in political activism. All three were anti-communist.

All three mythologists developed a following in the United States. Why? On one hand, their theories went with the emerging anticommunism of the 1950s. On the other hand, they also corresponded to the growing uneasiness of the American middle classes and what they feared was too materialistic a way of life.

All three mythologists were, in different ways, hostile to Judeo-Christian religions, all of which they believed were complicit in modernist problems. Modern religions denied the importance of spiritual experience and were marred in superstitious rituals and material wealth. For all three, mythological stories are really about solutions to common human problems that have been lost, marginalized or demonized by traditional religion. All three mythologists were followers of a spiritual gnostic tradition which says there is a hidden spiritual knowledge that the ancients were aware of, but which has been lost, thanks to modernity. This gnostic tradition teaches that the material world is not reformable and it is better to withdraw from it in order to perfect oneself.

Though Jungian spirituality is eclectically Western, it is fair to say that Jung admired what he imagined to be pre-Christian German paganism. If James Hillman is any indicator, Jungian psychology is a modern version of the archetypal, polytheistic psychology of the Renaissance. The roots of Eliade’s religious beliefs are Hindu’s Vedanta tradition of yoga. According to Robert Ellwood, Campbell flirted with Hindu traditions but ultimately settled on the pagan traditions in the west, from Homer to the Holy Grail.

Carl Gustav Jung and Wotan’s Return

Collective unconscious

In The Politics of Myth, Robert Ellwood tells us that after his break with Freud in 1913, Jung underwent a spiritual crisis and came out of it with an array of archetypes drawn from pagan sun-worshiping volkish mysticism to which he later added other western esoteric traditions such as alchemy. Jung took Freud’s personal unconscious and collectivized it, arguing that nations and races each had a collective unconscious which could be tapped through their mythology and ritual. Jung thought that levels of the unconscious lay like geological strata in the psyche. Mythology was to culture what dreams were to the individual.        

In the modern world, the collective unconscious was repressed because modern religion has lost its ancient roots in mythology and ritual. Modern masses are alienated and lack the symbols, myth and rituals that would ground collective psychic energy and provide integration. Jung followed Ortega y Gasset in claiming that modern humans isolate socially from others, while also separating from their unconsciousness and instincts. To be fair to Jung, given this pessimism towards modernity, it is understandable that he flirted with the Nazi movement. Because of their rootlessness, modern humanity’s collective unconscious had more power and can be easily distorted into a monstrous hybrid which results in the worst of tribalism and modernism (Nazism). Jung realized this later.

Mircea Eliade and nostalgia for the sacred

Rejection of secularism

Eliade fled Romania after it became a satellite of the Soviet Union in 1945. In the same year, he taught at the Sorbonne in Paris and then, starting in 1956, at the University of Chicago. In these roles he became the most important historian of religion of his time. Eliade radically and systematically rejected the very epistemological and ontological foundations of the modern secular world. He thought the object of the study of religion was beyond historical analysis. For Eliade, ordinary means of knowledge and experience are not only flawed but are a “Veil of Maya” over our knowledge of reality. He saw himself as caretaker of spirituality against the assault of secularism. Why should he not try to engineer a religious destruction of the confidence in secular consciousness?

Eliade seemed to hold a degenerate theory of the history of religions. Rather than primitive societies consisting of backward, superstitious people, Eliade was all for Frazer’s description of bloody sacrifices, drunken banquets and carnivalesque masquerades as sacred activities.  Like Dumezil and other “order” theorists, Eliade felt that historical consciousness and modernity was a catastrophe for humanity’s sense of the sacred.

Sacred space and time

The arena of sacred time is myth, not history. Eliade believed that to live in historical time and place was to live under fallen conditions. Mystical experience was to live beyond history and place. Myth tells us of the eternal time of origins. Sacred space is the location in which myths are enacted. The world’s spiritual sites have common properties – they are perceived to be the navel, or center, of the world. This center is the cosmic tree where the perpetual regenerations of the world take place. Thus mandalas, mazes or labyrinths of medieval Christianity helps us to experience this center.

Joseph Campbell and the New Quest for the Holy Grail

The life of Campbell

According to Ellwood, Joseph Campbell was the best known of all interpreters of myth for late 20th century Americans due to his lively and highly readable books, grand lecture hall performances and PBS appearances with Bill Moyers. He was born in 1904 to Irish-American parents and both his grandfathers arrived in the US as poor immigrants who escaped the Irish potato famine. Joseph’s father was a successful salesman who rose his family to upper-middle classes status which exposed Joseph to the arts and cultures of the world, allowing him to attend concerts, plays and museums. After being taken by his father to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, he cultivated a strong interest in American Indians.

Spiritual influences

Through Thomas Mann, Campbell met Indologist Heinrich Zimmer. When Zimmer died in 1943, Campbell received the responsibility of editing Zimmer’s manuscripts. The Zimmer connection enabled Campbell to become attached to the famous Eranos conferences which included scholars like Eliade, Gershom Scholem who had revived the study of Jewish Kabbala, Henry Corbin of Iranian mysticism, as well Jung. Campbell became a major figure in the world mythology with the publication in 1949 of The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Despite his flirtation with Indian religion, a trip he made to India made him think twice because of the poverty and the disease he witnessed. In the end, he turned westward. Besides Native Americans, Campbell was drawn to Homer’s Odyssey and stories of the search for the Holy Grail. From 1959 through 1968 he wrote a great four-volume world mythology.

According to Campbell there are four functions of myth:

  • a mystical experience to awaken and maintain a sense of awe and gratitude;
  • an image of the universe in accord with the knowledge of the time (in the sciences);
  • implementation of a moral order; and,
  • to give an account stage by stage through life.

20th century myths: individualism in space: Star Wars

In the application of myths to today, Campbell was no reactionary. He proposed the place for myths to play themselves out today was in Outer Space. This is our mythology in a way that is comparable to the role of Arthurian fantasy in Victorian England and Wagner’s heroes in Wilhelmine Germany.

Ellwood makes a very interesting comparison between Star Trek and Star Wars as a way to demonstrate Campbell’s individualistic roots. Star Trek was about cooperation between the crew, not the individual. It isn’t even about the patriotism of, say, the United States. The crew members included people of many ethnicities. It was about humanity in space. In these episodes there was a direct struggle for power between humanity and extra-terrestrial civilizations. In the case of Star Wars, the theme was about the individual heroism of Luke Skywalker. In Star Wars, Arthurian legend and Wagnerian cycles of myths all show the ultimate futility of grasping for power.

Politically this has conservative implications.  How convenient this is to encourage people to withdraw from political power and engagements into the private world of mythological journeys. What kind of society would Campbell’s view of myth construct? Most likely a society of heroes like the characters of Star Wars who follow their own myths. Meanwhile a ground-crew of non-heroes (the working class) sing about heroes and the songs that keep the social order together. It is ironic that in spite of his conservative politics, he was extremely popular at Esalen.

The mystical self as the playground of the upper classes

What kind of Americans were drawn to Jung, Eliade and Campbell?

Interestingly the publisher of both Campbell and Jung’s work, Bollington, was owned by Paul Mellon, related to Andrew Mellon who was one of the wealthiest men of that time. Given the conservative tendencies of Jung and Campbell, it is not surprising that they found so much money to “spread their word” at a time of rabid anti-communism in the fifties, and as a reaction to the liberal and radical sixties with its expressive self.

Overwhelmingly, those drawn to Jung, Eliade and Campbell are upper middle-class and upper-class wealthy people – doctors, lawyers, architects and ministers from the upper middle-class as well as the independently wealthy. They are people who laid low during the 1960s and 1970s and then stepped forward into the vacuum left by the human potential movement. They became the upper-class version of the swing to the right-wing politics. This was happening at the same time when the lower classes were gravitating towards a right-wing fundamentalism in the churches of the South.

The place and misplace of romantic self

As I said at the beginning of Part I, romantic emotional and spiritualist selves are two different answers to the experience of feeling trapped by neoliberal modern social conditions and realist psychology. Their proposals are either to flee from all social relations (expressive self of the human potential movement) or to search for a premodern social life based on an organic community. Their reaction is either for the individual:

  1. to detach from society and rebel emotionally, or;
  2. to reject the associative, social contract relations of modern life, not by denying our social identity as the expressives do, but to dissolve into pre-modern social life as in the Middle Ages or into pre-Christian paganism.

Please see Table B for a more exhaustive comparison between the expressive and mystical selves.


The Spiritualisation of Culture

Much like socialism or love, ‘spiritual’ is a word that through overuse and misappropriation has been diluted to the point where it has lost virtually all meaning. Although commonly understood to allude to something separate from the material world, according to esoteric literature that which we regard as ‘spiritual’ – referring to spirit, and its opposite, form, exist in duality and are but the positive and negative polarities of one energy, which we broadly think of as ‘life’. Spirit then is the highest most refined form of matter, and matter is the lowest, or grossest form of spirit.

Helena Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society described this expanded structure in The Secret Doctrine (Vol. 1 p.79/80):

Life we look upon as the one form of existence, manifesting in what is called matter; or what, incorrectly separating them we name spirit, soul and matter in man. Matter is the vehicle for manifestation of soul on this plane of existence, and soul is the vehicle on a higher plane for the manifestation of spirit, and these three are a Trinity synthesized by life which pervades them all.

Under the prevailing doctrine of our current civilization – a form that has evolved over the last two thousand years or so and is now collapsing – the understanding of what constitutes ‘reality’ is limited largely to that which can be perceived via the sensory apparatus. If you can’t see, hear, touch or smell it, if the physical sciences, the God/s of the age, cannot quantify and qualify it, well, then (chances are) it doesn’t exist. Conversely, if you can and do experience ‘it’ through the senses, then it must be real.

Despite the large number of people in every country who are trying to live a life that is not dominated by materiality, it is nevertheless a materialistic era, ignorant and cynical; society and the systems that control is organized along lines consistent with the dogma and behavior is encouraged that conforms to the stereotype.

Wonder, the unexplained and the mysterious are laughingly indulged, flippantly disregarded or outright trashed. Miracles – ‘impossible happenings that happen’ –, which incidentally have been witnessed in unprecedented numbers over the last forty years or so, and continue unabated are largely ignored. Death, which is perhaps the leading example of ‘the unknown’, is regarded as something separate from life and the end of existence. It is thought of with dread as that awful thing that one day is going to tear us away from loved ones and from daily living, with its endless turmoil and conflict, pleasures and delights – all of which we are deeply attached to. As such death is widely regarded as inherently bad, something to be feared, not talked about and avoided for as long as possible.

This particular chapter of the belief system is much more common in western, so-called developed nations (most Americans e.g. are terrified of death) than in the east, India, Tibet, China, Japan and so on. In such ancient civilizations a more enlightened view of life and death is found, part of teachings of great wisdom and depth, aspects of which over the last hundred years or so have been circulating with increasing force in the west, bringing about a shift in attitudes among many. Stimulating growing interest in eastern practices like Hatha Yoga, Raja Yoga and meditation – another distorted and widely misunderstood term, and as such, one that is increasingly difficult to use with any real meaning.

Within such a reductive view, the physical body, including an endless stream of thoughts, within which ideologies and conditioning live and prosper, emotional feelings, and desires, become all-important. Collectively they form the construct of the self, and through unswerving, largely unquestioned identification, the notion of who we are as a separate individual ‘I’ is born and sustained. Sensory pleasure in its various forms – hedonism and the attainment of security – emotional and physiological, become the paramount aims, the purpose of life, the goal of all endeavor.

Association with such basic urges is encouraged and the image of the self as separate and isolated thereby strengthened. Consumerism in all its glory including the diverse world of entertainment is dependent upon the insatiable longing for stimulation and satisfaction being maintained, impulses that bring with them discontent, depression and anxiety, among a range of mental health illnesses, as well as a plethora of social issues.

It is an extremely narrow definition of life and self, and one that contradicts the teachings of the wise throughout the ages. Its divisive values and belief in separation have saturated every corner of civilization, dividing humanity, stamping on open-minded enquiry and common sense, feeding behavior that has led to endless wars, needless poverty and the environmental catastrophe, among other calamities.

Like all totalitarian ideologies, it is rooted in ignorance, and yet, like isms of all kinds, perhaps suspecting this, tolerates no opposition. All ideologies are limited and therefore false, all move along an ever-narrowing path of deceit and must result in crystallization: all imprison the mind, and if mankind is to be free, all must be rejected totally. Such confinements are totally incompatible with the times and should be among the first Casualties of Release.

Enthralled within Plato’s cave we stare into the shadows and believe them to be real, we have disregarded the wisdom of the ages, abandoned unified ways of the long, largely forgotten past, and collectively reached false conclusions about the nature of life and of ourselves. We fail to recognize and/or understand that there are basic laws that underlie all life. As a result, we consistently violate those laws setting in motion unstoppable, negative, consequences. Virtually all human thinking and behavior is motive-bound and therefore dishonest and polluting. It is the cause of all that is chaotic in our world, including the systems that imprison us, as well as every aspect of environmental disruption and ecological breakdown.

Transitional Times

As we clumsily and, for many, reluctantly, transition into a new time, a time colored by different qualities, encouraging alternate values and ways of thinking to the prevailing ones, tensions are created. Conflict between the old and dying and the incoming new, a clash between the prevailing materialistic dogma with its divisive ideals and a movement towards inclusiveness, responsibility and freedom is at the forefront.

It is a clash of values and understanding. Broadly speaking one set grows out of a decaying, but powerful identification with existing ideologies and forms. This approach proceeds from and strengthens the materialistic viewpoint, together with the belief in separation and its bed-mate, tribalism. The other senses an underlying unity to life, is curious and drawn to look within, to explore self-identity and discover meaning. We might legitimately describe this outlook as ‘spiritual’. It points towards an inherent and unchanging aspect of our nature and recognizes that humanity is one.

As awareness of this essential core, this ‘life within the form’, grows, it tends towards contentment because the mind is not as agitated by desire as it is when the focus is only external, something the current systems demand – contentment and peace of mind are the enemies of Neo-Liberalism. A mind thus oriented is a less ruffled mind; it cultivates values that we would readily recognize as good, fostering inclusivity and compassion.

With each day that passes we move ever more deeply into The New. As the past decays and its ideological grip weakens, as it must, what we might call The Spiritualization of Culture will intensify, stimulating a transformation of attitudes and the creation of new forms, breaking down divisions – within the individual, between peoples and between people and the natural environment.

Although commonly understood to allude to something separate from the material world, according to esoteric literature that which we regard as ‘spiritual’ – referring to spirit and its opposite, form, exist in duality and are but the positive and negative polarities of one energy. Spirit is the highest, most refined form of matter, and matter is the lowest, or grossest form of spirit.