Last time we looked at the personal dimension of the wider context of your life. But since no one is an island, you also need to explore how you fit in to the rest of society and the world-at-large. Collective Context covers the myths and concepts that shape your life whether you’re aware of them or not – and especially if you’re not.
We’re all born into a particular family and culture, and this shapes our experience and expectations of life. Each culture has its own myths and maps of reality that underpin the structures and institutions of society and civilisation as a whole. A large part of the awakening process involves extricating yourself from these myths so you can see reality as it is, not as you believe it to be.
First, a few definitions: Culture relates to the customs and social norms of a particular group of people, but can also mean ideas expressed through the arts and media. Society relates to how those cultures organise themselves into a community, cohesive or otherwise. And Civilisation refers to a society that’s considered to be advanced and highly organised.
Collective Context covers the general world situation, plus the ideas and beliefs that underpin it, including:
- Society and Culture
- Economics and Politics
- Science and Technology
- History and Anthropology
- Religion and Philosophy
- Maps of Reality
- Myths of Civilisation
- Astrological Cycles and World Ages
- Mind War
Most of these are obvious, but some need explaining – especially the last one – but first: why does this matter?
Your map of reality is inherited from your culture, drilled into your head via socialisation, education, and the media. So when you look at the world, you look through a lens created by civilisation and its myths. This isn’t a good way to get a handle on reality because you’re using a distorted and distorting mirror.
This makes exploring the collective context of your life less than straightforward but even more important. If you don’t do the work to deconstruct these myths, your view of reality, the world, and yourself, will be shaped by forces you don’t understand. And that makes you easy to manipulate and control, which is where the Mind War bit comes in – more on that later.
Many of the ideas that underpin the structure of society are taken as givens, things we can’t change, but they’re not. The way the economy works, for example, is often presented as if we have no choice and it has to run this way. But the structure of society evolved into its current form and was actively shaped by myths that were usually unexamined.
In The Myths We Live By, Mary Midgley explores how the ideas we use to make sense of reality are formed from unconscious patterns of symbols:
“They are living parts of powerful myths – imaginative patterns that we all take for granted – ongoing dramas inside which we live our lives. These patterns shape the mental maps that we refer to when we want to place something. … They are the matrix of thought, the background that shapes our mental habits. They decide what we think important and what we ignore. They provide the tools with which we organise the mass of incoming data. When they are bad they can do a great deal of harm by distorting our selection and slanting our thinking. That is why we need to watch them so carefully.”
She particularly singles out the myths we inherited from the Enlightenment era that are now causing us a lot of bother because they were too simplistic and universalising. New ideas in society are usually introduced in order to solve a problem, but the solutions sometimes make things worse or have unintended consequences.
For example, many of the Enlightenment myths were introduced to deal with problems created by feudalism and the divine rule of kings. But the important idea of individual freedom morphed into atomism and alienation. And the myth of progress coupled with reductionism led to the development of scientism – a distortion of real science which has spawned a whole range of stupendously idiotic notions that feed into our fantasies about technology, AI and the conquering of nature.
We’re now saddled with a worldview that’s actively causing harm. In The Cry for Myth, Rollo May identifies the “ethical emptiness” that underpins our society and leaves people feeling anxious and isolated. This feeling comes from the myths we believe, as he explains:
“Myths are our self-interpretation of our inner selves in relation to the outside world. They are narrations by which our society is unified. Myths are essential to the process of keeping our souls alive and bringing us new meaning in a difficult and often meaningless world.”
But we only see the world as meaningless because the myths we inherited tell us it’s meaningless – that we live in a cold, empty universe of blind mechanical forces crashing into each other. Rupert Sheldrake calls this machine-like universe the ultimate anthropomorphic projection. We’re projecting our own loss of soul onto the universe.
Of course, the Enlightenment was more complex than the development of science and philosophy would suggest. There were many different perspectives floating around at the time, including the participatory epistemology of Romanticism, which can be traced back to Plato and his idea of Forms. But despite this, the scientific revolution transformed the way we see ourselves and our place in the world – for good and bad.
Our myths have trapped us in a web of complexity that we take for progress. Is there a way out?
In The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas suggests that our current worldview evolved in the same way that the individual mind develops from birth: from unconscious union to differentiation and ego consciousness, and then rebirth after a crisis into conscious union.
“…the Copernican revolution that emerged during the Renaissance and Reformation perfectly reflected the archetypal moment of modern humanity’s birth out of the ancient-medieval cosmic-ecclesiastical womb. And at the other end, the twentieth century’s massive and radical breakdown of so many structures – cultural, philosophical, scientific, religious, moral, artistic, social, economic, political, atomic, ecological – all this suggests the necessary deconstruction prior to a new birth.”
This archetypal pattern is also seen in the development of mythology, as explored in the Zodiac Myths series. It starts out embedded in nature as depicted in ancient shamanic religions and the goddess cults of the Great Mother. Then the feminine perspective was suppressed with the arrival of the sky gods and the development of the rational ego.
You could argue it went downhill from then on, with the demise of religion and the death of the gods. But this evolution was necessary because we had to differentiate from the natural world in order to become self-aware. That differentiation has now gone too far and tipped over into alienation – hence our current predicament and the need for new myths.
I don’t know if this story of our cultural evolution is true. From the historical perspective it appears to unfold this way, but history isn’t exactly reliable. History is written by the victors so this version is Western-centric and distorted by our particular biases. There are massive gaps in our knowledge of the past and many cultures that were more advanced than we’re led to believe.
The Western perspective tends to dismiss earlier world views and cultures as wrong or naïve because they’re seen as primitive. But this is an imperialist myth we inherited from the Enlightenment, spread through colonisation and turbocharged by the ideas of evolution and progress.
It means we assume we have the correct view of reality because we’re rational and therefore more advanced. But we never question the foundation of that supposed rationality. Jeremy Narby deconstructs this view in his brilliant book The Cosmic Serpent (read my review here).
Tarnas goes on to suggest that we’re going through a reunification of the opposites in the collective psyche, a kind of coming of age, or spiritual crisis that involves the ‘death’ of the ego and its myths about reality. He believes this has been the goal of our intellectual and cultural evolution from the start – to bring about a mass spiritual awakening.
Of course, it feeds our egos to see history this way – it puts us at the forefront, on the brink of exciting change. We get to be the most advanced, the most awake, the best humans ever!
Something about this doesn’t sit right with me, but what do I know?
There are other ways of describing how cultures change through history, and alternative cosmologies that turn our modern worldview on its head. If you follow this blog, it’s a safe bet you’re aware of many of these myths, including the idea of astrological ages driven by the precession of the equinoxes. This cycle places our current culture near the end of the Age of Pisces which could be why we’re seeing so much polarisation and the breakdown of our old myths.
We could also see the death of these myths and the rise of materialism as signs of the Kali Yuga, or any number of other myths about World Ages or apocalyptic prophecies of the end of the world.
In other words, what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily a sign of progress or improvement.
On the other hand, it may be that all these myths are true from a certain perspective, but that doesn’t help us work out what’s going on.
Here’s the problem: your map of reality is built from myths that distort your perception of reality. So you need to deconstruct the myths to shift your view of reality closer to the truth. But reality is consciousness itself and you can never escape the feedback loop of your mind.
Reality works like a mirror, reflecting what you expect to see back at you, whether your expectations are conscious or unconscious. In fact, it probably works better when they’re unconscious. And that’s the problem with these myths.
Our myths become our reality because we believe in them and then we live inside our beliefs. We take them literally and confuse the map with the territory. We live inside the idea we have of reality instead of reality itself. As Anaïs Nin said:
“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”
The ultimate myth is the separate self, or ego, because it underpins all the others. Civilisation is messed up because its structures are based on ego so it reflects our madness back at us. We made the world and the world shapes us – the ultimate vicious cycle.
It’s clear that the wrong myths can be damaging, even dangerous. The ones we currently believe could destroy us. But that doesn’t mean we should be looking for the ‘right’ reality map or the ultimate grand theory of everything. All maps are partial and limited, even the grand ones, and the best are only useful up to a point.
So this practice isn’t about debating the relative truth of these myths or whether there’s an absolute reality that underpins them. The aim of spiritual practice is to free yourself from all myths. And you do that by recognising that you’re trapped in a hall of mirrors, like Bruce Lee at the end of Enter the Dragon – you’ve got to smash those mirrors!
In a sense, all you have to do is tackle the main myth, the ego, and the rest will tumble. When your mind stops in satori you see through the illusion and all your maps dissolve.
However, you’re living in a culture that actively works to prevent you from seeing the truth of who you are, hence: Mind War – which doesn’t mean what you think it means!
It isn’t about fighting against the system or getting caught up in paranoid conspiracy theories. It’s about the practice of spiritual discernment and we delve into that here…