Photograph by Petra von Morstein Balancing Insight

Mary Lynn Richardson
talk given to the Apeiron Society, Calgary, Alberta
November 1994

This a large topic, and I am a small person. If I were not a small person, or if this were not a large topic, I probably would never have needed to learn anything about balancing insight. But as it is, I am not only a small person, but a small person with an almost insatiable craving to understand the worlds about me, a need to make sense of my observations and experiences, a desire to know. Now to have such a large and curious appetite is by and large a blessing - as I'm sure you know, because you wouldn't be here tonight if you weren't similarly blessed. I would not trade my curiosity in for anything. I follow the far-from- straight path it leads me on with much serendipity and delight, regularly rewarded with small epiphanies, and a fitting together of pieces of raw experience in ways which make sense and thereby, literally, expand my reality in this world.

Occasionally, however, I have hit pay dirt in the form of major insights in which many diverse pieces, in several different realms of reality, have suddenly fit together in ways I never expected them to, but in ways which suddenly became perfectly and beautifully clear. When this happens to any of us, it can of course can be tremendously exciting and energizing, and through such insights we can experience joy and ecstasy.

We value perfection and beauty. We tend, as a culture, to see energy and excitement, joy and ecstasy, as positive and desirable qualities. But energy cries for a channel of expression, it hardly lets us sit still, and excitement itself is an out-calling, a strong impulse - perhaps a fundamental psychic necessity - to articulate, to go out into the world, to shout from roof tops, to show others what one has seen. We find, as did Nietzsche's Zarathustra, that like a bee that has gathered too much honey, we need hands outstretched to receive it.

But to receive is difficult for many people, and what is honey for one might be vinegar - even poison - for another. (Think of Galileo! Think of Darwin!) Even our closest friends may find our excitement difficult to take and quickly turn their backs on it, stop listening, stop trying to see and understand. And then we can experience what Heraclitus called an enantiodromia, a swing to the opposite, and all that seemed so positive and beautiful turns suddenly dreadful and problematic, for all the excitement and energy is still there and, without an appropriate channel to flow in, becomes at best annoying, at worst dangerous. Experiencing this, we understand what Rainer Maria Rilke means, writing in the First Duino Elegy,

For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to
endure, and we are so awed because it serenely
disdains to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.

And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note
of my dark sobbing. Ah, whom can we ever turn to
in our need? Not angels, not humans.

And we know too that William Blake shook when he wrote:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Many scientists as well as poets have expressed such moments of insight, as have mystics and philosophers, musicians and painters, and some at least have achieved through their talent a balance in their human lives and personal relations. But others have not. David Halliburton, in his book on Heidegger titled Poetic Thinking, writes

. . . for poets great risks are involved in caring for the gift . . . In a letter to a friend, [Friedrich] Hölderlin expresses the fear that he will receive from the gods more than he can bear; in a feast- day hymn, the poet is called upon to heed the divine and pass on to the people the heavenly gift; and finally, on returning, insane, to his mother's home, Hölderlin declares that, like a hero of old, he has been struck by Apollo.

On this Heidegger comments that "The too great light has plunged the poet into darkness."

You can each, I am sure, think of other examples where this is true, not only among poets and philosophers, but among scientists, among visual artists of every sort, even among psychotherapists.

Indeed, at the level of deep insight, insight into deep levels of reality, perhaps there is no essential distinction between poet, philosopher, mystic, scientist, painter, psychologist, musician, theologian. Each - as Geoffrey [Bishop] showed here in September - has been following some basic curiosity, some basic need for understanding, using mathematics or prayer; painting or poetry; prose or philosophical postulate as a vehicle for exploration, and each has been rewarded by insight that shocks, that startles. Each is a philosopher by Nietzsche's definition in Beyond Good and Evil, for each is

. . . a human being who constantly experiences, hears, suspects, hopes, and dreams extraordinary things; who is struck by his own thoughts as if from outside, as from above and below, as by type of experiences and lightning bolts; who is perhaps himself a storm pregnant with new lightnings . . .

And perhaps what each discovers at some point, is what the Nobel physicist Niels Bohr discovered: that if any others could understand what he was talking about, they would be profoundly shocked: shocked to the very core of their beings. As, indeed, was Einstein, who resisted the implications of Bohr's work to the end of his days.

The human psyche protects itself against such shocks. As Joseph Campbell wrote in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

Anyone unable to understand a god sees it as a devil and is thus defended from the approach.

("God" and "devil" being used metaphorically here, of course). Or as Campbell said elsewhere:

If an intruder is unable to encompass a sanctuary he effectively remains without.

But what of the philosopher (using the term broadly now) who, through her or his insight, has entered a sanctuary where others may not venture? The insight has changed her perception of reality, and thereby changed the world in which she lives. This was hardly what she sought. She sought understanding. She sought to understand her world. She needed it to make sense. And now that it does make sense, she has somehow moved out of it by moving beyond its old parameters. It has changed on her and no longer coincides with the realm of consensual reality she has taken for granted.

And suddenly - terribly - even if the insight gives her a picture of the interconnectedness and perfection of all being, even if she sees and experiences Oneness and her place within it in a moment of 'complete clarity' (to use Wittgenstein's term) or 'absolute satisfaction' (to use Kierkegaard's) she is at the same time removed from the realm of consensual reality in which those around her live, and this is something which paradoxically can defy the understanding by which she lived her life up to this moment.

We think of insight as a synonym for understanding. Indeed understanding is an integral part of the definition of insight. In my Webster's it is defined as:

1.  the ability to see and understand clearly the inner nature of things, esp. by intuition; and

2.  a clear understanding of the inner nature of some specific thing.

So understanding is clearly connected with insight, but it is understanding of the nature of things and as such is of little help in the world of Globe and Mail reality. The writer Laurens van der Post, in an autobiographical novel says, "It's no good finding the road to heaven and not being able to cross a London street." And one of the Buddhist sutras warns that to "see the absolute is not yet enlightenment."

What was sought was understanding in, and of, the world of the Globe and Mail and London Streets, the world of sun and moon and revolving stars, of apples falling from trees, of strange finches in the Galapagos. What was found instead, suddenly, was a world beyond, with the normal world seen through as though it had become transparent, an illusion, insubstantial, no longer object for the senses. Something extraordinarily complex has become extremely simple, the One is directly perceived, but how does one walk within it?

In a poem called Icarus I describe such as experience:

How was I to know
That by burrowing deep
I should find myself so high?

How was I to know -
except from dream -
that by reaching the core
of the mountain,
I would grow wings
of the rich robe I wore,
would fly like a rocket
to the lap of the moon,
be embraced as a sunchild,

see, on the face
of the Blue Pearl below,
Africa, beloved home,
sunny over Turkana, the Jade Sea;
the equator a ring, diamond-set
with the glacial snow of Kerenyaga,
Mountain of Mystery; and
clouds swirling, a chorus dance
all along the Tropic of Cancer?

How was I to know
that breaking through,
seeing into,
would send my neural electrons
into outer orbit,
make everything clear,
come together,

Yes simple, not complex.
From that height the labyrinth
is a clear pattern
of miracle
and infinite beauty -
not a tortuous trek through
blind alleys.

So easy, so clear,
so still, so sweet -
Save for the energy of fusion
as it all comes together,

that impels me to fly
over the edge,
into the Void,
leap out of the network
of thought,
experience the limitless ocean
of Mind

With faulty wing
and crash -
Icarus fashion.

Plato, too, knew this territory. In the Phaedrus he writes:

I will endeavour to explain to you in what way the mortal differs from the immortal creature. The soul or animate being has the care of the inanimate, and traverses the whole heaven in divers form appearing;--when perfect and fully winged she soars upward, and is the ruler of the universe; while the imperfect soul loses her feathers, and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground.

The solid ground. The stoneground of Wittgenstein that Petra [von Morstein] spoke of here in September, the stoneground which turns back one's spade. One has "bottomed out" to use the term of her Religious Realism paper presented last year, and here - for those of you who weren't here, or don't remember - I quote from part of this paper:

After a severe personal crisis I often find myself to the bottom of my being, with no point of reference to hold on to, no map to guide me: a state of no-knowledge, no-understanding, which is certainly no paradise; but it is, literally, innocence. In personal crisis we do not tend methodically to move to the bottom of our being. We fall, and then either give up or look at what is given, after all meaning is lost. Such looking is a religious, realistic move. Don't think, look. You have reached a place from which you can only go on and up, but not further down, given that you can move at all. You have no map, no conception of path when you begin to go up. You can take no step as secure, every step is questionable, there is no framework for your questions. At every step you look at the terrain without preconceptions, until, in due course, a sense of perspective more or less appropriate to your situation in the terrain begins to develop. Your anxiety at every step, your looking while suspending thought, is indispensable in the (re)development of perspective, in the process of re-orientation. You have been in what Karl Jaspers calls a Grenzsituation the limit between the end and the (re)beginning of your life, the edge between being and non-being, sense and no-sense. On the bottom of existence you have no sense of orientation; this is to say that you cannot make sense of anything, you cannot give meaning to anything.

You have, in other terms, made a descensus ad inferos - a descent into hell. From too much light you have plunged into darkness. You have experienced the enantiodromia. In the metaphor of a friend who is an Anglican priest, "By putting together all the pieces of the puzzle you have seen the face on the other side. What you didn't realize is that the face on the other side is the face of God. And if you see the face of God, you die."

Death here is of course not literal, though I suspect it could be. What has died is the Ego: that which is personal and human about me or you; that individual centre from which we must operate in order to cross a London street or deal with the world of Globe and Mail reality. Death of the Ego, in psychological terms is called an inflation, which means that the Ego has been invaded by archetypal energies - collective patterns of being each of us carries deep within our psyches - and which some call the gods and goddesses. Such energies can be positive (expansive) or negative (annihilating); indeed, because each archetype has both a positive and negative face, it is common in times of extreme insight to experience the rapid and direct flipping between purest ecstasy and deepest despair, as the metaphysician Gurdjieff and many others have documented.

In a rather lengthy footnote within his classic paper The relations between the Ego and the Unconscious, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung - drawing on personal experience as well as experience with patients - writes of inflation:

This phenomenon, which results from the extension of consciousness . . . occurs whenever people are overpowered by knowledge or by some new realization. "Knowledge puffeth up," Paul writes to the Corinthians, for the new knowledge had turned the heads of many, as indeed constantly happens. The inflation (and here the emphasis is my own) has nothing to do with the KIND of knowledge, but simply and solely with the fact that any new knowledge can so seize hold of a weak head that he no longer sees and hears anything else. He is hypnotized by it, and instantly believes he has solved the riddle of the universe. But that is equivalent to almighty self-conceit. This process is such a general reaction that, in Genesis 2:17, eating of the tree of knowledge is represented as a deadly sin. It may not be immediately apparent why greater consciousness followed by self-conceit should be a dangerous thing. Genesis represents the act of becoming conscious as a taboo infringement, as though knowledge meant that a sacrosanct barrier had been impiously overstepped. I think that Genesis is right in so far as every step towards greater consciousness in a kind of Promethean guilt: through knowledge, the gods are as it were robbed of their fire, that is, something that was the property of the unconscious powers is torn out of its natural context and subordinated to the whim of the conscious mind. The man who has usurped the new knowledge suffers, however, a transformation or enlargement of consciousness, which no longer resembles that of his fellow men. He has raised himself above the human level of his age ("ye shall become like unto God"), but in so doing has alienated himself from humanity. The pain of this loneliness is the vengeance of the gods, for never again can he return to mankind. He is, as the myth says, chained to the lonely cliffs . . . forsaken of God and men.

Forsaken of God and men. How closely this resonates with Rilke's

. . . whom can we ever turn to
in our need? Not angels, not humans.

And can you not also hear

My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?

the words of the Psalm of David which Christ cried out on the cross?

Forsaken of God and men, unable to turn to angels or humans, we want nothing more than to need neither, to be totally self- sufficient. Our insight, whatever it may have been, has at best lost all personal meaning, at worst has become an instrument of torture, for surely "it" is responsible for this pain of isolation from our fellows. Here, while outwardly we may cling desperately, in stranglehold, to the relationships and social positions we do have, inside we erect walls behind which, and within which, we hide in shame from our fall, shame of our difference from those around us, shame of our unwantedness. Such psychic walls form a tomb to contain that which has died within us. Or we might better call it a chrysalis within which our old identity begins to dissolve, without anything yet to replace it. In his poem East Coker, T.S. Eliot speaks of this experience:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith But
the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. Wait
without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Yes, in the stillness the dancing. For in the dark tomb of a chrysalis change takes place on a microscopic level. Cells dance in the dark, and there comes a point of no return (technically, in biological parlance, the "imaginal stage") when there are no more caterpillar cells, and as yet no butterfly cells. In the language of alchemy and depth psychology this stage of living death is well known and called, descriptively, the *putrefactio*. In more common parlance we may simply speak of depression. We are far indeed now from perfection and beauty, energy and excitement, joy and ecstasy. And yet even within such a space we may experience surprises of self-connection, and secret mysterious pleasure. In an early poem, one of the "Book for the Hours of Prayer," Rilke writes:

Yet no matter how deeply I go down into myself
my God is dark, and like a webbing made of a hundred roots,
that drink in silence.

and in another of the same period

I love the dark hours of my being
in which my senses drop into the deep.
I have found in them, as in old letters,
my private life, that is already lived through,
and become wide and powerful now,
-- like legends.

Like legends. In this psychically dark space, this space of unknowing which Petra reminded us is literally "innocence," a new structure is beginning to form and be sensed. A structure is forming out of a "decomposed" sense of identity, and this new structure now has its own internal cohesion, as a legend or a myth has.

Those of us who were here last month for Peter [Fitzgerald- Moore]'s talk on Self-Organizing Systems may recognize the process by which such a new form emerges as "autopoietic." An autopoietic process is one in which there is an integration of information gathered in a previous state, this previous state characterized by an almost indiscriminate influx of information through permeable boundaries. As Peter so beautifully elucidated, autopoeisis could only proceed by closing and guarding the boundary, allowing an exchange of energy - but not information - with the outside, making the closed system within self-referential.

Those of us who were here may also remember that, in connection with this, Petra remarked that Hegel recognized self-referential and self-reflective closure as feeding the next dialectic step.

A dialectic process is one which implies a dialogue and relationship. Hegel also used the term specifically to refer to

1.  The process whereby a thought or an existing thing necessarily leads to or changes into its opposite (or contradictory) and thereby a new synthesis (unity) is arrived at; and

2.  The process of change in thought and the universe whereby a higher level of knowledge (truth) and existence (unity) is reached by means of the necessary opposition of contradictories.

It is therefore extremely close to our original term enantiodromia except now a synthesis of the opposites is implied. Indeed "synthesis" is similarly implied in the very term . This new structure - this structure "like a legend" - forming within our tomb-like chrysalis, this newly emergent structure which integrates as it develops all the understanding that has been previously taken in through the phenomenon of insight but which has hitherto remained as undigested and unassimilated as an elephant swallowed by a boa constrictor, is now finally becoming part of us. Here we begin to understand physically, in the deepest part of our being, what the young 18th Century poet-philosopher Novalis wrote in his collection of "Pollen":

To what extent can a human being have a sense for something, if he doesn't have its embryo inside him? Whatever I come to understand must itself develop organically in myself, and what I seem to learn is only nourishment and cultivation of that inner organism.

This developing embryo inside us, is true understanding: understanding (to paraphrase an early ideal of Rilke's) in which we may quietly confirm the existence of our insights without experiencing anything more or different than facts. Having thus embodied and literally articulated them (articulation being the process wherein elements are both distinguished from one another and conjoined) we may begin to trust the validity of our original insight without needing to shout it from rooftops, without needing - desperately - the understanding of others to balance our being in the world of the Globe and Mail and London streets as we did when the lightning bolt of insight - of understanding the inner nature things - was so overwhelming we had difficulty perceiving the outer reality of the things themselves.

This may outwardly seem like a "chicken and egg" situation, but it is not. It is the dialectic process at work. It is the emergence of consciousness as the term consciousness is used in depth psychology to mean the capacity to carry within oneself the tension of the opposites.

Here, in the emerging embryo which carries opposites in tension, we have what - in alchemical terms - is given the symbol of the "hermaphrodite." Yet paradoxically this "hermaphrodite" which contains all opposites, is far from whole.

" . . . each of us," writes Carl Jung, "is an hermaphroditic being, capable of uniting the opposites, but who is never complete in the individual unless related to another individual. The unrelated human being lacks wholeness, for he can achieve wholeness only through the soul, and the soul cannot exist without its other side, which is always found in a "you." Wholeness is a combination of I and You . . . "

The point at which we realize this in our innermost beings is our deepest place of solitude and isolation. We come face to face with a woundedness which seems, at times, to have been formed by a tearing apart of the very fabric of our souls. It is the raw and exposed surface of soul with nothing to protect it from our gaze, nothing to anaesthetize it from our sensation.

Here we are face to face with the ugliness of our imperfection, as far as we can imagine from energy and excitement, joy and ecstasy. There is nothing in our culture (despite the current "cult of the victim" which pervades it) to tell us these are positive and desirable qualities. Yet it is this that the Buddha must have seen when he said "life is suffering" for here, in a way we have perhaps never known before, we are face-to-face with Life.

The challenge here is to stay with the pain, to recognize that there is something extraordinarily important about this raw and exposed face of the soul. Perhaps the fact that, as a Palaeontologist, I spent many long hours many years ago piecing together many fragments of fossil bone in which the greatest labour and challenge was to get a broken surface to exactly this state without breaking it, helps me appreciate the intrinsic value of such a surface, for now it is ready - in a way unimaginable before - for bonding into wholeness. What is needed here is to keep the surface clean, to stay with the anguish "in attention to and consideration of" it - which, as Petra pointed out in her paper on Religious Realism, is the stance in the world which is both religious and realistic. In this place, in the words of a poem by Nellie Sachs which arrived out of the ether as I was thinking about this the other day:

"Who among us may solace?"
In the depths of the gorge
Between yesterday and tomorrow
Stands the cherub
Pulverizing with his wings the lightning bolts of grief
While his hands hold apart the rocks of yesterday and tomorrow
Like the ruins of a wound
That must remain open
That may not yet heal.
Who among us may solace?

In the gorge, at the rocky bottom of abyss, we are not propelled upward and outward, for we are deeply connected with ourselves.

"There is an inwardness," wrote French philosopher Louis Lavelle, "an intimité which no eye can see, but it is reality's ultimate bedrock, beyond which it is impossible to go, and which one cannot reach without first passing through all the superficial layers . . . It is indeed, as many believe the remotest point of solitude. But also, the moment we discover it, we are no longer alone. A world opens out which is within us but into which every being can be invited. An apprehension may arise that perhaps we are indeed still alone, and that this inner world is but a dream island. But should another enter with us, this dream becomes a reality, and this island a continent."

Should another enter with us. Not just any other, but another able to see and hear and sense the raw, exposed face of our soul, to match it with his or her own. A soul-mate.

All fundamental insights, all insight into the deep levels of reality, show us the interconnectedness and perfection of Being. This, as I have said earlier, is as true if the insight is expressed mathematically or poetically, in painting or in music. In touching the raw, exposed face of our soul, of our very Being, it should therefore not surprise us that those (often, and perhaps necessarily, more than one) who might enter with us in the place of intimité, are close, physically and outwardly present in our worlds. In some mysterious fashion we develop with them a dialogue, a relationship, in which a Third - a We that is far from fusion of I and You but rather a dance between them - comes into being. This dance, this dialectic, in turn facilitates the process of emergence. From the realm of the dark night of the Soul, we enter now into the realm of Spirit. Hegel captures this beautifully (if in terminology which requires close attention) in his Phenomenology of Spirit:

A self-consciousness, in being an object, is as much 'I' as 'object.' With this we have already before us the notion of spirit. What still lies ahead for consciousness is the experience of what Spirit is - this absolute substance which is the unity of the different independent self-consciousnesses which, in their opposition, enjoy perfect freedom and independence: 'I' that is 'We' and 'We' that is 'I.' It is in self-consciousness, in the Notion of Spirit, that consciousness first finds its turning-point, where it leaves behind it the colourful show of the sensuous here-and-now and the nightlike void of the supersensible beyond, and steps out into the spiritual daylight of the present.

Octavio Paz, near the end of his epic poem Sunstone, expresses something very similar in these words:

door of being, dawn and wake me,
allow me to see the face of this day,
allow me to see the face of this night,
all communicates, all is transformed,
arch of blood, bridge of the pulse,
take me to the other side of this night,
where I am you, we are us,
the kingdom where pronouns are intertwined

And so we discover that the embryo which has been emerging into the "spiritual daylight of the present," this embryo by which we have come to understand ourselves, is not in fact an I alone, but a We, an Us. We have come to understand in embodied living experience the "concrete transcendental I" of Husserl where, in being as fully myself as possible, I am also You, and You are me. In the clarity of such wholeness, we have come paradoxically, to the living mystery of life which, as Jung wrote in a letter a few months before he died, "is the true mystery that words cannot tell and arguments cannot exhaust."

In this way - and I believe only in this way - may we achieve a true balance of insight.

This may seem to have taken us far from our theme of Science, but I believe in reality it has not. Every scientist who experiences a major insight will discover a force - a force far greater than he or she - which strives to balance, through his or her own being, the implications of the insight. This is a shocking claim with which to end (and I certainly do not claim that in all the balance is achieved), but I would like to close with a short example from the life of Niels Bohr which I believe succinctly summarizes the full circle of this talk. I take this account from the book The making of the atomic bomb by Richard Rhodes.

Bohr as a young man came repeatedly close to nervous breakdowns as he faced the implications of his insights into the deep structure of matter. Specifically what happened was that he could not find an "I." Or rather he could find so many of them - "a terrifying infinity of 'I's" - that he could not determine where he was. He finally found this problem mirrored in a novel by Poul Martin Møller which he encountered as a student at the University of Copenhagen. This helped Bohr a great deal. One passage in particular he often quoted in describing the condition to others:

[I start] to think about my own thoughts of the situation in which I find myself. I even think that I think of it, and divide myself into an infinite retrogressive sequence of "I's" who consider each other. I do not know at which "I" to stop as the actual, and in the moment I stop at one, there is indeed again an "I" which stops at it. I become confused and feel a dizziness as if I were looking down into a bottomless abyss.

Rhodes writes:

Ratiocination - [which] is the technical term for . . . what young Bohr did . . . - is a defense mechanism against anxiety. Thought spirals, panicky and compulsive. Doubt doubles and redoubles, paralyzing action, emptying out the world. The mechanism is infinitely regressive because once the victim knows the trick, he can doubt anything, even doubt itself. Philosophically the phenomenon could be interesting, but as a practical matter ratiocination is a way of stalling. If work is never finished, its quality cannot be judged. The trouble is that stalling postpones the confrontation and adds that guilt to the burden. Anxiety increases; the mechanism accelerates its spiraling flights; the self feels as if it will fragment; the multiplying "I" dramatizes the feeling of impending breakup. At that point madness reveals its horrors; the image that recurred in Bohr's conversation and writing throughout his life was the . . . "bottomless abyss." We are "suspended in language," Bohr liked to say, evoking that abyss; and one of his favorite quotations was two lines from Schiller:

Nur die Fülle führt zur Klarheit,
Und im Abgrund wohnt die Wahrheit

Only wholeness leads to clarity,
And truth lies in the abyss.

But it was not in Møller['s novel] that Bohr found solid footing. He needed more than a novel, however apposite, for that. He needed what we all need for sanity: he needed love and work.

Thank you.

works_tn.jpg (1700 bytes)© M.L.Richardson, 1994, 1999