On the brink of extinction, can we transform the western ego?
I’ve been reading Jerome Bernstein’s landmark work, Living in the Borderland: The evolution of consciousness and the challenge of healing trauma. It has never been more relevant than today.
He makes these main points.
(1) The development of the western ego has brought us to the brink of ecological disaster because it is overly rational.
“The western ego construct is the organ of rationality. The exclusion of transrational reality from consideration leaves it unchecked by any power outside itself and prone to profound and dangerous inflation. …The western ego construct buttresses its stance of omnipotence and omniscience with a claim to superior and absolute knowledge through its scientific construct. (p. xvi)
(2) Prior to the development of the western ego, the pervasive worldview was “indigenous,” the perception of a world filled with perceiving, intelligent persons, some of whom are human; an experiencing of overlapping being, of inseparability, of connectedness (Narvaez et al., 2019).
His experiences with the Navajo contributed to his realization of the worldview differences. For the Navajo, religion and healing are the same. The psychic connection with nature is the source of—and at the same time is inseparable from—spiritual and physical health.
(3) The development of the western ego was a necessary part of human evolution (the collective unconscious—he has a Jungian orientation). The sacred, as expressed in Navajo and other native cultures “was of necessity sacrificed to the development of what we have come to know as western culture.” (p. 12)
The initial development of the western world’s ego orientation emerged in the ancient middle east with the cultural orientation reflected in commands attributed to Yahweh in Genesis 1:28, KJV:
“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
This was an archetypal shift in relationship to nature, to the divine, with the development of a reflective consciousness, requiring separation: “From Genesis forward, God was to be experienced in anthropomorphic terms, unknown and mysterious, but forever distinct from nature.” (p. 25)
“One primary goal of the new consciousness commanded in Genesis was the development of a new psychic construct in human evolution. Pointedly, the goal was the development of this unique ego structure. “Dominion over the earth” was to be the means to that end. I am suggesting, however, that the underlying goal was not the simple control of the earth, but a boundaried and contained ego based on logic and the logos principle. This ego, unlike the ego merged-with-nature that preceded it, would elevate logic … to the exclusion of the arational, the irrational, and the transrational … It was to become an ego that would hold logic and rational process as superior and more real than feeling and intuition. It would consider any reality other than rationality as being inferior and less real.” (p. 21)
Egoic rationality evolved further under the golden age of ancient Greek culture, Western Enlightenment, and “by the end of the 20th century the western ego had virtually deified itself. (p. 21)
(4) Although all sorts of technological advancements have been the result of western culture, the ego has become overspecialized and like all overspecialized species, it will go extinct barring transformation. Bruno Latour, too, has noted the unfortunate consequences, describing the western egoic culture (“moderns”) as having:
“the rather unfortunate consequence, moreover, of creating, by contrast, a “knowing subject” and even a “mind” capable of extracting itself from “matter” by projecting an “external world” “outside” itself, a world whose existence has become uncertain, further more. It is this strange series of inventions that has made the Moderns opaque to themselves, and, what is more serious, it has left them unable to grasp the “other cultures,” which had been getting along perfectly well without either the “material world” or “subjects.” (Latour, 2013, p. 98)
(5) Transformation is occurring and clients experiencing the “Borderland” are the indicators.
Bernstein defines the Borderland as: “The psychic space where the hyper-developed and overly rational western ego is in the process of reconnecting with its split-off roots in nature.” (p. 8)
“It is to this dimension of the sacred that I believe evolution is now bringing us—to a reconnection in spite of our conscious intent. And it is a reconnection that is in process, a process that points forward, not backward, a process that is changing us profoundly. The nature of that change is the mystery that lies ahead … the progress of evolution accepts modifies, or rejects the forms through which an organism has passed—it does not revert to them … I see the deeper thrust of this new phase in our psychic evolution as a pulling back from the brink of self-extinction. It is in this sense that Borderland people are the unrecognized heroes and heroines of our collective evolution toward growth, consciousness, and individuation. Theirs is a large and sacred work. To the extent this is true, we all will stand or fall with the outcome.” (p. 12)
In the next related post, I discuss what he means by “collective evolution toward growth, consciousness, and individuation” in relation to what he learned from his clients in therapy.
Do You Feel Grief for the Natural World? You may be experiencing the transrational borderland, Part 2
In the Borderland of Consciousness. Is the human collective psyche shifting in these perilous times? Part 3