The Third Matrix: Humanity's Rite of Passage
The following is an excerpt from The Four Global Truths: Awakening to the Peril and Promise of Our Times. Part of the Evolver Editions series, The Four Global Truths introduces a treatise on planetary transformation that views worldwide ecological suffering through the framework of the Four Noble Truths, which form the basis of all the Buddhist traditions. The book is thus comprised of four chapters: The Reality of Global Suffering, The Roots of Global Suffering, The Relief of Global Suffering, and The Road to Recovery. What follows is taken from Chapter Three.
When viewed through a wide lens, our current global situation can be framed as a kind of initiation process for humanity, similar to that faced by the archetypal hero. In many of the world's myths, the hero is forced to confront some dangerous challenge, endure some difficult ordeal, or complete some seemingly impossible task, after which he usually emerges triumphant and transformed. Often the initiation involves dismemberment and death, followed by a re-membering and rebirth into a more fully integrated form in which the hero realizes his true calling or higher purpose. Typically the hero experiences a diminishment of his own ego-based identity and a connection with the larger collective to which he belongs.
The process of initiation, which appears not only in myths but in shamanic rituals and mystery cults of the ancient Near East, seems to hold symbolic significance for the modern human. Certainly the current global crisis represents the greatest challenge our species has ever faced, with stakes that could hardly be higher. The very structures that support life -- the only known life in the universe -- are being rapidly dismantled, and our daunting challenge is to come together as a human family in order to engage our collective wisdom, compassion, and creativity to preserve as much life as possible. This would seem to require an authentic, heroic humility; a softening of the rigidified ego structure; and a recognition of an intimate interconnectedness and interdependence with everything.
Not coincidentally, a softening of individual ego that allows for a deeper communion with other beings lies at the heart of Buddhist practice. Whether conceived as detachment from ego or an expansion of the self to include the whole world or even the entire Cosmos, the process involves a transformation of one's usual identity as a "skin-encapsulated ego," to borrow a phrase from philosopher Alan Watts. The degree to which one can break free -- if even temporarily -- from this self-imposed limitation is the degree to which inter-subjective communion can occur and compassion can manifest.
From a psychological perspective, one's ability to transcend ego may depend, somewhat paradoxically, on the strength and stability of one's sense of self. A secure foundation must first be established before it can be surmounted. In thinking about this apparent conundrum of spiritual progress, we might consider the egolessness of an infant: as much as we might envy her beautifully open-hearted expressiveness and spontaneity, hers is not a wise, serene, and selfless state to which we should aspire but a naive, volatile, and selfish one out of which we have grown (but may of course revisit on occasion, whether intentionally or not). This conflation of trans-egoic consciousness with pre-egoic consciousness is what Ken Wilber calls the "pre-trans fallacy," a kind of false romanticism that is often extended not only to young children but to prehistoric and traditional cultures.
Humanity's initiation can be regarded as a culmination of the collective individuation process that has unfolded over the course of human history. Having evolved into self-consciousness at the birth of civilization, self-knowledge during the Axial Age, and greater independence and self-security throughout history, Homo sapiens is now being called to greater self-transcendence and selflessness involving a compassionate regard for all forms of life and the Earth as a whole. Again, what our situation asks is not a reversion to some imaginary Eden of yesteryear, but an advance towards what has been dubbed Homo universalis, a new stage of evolution that, in Ken Wilber's terms, both "transcends and includes" all previous stages.
In terms of the death/rebirth process, the world's leading expert would have to be Stanislav Grof, a Czech-born psychologist who has witnessed, facilitated, and undergone thousands of such experiences over the course of his long career. Working initially with LSD and eventually with a special breathing technique (dubbed "holotropic" -- towards wholeness), Grof has plumbed the depths of the human psyche and expanded the map of consciousness well beyond the limits set by his predecessors. While Freud highlighted the importance of early childhood experience and Jung emphasized the collective unconscious and its archetypes, Grof found a vital link between the personal and transpersonal realms in the birth process, which he separates into four stages. Each of these four "basic perinatal matrixes" (BPMs) is characterized by particular archetypes and images that may be experienced during holotropic states, especially if connected with trauma. The idea is that by consciously confronting such normally repressed, unconscious material, a person may achieve greater psychological integration, balance, and wholeness.
Grof's expanded model of the psyche can be depicted as an hourglass, with the bottom half encompassing the personal, biographical realm and the top half outlining the transpersonal, archetypal realm. Between these lies the narrow canal of death and rebirth, through which passes both the fetus on its way to "personhood" and the disembodied psyche on its way to "transpersonhood." One may also pass through this bottleneck during non-ordinary states or during what Grof calls "spiritual emergencies," both of which involve a dissolution of ego boundaries. Depending on how complete or rapid is this personal death/transpersonal rebirth, it may be experienced as either terrifying or liberating.
As for humanity as a whole, it seems that we are currently in the midst of BPM-3, the birthing process, which involves an intense struggle for survival that is usually experienced as simultaneously pleasant and unpleasant. This matrix (which combines elements of BPM-2 and BPM-4, dominated by feelings of fear and joy, respectively) is commonly associated with images of military and revolutionary battles, boxing matches, treacherous airplane, boat, and car rides, wild parties, and carnivals. In these scenarios, in BPM-3 in general, and in our current global crisis there is a clear and present danger accompanied by a heightened awareness, as well as a hopeful sense that the threat can ultimately be vanquished.
Teaser image by Ivan Walsh, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet