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Author of the Month

Stephen Larsen, Ph.D. LMHC, BCIA-eeg, Author of the Month for February 2009

Why (some think) The Gods Must Be Crazy:
(Or how do we sink into delusion when we think that "God is on our side?") (cont.)
By Stephen Larsen

Fundamentalism seems a monster with many heads. In my book I try to show how there are secular, scientific, and political varieties. (Chairman Mao, a secular leader in a mostly a-theistic culture (Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist China) was promoted to almost the stature of a God, beyond criticism. Even to speak against the ideology of Maoism could get you a terrible beating.) Here Jung's psychology is more useful than Freud's. A secular figure becomes imbued with the archetype of the "divine-right king." It is not the content (perhaps even secular) of the belief system that makes it fundamentalist, it is the style: rigid, intolerant; absolutist.

Once we name the beast, how do we deal with it? This is where my book, for all its dark-seeming earlier speculation, finishes on a hopeful note. We find it in ourselves, the first technique to avoiding projecting on others. Owning your inner fundamentalist-the one who thinks he is God's gift to the earth, and hence is never wrong, or the one who thinks he is constantly being punished by God for bad thoughts-is indispensable. Catch yourself projecting stereotypes onto other people, or clinging to unworkable solutions with a death grip. On the group or collective level, I propose that religions do their own examination of conscience. Where have they capitulated to morally questionable points of view, or knuckled under to corrupt secular authority-for example in helping to beat the drums of war when a country was already poised on a cusp. Has the religion dominated or denigrated others. Is there a place for nature in God's plan-or is it only about humans? And so on…

I have been inspired by the work of both Charles Kimball, in his When Religion Becomes Evil, and George Lakoff in There's an Elephant in the Room. Kimball says that it's not just rigidity of viewpoint, but intolerance of any and all other viewpoints, and refusal to have a conversation. Behaviorally, that rigid attitude then devolves into unilateral action or violence, and the feeling that "the end justifies any means" (and the logic of Holy War assures the warrior his cause is sacred and has sanction from the top levels in the known universe.)

Lakoff teaches techniques for engaging others with different beliefs and points of view in a conversation. We all have a one-sided point of view, perhaps based on our genetic imprint, our upbringing, and our idiosyncratic emotional style. We must train our introspection, like the early psychologists from the time of Wilhelm Wundt and William James. Recognizing the demon in the self, we may learn to smile and tip our hat when we find it in others: "I see you there; I recognize you. Now, how do we use this occasion to grow together?

My own addition to this process goes back to Campbell: The contemplation on many mythologies leads to the ability to see myths as metaphors. (This is the subject of the book Campbell finished just before he died: The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth, and as Religion.) We train ourselves in transparency of vision, develop depth perception, and a nuanced and paradoxical understanding of the nature of the universe as it unfolds around and within us. We train ourselves to think symbolically as well as literalistically-using whichever fits the circumstance.

image
We must look within to reach the outer spaces of reality
Painting courtesy of Alex Grey

One of Campbell's favorite stories illustrates the point. An Indian guru was giving a discourse on how, all things are God, and so there need be no separation from God. A student bowed and left the ashram, only to return a few hours later, disheveled, battered and terrified. He told his pathetic story:

"I was in the street, and along came a procession, and I realized it was God. So I stood there. In the parade there was an elephant, with a mahout on his back, screaming for me to "Get out of the way! But I thought, "This elephant too is God."

You told us, master, "All is God: me, the procession, the elephant, even the stone wall he threw me against, after seizing me with his trunk-and almost trampling me. And here I am! What did I do wrong?"

The saint bowed and smiled. "You failed to listen to God screaming from the back of the elephant, to tell you to get out of the way!"

America (like India, Iran and Pakistan) is one of the most "religious" countries on Earth, estimated from the numbers of churchgoers in the population, and people who say they "believe" in God (a slightly lesser number than those who "believe" in the Devil.) But one gets the sense that the churches which are flourishing the most, are the Bible-belt Fundamentalist and Evangelical denominations-not the intellectual, liberal or tolerant varieties of Christianity. It would seem to be comforting to flee back to simplistic, comfortable ideas, rather than embracing the paradoxical and awesome nakedness of existence, as science seems to be revealing it. These groups overwhelmingly voted for a conservative agenda, and GW Bush, who seemed to incarnate this wish to embrace simplicity and put an end to ambiguity. The feeling was that somehow, with a "god-fearin'" man in the White house, blessings would shower down from above on the whole nation.

But for most Americans, this recent administration may be one of the most expensive lessons, ever, in why our Constitution has provisions for keeping church and state separate. We have needed-and need--a leader who keeps his religion private: inward, spiritual and symbolic, but casts a cold and clear eye on the economic, military, ideological, health and education realities (and for things he doesn't understand, he seeks the counsel of human experts, knowledgeable in those areas.) God did provide! He (She) gave to our diverse, fragile and wonderful species, minds sophisticated enough to deal with most of the problems humanity faces, as well as-in our spare time-continuing to work on the ever-unfolding enigmas of the universe. But for all this we need to be clear-headed and compassionate, not self-important, nor caught in clouds of theological delusion. The universe has never been humanity's biggest problem. We are it!

The Author

Stephen Larsen

Stephen Larsen received his B.A. (1964) and M.A. (1968) from Columbia University and his Ph.D. from the Union Institute (1975). He completed clinical Internships at Maryland Psychiatric Research Center with Stanislav Grof, M.D. and in New York with Edward C. Whitmont, M.D. (Director of training at the C.G. Jung Institute). He also trained extensively with professor Joseph Campbell in understanding the psychological dimension of mythology, until the latter's death in 1987.

He is Psychology Professor Emeritus from the State University of New York SUNY Ulster, where he held a faculty appointment from 1968-1996. While at SUNY he directed a program in consciousness studies and biofeedback, that for twenty-five years gave students a hands-on opportunity to train themselves and do research on the health benefits of biofeedback training. During the years 1978-85 he was a staff psychologist for Ulster County Mental Health Department. From 1975 to 1989 he was also consulting psychologist and staff member for the Green St. Center, a humanistic private practice in Kingston NY.

In 1990 he opened his own center for psychotherapy, biofeedback and training called Stone Mountain Counseling, PC, for which he continues to serve as director. The center specializes in LENS neurofeedback in which Dr. Larsen was certified in 1996. In 2003 he was certified in HeartMath, after training in Boulder Creek CA. Dr. Larsen is also certified in Qi Gong, the Chinese energy discipline, by Master T.K. Shih. He also holds a second degree black belt in So Ryu Karate Do, and taught both karate and yoga for many years. He has been an avid rock climber and trapeze amateur.

Stephen Larsen is author of The Shaman's Doorway, The Mythic Imagination, and with his wife Robin, A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell, and The Fashioning of Angels: Partnership as Spiritual Practice, as well as many scientific and scholarly papers, articles in journals, and book introductions. In 2006 he published The Healing Power of Neurofeedback: The Revolutionary LENS method for restoring Optimal Brain Function. In 2007 he published The Fundamentalist Mind: On how Polarized thinking Imperils Us All.

(You can learn more about Dr. Larsen's work at stonemountaincenter.com, symbolicstudies.org, or stonemountainfarm.org)

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