Tuesday 12 December 2017

John Michell on the meaning of coincidences (synchronicities)

I once kept a coincidence diary... and I found that the more I noticed them, the more frequently they occurred. 

If I thought about someone he would immediately call or write; words I had never previously heard of repeated themselves in twos or threes; the clues in my crossword began giving personal messages; long-lost objects began reappearing in places where they should always have been; and if I wanted a reference to any subject, I had only to pick up a book lying one someone's table and there it was. 

Life became so nervously intense that I grew tired of it, gave up the diary, and sank back into normality. 

I think that during that period I was in a state of Primordial Perception, the state in which our primitive by highly sensitised nomadic ancestors lived. To live well, or at all, they had to be alert to all the clues and hints which nature provides, and know how to take advantage of them. 

They rode their luck, but not fatalistically but as they themselves made it; through the forms of sympathetic magic, which develop naturally from the primordial, spiritual mode of perception. 

That is not a state in which one can comfortably live today. It clashes painfully with the modern way of perception; and those who discover or fall into it are liable to end-up in the madhouse...

From 'Just a coincidence' in The John Michell Reader: Writings and rants of a radical traditionalist (edited by Joscelyn Godwin), 2015.

This is one of those matters about which Owen Barfield's scheme of Original Participation versus Final Participation has much to say. To do what Michell did, was to recover Original Participation - that is, to some extent to recover (in the adulthood, in the modern world) the child-like state of unconscious belonging-in the world.

But this recovery is only partly possible and entails a lowering of self-consciousness. This is indeed a path chosen by many - for example Michell; who reportedly smoked cannabis almost continually; presumably partly for this purpose. Other people use alcohol, trance states, partial sleep, or immersion in suitable external stimuli (this path is taken by separatists among tribal people).

Michell indeed advocated explicitly (and argued beautifully for) a return to an earlier state of group-consciousness - in effect to Original Participation.

But I would regard this as a failure of our spiritual destiny towards divine consciousness, as well as being in-practice impossible: having discovered that life was fuller of meaning than he supposed, Michell felt compelled to give-up this unconscious participation in the world because he felt himself slipping-towards insanity.

What we are supposed to infer from the proliferation of coincidences (i.e. synchronicities) which happens after they are noticed and taken seriously as communications; is that we should move forward to Final Participation - instead of sinking-into Life, we should bring all Life together into the encompassing, intuitive thinking of the real self: into Primary Thinking.

Instead of trying to lose our self-consciousness into a waking-dream; we should aim to expand our consciousness to include meaningful-coincidences in the stream of thought; to intensify thinking by learning how to think in freedom, from our-selves - instead of allowing thinking to become almost-always automatic, robotic, inculcated, manipulated...

So, it is a pity that Michell did not press forward into his life of coincidences; as probably (as a modern prophet) he really should have done. It was a test that he failed. Lapsing back into the usual incoherent and despairing compromise did not really help him, or us.


Chiu ChunLing said...

This revises somewhat my perception of what you mean by the progression of Original and Final Participation.

I do have to say unambiguously that Michell was wrong. His experiment did not approach how our prehistoric ancestors lived. But it is true that they thought without some of the conceptual tools that we now use. One of those tools is "identity politics", splitting society up into a hundred categories of person based on their age, sex, race, and general occupation, and then assigning to each of those groups a single character that is supposed to represent all examples of that group. One sees this in how we talk about cops, or lawyers, or welfare recipients. The members of these groups are simply assumed to all be the same, whatever you say about one must be true of all.

That's a necessity of adapting to life in a civilization when our brains were made for life in large extended family groups of a couple hundred individuals, many of them young children. But I think it has nothing to do with what Michell observed.

On the other hand, I think that there is something to the idea that, to enter Final Participation, we have to abandon our civilized tendency to immediately assume a great deal about an individual we've never seen before based only on superficial indications of membership in a group and instead face that we actually know nothing at all about them and must learn who they are from scratch.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - I think - from my reading about hunter gatheres - that Michell was basically right!


Chiu ChunLing said...

Well, I think that modern humans still naively anthropomorphize nature, though far less usefully. Nothing about such 'friendship' with elements of the natural world makes it difficult to live in modernity, it only affects being taken seriously as a scientist (and that less than people tend to fear). But what civilized men do that primitives didn't is anthropomorphize abstract categories of people and then treat real individuals as if they were just representatives of those categories.

In other words, if we become aware of the spiritual reality of nature, it highlights how much worse we really treat other people, except for a small number of friends. I think that probably is quite uncomfortable for most people.

I'm not at all sure that Michell faced and attempted the necessity of only dealing with real people as individuals, strangers or not, if one is to embrace a full respect for the spiritual quality and presence in nature.