Georg Feuerstein. Structures of Consciousness:. Lower Lake, Calif.: Integral Publishing, 1987. Paperback, 240 pp. (Only available as an antiquarian book)
It was my privilege to read this book twice, once in manuscript form and once following publication. The second reading more than confirmed the impression left by the first, namely that here is a book of profound importance for our time. It is an introduction and critique of the “genius” of Jean Gebser, a relatively obscure philosopher of culture who died in Berne, Switzerland, in 1973. To bring his work out of obscurity is one of the stated intentions of the author. He does this admirably. And he does more.
Why Gebser’s work has remained in relative obscurity for so long is itself a fascinating question. His magnum opus, The Ever Present Origin, appeared in 1949 and only reached the English-speaking world in 1985. No doubt, many reasons could be offered in answer to the obscurity question, not the least being that his work was conceived and executed outside the bounds of orthodoxy; that he was a philosopher of culture who worked between disciplinary boundaries; that both his approach and his conclusions raised the eyebrows of those convinced that rationality was somehow the pinnacle of the evolutionary process, that anything less was “primitive” and anything more was sheer speculation and not to be trusted. But perhaps Feuerstein is close to the heart of the matter when he writes that Gebser’s conclusions “imply an uncomfortable moral demand that only those will meet who are committed to living as homo humanus, the whole being, transcending the parochial visions of egotism, sexism, nationalistic ideology, religious imperialism, and racism.” (Page 8)
By introducing Gebser’s work at this time Feuerstein may well sense a cultural readiness that was not present, even a decade or two ago, to hear from one whose main concern it was to treat the spiritual with every bit as much respect and care as the pre-historical and historical. If this were just a book introducing Gebser`s work and extending it in the process, it would already be a major contribution to our time. But the book is more than that. Perhaps because he has gotten on the inside of the man and his work and consciously brought to the task his own life-experience and encyclopedic knowledge, Feuerstein offers us the tools for examining not only our own lives but the times in which we live. Clearly these tools are derived from Gebser’s exposition of the structures of consciousness. But Feuerstein’s interpretation and critique of those structures, his application of them, and his going beyond them as he follows his own sensibilities, offer the reader a model for working in her or his own life.
So far as the structures themselves are concerned, we encounter them not only in those who preceded us historically, but in ourselves as well. For example, in deep sleep the archaic consciousness as presentiment is present. Here we are one with our earliest forebears. In those moments when we so identify with nature that we touch ourselves when we feel rocks, smell ourselves when we smell the sap flowing from trees and know the rain as our own tears, we experience consciousness as magical and we are one with the magicians of the ages. When larger-than-life figures impinge on our lives evoking our worship and calling forth the fullness of our imagination, we are in the world of our mythical consciousness. When we distinguish ourselves as subjects in the midst of objects, think causatively, feel we are awake and struggle to synthesize and reconcile the opposites in our world, we manifest the mental-rational consciousness. And when we begin to experience the archaic, the magical, the mythical, and the mental-rational as a symphonic whole, we begin to experience our consciousness as integral such that it becomes transparent to the spiritual reality.
Over and over again, following both Gebser and his own insight, Feuerstein reminds of those places where each of the structures of consciousness becomes not only deficient but a runaway. Such is the case in our time when we persist in worshiping rationality under the guise of scientism; mythologizing historical figures as potential saviors; or turning to a deficient form of the magical such as the occult. When any of these runaway movements occur, the structures of consciousness contribute not to our wholeness but to our disintegration. Feuerstein and Gebser insist, moreover, that we can neither go back to a mythic Eden nor forward to some new utopian vision. What we can do is accept Feuerstein’s challenge “to exercise the unique human capacity of insight” in the present and trust that a true “impulse toward a self-transcending life” will become the dominant impulse in our life. So to live is to participate in a process of liberation.
Hosts of questions, too numerous to mention here, arise as one works through this remarkable book. It is not easy going. But that in itself is a virtue for it throws the reader back on herself or himself. Many times one will pause and ask: “Is this really how it is with me? Does this square with and intensify or enlarge my sense of what is going on in the culture at large? Can the structures of consciousness foster the experience of an `impulse toward self-transcendence,’ as well as offer a conceptual framework for understanding consciousness?” It feels to me that such questioning is what Feuerstein in turn evokes in us. We have here at hand material for a lively dialogue at a critical cultural moment. For that we are profoundly indebted to Feuerstein.
Herbert D. Long, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Religion
University of Hawaii and Life Transition Therapist.
Dr. Long is a former Dean of Students and Peabody Lecturer in Church Theology, Harvard University Divinity School; Vice President for U.S. Programs, Labo International Exchange Foundation ( Tokyo); Director, Institute for Student Interchange at the East-West Center ( Honolulu).
Copyright ©2006 by Herbert D. Long. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.