The Phenomenology of Belief Systems
Published in Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring 1980, pp.57-68
and in Religious Humanism, Volume 14, Number 4, Autumn 1980, pp.178-187.
In our journeys through life, sometimes we get lost. Suddenly people appear from all around offering us maps that will show us the right direction. Even when we're not lost and we're walking down the street toward some specific goal, fanatics try to drag us to their meetings where supposedly we will learn about the true path and the error of our ways.
In this article I focus on the world views and advice given by religions, psychotherapies, cults, and schools. I call these groups that offer such advice, "systems."
The reader is reminded of what it is like to be approached by a person representing a belief system, and also of the great variety of such systems that exist in our culture. Next, some characteristics of systems are presented. Then, the reader is asked to identify with an imaginary individual who has "fallen into" a system and to join him on a phenomenological journey through five stages or levels of his relationship to systems.
INTRODUCTION TO SYSTEMS
I am unhappy in love and convey this to a friend. His questions gradually and politely move from my present situation back toward childhood memories of my mother and father. He uses the word "Oedipal" and suggests that seeing a Freudian analyst would solve my problem. He gives me three names and addresses.
My Adlerian friend says the problem is complex but clear: My inferiority feelings are leading to inappropriate compensatory behavior, and he suggests that a good Adlerian analyst he knows could help me compensate in a way that would be better for me and for society.
Another friend knows a marvelous astrologer who helped him in similar circumstances. But in the newspaper I read that a group of prize winning scientists have formed a society to combat the reappearance of medieval superstitions such as astrology. This society is devoted to reason and science as the method for solving human problems, for finding the path.
Another friend returns from his vacation and says that something amazing is happening in Arizona. A society there has been gathering information that proves that extraordinary creatures from outer space are contacting our civilization. The Air Force knows and is covering up. These superior beings could show us the path.
But on the Johnny Carson Show, dapper, brilliant Carl Sagan, PhD from Columbia, explains that it's not that he doesn't believe in flying saucers, but, at this particular time and with the evidence at hand, it's just not rational to ....
In the early '60s many were convinced that LSD was the answer. LSD in the city's water supply would turn everyone on to the truth. Somehow this view died or went underground. Some students from this generation went into neurophysiology and studied the effects of drugs and meditation on the brain. Soon lectures were being given around the country on the hypothalamus, serotonin, norepinephrine, and the like. These scientific lectures hint that the old enthusiasm for LSD was really misplaced and that soon we will find better chemical ways to control the brain and its attendent mental states.
The great empiricist philosopher George Berkeley, at the end of his life, wrote two books arguing that tar oil is the universal panacea, the elixir of life.
There are hundreds if not thousands of systems like the above: Arica, Scientology, EST, Yoga, Christian Science, Bahâí, bioenergetics, biofeedback, psychoanalysis, behavior therapy, humanistic psychology, Marxism, macrobiotics, and so on. There are 15,000 sects of Christianity.
OBSERVATIONS CONCERNING SYSTEMS
First, when I am in one system, other systems look ridiculous, irrational, narrow, weird, cold, and even insane or evil. How could a brilliant man like Berkeley believe in such a ridiculous panacea as tar oil? It's funny! Or maybe he went mad. In college I couldn't understand how my nice, intelligent friend could be a practicing Catholic. Couldn't he see it was bizarre? Your belief is funny; mine isn't funny, it's true. Yours is merely a system. Mine is the path to enlightenment.
Second, when people from two different systems come together they often argue and get angry. A friend of mine witnessed a fight on Market Street in San Francisco between Hare Krishna people and Jesus freaks. He and I, identifying with neither organization, laughed at their foolishness.
Religious wars often look bizarre and ridiculously sectarian — to nonparticipants.
Third, not only do other people's systems seem strange, but they often seem so insane or evil that we have a need to understand them. Usually one system will have some explanation of why people "fall into" other systems. This prospect of understanding everybody else is a great appeal of adopting a system. Freud understood how theists invented god as a defense against the Oedipal conflict. Theists write books about the devil reappearing in the form of Freud or, more liberally, about how Freud was locked into his intellect and reduced higher consciousness to the instincts. Astrology explains Adler as a typical Aquarian, and Adler sees the astrologer as running from reality to compensate for feelings of weakness. Each finds his or her system powerful in its ability to understand the inner workings of all others. This discovery is felt by each as a further and dramatic argument in favor of one's own system.
Fourth, systems often come to us in pairs, the system and the one that grows to combat it (e.g., Catholicism vs. Protestantism, astrology vs. astronomy, psychoanalysis vs. humanistic psychology). Representatives of opposing systems often appear opposite each other on TV programs. They follow each other around the country — a juggler and a man trying to bat the balls to the floor. To those of us who watch from out here, a bizarre comedy routine.
How we come to be in systems is often a mystery. Sometimes we just find ourselves in one without even thinking about it or noticing it happened. At other times we actively search one out.
A PHENOMENOLOGICAL JOURNEY THROUGH THE FIVE LEVELS: Level 1
One evening I find myself in an exciting group whose members really know where they're at. They're my kind of people. We meet on Wednesday nights. It's stimulating and warm. It's so cold out there in the world. Now I feel I am where I belong. I can say what's on my mind and others are interested. Everyone on the outside talks about trivial, boring, meaningless details. Here we speak of reality. Even when my new friends don't agree with me, I feel heard. I learn a lot each day. Outside I'm attacked or ignored. In our group we can figure out why others are so cruel in this way, and I come to feel secure in defending myself from attack. We discuss how to present our views in a way others will hear. A member whose heroic stance I admire says, "Tell our view openly to everyone, and, if they don't listen, that's tough." A wiser member advises, "Keep cool. Don't force anything. Our time will come." We all agree it would be useful to keep minutes of our meetings, "not so much for us," we rationalize, "but because, in the future, others will be interested in tracing the origins of this great movement." We carefully choose a name for our system.
The excitement of discovery is intense. Also the feeling that we're close to the ultimate answer — maybe even at next Wednesday's meeting. I can't wait! Just a few minor questions to answer, and we're there! An incredible optimism prevails.
But something always goes wrong in a system. Imagine, for example, my close friend Sam, who has always been actively involved. Suddenly he is sitting silently, week after week, in the back of the room. I'm uneasy with his silence. One day he starts talking slowly, deliberately. It seems Sam thinks there is a flaw in the system and not a minor one either. Right at the core. There had always been some disagreement, but this is different. Sam won't back down. I tell myself I won't listen to him any more! How can Sam do this? The founder had always been able to explain any apparent contradictions away — why won't he talk now and clear this up? But my friend won't be explained away. I worry. Even when Sam is not saying anything his presence puts a damper on our proceedings. He's radiating doubt, and it's wrecking everything. I wish he weren't here. Schism! I conclude Sam has to go. How mean of me, but it can't be helped. Is he being malicious? Rebellious? Has he lost his courage? How can we explain his sudden deviation? Maybe the devil's got him?
After much theorizing our leader saves us. I sigh with relief. Thank god for his magnificent analysis of the deviant personality. Why couldn't I think of it myself? I wonder how many of the others got it. Maybe they weren't even disturbed. Maybe I'm weird. I better keep quiet.
Sam is my friend. He's rational. If I can just put it in the right way, he'll see it. I write to Sam and wait anxiously for his reply. It disappoints me. I write him back and counter his points easily, but he doesn't even respond. I try to forget him and get back into my feeling of dedication. But, from now on, everything is just a little off. A crack in the cosmic egg. That bastard Sam. Why did he have to sow the seeds of doubt?
Sam's point of view: "I wasn't trying to undermine their damned system. I was just being honest about what I think. I couldn't back down from how I saw it. I thought it would fit in. Why did they get so angry? Maybe they're right, and I am just a trouble maker. It would be humiliating to go back and let them analyze me, but maybe I should. No! I'll write my position more clearly and show it to my friends. They're rational. They'll see. Maybe I'll publish my view. Then they'll have to listen. No, they can say, just as my grandfather would, 'The weirdos have pushed their way up into the publishing industry.'"
Outcasts often try to maintain the names of the groups from which they were cast out. Freud always called himself a scientist. Karl Abraham writes that Jung had been "excommunicated" and shouldn't be allowed the use of the word "psychoanalysis." Jung called himself an "analyst" anyway. Jesus called himself a "Jew," Luther called himself a "Catholic." Socrates called himself "Athenian" even as he drank the hemlock.
I stay in my system and proudly write articles in support of it. One day I find myself at a meeting of a well-known crosstown rival group. I tell myself that I'll just see what they're up to, that I want to write an article about them. The meeting begins. I observe: "Their leader really is a jerk. Just look at him. But wait. I must be objective and try to listen. Okay, I'll listen. How stupid he is! Wait. He just said, 'Outsiders will find this stupid.' Well he can't be all stupid. He got this one thing right. Hmm. He's not dumb. In fact, there's a strange power emanating from him. Not that he's right. Interesting. My group will be excited by this discovery."
Wrong! My group receives my report in silence. I better be quiet, or they'll think I'm like Sam. But they already do.
I go and ask the leader of the other gang what he thinks of my system. He likes my leader and agrees with him in many areas, but he thinks he's closed and that he didn't go far enough. I decide that this guy really sees it as it is! I'm lucky to have found him. So begins a new love affair. I'll bring him "home" to meet my original group. Maybe he can convince them ....
Our imagined seeker may go through a similar process again and again. System to system. Psychological systems. Then political. Then religious. Subtle distinctions between Marx, Trotsky, Lenin, Che, Mao. Even these are crude to the new, avant-garde brigades who look down on our primitive gaucherie. No wonder we failed, they say, we were so naive in those days. By the time of the printing of this article, these groups too will be passé.
The mind is subtle enough to pick up the pattern and stop, but it need not. It is capable of going on in this madness forever. Each time it believes it has found the truth and "forgets" that it felt the same way a month ago within another system.
Or it may find permanent comfort and truth in one particular system and curl up in one of its safe corners and sleep forever. Or, if it moves, it moves always within the system, refining, polishing, subdividing, on and on forever.
Or it could happen that, at some memorable moment, the question "pops" into the mind as I am entering a new system, "How do I know that this one won't fall apart too?" Exhilaration, terror, a rush of freedom as the thought enters, "Maybe I don't need a system. Maybe I can make it on my own."
A Level 1 system is one where its members do not openly allow the possibility that they may someday see through the current system. A Level 1 person goes along and refuses to allow this possibility publicly or to himself or herself.
But it can happen that a person sees through Level l consciousness and becomes suspect of the intellectual blindness of Level 1 systems.
A PHENOMENOLOGICAL JOURNEY THROUGH THE FIVE LEVELS: Level 2
Out here in the world, outside the Hilton convention hall or the shrine, I wander around lost. Proud yet confused and lonely. I come across Nietzsche. He's amazing. He sees it just as I do. He is out here too! "Man is a herd animal," he says. Of course! "People herd together from weakness and fear." Of course! Nietzsche even says he doesn't want his readers to follow him. The heads of Level l systems always wanted me to follow. Nietzsche frees me from Level l dependency.
I move on, strangely content, knowing, no longer confused. Later a friend introduces me to Jung, a reader and admirer of Nietzsche. We talk of individuating, of breaking from the collective views. Here's another true brother in the same fraternity. We are brethren in what was called "the Golden Republic of Alchemists." I go on, again secure and content.
A few problems. Nietzsche is said to have influenced Hitler. "But Nietzsche would never have approved had he been alive. He was anti-Semitic, but he was anti-everything ...." And Jung, though influenced by Nietzsche, says that Nietzsche's late-life insanity was caused by his experience and theories. A Freudian tells me Jung collaborated with the Nazis, or, at least, he didn't stand up. My Jungian friend denies this. Zen says the same thing as Nietzsche and Jung, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." But Jung says the eastern masters were lost in the unconscious. But Hindus say Jung was stuck at the fourth chakra. Castaneda says that Don Juan rejected Tibetan Buddhism and Jung ..... Suddenly this whole thought process feels familiar.
A Level 2 system is one that theorizes about and rejects the collective blindness of Level I systems. Jung, we are told, was upset by the formation of the Jungian society. A person at Level 2 of development is one who sits content with his system for transcending Level I. Nietzsche and Jung turn out not to be blood brothers at all but just new fathers. Their describing themselves as brothers does not prevent frightened travelers from making them into fathers. Level 2 devotees resemble Level I devotees, but are slightly more aware. They too, however, must push onward.
A PHENOMENOLOGICAL JOURNEY THROUGH THE FIVE LEVELS: Level 3
Next, there may come a moment when I see through Level 2 systems. I don't have to choose one: Jung, Zen, Nietzsche. In fact I will never again look out there to others for the answer. I'll just look with my own eyes and develop my own theory. Great exhilaration when I feel my first theory emerging. It's mine! I did it! I'm a hero of the intellect! A terrible arrogance and condescension toward everyone, even the Jungians whom now I see as huddled together pasting Jungian theory over their dreams. I no longer attend their meetings. Maybe Jung was better, but he allowed this to happen. Oh well, I'm beyond thinking of such matters. I will create my own system.
Jung reported how he had studied both Freud and Adler and had seen the greatness in each. He analyzed a case from each point of view showing how each seems true and how he understood both completely. Jung went on to say that small minds need to choose. He said that he, personally, couldn't choose and that he, like Christ, allowed himself to be crucified on a cross, on this agonizing paradox. From this tension of polarities, Jung reports, his own theory was born. Since I identify with Jung's search, I identify with his findings also, and even after I close the book I feel with Jung the thrill of having the answer. One day however I forget his insight and find myself alone and naked again and notice how I reach out to Jung for help.
I am not in Jung's position. He had only to contend with Freud and Adler. I, however, am confronted with Freud and Adler, plus Jung himself. I must generate my theory, not by identifying with Jung's heroic integration of the paradox he faced, but by facing and agonizing over the different and more complex paradox that faces me. For Jung, Jung himself turned out to be the solution. For me, Jung is part of the problem. Jung had to transcend Freud and Adler to find himself. I have to transcend Freud, Adler, and Jung to find myself. I can't look at the world through his eyes even if I want to. Jung probably was subtly encouraging us to follow him too, or he would have warned us more of this danger. He was blind too. I'm not going to make that mistake.
On Level 3 I reject Jung, Nietzsche, and Zen in favor of my own theory. For me, the only Level 3 theory is my own.
Each escape into the wider freedom of a new level is accompanied by feelings of anxiety and madness. This is especially true here where I am listening to no one. It feels insane to listen to no one but myself. I know how my view probably looks to outsiders -- like just another system. But some people out there agree with me, and doesn't that prove something? No, it just shows that I myself am becoming a leader of a loose system. It feels good, but how foolish of me to fall into this!
And now I see that I'm still caught in a system even though it's my own. I feel I've got the answer or am close to having the answer. Thinking is exciting again. I feel optimism, and all the symptoms of a system infection. The only difference is that "We have it!" has become "I have it!" I worship myself instead of others. I have become a system.
A PHENOMENOLOGICAL JOURNEY THROUGH THE FIVE LEVELS: Level 4
"Aarrgh!" I say, thereby entering Level 4, "nothing has changed. All this work, and I'm still stuck down here with everyone else. I thought I'd escaped, but I'm still human. I'm just as arrogant and blind as before. Even more so. Nietzsche described himself in his mountain retreat as 6,000 feet beyond good and evil, 6,000 feet above the smell of Bayreuth (the home of his ex-idol, Wagner). Nietzsche really was a mad man. I too have fallen victim. Seduced by myself, but seduced nonetheless."
It's even more mindblowing to a person at Level 4 to realize that Level 3 arrogance is easily and accurately described and explained by Level I and Level 2 systems. Freudians show how I'm in competition with my father for my mother. This is true. Adler says I act to counteract my inferiority feelings. True. Jung calls my arrogance and blindness "inflation," the Greeks called it "hubris," Trungpa called it "spiritual materialism."
On Leve1 4 I come to agree with the Indian monk who told me, "You in the West think in terms of this or that. We in the East think in terms of this and that." I see that I must be a Marxist and a Freudian and an Adlerian and a logician ... and not a Marxist or a Freudian or an Adlerian or a logician .... Resist the temptation to fall in. Resist the temptation to stay out.
On Level 4 every theory has something to offer; no theory is the answer. Every theory comes out of a real live experience. It's a looking, an excited trying. Every theory is a new religion, and every religion starts with a living visionary experience. Since I don't hate any experience, I can't hate any theory. All express some truth. I will gather the best from all the theories. From this perspective, my patient who said, "Once you see through what systems are, you'll never touch one," is on Level 3. Krishnamurti uses almost the same words.
On Level 3 I was an ascetic practicing a kind of fasting. Afraid of getting attached to a system, I never looked at or got involved with one. On Level 4 my philosophy changes: for my psychic health I must hunt, kill, ingest, chew, swallow, stomach, digest, metabolize, and excrete the waste of any theory I meet on my path. Psychic unhealth becomes: meeting a theory I can't swallow, it's too much to get down; or I vomit it up, I can't stomach it; or I can't use, metabolize it; or I can't excrete what I need to excrete of it. The danger I fear most is that when I meet a theory, instead of hunting and killing it, I will let it hunt and kill me and wind up being digested in the stomach of some theoretical lion.
Later on Level 4 I relax from this aggressive and again arrogant posture. I have come out to play, and I may as well relax and let whatever happens, happen. But it's overwhelming. Systems can be so compelling. I let myself go totally into any system I run into in order to ferret out any truth that is hiding there. Then out and on to the next. Each time I know I'm being seduced by the charm of a beautiful system, but, on Level 4 I allow the seduction. I trust myself to pull out in time. It's very confusing. Still I go on and let myself embrace all the thousands of gods even though, in some sense, I'm an atheist. Even tar oil is worth a try! Everything is true. I feel more and more lost in this chaos of equality and relativity. I feel like a baby again, still seeking some kind of security. For warmth I'm patching together a crazy-quilt for myself out of everyone's views, but it won't hold together. There was no escape by rising out of and above Levels 2 and 3. Now I see that there's no escape by falling back in. Courage! Up and on again!
A PHENOMENOLOGICAL JOURNEY THROUGH THE FIVE LEVELS: Level 5
Suddenly I wake up to another level, or better, I fall down below all levels, back into the world. I crawl out from under the crazy-quilt and catch a glimpse of the world: rocks, trees, people! I think, "Real advance has been made by moving up levels. I have learned something that I never knew before. I've learned that all systems prevent perception. Systems, even my own Level 3 system, may be helpful from time to time as aids or stimuli to perception, but can never substitute for perception itself. Freud looked at sexual phenomena and tried to capture his awareness in a theory. Adler pointed us toward the reality of power feelings and consolidated his vision in his theory. The meditation master reminds us of the reality of our breathing and may give us a little talk about the body. Each has an original awareness and then develops what we might call a theoretical "photograph" to capture it. There's nothing wrong with accurate photographs if we don't become dependent on them and forget their use and the difference between them and the richer, subtler, ever-changing reality which they portray.
On Level l, I wound up staring endlessly at someone else's photos. On Level 2 I vowed never to do this again, but I wound up admiring the photos others have taken of Level 1 people. On Level 3 I threw these away and took my own pictures, and on Level 4 I jumbled everybody's pictures all together trying to work out the puzzle but became dejected at the possibility of ever capturing the truth. On Level 5 I finally realize that parts of reality can be usefully filmed but, to stay in reality, I must continually turn from the film back to the world; otherwise I become an addict of the inner "T.V." As Gurdjieff put it, there must be a movement from internal considering to external considering.
Wait! In these last two paragraphs I have been theorizing. Have I fallen back into Level 3 thinking? No. I wasn't attached with ego arrogance to the picture. Be careful not to let this theory harden into a system where I would speak to be consistent with the theory rather than to express the truth of the moment. All systems were true once. Stop again! All these self-admonitions feel like the old Level 3 or Level 4 self scrambling to be right, to get the whole puzzle together. I stop all this and go for a walk: a cat, a beautiful rose, a spotted feather. Thought: "Gee! There's such a big difference between the physical world and the world of thought, between the world-equals-reality and imagination-equals-thought. Back to reality!" This thought is now a theory to be read and forgotten, or it too becomes a system that prevents perception of cats and feathers and sex rather than a tool to help ourselves and others to understand how to live in reality.
The joyous and, at the beginning, liberating relativity of Level 4 now seems like confusion due to disorientation: having just emerged from the cave of Level 3 unreality, the brightness made every object look the same color. But on Level 5, my eyes have become adjusted to the light. Constant learning. Each opening of the eye is itself an eye opener.
I feel I have stepped out of systems into truth, though I'm aware that this too can look like a system from the outside and can harden quickly into a system whenever I let it (which is a good part of the time). System means lack of consciousness. Consciousness of the outer and inner world melts down any system. Level 5 knowledge lands in the here-now and stays grounded here more and more. It stops arguing blindly and looks around to get its bearing. It picks up knowledge only within the vessel of here-now consciousness. I feel as if I'm no longer on the path of truth but, rather, living in the truth, swimming in it. I no longer feel lost. Reality is home. I want to keep re-examining my truths, to keep shedding more and more errors, to keep moving closer to, deeper into reality. I will learn from the world and not from a system, live in the world, not in a system. No person is my teacher — not someone else, not myself, not a combination of us all. Now my teacher is living reality, and I entrust myself to its revelations.
The journey has a developmental side to it and the particular developmental pattern is mirrored in other areas of life. A parallel analogy exists between the development of our struggles against our addiction to systems and the development of our struggles against our addiction to food. In Level l, I eat whatever is put in front of me or what I have been conditioned to like. In Level 2, I realize how unconscious I was on Level l. "I ate without thinking. I'll fast 'til I really understand what I want." After 6 days of fasting I feel as if I've almost mastered my dependency on food and need never eat again (Level 3). At which point, on the seventh day, I faint and am thereby reminded that I am human and must eat. On Level 4 I decide to jump back into eating. Sometimes I eat carefully, at other times I eat carelessly and allow myself to get carried away. And on Level 5 I somehow forget about eating. It takes care of itself, it assumes its organic place as one amongst many of the pieces of life. I eat carefully, sensitive to my tastes and needs. Only with truth, every morsel of reality is worth eating, and we never get full on this soul food.
Other analogies exist, for example stages of love: attachment to the mother; escape from this attachment but seduction by a girl friend; escape from her to celibacy; return to explore many women; liberation for true love.
You might be asking, "Well isn't this article just another system?" I suggest that the way to answer this is not to assume that people who write articles think they know, but really don't. Rather, I suggest, ask if the air that is breathed here is smoggy and unhealthy, or does it feel fresh and clear. Don't believe the article. Attend to your experience as you read it.
Why won't people let go of their systems and be more honest and truthful? Compared to lower levels, Level 5 is a kind of heaven. But in progressing to Level 5, although something real has been learned and at much expense, it's almost nothing. Anybody on Level 1 has much more pragmatic knowledge -- how to fix cars or diagnose mental illness. And it is clear that anyone could open to Level 5 truths with no effort, in no time, and for free. All they need to do is to open their eyes and be totally honest as to what they see and totally courageous in following what is revealed to them. Why are we all so afraid? Is reality so bad, or rather, is it not the dream that is the nightmare?
When others live in systems, living outside them can be lonely. I can fit into any system as long as I talk in intrasystem language. But if I express my unsystematic experiences I risk being ostracized. I must resist the temptation to shape my experiences so as to build up my ego and avoid pain. To get on with this strange, frightening thing we call "life," I try to remember that the deeper I open to reality, the more I will be free to live.
A brief critique: 31 years later
Re-reading this article after 31 years, I feel embarrassment. I am tempted not to include it, but I think there is some value in it. The intellectual organization, at least to the first four levels, still seems to me sound and interesting and useful. However, I think it remains on an intellectual level, in spite of the anti-intellectual tone of Level 5. I still think there are belief systems and that there is a development people can go through with respect to them. I just don’t think it is quite as straight forward as this article made it seem. I also can see how I was influence by the times, especially by my fascination with the Zen Buddhism I had been reading and thinking about. I am also surprised how much the feeling of the times crept into my thoughts. At the time, I thought I was such an independent thinker. In what came next in my life, Zen was not helpful. The unknown and unfamiliar was much greater than I understood, and, at the time, I had not developed any useful tools for integrating it, understanding it, and dealing with it.
Another point is that, looking back, I am impressed with how much I was trying to be honest and humble and, at the same time, to come up with a satisfactory answer to the problem. Now I feel this optimism and enthusiasm was naive at best.