Well, it’s interesting times at Allumination Central, as at the moment I’m a full time writer. That – combined with Gary Lachman’s fascinating delve into 60s occult culture, ‘Turn Off Your Mind’, and related ponderings about Gandalf – has set me pondering self determination, external determination, and the relationship between the two.
It’s the self determination that’s difficult; fresh out of three years of pretty much full time employment, I’m finding it an interesting challenge to move back to a situation where – even for a short period – my time is entirely under my control, and my goals are entirely my own to define. And that’s a fascinating difficulty to feel.
It’s making me realise just how much responsibility for the direction of our lives we hand over to other people, and just how much personal goals can be externally imposed. 9 to 5, 8 to 6, or its equivalent is a lot of time; more than half of the most alive parts of our waking lives. Round about 60-70% of them, in fact, if you do the maths.
What’s interesting is not whether that’s a good or a bad thing – rather, I’m intrigued by what it says about us as a species, or at least about one of the basic norms of modern culture. We seem to have a deep need for hierarchy; a deep need to be part of an external structure that both shapes our lives and helps give them meaning; in terms of last week’s post, a structure that creates a quest or set of quests for us to both fulfil and use as a lens to look at the rest of the world.
I’m not sure what that’s a function of. Is it something biological? As social animals, do we need to be a part of a social hierarchy to be fulfilled? Is it something social? Given that it relies on group activity to hold it together, has modern technological society created a value set that demands our participation in ‘work’ to demonstrate our value to society, and therefore create a sense of worth in ourselves? Or is there something very basic here? Does the self need an external theatre space to define itself, a theatre that is usefully created by work?
I have to admit that – although I have my own theories – I have no sense of what the final answer is. What’s interesting is the kind of behaviour that that need for structure leads to – a behaviour that came very much to life during the 60s, as – as Lachman records – transparently nutty cults flourished on an impressively substantial, frequently bonkers and quite often surprisingly malign scale.
Seeking to escape the constrictions of straight society – in part, no doubt, of ‘work’ – and develop a truer version of the self, seekers after truth fled one set of structures to – it seems – leap headlong into other, often far more repressive and destructive ones. Crowleyan magicians, acid gurus, Satanists, new age masters and others found loyal sets of followers who thralled themselves to their spiritual leaders and – in the name of freedom and self realisation – rigorously and thoroughly did whatever they were told, for as long as they were told to.
Freedom is a scary thing; joining a cult is one response to it. Perhaps the rise of quest fantasy as a clearly defined genre in the 60s (sparked by the ascendancy of Tolkien) is another. Seen through the guru lens, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ gives readers in Gandalf a demonstrably wise, powerful and right leader, one who sets his followers a quest of very clear worth that produces both epic, psychedelic, world changing adventure and a final return to a re-secured, and for the most part very conservative, home. The innumerable Gandalf themed head shops, restaurants, etc, that sprang up back then point to both his ascendancy as a cultural figure and the attractiveness of the trip that he offered.
But – as previous posts have pointed out – there’s a problem with accepting a guru’s quest donation; you have to accept their worldview, too, and reject anything that challenges it – like, for example, your own personal experience of the world. So the problem still remains; how to reach a personal relationship with the world, one that acknowledges the needs of the self as much as the needs of the structures of which the self is a part?
Blind guru following doesn’t seem to be a particularly good solution; moving in the opposite direction, rejection of the world entire is (I suspect, never having done it) not very helpful either. No man is an island; pure solipsism leads to idiolect, the creation of a personal myth that exists without any relationship with or relevance to the structures of the wider world at all. Perhaps that’s the kind of solipsism that created all those flawed 60s gurus, people busy using their followers to shore up their own sense of self in the face of a determined assault on their worldviews from the realities each one rejected.
The real challenge seems to be to mediate between the internal and the external, acknowledging both the needs of the self and the needs of the immediate structures of the world. Perhaps becoming a person is neither about following nor leading, but rather is best understand as a constant negotiation between the two, allowing the two to co-exist productively. Neither seeking to be Gandalf, nor to be led by Gandalf? If I was aspiring to guru-hood, that would perhaps – at least provisionally – be my message. I suspect it wouldn’t get me too many gold plated Rolls Royces, which is on some levels a shame, but on the plus side it wouldn’t screw too many people up either, which can only be a good thing.