Instinctual Integration Part 1 – Practical Mysticism #005a

Life is not a matter of holding good cards but of playing a poor hand well.
– Robert Lewis Stevenson

Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.
― Carl Gustav Jung


Our story so far:


A general theory of mystical experience – wherein I nerd out

In this series, I’ve been working up to presenting my theory of the role of a group of experiences variously called peak experiences, mystical experiences, altered states, or Non-Ordinary States (NOS). They range in intensity upward from the more common states of wonder, awe, or mild intoxication.

I prefer to think of them as Currently Non-Ordinary States (let’s call ’em CNOS). Many cultures recognize and cultivate them as part of everyday life, making the term non-ordinary inaccurate. Finding a unifying thread—placing experiences we consider outre on a continuum with those we do cultivate—might help make them all more accessible. Dance, for example, has a CNOS dimension that’s sometimes cultivated but often not.

(A recent term, expanded states of consciousness, captures a bit of what I consider their purpose but loads an assumption of their value into the term, putting the cart before the horse. The rest of this article is all about why I think they are, in fact, expanded states and why I think they are necessary.)


The following four hypotheses link instinct, ego, integration, and CNOS in the bones of the theory. Here’s the basic outline. This will be challenged and fleshed out in subsequent articles.

  • Hypothesis 1: We are born a bag of parts that don’t necessarily fit all that well together.
  • Hypothesis 2: This requires a counter-balancing system that knits the parts together into a functional whole.
  • Hypothesis 3: Balance can work at cross purposes to the ego’s short-term objectives. Hence, the counter-balancing system has to be able to overpower the ego if need be.
  • Corollary: like earthquakes, it’s better to have things adjusted with multiple small tremors than one big potentially obliterating quake.
  • Hypothesis 4: CNOS are a means to relax the ego’s grip and allow excluded aspects in. As such, they have an evolved place in our psyche’s structure.

That said, I start the analysis with a core assumption: we are an evolved and embodied species, not floating analytic engines or some sort of ghost running the machine. I look for the meaning of CNOS in that materialist context.

It should be noted that neither psychology nor physics has managed to adequately define consciousness though both centrally use it. There is some possibility that consciousness has the status of an elementary independent component. Millennia of Hindu philosophers would agree, and also, a small cohort of contemporary scientists and philosophers.


Hypothesis 1: We are born a bag of parts.

We often talk as if there’s a self we can find. I think that’s incorrect. Self is something we build day by day. Paradoxically, the built self often presents itself as something we’ve discovered. There is, I believe, an archetype of Self that holds an image and presents a path to wholeness. That’s part of what confuses the issue. More on that in Hypothesis 2.

But let’s start with birth.

We’re born a bag of parts: psychological tendencies (e.g., introversion and extroversion), talents, capacities, physical strengths, and so on. The parts may or may not work well together. They’re often tied to specific gene configurations inherited from possibly quite different parents and can often head in quite different directions. Further, the inherited traits may or may not harmonize with other family members. Beyond that, as our world expands, they may or may not fit into our culture.

I suspect almost all of us have suffered from one mismatch or another. That might be what binds us together.

Here’s what it’s like to >not< be a bag of parts. David Sloan Wilson describes the water slider spider’s well-honed behavioral instincts in his anti-Randian novel, Atlas Hugged:

Amazingly, the legs also serve as an organ of perception. A struggling terrestrial insect creates ripples that spread over the surface of the water. When the ripples reach a water strider, they cause its legs to bob up and down. The flexing joints trigger nerve signals to the brain, which then instructs the leg muscles to move in just the right way to skate over to the prey and suck out its juices with its mouth shaped like a hypodermic needle. If a trout were to attempt to capture a strider from below, like Bruce the shark captured the woman in the opening scene of the movie Jaws, then it would create a bulge on the surface of the water. This causes the leg joints of the strider to flex in a different way, which results in the strider leaping out of the way like a trampoline artist. In this fashion, every event relevant to the survival and reproduction of the strider that results in a disturbance of the water surface is perceived by the legs and interpreted by the brain to prompt the right behavioral response.

Would that it were so easy!

To open up space for learning and culture, the lock-step glue that holds the water slider’s responses together has to be relaxed. Heir to millions of years of evolution, our instinctual impulses remain, but they are much transformed into inherited schema for behavior and cognition. Some knee-jerk reflexes are still there, of course, but most of our behavior is entwined with learning; hence, the knee-jerk component had to open up into fuzzier structures in most cases. We have an instinct, for example, to learn language(s)…an instinct that fades through adolescence. But the instinct is language agnostic and opens up to allow children to learn the language(s) they’re born into.

Given where we each start, a more or less unified self that doesn’t undermine itself or head off in multiple directions simultaneously, and that fits more or less into the culture (or effectively resists it) is a significant and often difficult accomplishment!

Tibetian Mandala, public domain

Hypothesis 2: this then requires a system that seeks to knit the parts back together.

So why, then, don’t we simply fly off in all directions or, more frequently, come to a complete gear-grinding halt?

I’m not totally comfortable with the wide range of things that get called archetypes, but I think, at the very least, one of Carl Jung’s archetypes is clearly active–the one he calls the Self.

The Self is, quite specifically, an evolved function of the psyche that continually works to knit the parts of us together.

Jung has quite a bit to say about how the Self archetype functions. It is, above all, an abstract but compelling guiding image. It can present itself as a timeless mandala of divine beings or show us our nature as globes of light. If you ask the Self about itself, it will tell you it is timeless and indestructible. And in a very real sense, it is; it’s certainly transpersonal and not an individual invention.

Wholeness remains as a guiding ‘imago’ (Jung’a term), always aiming at an expanded state of being. But we’re doing the work, having the experiences–and are never the Self archetype itself. That is a process, not a thing, and it brings together aspects of ourselves, some known, some unknown, some consciously developed, some synthesized in the dark of the unconscious.

Traditional image

More later this week. These posts are supposed to be bite-sized, and this is getting long. I’ll look at Hypothesis 3 and 4 then.

Thanks for reading!

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