17 August 2017
The archetypical selfie-stick tourist: an existential essay on archetypes, tourism, cultures and religions
One of my biggest loves is travelling to countries far away. The more unfamiliar other cultures initially look, the more I will realise how much I have fundamentally in common. Our fundaments are the same: all of us have the same basic needs, need food, protect ourselves against the extremes of the weather, want to love and be loved. We also face similar struggles in life, from the most mundane struggles to realising that we are vulnerable beings who will die one day. We are all in awe of this mystery called “life” and formulate our personal answers to this, albeit via the help of different-looking symbols, myths, cultural rituals and religions.
While I am writing this in the restaurant of my hotel, I automatically smile as I hear two women in the kitchen bursting into laughter. When we see an authentic smile we smile back, when people truly laugh we join their infectious laugh. When someone is in pain, we will cry with them. Even we may not understand their language, culture or looks. Our brains are literally wired to empathise (as research on “mirror neurons” shows), and it takes a deliberate step to resist empathy. Thus, people are not born racist, supremacist or hegemonist: they have been made to counteract their natural wiring of empathic connections, by their upbringing, religion, ideology and relentless mass media. Furthermore, there is a liminal frame of time, between the age of 4 and 9 years, when children learn to put themselves explicitly into the shoes of others, but their upbringing could damage this development (of course with exceptions such as autism).
Thus, we seem to have had an abnormal psychological development, when we are distracted from our human commonalities and instead focus at superficial cultural differences. For example, when I travelled on the bus yesterday, I heard a large-sized American boasting about all the trips he had done –quantity of travels seemed to trump quality for him. He continued with long rants about the ignorance and lack of education of “the people here”. As I expected, the first thing he did when he exited the bus was getting his selfie-stick out and demanding a local to have a picture with him. I call this modern archetype “the selfie-stick tourist”, of course with a reference to the timeless symbol of people enjoying extending their phallus. The need to continuously make and publish pictures of yourself instead of pics of others or together with others is inherently narcissistic: you focus on yourself or yourself-in-your-surroundings instead of on the surroundings per se. Sartre would say that selfie-stick tourists are in “bad faith”. That is, this American only connected with locals from his perspective. He stuck to his role of being-a-tourist, and he expected others to fulfil their role to serve him as tourist. However, we are able to throw the selfie-stick away, empathically connect with other people and try to see the world from other people’s perspectives.
Learning to connect with locals without a selfie-stick is like learning to walk without crutches after a broken leg. We will be limping and hurting in the beginning, when we try to empathise and authentically connect. The first thing we will experience is an embarrassment about ourselves. We realise how exploitative and invasive we are, even when we are tourists in good faith. For example, I tried to connect with the tour guide, but he could only respond in tour guide manners . I succeeded to temporarily break through his masquerade by making jokes. To some extent, I do understand why he stuck to his script, as he told me that he sees about 40 new tourists every day. Possibly he has tried authentic tour-guiding, but he may have failed as tourists expected him time and time again to function as the archetypical guide. Furthermore, the mere fact that I am here as foreigner in his place is inherently hegemonic and intrusive, and therefore it is hard work to break the cultural borders between us.
I wonder how it was like to travel in the time that the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung was journeying around the world, around the midst of the 20th century? To which extent were tourists and tourist-guides stuck to their modern-archetypical roles? (At least they did not stick a mobile phone on their symbolic phallus!) Like myself, Jung loved meeting people in distant cultures. He tried to see the world from their perspective, and after he had met individuals from many cultures, he started to realise that –despite the superficial differences- we have much fundamentally in common. We do not only have our biological and psychological desires in common, but also hopes, dreams and myths. We seem to use relatively similar symbols to express and grasp the mystery and struggles of life. Jung called this “archetypes”, symbolic structures which we see in all cultures. For instance, last evening I went to the dance performance of the Hinduistic Ramayana myth, and I saw many similarities with Shakespeare’s Richard III. There were also many similarities with the story of a performance in a local tribe that I have visited in Northern-Ghana ten years ago. It is the old-time story of boy-meets-girl, girl-doesn’t-like-boy, boy-meets-rival, boy-goes-on-heroic-path, boy-proves-himself-to-girl, boy-returns-to-girl, boy-wins-heart-of-girl. Jungians have particularly focused in this story on the role of the female, the mother-symbol, and the role of the shadow, the black part of ourselves that we usually do not see or do not want to see. Additionally, Joseph Campbell tells about the cyclical stages that the hero in such stories go: disappointment forces them to leave their daily life, go on a heroic journey, and return after heroic success.
Personally, I do not believe that we have a universal pre-given rolodex with symbolic templates in our head, from which we pick some templates when we tell stories and myths such as the Ramayana. Instead, I think that the similarities between our stories world-wide are due to the fact that all of us face similar struggles and mysteries in life, and that we can only express ourselves with the limited means of our human capabilities of mouth, hands, feet and body. Thus, when Jung spoke of archetypes, he revealed the existential commonalities of humans in all times and cultures. When I read the later philosophical work of Jung, he seems to have a similar existential and non-psychoanalytic understanding of archetypes. I think it is a big fallacy to see archetypes as psychological “things” (this is called “reification”, thing-ifying): instead, archetypes are expressions of our existential way-of-being. This is precisely the psychologism that existential philosophers and psychologists such as Heidegger and Jaspers warned us for. They tell that by reducing our subjectively lived reality to “psychological things”, we get rid of some of the complexity and mystery that is inherent to life. We may like to think about life in terms of psychological models and diagnoses, because this can (temporarily) help us to experience life as explainable, controllable and benevolent.
However, the mystery and complexity of life disappears, when we psychologise life. It is like the famous Indonesian shadow puppet play, where the puppet-player moves puppets on sticks behind a white screen, enlightened by a light coming from behind the puppets; thus, the audience does not directly see the puppets but only the shadows of the puppets. The audience usually only sees the shadow of life, and do not see the colours and details that the beautifully crafted puppets have. We need to go to the other side of the screen to see how the puppet player is playing with puppets. This play is thousands of years old, and has a strong spiritual meaning –in contrast with the puppet play for children, which we know in the west. Seeing shadows and not the puppets is regarded as a religious symbol for life, I have been told. One may wonder whether shadow plays were also performed in the time when the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote about the difference between mundane daily life when ordinary people are like captives forced to see only shadows; only truly enlightened souls can be liberated and see life in the true light, directly facing the objects as they are, seeing the leather puppets instead of merely seeing their shadows. A modern western archetype tells the same story: the movie The Matrix suggests that there is a true world –which is complex, painful and messy- and a fake shadow world called the Matrix -which is simple, automatic, and predictable-; we have to decide in which world we want to live. Similarly, we can symbolically interpret archetypes in two different ways: as psychological shadows, or as a direct existential expression of life as all of us face. Archetypes are not the psychological shadows of how we live our life, it is directly the way how we live our life. (Of course, often we may have difficulties distinguishing both, particularly when light is dim, and we do not know whether we are seeing the puppets or merely their shadow).
Thus, I argue that cultural and religious symbols can express life how we immediately experience it. We do not need the mediation of a play such as the Ramayana dance performance that I saw, to live our lives. As we already live our lives! We automatically connect, we empathise, we live, and we are in a flow. Thus, cultural and religious activities and symbols should not merely be regarded as psychological defence mechanisms, like Ernest Becker suggested in his book “Denial of Death” and Irvin Yalom in “Existential Psychotherapies”. Becker and Yalom are the intellectual selfie-stick tourists of their time, who impose their artificial models on the complexity and mystery of life. Instead, we should understand cultural and symbols as unmediated modes-of-existence. Existential anthropologists such as Michael Jackson (no, not the singer!) have interpreted archetypes in similar existential manner. Thus, we live and construct our lives BY symbols, not VIA symbols.
Neurological-anthropological research suggests that the development of our neocortex is associated with the development of the skill of symbolising (cf. the book “The mind in the cave”). Of course, this is a chicken-or-egg-story. We cannot say what was first: the development of the neocortex or the symbolic function. The terms “brain” and “psychological functions” are reductionist symbols which psychologise our existential reality. This seems to be a false dichotomy, as both are explanations of the same development, albeit that one explanation is in neurological terms and the other in existential-symbolic terms. Like all symbols, neurological-anthropological symbols may help us to see a part of ourselves which we usually do not see. Therefore, let’s analyse what the neurological-anthropological symbolic story tells about us. When humans started to live their lives in the symbolic immediacy instead of in the mere biological immediacy –while they developed their neocortex-, this meant a large jump in our evolution. The neo sapiens started a different route than their ancestors. To explain this, let’s return to the topic of empathy. Empathy seems to be primarily a function of the old brain, for which we do not need the neocortex. Ethological research have shown time and time again how all animals have an empathic capacity, particularly primates. Simultaneously, research shows how this empathic capability can be undermined by physical threats: when our survival instinct is triggered –for instance due to an actual or imagined lack of resources- we may override our empathic instinct. When animals perceive that they are in danger, they will fight, flight, freeze (and more recently, researchers have added “feed”, to describe how animals instinctively help others in response to existential threats). When human beings perceive that they are in danger, they may show similar behaviour as animals, but they can also express this at symbolic level. We create and live in our symbolic stories as ways of coping with threat. Again, these symbols are not mere psychological mechanisms or objects, but they are our lived reality.
The Ramayana story that I saw yesterday gives many examples of how we symbolise existential threats. This narrative is one of world’s oldest myths, coming from Hinduism, and it was performed as a ballet in Prambanan, the largest Hindu temple in SE Asia. Frankly speaking, it took some time to get past the cultural differences. I have never seen this type of dancing, and heard this type of singing and the use of the gamelan. I had thoughts like “they sing off tone”, “they do not dance synchronically” and “this is a weird unnecessary complex story”. However, I decided to symbolically put my selfie-stick away (no worries: I do not really have a selfie-stick, I meant this metaphorically!). I immediately felt embarrassed for my western biased thoughts. And I started to see similarities with the story lines and symbols that I have seen in Shakespeare and African tribal plays.
Subsequently I wondered what this dance tells about their way-of-living? It showed awe for the mystery of life, literally with smoke and devils on stage. The complex story line showed the complexity and paradoxes of life, which we cannot reduce to a simple Hollywood-film-plot. In life, we are torn apart between different people and between different sides in ourselves and in life, symbolised by the princess, the king, the admirer, the rival, the devil, the monkey king, etc. The Hindu spiritual realm has countless gods, representing the overwhelming complexity of life. Hindus tell that we often feel intuitively attracted to certain gods, because they are a shadow part of ourselves which we do not see. However, these gods are not something different than us (like western religions tell): in Hinduism, every individual person is a reflection of God, is a part of God and it is the rightful pursuit of a person to fulfil their objectives in life. Thus, gods are not psychological symbols which we use, but we are a living part of the symbolic-divine realm. We live the symbolic realm, and we do not merely psychologically create the symbolic realm (Hinduism does not have the subject-object split which Descartes taught us in the west). This is the phenomenological immediacy that philosophers like Nietzsche, Dilthey, Husserl and Heidegger wrote about. I am Shinta, I am Rama, I am Rahwana, and I am Hanuman. In the dance, there were continuous fights between these different gods that we fundamentally are. That is, we face endless struggles and tensions in life.
The dance also revealed that there can be more than struggles in life, particularly when struggles are broken by the power of love for others. For instance, the princess Shinta was stuck in a magic circle, from which she was liberated when she gave aims to a beggar. The highlight of the show was a large fire on stage, which killed Hanuman, the white monkey god. At that part of the performance, I was thinking that all good forces are destroyed, and that defeat is the only answer we have to life. However, this fire also meant the start of a fundamental transformation in the performance (this is also where the Indonesian version of the Ramayana story differs from other Ramayana stories for instance in India). The fire was followed by a resurrection of the monkey-god, and by the god Rama building a bridge which connected people and helped the good monkey-soldiers to fight the evil monkey-soldiers. Fire even purified the princess Shinto as she had lost her purity during the story; thanks to this purification, she was pure enough to marry the god Rama. Jung has similarly described how our experience of “the dark night of the soul” and our “crucifixion” –going as low as we can in life-, can help a powerful transformation. Of course, for Jung the end is not “and they lived happily ever after”, but the start of new symbolic journeys in life, as we will go on new journeys as transformed beings.
As a modern westerner, I had difficulties accepting the stereotypic roles depicted in the Ramayana dance. Women need to be feminine, men masculine machos. Kings should marry queens and laymen -“the monkeys”- are there to serve their Lords. Individuals find The Meaning in their life by doing what is expected. These are the archetypes of the servant, the mother, the king, etc. We are stuck to our archetypical roles, and it is impossible to resist our roles. Thus, the core message which I initially received was “you must fit into the social-divine order, and do the role that you are told to”. Of course, this clearly depicts the Hindu cast system: when you are born in one particular social class, you cannot change in this life; possibly, you can change in your next life, when you have obediently served your role in this life. Similarly, tourists must stick to their role of selfie-stick-tourists and tour-guides to mechanically guiding them? However, when the play is not regarded as indirect symbols but as a direct expression of life, one could also argue that I am all the different roles at the same time. This seems consistent with the large Hindu realm of gods. We all participate in the one god Brahma, and it is us human beings who split him into different smaller gods (remember, that only in the west we make rigid distinctions between subject and object, between self and other). We are all gods at the same time. We worship the god who we need at this moment in our life, like the part of ourselves that we usually do not see as this is hidden behind the puppet-play screen. We may temporarily focus on only one role, but this can change and in the end we are all roles at the same time.
As a very old tradition, Hinduism has many different branches. Personally I have always been impressed by the ancient Buddhist-Hindu philosophy of Sunyata which is reflected in the Hindu myths and tradition of the Advaita Vedanta. Sunyata focuses on the existential emptiness or void of life, which is in line with the Middle-Age Christian mystic Meister Eckhart and the existential philosopher Heidegger (whose works I know well; cf. Werner Marx book on Heidegger and Eckhart). Sunyata invented phenomenology before Husserl popularised the phenomenological concept. Sunyata even developed the path of the mystic, which has later been copied by the Christian mystics in the Middle Ages (purgation, illuminatio, unio). Kierkegaard described similar stages in life, like aesthetics, ethics and religion.
Phenomenology, Kierkegaard, the mystic path, and Sunyata all tell that we should not focus on the superficial forms and themes, but have an empty open mind: we are empty, signless and undirected. We think that the shadows on the screen are everything there is in life, but it may not be. We think we are merely archetypical selfie-stick-tourists and tourist-guides, but we may be more than that: we have a larger potential. We can learn to empty ourselves, that is: set these assumptions temporarily aside and have an open mind. Spiritual and phenomenological practices could help us, to realize that this world is primarily empty of self or anything pertaining to the self: selfie-sticks are mere desperate attempts to fill the emptiness of being: behind the camera stuck on our stick, we try to hide the temporariness, complexity, paradoxes and mystery of life. Our empirical world of appearances are like performances on stage: they are “Maya”, unreal as they are transitory, and not absolutely existent. However, at the same time, Maya is all there is at this moment in the here-and-now. When we are in the here-and-now, we can start to experience emptiness not merely as negative –the lack of something-, but the space transforms into something positive: a space for something to emerge. The stage is our life, and our life is the stage where we perform. Similarly, our roles on the stage of our life are transitory, and they are not all there is. The social-divine order is changing, dynamic, and imperfect.
The mystic-phenomenological steps of emptying ourselves can physically be experienced by climbing the Borobodur, one of the largest Buddhist mountain-temples in the world. The Borobudur consists of different levels or floors, similar to a pyramid. Buddhists walk each level clockwise before they take the stairs to the next level. Similar to life, where we often circle around a struggle we need to overcome, before we can grow to the next level in life. By slowly walking at each level and looking at the amazing sculptures on the walls and the Buddha statues, the walker automatically goes into a meditative state. By the time I reached the highest level, I actually felt as if I was in a trance: my mind was empty, void of forms, being in the here and now. The many levels of the Borobudur are categorised into three different parts. These three parts correspond with the Christian mystic steps of purgatio-illuminatio-unio and the phenomenological steps of reduction-destruction-construction which Heidegger differentiated. The lowest part of the Borobudur does not have any sculptures at all, but simply consists of the stairs, the hill and nature. The only thing we need at this level is the right intention that is the right direction to go up the Borobodur, leaving our mundane daily life and strive towards Enlightenment. The middle part consists of five floors of paths with walls at both sides. The walls had intricate stone sculptures, showing daily life activities and our control of our earthly desires such as food, drinking, sex, misuse of nature, and physical violence. While I was walking there, I experienced that I was “walled in”, it felt like a maze. I could not see the surroundings but only the walls. There were large Enlightened Buddha sculptures around, but these stood higher than myself or there were walls between me and the large Enlightened Buddha sculptures. This immediate experience let me immediately feel that forms and meanings in my life such as materialism, hedonism, self-oriented or social meanings are like walls which prevent me from seeing the surroundings of life and which prevent me from connecting with Enlightenment; this is like the screen of the puppet play. The shapes of the walls were also very rectangular with sharp corners. When I reached the end of the level full of forms, I reached the highest level of Enlightenment. There were no forms there anymore, no walls hiding the surroundings, I was at the same level as the Enlightened Buddha sculptures, and all shapes were round and curvy. I felt physically liberated, as I could see far in the distance, I was not walled in anymore, everything seemed round and flowing around me. My mind was empty, and I literally did not focus on my daily life anymore but could almost literally see my daily life from the larger perspective.
It felt painful to go down the steps. I tried to keep my Enlightened mind, but as soon as I reached the carpark I had been tackled by so many hustlers that my mindset had become my daily life frustrated-me again. This is possibly one of the biggest challenges in life: how can we keep the brief moments of exaltations and stay Enlightened in the busyness of everyday life? How did Buddha and the Boddhisatvas live their lives after they had reached Enlightenment? Kierkegaard speaks of a “qualitative jump”: I did not only reach the highest level of Enlightenment by doing one more step up the stairs, but changed my full perception and my full being. As a transformed person, life will never be the same anymore. Having seen the puppet player playing the puppets behind the screen will forever change how you experience the shadow play on the screen. Like Neo in the movie The Matrix who could not simply enjoy his previous life inside the Matrix anymore when he had been outside the Matrix and had seen the lies and illusions that he was fed every day inside the Matrix. Personally, I understand this qualitative jump but in reality there are many slides which bring me back to the lower levels, without maintaining my Enlightenment –like in the game of Snakes and Ladders. It has often been argued “yes, but then you have not really reached Enlightenment” or “you must work harder”. I personally think that this rigidity is inconsistent in the philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism.
What does this mean for my meaning in life? As a reflection of God, every human being has to fulfil four objectives in life according to Hinduism (vaguely reminding of Aristotle’s Aitia and Heidegger’s Fourfold): Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. These objectives seem to be about transitioning between emptiness and space, between fulfilling our roles and transcending our roles. For example, Dharma recommends righteous and regulated living, such as fulfilling our role in the cosmic-divine tragicomedy of our life. However, this role is temporary, as we can eventually reach moksha, liberation. Thus, role-fulfilling and liberation balance each other. Similarly, Artha and Kama are balanced with Moksha. Artha means acquiring wealth, prosperity and glory. Kama includes fulfilment of wishes, desires, love and sensual pleasure. When one realizes the futility of temporary gratification and prosperity, one eventually seeks moksha (liberation). According to Hinduism all these four are equally important. If any one of these objectives is done half-heartedly life will remain incomplete. Balancing and fulfilling these four objectives is the highest duty of human being. Thus, we have our human desires and animalistic instincts, but we also have the ability to transcend these. Fulfilling our archetypical roles and getting symbolic support from others may facilitate our transformation process, like in the Ramayana myth. This fourfold tells that reaching moksha is not a qualitative jump after which we can forget the other aspects: we need to balance our enlightened mind-set and daily life. It is a fallacy to assume a distinction between the enlightened levels and the mundane daily-life levels: they may look to be split, but they are all part of the same temple. Thinking two worlds at the same time is particularly difficult for westerners like myself, who grew up with a strong Cartesian idea of sharp, rectangular and walled distinctions between subject and object, god and mortals, me and others, etc. The yin-yang symbol visualises this different way of living.
Let’s return to the question of whether we are stuck in certain roles in life, particularly after we have reached moksha. Of course, traditionally Hindus assume that we can only change roles between lives not within. However, it is similarly consistent with the four-objectives-philosophy, to assume that we can transform within this life. This is also symbolised by the many transformations that the main characters underwent on stage: we can change in this life. However, it is reality that we are always initially cast in a certain role: for example, I was born as a man in a middle class family in the Netherlands, etc. I can rigidly stuck to dutifully fulfilling my role as middle-class man, but this is unbalanced, and Sartrian “bad faith”. Alternatively, I can -at least partially- strive for moksha, see the temporariness of my middle-class Dutch role and for instance become a British punk queer. Being is being-in-possibilities, being aware that we can change, according to Heidegger. This also implies that I should subsequently not get stuck in this new role, but continuously strive towards transitionary transformation. I experience fun and prosperity in my punk scene, for instance during my parties (Artha and Kama), but I do realise that these are partial and temporary, as there is much more to life than this. I realise that I am more than my role, now that I am empathically connecting with locals in this culture which initially feels very distinct to myself.
The American tourist that I had heard in the bus has most likely not understood this spirituality that was shown in the dance, shadow plays and the Buddhist architecture. He ignored his inborn empathic capability, and was in bad faith. He looked at cultural and religious differences, not at our fundamental similarities. As humans, we face similar existential struggles. The dance performance showed that all of us face endless struggles. We follow and create archetypical-symbolic ways-of-living-with-threat, which was shown as gods in the play. The paradoxes, struggles, tensions and beautiful roles are not only external to us, we have the potential of all these roles inside us. However to realise we are gods and become one, we need mystical-phenomenological steps of setting aside our focus on differences. This does not mean that struggles and daily life have disappeared. No, it is a continuing process of balancing and experiencing paradoxes in life. It is here were we can experience meaning in life, in the dance of life.