An interview with Robert W. Godwin
by Elizabeth Debold
Curiously, in our era of specialists and experts and masters of ever more circumscribed fields of study, the most original and genuinely innovative thinking is frequently coming from individuals who are exploring terrain in which they’ve had little or no formal training. The occasional autodidact has been around for a long time, but these new “explorers without portfolio” do not lack education per se. They generally have academic degrees—accounting, medicine, or law—but it’s those subjects that lie beyond the sphere of their professional competence that motivate them to passionately read, think, and write about complex ideas in often remarkably fresh and insightful ways, whether it’s about art or physics or the origin of the universe.
Robert Godwin is such an “outsider” thinker, and a masterful litterateur to boot. In his book One Cosmos under God, he attempts nothing less than to reenvision the entire story of creation, both scientifically and spiritually, and audaciously and stunningly presents an often poetic, quasi-scriptural rendering of what a new cosmic narrative could be. It’s a book that breaks boundaries, thrills and teases, and ultimately makes very much sense in its Herculean embrace of cosmology, biology, quantum physics, psychology, anthropology, history, mysticism, theology, and more.
A practicing clinical psychologist, Godwin, in his words, became voraciously interested in everything at some point in his mid to late twenties. He also credits himself with having a synthetic versus analytic mind. So in order to make sense of what he was learning, he sought to find relationships and patterns among the truths he had gleaned from disparate fields of study. In short, he wanted to know. To that end, he recognized that the only way to grasp spiritual truths was through direct experience and he became a serious practitioner of Sri Aurobindo’s integral yoga. One Cosmos under God is the result of what he discovered as a follower of the Indian sage’s teachings, together with the fruits of his relentless curiosity.
Because of our own unfailing curiosity about evolutionary spirituality, WIE wanted to find out more about the ideas of this intrepid scholar. In the interview that follows, Godwin takes us on a tour of some of the grand metaphysical themes of our time as he explains his efforts to articu late a new, higher synthesis between scientific and mystical thinking. It is from that higher perspective, he says, that both the linear, causal nature of earthly life—the horizontal dimension—and the absolute and transcendent—or vertical—dimension can be seen in a more integrated way.
It is also how we can understand the four “singularities,” those explosions of evolutionary novelty that initiated the universe and radically transformed life on this planet forever. Then, seamlessly, the conversation shifts direction and Godwin takes us inward, into the deeper reaches of the human psyche as he presents an often startling account of psychological development and its relevance to the evolution of culture. Touching on a dizzying array of topics from child-rearing to ritualized sacrifice to the capacity for self-aware consciousness, he masterfully unites them all into a vision of humanity that is at once infinitely vast and ever so close to home.
Verticality and the Evolution of the Cosmos
WIE: In your book, One Cosmos under God, you create a remarkable synthesis of two types of knowledge— scientific and spiritual—in a grand evolutionary context for understanding who we are and why we’re here. Can you start by telling us about the goal of your work?
ROBERT GODWIN: I am simply trying to put the best spiritual wisdom together with the best knowledge about science to show that it’s not incompatible and that, in fact, the two reflect each other. Ultimately, I’m trying to make traditional metaphysics relevant to people, which is something that religions do.
The main idea is actually implicit in the traditional religious view. The traditional idea is that prior to evolution there is what’s called the involution of God, which you can think of metaphorically as the Big Bang. God throws himself into existence and almost loses himself in existence. Evolution, then, is the reverse—the gradual recapturing of different levels of God, and at the end is the I Am. At the end of the journey, you find out that it was God all along. The whole thing is God playing hide-and-seek with himself, so to speak.
However, to understand how our knowledge from science actually lines up with a traditional mystical understanding of God’s relationship to creation, you have to think stereoscopically. You have to hold one view, scientific knowledge, and hold the other view, mystical wisdom, until the two views are synthesized at a higher level. It’s like those magic 3-D pictures where a new thing emerges from two images.
It’s not like the “Tao of physics” idea—that if you understand quantum physics, you’re a mystic. That just conflates two lower levels. I’m for going to a higher level or dimension where you see that the two things that seem separate are actually part of the same thing. They’re two sides of the same coin. In fact, one basic metaphysical principle is that any truth comes from Truth with a capital “T.” So we’re looking for that Truth that shows how all of these lesser truths can exist together.
That’s the perspective that I’m talking about—it’s getting to a higher view that does not force things together or blend them. It’s a vision. And one of the things that you see from that higher view is that existence consists of two different dimensions.
WIE: And you call these two dimensions the horizontal and the vertical?
GODWIN: Yes, but that’s not original to me. Many people use that metaphor. It’s not easy to define the two—they make sense only in relation to each other. The horizontal is given to us in the course of material evolution by genes or natural selection and operates almost deterministically from past to present to future through linear cause and effect. Most people naturally regard the horizontal dimension as what is real, because that is how Darwinian evolution designed us.
The vertical, however, operates “perpendicular” to chronological time. This is where what we call God comes from. It’s where revelation comes from. Revelations don’t come from the past; they come from the Above. The vertical is actually the leading edge of the cosmos, the creative space of post–biological evolution. It is about qualities, such as depth, interiority, and the three great transcendentals: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
Virtually everything that defines us as humans, that gives us our dignity and our nobility, comes from the vertical—our capacity to know Truth, our capacity for aesthetic beauty, music, symphonies, poetry. To give an example, when Jesus is baptized, the spirit descends on him like a dove. It literally comes down vertically. That might be a metaphor, but it’s a very useful metaphor because it describes the experience. Just like the horizontal contains energies—the energies of physics—the vertical contains energies—the energies of shakti, grace. Any spiritual practice is about opening up to that vertical energy.
The spirituality that I practice, which is Sri Aurobindo’s yoga, has as its aim to bring the vertical into the horizontal. You’re not leaving the world behind. As a matter of fact, this is the proper understanding of the Christian approach also. The Word becomes flesh. The Word is the universal. The flesh is the particular, the horizontal. The Word becoming flesh is like saying the vertical became horizontal. The ultimate vertical became a particular horizontal—and not just in one man, but potentially in all.
WIE: How do you understand the relationship between the vertical and horizontal in the cosmos itself?
GODWIN: The vertical is at the head of everything. It’s like the blueprint, the potential. Ken Wilber talks about this, saying that it is like forms that are only pure potential but are not yet realized. The whole process of evolution is realizing and bringing down these pure forms of empty logos and making them manifest on this plane in horizontal time. At this point, they’re plastic and open because we’re evolving toward them. Evolution is the process of actualizing these things.
I think that’s why there are so many religions and different revelations. We have only recently entered this vertical terrain of Spirit, and we’re getting back a lot of different reports on what people find. It’s like the earliest explorers of America. Their maps were very crude because one guy lands in Massachusetts and another guy lands in Florida.
They come back to Europe and the first one says, “There are a lot of forests.” The second one says, “It’s very flat and sandy.” Each person sees different things because it’s not mapped well yet. In the Bible, Jesus says, “My Father’s house has many mansions.” Different people are seeing different mansions, but what is the whole territory that the mansions are in? That’s the interesting question.
WIE: In One Cosmos, you trace cosmic evolution by looking at the relationship between the vertical and the horizontal. In fact, you argue that the Big Bang is the first of four major “singularities” that have brought us to where we are now. Can you explain what you mean by singularity and what these four singularities are?
GODWIN: Singularity is actually the term that’s used for the Big Bang. Physicists define a singularity as a tiny point of space-time so impossibly dense that it is, in effect, infinite and is literally beyond our ability to imagine. But it is also an ontological discontinuity. Ontology is the study of being, and when a singularity occurs, being radically changes character.
That’s why there is not just one but four unaccountable singularities in existence—Matter, Life, Mind, and Spirit—that mark the unfolding of new dimensions in the cosmos. At each of these levels of evolution, there’s a deepening interiority. That’s the vertical dimension. It’s the deepening interior of the cosmos. Each is in its own way a bang, a unique one-of-a-time warp between what was before and what came after.
The first bang goes from nothing to a very exquisitely ordered something. With the second bang, we go from a dead universe to a living universe. That’s pretty bizarre. With the third singularity, we go from a living universe to a thinking and creating universe that mirrors the creator. That’s very bizarre. And then the most bizarre is the fourth singularity when we human beings have the spiritual revelation, “Aha! I am That,” which is very unexpected.
WIE: Could you go through each of the four singularities more fully?
GODWIN: The first singularity is existence itself, creation coming out of nothing, the Big Bang that happened 13.7 billion years ago. I started writing the book in order to understand the Big Bang and where it came from. As you study it—and of course, I’m relying on experts who know a lot more than I do—you realize that it’s quite mysterious that the Big Bang has these beautiful equations that govern it, which if altered one iota would make life impossible.
We wouldn’t be here. It would be a radically different universe. So it’s not just a random explosion; it’s a very ordered explosion with exquisitely beautiful mathematics. The very origins of the cosmos are indistinguishable from beauty and highly refined information, which implies verticality, right from the very beginning. Randomness can’t create that.
The second singularity is the bang of Life, which is also inexplicable. Biologists, in fact, can tell you everything about life except what life is because it’s such a mystery. That bang was approximately 3.85 billion years ago. It’s as startling as the Big Bang—just as unexpected because, after all, the universe was here for ten billion years without life. There’s no interior view on the cosmos. It’s simply pure exterior.
And then, one fine day on this planet, matter loops around itself and suddenly there’s an interior horizon that goes against everything that existed prior to that. It’s literally the beginning of a new universe, one with an interior, because everything interior that follows—the greatest poems and paintings and symphonies and philosophies—all started with that humble beginning of some little piece of matter rebelling against the flow of time and saying “Damn it, I’m going to exist for a while.” And all of our cells replicate that process.
The third singularity is surprising: the development of Mind. This happened relatively recently. You can argue about when it happened, but it’s interesting to realize that it didn’t just follow our genetic completion as Homo sapiens, which was finished somewhere between two hundred thousand and one hundred thousand years ago. We’d been Homo sapiens for a long time, and there was no evidence of what we would call humanness. Our humanness seems to have come from the vertical, not just from horizontal evolution.
All of a sudden, starting about forty thousand years ago in Europe, we see these beautiful cave paintings. We suddenly see burial of the dead. It was sporadic before, a little bit here and there, but now there is widespread burial of the dead. We see body decoration, which implies a new kind of self-consciousness. We see musical instruments. Now how do you explain that? How did humans suddenly manifest these new capacities?
The only way I can explain it is that we entered a new ontological realm—a world of truth and love and beauty. All of those things imply a sense of verticality, a sense of opening into a mental space where there is a recognition of beauty and eternity. It is a different way of being.
But even so, there’s no reason to believe that mind is going to lead to the fourth singularity. This last singularity is the sudden realization, about three thousand years ago at the beginning of the Upanishads, of the I Am. I am That. I am not God, but God and I are indistinguishable and the deepest part of myself is the Atman, is Brahman. Soon after that, beginning around 900 BC, you have the Jewish prophets and the whole Axial Age: Plato, Jesus, Lao Tzu, and others.
Now secular critics would say, “Oh, well. It’s just fantasy. It’s just because of anxiety. They’re making up fairy tales.” But what surprises me is the metaphysical sophistication of the great traditions. Consider the incredible wisdom in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The Jews who composed it were extremely rustic, nomadic, ignorant, illiterate people. Yet it has timeless wisdom that still profoundly applies today, as interpreted by the great rabbis.
Where did this wisdom come from? It almost argues for divine vertical origin because the people themselves couldn’t possibly have possessed it. They were just bringing it from some other dimension. This isn’t natural selection; I call it supernatural election. That’s how the vertical operates. It sort of chooses you: “I’m picking you to be my prophet.”
People who inhabit the I Am shine through history—I call them “fleshlights.” There’s no question that they live in a different dimension and are trying to help us to achieve that dimension as well. Throughout history, their words are there to illuminate us and to draw us toward them. They’re priceless. True spiritual masters use language in such a way that they are able to create the realm that they’re talking about. Their words are not just informational; they’re transformational.
WIE: One of the things that I found most interesting about your work is your assertion that the role that the vertical plays in human history is not limited to religion.
GODWIN: Right. Think about it: If not Churchill in World War II, who would have stepped up to do what he did? He was what I would call a secular mystic. There are so many stories about him talking about how he didn’t know where the words came from when he spoke. Or if you read the spiritual letters that the founding fathers wrote and see how animated they were by high ideals that led to creating this perfect document—the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Or Abraham Lincoln. Or Einstein, in science.
When you get right down to it, there is just a handful of people without whom we’d really be screwed-up human beings. It’s like the Jewish idea that there always have to be thirty-six righteous people, and if there’s anything less than that at any given time in history, everything goes to hell. Without these vertical ambassadors, things would really be a lot worse than they are.
Furthermore, the vertical plays a role in all human institutions. All institutions begin by having a higher instrumental purpose, whether it’s the military, the educational system, or whatever. But eventually the institution just begins to care about self-preservation, and that original instrumental task becomes lost. They eventually tend toward horizontality and close off the vertical. When that happens, people will instinctively leave the institution and try to find something else. For example, right now people are fed up with education; they want to home school.
Of course, you see this most obviously at work in religion. The problem with traditional religions is that they try to contain the uncontainable God and boil it down to some formula or some ritual. This creates the need for what Wilfred R. Bion, one of my psychoanalytic mentors, calls the Messiah. The Messiah’s job is to break these ritualized institutional containers to bring the savage immediacy of God back into reality.
This is why you constantly have religious reformations. Buddha, when he came along, was clearly rebelling against a highly institutionalized Hinduism that had lost its verticality. Jesus, at the time, was rebelling against a very horizontal Judaism in which there was the law, but the spirit was gone. On the holidays, you’d bring your pigeon or your sheep and pay off the priests. The destruction of the Temple was what created the deeper, interiorized rabbinical type of Judaism that we know today. Both rabbinical Judaism and Christianity started at the same time out of crisis.
WIE: So you feel the vertical dimension plays a crucial role in moving humanity forward?
GODWIN: I don’t know if it’s a metaphor or if it’s literal, but there is this idea that the avatar comes at key points where psychohistorical evolution has reached an impasse. The avatar comes down to break through the impasse. Take the Jews, for example. People think that the Jews are the chosen people in a narcissistic way, but the opposite is true.
Supposedly, the way the story goes, God gave his offer to every other group and they turned him down! And the Jews reluctantly accepted. There was nothing great about the ancient Hebrew tribes; they were as barbarous as anybody else. They just decided to cut this deal with this God named Jehovah to do his work. It’s not like they’re better than anybody else—it’s that nobody else would do it. And in the Bible, they keep reverting to making sacrifices to Molech. But they were chosen for this mission.
As the Jews developed, you find out, they were striking for a couple of reasons. They were the first culture ever to treat their women as full human beings and their children as treasured beings. By and large, both Greek and Egyptian cultures treated their children and their women horribly. At the time, the Jews were mocked for this, but because they were the most humane to their women and their children, it allowed for a rapid psychohistorical evolution.
This may be why they’re one of the first cultures to discover the One God—to have a more whole and unified experience of the divine. Down through history, the Jews have produced extraordinary people. And I’m not saying this because I’m Jewish, because I’m not! But Jewish people are overrepresented in all fields of excellence. I think it’s because of this leg up they have, and they continue to have, due to this cultural transmission.
It was this aspect of Jewish culture that paved the way for Jesus’ role in history. When you think about it, he could only have appeared from within the matrix of Judaism. Jesus could never have come from the Romans, who worshipped many gods and were so disrespectful of human life. Only the matrix of Judaism could have prepared the way for him to say the crazy things he said about the divine in each human being.
The Integration of the Psyche
and the Evolution of Culture
WIE: There’s something you’re touching on with this point about the Jews that I’d like to go into more deeply. You were saying that there have often been vertical interventions in history that propel humanity forward. This moves us into the territory of cultural evolution. I’m sure that very few deny that culture has evolved on a material level—technology, hygiene, and so forth—but I think most people believe that our sense of self and the way we think and feel have always been the same, that ancient Romans or Greeks were just like you and me except that they lived in a time with less technology. But you argue that the actual experience of being human has changed dramatically over the course of human history.
GODWIN: It is a controversial topic. I really believe that humanity has changed profoundly, although for some reason it’s politically incorrect to think so. Science still thinks of human intelligence as being the product of the brain, that a brain just got complicated enough and then boom!—human intelligence was there. But actually our horizontal intelligence is the product of the very species-specific situation of being born completely helpless and neurologically incomplete.
Way back in time, the human brain was growing at such a dramatic rate that the human infant’s head became too large to pass through the birth canal. This started to kill mothers, so evolution worked out a compromise where we were delivered nine, twelve, or more months premature. And for the baby to survive, the baby needed parents willing to take care of a small helpless infant—because who wants to do that?
So over time, evolution created things like oxytocin, which is the hormone that causes mothers to fall in love with their babies. Evolution created the human family because a mother could not survive by herself with a helpless baby. She had to find a way to lure a man to take care of her, so you have sexuality being available all year round instead of just twice a year as it is with other mammals.
Then, because the child is born in this neurologically incomplete state, the brain is literally growing and assembling itself during the first two years. What happens then is going to be hardwired into us, for better or worse. It’s only now, in the last forty or fifty years, that we have come to really understand attachment theory—the way the personality is created through bonding with caretakers and the effect bonding has on the brain. The more you understand how sensitive this process is, it’s just a no-brainer to apply that to the past and see, wow, the conditions of human development have changed. The way children were treated has changed dramatically, so there must have been implications.
I was very influenced by the work of a psychohistorian named Lloyd deMause. He’s gone in some directions that I disagree with, but he did a lot of very sound research about the history of child rearing and how horrible it was to be a child in the past. Just like it was horrible to be black and it was horrible to be a woman, it was horrible to be a child. When you read about what it was like in earlier times, you wouldn’t want to live there. You would not want to live in the Middle Ages; you would not want to live in ancient Greece. It was bad, except for a very small minority of people.
Let’s take ancient Greece for an example. If you look at Greek parenting, frankly, it’s a horror. There’s incest. Girls are always treated barbarously. When any infant was born, the father could just look at the baby and say, “Eh, let’s get rid of it.” Then they would just leave it outside, give it to the wolves. That’s a very different mindset. Imagine what it would be like for a child to grow up in such a stony, emotionally autistic world.
When you have parents who are capable at a moment’s notice of tossing you out the window and not looking back, you’re going to internalize that. The Greeks lived in a psychologically fragmented state, and their gods reflected that. If you look at the Greek pantheon, they had no ability to conceive of a loving God. They saw only hostile gods, gods who messed around with them, gods who screwed with them just for the fun of it.
Looked at from this perspective, it starts to make sense that the earliest mode of religiosity for human beings was human sacrifice to these sorts of pagan deities, and it was universal. All primitive cultures practiced human sacrifice. There was no concept of monotheism because people couldn’t cognitively entertain it. For example, what the Aztecs did is something unimaginable to us.
They had to have a constant supply of victims because it was their belief that the sun would be extinguished without human blood. Estimates of the number of people sacrificed each year range between fifteen thousand and two hundred fifty thousand. They would drag somebody up to the top of the pyramid, open up their chest while they’re still alive, take the beating heart out of their body, then take a bite out of the beating heart, and hold it up to the sun. It’s as if the average person was like Jeffrey Dahmer or something.
WIE: It’s hard to make the connection between human sacrifice and the experience of the sacred. How do these two things work together?
GODWIN: You need to understand the effects of early psychological splitting. The more primitive your mind is, psychoanalytically speaking, the more it exists in unsynthesized fashion. There’s a new model of the unconscious that is different from Freud’s model, where you imagine more or less a horizontal line, a boundary, between the conscious and the unconscious.
The new model of mind recognizes a bunch of vertical splits in consciousness—and not vertical in the way that we were speaking about before. The more difficult and traumatic your childhood is, the more there are going to be these vertical splits in your mind. Certain aspects of your experience are not integrated into your sense of who you are, and these parts are not able to be integrated. Even your own emotions will be experienced as intrusive, as persecutory, as something coming from outside you. In cultures that have child-rearing practices that produce this level of trauma and splitting in the mind, those people have to find some way to appease all of these projected persecutory enemies. That’s probably where sacrifice comes in.
One great writer on this subject is Gil Bailie, who wrote a wonderful book called Violence Unveiled. He argues that the reason for this universal mechanism of human sacrifice was to create solidarity among demon-haunted human beings who were driven by aggression and fear. In the moment that you’re killing the scapegoat, there’s a temporary kind of unity. There’s a kind of awe, because it is so horrible, and you spontaneously fall to your knees. For that moment, everybody’s on the same page.
It could create a sense of the sacred because when you are amidst death, there’s something sacred about it. Bailie talks about how, anthropologically, Jesus was to be the last human sacrifice. His sacrifice was supposed to say once and for all, “Don’t do this anymore because when you do it, you’re killing God.” When we scapegoat somebody who’s innocent, we’re killing God because we’re killing innocence.
Virgins, children, and infants have often been sacrificed because somebody who’s without sin is the one who needs to be sacrificed. Jesus was withoutsin. His sacrifice acts like a poultice on an infected wound. He draws out all of humanity’s sin. He takes all of our poison for us; then we kill him, and that cures us.
In fact, in ancient Greece the word for this kind of sacrifice is farmacon, which means cure, and it also means poison. The human who is sacrificed is the cure, but he or she is also perceived as the toxin. We’re making that person bear the burden of all our toxins. After we kill them, we temporarily feel free of our toxins. But we’ve got to keep doing it over and over again.
WIE: That’s certainly not the picture of the past that we see in mov ies or on TV! I can’t imagine what it would be like if most people walking around the street, as you said, had homicidal tendencies.
GODWIN: I look at the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], which is the diagnostic manual for psychologists, as containing the fossils of the past. Certain personality disorders that we see now, that are relatively rare, were much more common in the past.
The borderline personality is a classic example. These individuals internalize a very chaotic relationship with their mother or their parents early on, so their psyche is completely disregulated as adults. They hate you one moment and they love you the next; they’re just all over the map. They’re impulsive. And when you read about people from the Middle Ages, that’s what they were like. People then were impulsive. Somebody pisses you off in the street, and boom, it’s on. You draw your sword and kill them right there. The mortality rate was much, much higher in the past. Violence was pervasive.
For example, I read a new biography of Shakespeare. At the same time that you have Shakespeare writing the most luminous language that’s ever been written, they were torturing bears right next to where his play was going on. Human heads stuffed on pikes were all around the city as a warning that you’d better not commit crime. They had public executions that were horrific. All of that was going on side by side with Shakespeare’s plays.
It’s unbelievable. We’re talking about sadism merged with human creativity leading to very black, sinister behavior. Whole families would go to see the disemboweling and the burning of witches! If you study psychoanalysts like Melanie Klein and W.R.D. Fairbairn, you see how early relationships are internalized and then lived out later in life. Once you understand that these experiences get locked in, you realize that it’s not just that people at earlier times were a bit different; it’s deeper than that. That’s why I say that the average person was like a Jeffrey Dahmer.
WIE: We still complain about exposing children to violence in the media, but the picture you are painting is very extreme. Unfathomable, really. It’s fascinating that it is only recently that we have recognized how delicate child development is and how much care children need in order to develop.
GODWIN: Absolutely. It’s only been maybe a hundred years since we realized that the child has an interior, that the child is not just an object. This is why I have found Lloyd deMause’s work so compelling. Through his extensive research, he presents an evolutionary theory in which he argues that there have literally been different phases of human development that go along with improvement in child rearing.
Throughout history, in Western Europe particularly, child-rearing methods have improved. When child-rearing practices change significantly, they produce what he calls a new psycho-class. Now, as I’ve said, I don’t accept his views completely, but I think he’s really on to something. For example, I think you can see that a new psycho-class has emerged in the baby boomer generation. Dr. Spock’sBaby and Child Care was a bestseller in the fifties. My mom read it; all mothers read it. Our whole cohort was raised in a new, much more humane way. In fact, we were raised in the most humane way of any children in history.
There might even be a genetic basis to these psycho-classes, which is also very controversial. A study came out a couple of months ago that showed that our brains are still evolving. There’s an assumption in science that brains stopped evolving a hundred to a hundred fifty thousand years ago. But now they’re finding that brains are changing, that they are evolving, and that different groups are evolving at different rates.
The more humane your child rearing and the better your nutrition, the more opportunities you have to actualize your potential. So after a period of time, wouldn’t those brains become bigger and more complex? Ken Wilber makes this point too. Whenever we evolve mentally, there has to be a neurological substrate that develops at the same time. It doesn’t mean it’s reduced to neurology, but the two are going to go along together.
The implications are profound. That’s why the world has not synchronized its calendars. We’re all living in 2006, but there are many cultures where people actually function as if it were still 1700, and some as if it were 1500. The last totally primitive tribes only died out about thirty years ago. People are living in different developmental times, where they have very different ideas of sexual relations.
Women are still property; children are certainly property. Think about the difference between having a mother who is able to live in a linguistic world space of sophisticated abstract thinking and having a mother who is so concrete in her thinking that she’s not that far removed from being a primate. Literate mothers make a huge difference. If a person is not literate and has been abused, he or she is even more likely to act out on the children whatever sadism he or she has internalized. These issues do play out generationally, even though there are exceptions in each culture. There’s higher and there’s lower; it’s not uniform.
As part of my job as a clinical psychologist, I’m able to evaluate patients from many different cultures, and believe me, there are differences. There are differences from the bottom, meaning different practices in child rearing, that I think explain what goes on at the top, in adulthood. There are certain cultures where it’s as if every person is the same. They tell you the same story; they describe the same experiences. Their culture and the people themselves haven’t discovered individuality. The emphasis on individual development happened only very recently in history and really only in the West. In most cultures, historically, the emphasis has been on group identity. Nobody’s different from anybody else, and nobody really stands out.
WIE: How do differing degrees of fragmentation in the psyche relate to our religious or spiritual experience?
GODWIN: Somebody who has a fragmented psyche is often predisposed to extreme experiences. They can have very out-there experiences because their psyche is disregulated, but they can’t really make them stable. People who are traumatized, like incest survivors, are susceptible to disassociation and derealization where they can easily be disregulated into altered states of being that are, well, spiritual. But there are good realms of the spiritual, and there are bad realms of the spiritual. People who are fragmented can easily tap into other dimensions.
Look at it this way. All science is the reduction of multiplicity to unity. Any great scientific theory takes a whole range of phenomena and then organizes it into a vision that unifies it. That is what depth is. The creation of depth is the unification of multiplicity into unity. So it makes sense, therefore, that the more unified you become as a person, the more clearly you see the light. Most spiritual training touches on this in some form—becoming one, becoming whole.
We have all of these competing parts of ourselves, and if they’re all brought together on the same page, by virtue of
creating a more unitary being, it automatically creates a depth in the universe. The more unity you have within, the more deeply you will see without.
WIE: So where do you think we are going now? Where is Western individualism leading us?
GODWIN: First, I’d say that this kind of depth work, the exploration of consciousness, is now available to more and more people. In the past, it was available only to the few people who entered monasteries. Almost everyone else was doing backbreaking work practically 24/7. With modernity, for the first time your average person really does have the leisure and the resources—all of the great mystical literature as well as the cognitive, psychological, and emotional resources—to seek spiritually.
Yet the downside of Western individualism, of course, is narcissism, self-absorption, and the idea that everything can be fulfilled in the horizontal. All we get on TV is a steady diet of horizontality, which kills the vertical. Now we have the search for what is being called “authenticity.” So the richest people are the biggest lowlifes, like Paris Hilton. I call it downward mobility.
They show their authenticity by completely overturning any kind of authority, any hierarchy. They’re what I call the vertical barbarians because they’re attacking verticality. They are purely horizontal beings who assault the very idea of verticality, which is what’s so damaging about something like MTV. It’s a constant feast of bestial horizontality. And I’m no prude or anything like that; it has nothing to do with that. But just as there were horizontal barbarians who destroyed Rome, we have vertical barbarians who are destroying our culture.
WIE: It’s a tricky situation because the traditional way to have access to the vertical is through religion. But very few of us postmodern individualists are going to turn to the traditions. To move forward, it seems we need something new.
GODWIN: That’s a very good point. How do ironists find something that they revere and don’t just mock and look down upon? How do you make them look up? That’s the trick.
In some form or fashion, you have to find something that you spontaneously bow to, that you revere. And it can’t be something lower. It can’t just be Gaia. It’s got to be something higher that you recognize as such that makes you fall to your knees spontaneously. I’m trying to reanimate and reawaken awe, and trying to bypass or trick irony into recognizing this adventure of consciousness that we’re privileged to be on.
I think of the break from tradition as our adolescence, our break away from parental authority. But you can’t be an adolescent forever and we seem stuck here. We’re up on our hind legs, thinking almost in a nineteenth-century way that science has now conquered everything so that all human needs can be fulfilled. Now we have to find a way to enter our true spiritual adulthood, not the old authoritarian adulthood and not the adolescent rebellion of materialism, secularism, Marxism, and all those things.
We’re just at the very beginning of moving to the next stage. Andrew Cohen, Ken Wilber, myself—we’re all in our different ways trying to create a postmodern spirituality for people so they can leave adolescence and become grownups. That brings with it a new kind of responsibility, one that comes quite naturally once you enter into it. There’s a spontaneous desire to give. And when you meet a fellow traveler on the way, it’s a great joy.
I relate to any serious spiritual practitioner of any variety much more than to anybody else. Those are people with whom there’s a shared intimacy. And we’re all trying to create more fellow travelers. We’re trying to populate the lands that we’ve discovered.
Here’s a metaphor to leave you with. Look at the external movement of human evolution, going out of Africa and into Europe, then crossing the Atlantic, then coming to the East Coast of the United States, and then slowly migrating into the frontier—to the West Coast. Then the frontier closes. By the 1890s, there is nothing left. That’s when the interior journey really starts on a cultural level. You start seeing postmodern people like James Joyce, Einstein, Picasso.
All of a sudden, you see much more focus on the interior as the new frontier. We are now just beginning to explore that interior frontier. That’s what’s so exciting about it. People long for that old frontier:
“Oh, gosh, I wish I could go live on the frontier again.” But the frontier is here and now. The interior frontier is here, ready to be conquered and explored and inhabited. It’s so exciting. We’re on this incredible interior journey now, and we’re finding out that this is the only journey that is or has ever been. Because for us, the exterior frontier was actually an interior frontier all along. It was a longing for new horizons, for new experiences. All along it was that. But now we don’t have the inconvenience of the material world to worry about. We don’t have to “Go west, young man.” Now it’s “Go in and go up. Become inwardly mobile.” That’s the real journey and the next evolution.