The one thing that stood out to me the most when I recently read Ken Wilber’s “The Atman Project”, was the way he described the process of growth in terms of Eros and Thanatos and how it was just opposite of what I had imagined. So let’s recap for a moment:
When I speak of growth I am talking about personal development through various stages of consciousness, as every human goes through from infancy through to adulthood and possibly beyond. These stages, though in a sense fluid, have been mapped out by many researches and are recognized as the general pattern of growth. Each level of growth marks a broader and more inclusive consciousness, a greater ability to see and care about things beyond the central self. Unlike what we somehow implicitly believe, development can continue well beyond what we mark as adulthood and rational-logical thinking. There are structures of consciousness that are broader and more inclusive still.
At each stage there are two general tendencies present which according to different schools of psychology and spiritual teachings have been given different names. Wilber calls them Eros and Thanatos – the drive for union, as in being “the one”, and the fear of dissolution – or in more Freudian terms incest and castration. While the tendencies are always the same in structure, the way they are translated is different for each stage.
Eros is the drive towards unity/union.
Thanatos is the drive towards disintegration of the separate self which causes fear-of-death.
A desire for union for an infant is translated to swallowing everything, and thus becoming one with the world. For a growing child it might be dominating the whole world, subjecting it to their will. It depends on how their consciousness interprets the events in the universe. But the main energy behind Eros is union. Wilber calls it the desire to be cosmo-centric or “the hero”. To me this had previously seemed like the energy that would in fact bring one closer to union – to spirit or to the ultimate reality.
The fear of dissolution will for example manifest as the fear of being swallowed/eaten for an infant – a type of unity perhaps, but with the loss of self – or as the fear of loss of self-determination/autonomy for an older child. Whatever it is, at the stage that the human is at, their particular flavor of Thanatos seems like the most horrifying thing in the world. And it is this fear, this energy that each and everyone of us rides in order to grow to the next level.
But before we are capable of facing that fear something else has to happen – and that’s what this post is about: We have to realize that our approach to unity is doomed to failure. Even if we could swallow the world or dominate it or whatever other way Eros manifests, the end-result would fall short of what we truly want.
The origin of our Eros, of our desire for union, is the deeply rooted spiritual intuition that spirit is us. That we are – not merely a part of but completely and fully – spirit in action. That the world is seamless and our true self encompasses or IS all of it. And awakening to this will never, ever happen by means of the Eros that we manifest throughout our developmental levels. It will always be just a replacement that never satisfies entirely.
So we fail. Again and again. And as frustration and desperation sink in we are driven to the point where we turn to our greatest fear and face it. And just like our approach to union was an illusion, so is the fear. We are not swallowed or dis-owned, we are not dissolved… but the old concept of self is. From it rises a new self. The old self is made object, becomes visible in its failures, in the lessons it has learned, and a new self emerges with its new Eros and new Thanatos.
Accepting failure is the path to transcendence apparently. So how do we harness this energy? First of all we would have to acknowledge and appreciate our failures rather than trying to hide them under the rug or euphemizing them. And then use them as a catalyst to approach the absolute darkness we fear most. The loss of self, the loss of homeostasis, total obliteration. I don’t mean this in a physical sense. It’s an internal thing, a spiritual journey through darkness, through flames that burn away all that was, liberating you of the old structures and allowing you to find the new ones. The more developed we are, the more conscious we become of this process – the scarier it gets.
What I’m saying is that it’s good to be in a position where we experience failure from time to time. Failure is an opportunity to connect to a truth we all share: a yearning for unity and fear of losing our separate identity. And connecting to this truth can lead to an opening within us.
So, when you try a handstand and it doesn’t work, or when you begin a project and it just collapses, you don’t get the job you wanted… – remember this feeling. Use it to go deeper. Failure is always present – deep down you know, every moment of your life that your approach to unity is not working. It’s failing. Explore it, accept it! There is unity and you can be it, but that requires something else. In the meantime you can use the lack of unity, the failing to reach it, as a catalyst for expanding your consciousness and cognition.
Awakening to unity requires a complete openness to this moment, which searching can never provide. Because in the search there is an implicit resistance against what is here now. So notice your failures instead. Use them to touch upon those hardened surfaces within yourself, where your resistance has formed into callouses, and then let it soften them. Let it guide you to embrace them.
This will allow you to grow; and the more you grow the more you can embrace and encompass – the less separation will exist for you. And it will allow you to open to the ultimate one reality that is now – connecting, uniting, dissolving the confusion that is the separate self. Leaving only a clear, transparent and unique being.