Initiation and Practice I

The primordial format of initiation and practice from animistic shamanism describes the overall form of the experience that this work investigates. But initiation into what? From where or what? Practice of what? Most importantly, who is it that seeks satisfaction in such practices and initiations and what are the modalities of entrance into the realms of ultimate satisfaction?

Traditionally, that is, before the 14th Century in Europe, one might or would be initiated into a cosmology of symbolic references and values within religious, political, economic, social and ecologically referent constructs that promised to engage the fullest possible spectrum of human perception, thus making possible and obtaining satisfaction. (Refer to notes #1 and 2 below.) This end was described in terms of bliss, enchantment, beatific vision, sanctity, power… Initiation was seen to precipitate and engage the fullness of reality. It was, at least, the fullness of perception, since it involved both fundamental perceptive categories, the temporal and the non-temporal.1

Around the 13th century in Europe a shift of paradigms took place that moved away from practices in Christianity that focused upon conversion, integration and the fulfillment of nature in the Spirit. That is, this temporal world and the non-temporal world were interpreted to be inextricably connected and constantly seeking engagement and resolution of their mutual duality.2 The logical critical method surfaced as the lonely survivor from other, more wholistic systems of perception that begin to melt away– or get liquidated as in Tibet, for instance. As in Tantric Tibet, the Christian expression of a more wholistic modality through the medieval period in Europe reflects a distillation of spiritual sensibility in people and cultures from the earliest moments of human consciousness. Discovering the essential elements that maintain necessary modes for obtaining satisfaction from of old is an important aspect of the task here. After six hundred years since that medieval shift of paradigms took the field (see note #2), is there something else happening now that has produced the post-modern agenda of questions, threats and challenges, but also, perhaps a salvific element? Are we constructing a new civilization, or are we only dangerously, powerfully decadent from the heights of the last 6,000 years of civilization, or even from the simple, direct truths of animistic shamanism–anxiously, increasingly unsatisfied in the new mix?


First, let us consider the function of art as an agent of the shift of consciousness from the temporal to the non-temporal realm in the one who is initiated and who practices modalities of satisfaction.

Many of the major artists in the twentieth century were fascinated by archaic religions and art forms.3 Pollack was influenced by Tantra. Kandinsky as well, was influenced by the East, through Theosophy. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Debussy’s “Afternoon of the Faun” and Picasso’s African masks are among many such references that evidence Modernist fascination with archaic religious patterns.4 When Jackson Pollack, in reaction to Greek poetics, says, “I am nature”, he declares a unitary metaphysic that combines ‘knowing’ with what can be known. One’s art does not contemplate or imitate nature, one is nature contemplating itself. One is again primordial man standing on the plains of Altamira in terms of self-reflection, but at the other end of a critical spectrum.5 (Some used a quart of Gin a day to shift consciousness. But then, the Lord Christ, in a less spiritually duplicitous era, changed volumes of water into wine at a reception as His first public miracle.) The experience of modern artists is described in terms of their influences; existentialism, religion, even their titles [of art works] are important in the milieu of interest they indicate. Some feel that titles to such abstract works are superfluous. For others, including many of the artists, the titles indicate in an important manner the milieu out of which these works develop and help the viewer to find landmarks of meaning to better appreciate such work. There is perhaps a plagiarist’s superficiality to such titles with references to other peoples’ religions, and mythologies. But, I think that the titles represent the secular, Modernist movement’s attempt to deal with the unavoidable ontic questions of our existence and therefore are religious gestures even if seemingly confiscated from the more ancient religious traditions that actually produced such references. This use of titles describes the milieu of my interests consistent with Abstract Expressionist practice.6

Perhaps the Abstract Expressionist method of assault on the unconscious was a form of suicide–few died of old age or natural disease. Or, perhaps they are heroes sacrificing themselves for the liberation of human knowledge. I believe the Abstract Expressionist experience is one of the great insightful moments of human history–a spiritual exploration from a secular base. Here is a moment in the evolution of secular humanism that makes solid inroads into mystical consciousness: Generally, their ethic is humane, as represented by such as Barnet Newman among others. The action of their creativity demonstrates the conscious/unconscious or temporal/non-temporal moment at once, the union potent between the apparent and the mysterious.

Or, are the Abstract Expressionists merely the last gasp of the classical world? While still appreciating the vigor of their image, I feel the Abstract Expressionist contribution is somehow incomplete, ultimately unsatisfactory. We achieve direct contact with the unconscious and by the gesture of direct and nearly formless creativity define our primordial being. Some survive the glance of God, some do not. What is the value of an existentialist return to primordial consciousness? Is it even possible to obtain a consciousness that is free of, or ignorant of the cosmological nuance necessary for the conduct of classical culture?7 This is a systematic nuance that has developed with civilization itself. Von Balthasar, a Roman Catholic theologian, defends just such a cosmological schema as did Robert Cardinal Bellarmine against Galileo’s enthusiasm for the Nova Sciencia.8

The interest of Abstract Expressionist and Surrealist artists in “automatic” writing and drawing is famous and comparable to the more highly developed techniques for accessing the unconscious, such as Tarot Cards or the Chinese I Ching.9 Since Abstract Expressionism died out as a movement in the early Nineteen Sixties, perhaps their endeavor has failed to influence culture in any lasting way. Just as the German Expressionists failed to influence German society sufficiently to forestall Nazi depravations. Now at the end of the century, capitalist technocracy seems to have taken the field of world domination– has won the battle that surfaced in the Renaissance and Enlightenment for control of the penitential systems of Europe, of the world.10 Though many artists still paint in the Abstract Expressionist style, perhaps in the end, the Abstract Expressionists only contributed to the ascendance of technological and capitalist dominance in culture and everything else by helping to divide and dismiss traditional religious practice and belief. What is missing in their effort? Am I expecting something from the arts that properly is the province of other powers? In that regard, why has neither art nor religion–nor politics or science for that matter–been able to help more effectively to prevent the moral and martial horrors of the twentieth century? That is, if either can make any real claim to moral stature or spiritual influence. Panikkar suggests that perhaps we went wrong at the very outset of the history of civilization by the shift of consciousness that civilization itself requires.11 But in stirring the cauldron of the universal unconscious, perhaps modern artists point the way for others to develop, not just imitate.12

Perhaps Abstract Expressionism is the end of art’s possibilities given its development from the Renaissance, since the Classical age long ago distilled the essence from a vast pool of primordial sensibility. Perhaps, it is necessary to start over with the Shamanistic vision–the Existentialist theme again. The Western world, and therefore the world(!) is fast becoming a technocracy and increasingly rejects, since the end of the Medieval period in Europe, a theocentric, theocratic social structure.13

But is there something more valuable here, even threatening when left unsatisfied, that is basic to being “fully human” as Panikkar would have it?14 Is there something that must be fulfilled in order to provide satisfaction, perhaps even, to avoid universal self-destruction? This would explain the sense of urgency that one finds laced through Panikkar’s perspective. Panikkar discerns that consciousness itself is participation in eternity. (Reflection upon, or analysis of, the original conscious moment is always a temporal, linear process within the vales of perception, subsequent to the original non temporal sense of consciousness. The original experience of consciousness, though derivative, never seems to be touched by that subsequent linear, temporal process.) Thus, the function of religion is to resolve these two realms in the individual persons and cultures. In this regard, there is little religious purpose to demythify the scriptures, for instance, since the authentic mythic intention, as found in sacred scriptures, is to draw the two worlds, temporal and non-temporal, together. The function of symbols, also, is to bridge these differences. The purpose of art is to make these connections. When Jackson Pollack says “I am Nature”, he is not only redirecting Aristotelian poetics–art imitates nature–but re-establishes an existential connection with the world.

In Panikkar’s perspective, consciousness itself is an epiphany. Original consciousness is non-temporal. This is simple, reasonable observation in Panikkar’s system. One might deduce then, that everything after the original moment, or reflection upon that moment, is art–i.e., images, literature, myth, history/science– or religion. One’s temporal life is an art form in the sense that our temporal consideration of original experience is an artful means, a catalytic reference to the first and always, original moment. All categories of science and art might have equal veracity and be equally mythic, being once removed from the original experience, but always explicitly or non explicitly referring back to, or in the presence of, that more original experience of consciousness. Without that reference back to the other side of consciousness, one is reduced to the insane denial, or ignorance of, fundamental perceptive reality. Consciousness begins not with thinking but with non-thought, with the fecund void of eternity. Perception is confined to the recognition or experience of this shift of consciousness from void to manifestation.

High art or religion (or science), then, is that which best reflects the non-temporal, original moment, or truth in relationship with its progeny; the best of the best being that which resolves, or re-engages most fully, intercourse between the two: Satisfaction?

  1. “Atemporal” versus “historic” consciousness is a major theme here. Panikkar, “Time and Sacrifice–the Sacrifice of Time and the Ritual of Modernity”, ed. J. T. Fraser, The Study of Time III (New York, 1978) p. 689. As well, see Barbara Tedlock, Time and the Highland Maya. []
  2. Note on St. Anthony re: 12th century shift of paradigm influential in our contemporary situation: Fr. Romuald Dutcher, Superior of Epiphany Monastery, New Hampshire, a recently founded daughter house of Immaculate Hermitage in Big Sur, California, makes an excellent presentation about a shift of cultural paradigms that has greatly influenced our current post-Modern situation. Though this note runs the risk of over simplifying a complex of issues, as well as Fr. Dutcher’s longer presentation, still…

    One might trace this important influence from such works as St. Athanasius’ third century Life of St. Anthony the Hermit–the third most read book between 400-1200 A.D. after the Bible and St. Benedict’s Rule for Monks. This work depicts the ideal human as one in union with nature and nature fulfilled by the Spirit. This is opposed to the ever present tendency in human culture to denigrate nature, human and otherwise, as evil or hostile– to be conquered at all costs. This latter tendency began finally to take the field around the twelfth century as the monasteries lost influence during the re-urbanization of Europe. The result is a wide spread cultural development with God and nature even more completely distanced; and, nature to be conquered eventually by the then nascent technocracy. Gestalt meaning is lost, integration of humanity/nature/spirit is fragmented and the very environment of our survival is threatened at an accelerating pace. Literal rather than poetic interpretation of venerable cosmologies makes them the object of justifiable scorn. Holiness is reduced to an ideal, religion to ideology, not a real experience, not a life.

    The figure of St. Anthony of the Desert portrays a serious method for dealing with the inner life and communal relationships in union with the spirit. Here, temporal and non-temporal factors operate in healthy intercourse. The product of this approach exemplified in St. Anthony was: ‘He has become natural, he is living reasonably, in harmony according to nature–the monk goes into the desert to fight the devil, i.e. self! After twenty years he comes out of the desert manifesting deity. He was described as natural; not fat not skinny, he looks younger than his years. Emotionally, he is warm and present but not swayed by emotion. As a teacher, intellectually, he speaks to the actual situation–the local legal community trusted his clear discernment in many issues. Spiritually, he heals some by touch, but this is not emphasized. What is emphasized is that he is a great ‘consoler of hearts.’ He is simply natural, humanity divinized. It is sufficient to become fully human since nature is built to carry the illumination of divine glory. Nature and humanity are taken seriously. One such is fully alive–Theopoeisis=To become divine is to become truly human.’
    As the influence of rurally based monasteries waned, the active Franciscan and Dominican orders were established. The Dominican, St. Thomas Aquinas, starred in a Scholastic movement that developed a powerful tool, a scientific tool, for the clarification of Christian theology. For those of Thomas’ intellectual and moral stature, this use of Aristotelian logic dealt magnificently with many difficult philosophical and theological issues. However, subsequently, in lesser minds this method of discursion reduced theology to stereotypic arguments like the infamous angels dancing on the head of a pin, fostering not piety but a petty competitive spirit. No wonder, that by the time of the Reformation, many serious people were ready to toss out the old system retaining little more than Scriptural authority, as disputed as that might be. Thus reduced, Christendom split into three camps; reformation, counter-reformation, and scientists (latter day scholastics.) The ones to seemingly profit most by this disassembly, are the newly liberated agents of commerce and politics. St. Thomas was only the first to use the term “supernatural” as opposed to the natural, further separating what existentially, practically must be one.

    In spirituality, a similar thing happened. St. Francis is the great genius of his age in this regard. But he had a very negative attitude towards his body and rather browbeat the natural world with his paranormal powers. Once again, Francis was great enough to hold together the old system and the new mood, but subsequently, the gestalt is lost. What takes its place is a more devotional, sentimental, personal yearning for an increasingly distant God. Morality, originally of cosmological proportions, is reduced to one of its own sub-categories, Ethics, in Fundamentalist obeisance to the Nova Sciencia. The older Benedictine monastic systems maintained the mytho-poetic genius of generations–perhaps now best preserved institutionally in a few eastern Orthodox monasteries.

    The figures of Anthony [ala Athanasius], Francis and Thomas Aquinas are milestones in a larger curve of perception. It is the task of our age to re-evaluate both science and religion operating in the construct of culture and human perception, then discover anew the “tempiternal” core of reality, according to Panikkar (“Time and Sacrifice… p.711). [Temporal+Eternal=Tempiternal]

    See: Jean LeClercq, Love of Learning and Desire for God, 600-1200 A.D. and Life of St. Anthony, by St. Athanasius, Paulist Press, especially the long introductory commentary in this latter work. []

  3. That is, objects or figures whose nature it is to represent and give access to states of consciousness described traditionally in terms of heavens or hells, powers, deity, revelations, union, integration, etc. []
  4. Panikkar’s article “Deity” from Encyclopedia of Religion, (Mircea Eliade, ed.): “As a symbol, deity represents the human struggle at its highest; it represents man’s effort to discover his identity in confrontation with the limits of his universe. Deity is the symbol of what transcends the human being and the symbol of what lies hidden most deeply within him…”, p. 264. []
  5. See ‘Existentialism’ under ‘Abstract Expressionism’ in Frost PhD Appendix, []
  6. Stephen Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1991) p. xx.

    “The artists seldom worked with programmatic intent, that is, they never planned their paintings as doctrinal or merely intellectual thesis. Titles were most often added after the paintings were finished–sometimes several months after in titling sessions with friends…

    [The titles] can be from Greek myth, Native American ritual or nature… If one probes beyond the surface to the underlying, overlapping themes; however, the titles fall into place at different points along the thematic stream… The classic case is Pollack’s “Pasiphae” of 1943, which was originally entitled “Moby Dick.” It was retitled after the suggestion of a critic and friend, James Johnson Sweeney. Moby Dick was a symbol of the struggle with the dark animal nature of human beings in the period. The story of Pasiphae restates the struggle with the physical union of a Cretan queen and a powerful bull that leads to the issue of the Minotaur, half human, half animal. While not identical, the two titles address the same idea from different angles… They [titles] often can be interchanged from painting to painting. For example, Lee Krasner’s “Gaea and Combat” of the mid-1960s with their dramatic, swirling, mythic biomorphic forms, or Adolph Gottlieb’s “Voyager’s Return” with its sailing ship imagery and “Untitled–Heavy White Lines” with its ship-rowing forms, both of the mid-1940s–as long as the intended underlying associations are recognized. Such associations originate from the artists’ and the culture’s themes. That a critic suggested “Pasiphae” as a title to Pollack also indicates how widespread were particular themes and associations in the period. As Lee Krasner once said of Pollock’s titles, Abstract Expressionist titles ultimately had to agree with the artist’s “thinking.” []

  7. According to Panikkar: 1. The ancient ages were characterized by the theological belief that Man’s life is part of the divine adventure. And the rituals express the struggle of men and gods all together. The first Hellenic and Vedic ages are examples. 2. The middle ages are represented by the cosmological belief that man’s dignity consists in collaborating in the sustenance of the world. The ancient rituals and sacred mysteries are thus converted into expressions of and means for the human participation in the destiny of the universe. The Gita, the Hellenic, and Christian mysteries here come to mind. 3. Modernity is shaped by the humanistic belief that man’s life justifies itself by being of service to the human race and working together toward the progress of society. The ancient rituals are here transformed in the ethical behavior of the community, be this nation, state, party, church, academia, or any other group.*

    …Panikkar believes that we now live in the world of technocracy which he calls the Fourth World. To Panikkar and most of humanity, both these worlds are realities, although they are the worlds of the past. Modern man no longer needs to appease the gods or even be on good terms with them in order to live peacefully. The same applies to his relationship to the tyrant, king, or the authorities that be. There is no longer a need to understand nature in its own terms, the sun, the climate, the elements, etc. We have created another world, “the mega machine which now we feel we are caught in and find more difficult than to appease the gods or to kill the tyrant or to tame nature.”** The Fourth World [of technocracy] operates in autonomy. It does not leave room for freedom and spontaneity. For Panikkar spontaneity is the act of letting being be. Letting being express, without self-conscious interference.*** It is intimately related to and necessary for creativity, for art.**** This spontaneity is necessary for the Shift and defines artistic creativity.

    *Panikkar, “Time and Sacrifice–the Sacrifice of Time and the Ritual of Modernity”, ed. J. T. Fraser, Study of Time III (New York, 1978) p. 689.

    **Cargas interview with Panikkar, p. 5. Dr. Harry James Cargas, an outside reader for the Panikkar material of Frost dissertation, conducted a long interview with Panikkar, tape recorded, January 6-11, 1982, published 1997. These references are taken from the typed text of the interview, p. 79.

    ***See Chapter Two of Frost dissertation (GTU, Berkeley, 1995 note # 30, p. 61-62. Or, Cargas interview p. 71.
    ****Cargas interview, p. 83, story about “Alfaire X.” []

  8. Panikkar, R. “A Christophany for Our Times”, Bellarmine Lecture, 1991, p.1. There are problems with the new science that its early enthusiasts did not anticipate; such as, atomic weapons, massive population explosions and environmental degradation. We, at the other end of the enthusiasm, inextricably enmeshed in scientific thinking need not reject science, but must now re evaluate both science and religion in terms of their effects upon society and environment, according to Panikkar. []
  9. Landau, Ellen. Jackson Pollack, (New York: Abrams, 1989) p. 89ff. []
  10. Rothkrug, Lionel. “Religious Practices and Collective Perceptions: Hidden Homologies in the Renaissance and Reformation,” Historical Reflections, (Concordia University, Ontario, Canada, 1980). Lionel Rothkrug in this article posits that the period following the Renaissance in Europe was a period of battle for control of the Penitential systems of Europe. That is, who is it that seemingly controls how you get to heaven. In a conversation with Rothkrug in the GTU library, Fall 1993, he agreed that this conflict was still a central characteristic of the modern period, with the artists carrying the Modernist banner. This was reflected in such movements as Kandinski’s “Blue Rider” group, the Surrealists, and American Abstract Expressionists, as well as in literary and philosophical circles. []
  11. That we are far from… paradise would be a major under-statement in Panikkar’s evaluation of our current condition. According to him, it is not that we have made a mistake. Nor is it that we make the kind of mistakes that prophets and wise men traditionally warned us about. These mistakes, on the whole, leave our general direction uncontested. For the first time on a global scale, it is becoming clear to us that what is wrong is not that we have made mistakes but that the very flow of history, the very direction which we collectively are engaged in is wrong and ultimately destructive. (Cargas Interview, p. 18.)  []
  12. Fr. T. Yang PhD (Louvain), my first monastic teacher, when responding to my question about the stripping of Catholic liturgy during Vatican II of so many of its ancient symbols and actions, said that ‘…we need to develop a new system of symbols around the basic sacrament that speaks of our own lives and times. This might take several centuries….’ Fr. Yang was well-versed in the liturgical changes of Vatican II. Panikkar disputes the Teilhardian passivity of such evolutionary patience. But perhaps Fr. Yang is just more fatalistic than Fr. Panikkar. []
  13. Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists used certain techniques to access the unconscious by overcoming preconceived notions about reality. For instance, in learning to draw one might use the opposite hand of orientation in order to produce images out of normal control. Or at a more advanced stage, one faces a blank canvas without a preconceived idea about subject or image. One just paints and allows the sub and unconscious to express… “Automatism” is probably the most famous technique.

     Also, since the Renaissance, the artist is critical commentator rather than anonymous illustrator working for the Church or other patrons. (Artists in traditional Tibetan culture are also “guided” by the dictates of lamas or other patrons which fixes their status as artisans.) Art and artist as mystic and critic, becomes a weapon in what Rothkrug’s perspective sees as the battle for control of Europe’s spiritual vision. See note #26, Chapter Four, p. 87, Frost dissertation, GTU, Berkeley, 1995.

    The problem: No cosmology, no sense of the whole or its value, therefore no sense of its parts, or persons or how to behave: Rather businessmen and careerists, blithely headlong upon mental steeds edging the precipice of extinction: Satisfaction? Rather, exploitation and a dilettantes obsessive, discursive curiosity about bits and pieces of the universe… []

  14. For Panikkar, “full human activity” involves the full employment of discursive and non-discursive faculties–mystically, sensually, intellectually, culturally. This is not only for persons but for culture operating in a cosmotheandric reality; cosmos, deity, humanity. Panikkar, “A Christophany for our Times”, Robert Cardinal Bellarmine Lecture (St. Louis: St. Louis University Press, 1991) p. 11. []