Pie in the Sky

Ptolemy Tompkins

Originally printed in the Fall 2009 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Tompkins, Ptolemy. "Pie in the Sky." Quest  97. 4 (Fall 2009): 128-131.

That which is feared also belongs to the wholeness of the self. 
—C. G. Jung, Psychological Reflections
And I just had a feeling that something is going to happen, and I don't know what it is. And I hope I won't be too afraid when it does happen.
—UFO abductee Betty Hill

Ptolemy Tompkins

These days I jog a lot. Occasionally, after running for a while and feeling more comfortable in my body because of the endorphins I've coaxed it into releasing, I'll get a small, sharp inkling that even as I slog along down here on the physical plane, somewhere just above and behind me, someone—or something—is following me: a being that (though I describe it using physical terms like "above" and "behind") isn't of the physical plane at all, but of a higher, more mysterious one.
Higher. . . . There I go again, using a this-worldly, physical term to describe something that I've just said isn't physical at all. Of course, it's almost impossible not to use physical terminology when describing the nonphysical world, and the fact is that though this entity isn't there when I turn my head to look for it up in the sky, there is, all the same, a sense in which it really is there, coasting along just above the trees, tracking my progress like a flying saucer sent down to investigate just what exactly it is that people on earth get up to.
 
What is this entity? My suspicion is that it's me. Not the me I know and feel myself to be on a day-to-day level—not the me that struggles and frets and feels itself constantly swamped by the petty concerns of the world—but a larger, secret part of me. The part that never came down here to earth in the first place, but drifts along far above it—serene, imperious, gorgeously immune to all the clutter and idiocy of the world below.
 
I was fourteen in 1977, when both the original Star Wars and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind arrived on movie screens, and even have a hazy memory of my first viewing of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1969, when I was only seven. The first record I ever purchased for myself—the debut album by the rock group Boston—featured a garish, '70s-style flying saucer rising up above the earth. Flying saucer imagery was everywhere in my childhood, especially in my teen years, so it makes sense that when I try to picture this mysterious larger part of myself that I feel hovering and brooding somewhere above me, a flying saucer is the first object that comes to mind.
 
Not that I'm the only one to have made this connection. Writing about the flying saucer craze of the '40s and '50s, C. G. Jung argued that the swarms of flying disks suddenly being spotted in the skies around the world were manifestations—in modern technological guise—of the mandala: the ancient Far Eastern symbol of the higher or total self. Mandalas are typically circular, and circles are the most ancient and widespread symbol of wholeness—of completion—there is. For Jung, it didn't really matter whether flying saucers were real or not. What did matter was that they carry a strong psychic charge for modern humanity because they stand for totality—for a condition of fullness that we moderns have stubbornly shut ourselves off from and secretly long to recover. Whatever else they might or might not be, Jung suggested that flying saucers are a psychic reality, "an involuntary archetypal or mythological picture of an unconscious content, a rotundum, as the alchemists called it, that expresses the totality of the individual."
 
I didn't run into Jung's interpretation of the flying saucer phenomenon until I was an adult, but by that time, I'd been pretty well prepped for it by my father. Driving home from a viewing of Star Wars back in the early summer of 1977, I asked him what he thought about the scene in which Luke and the other rebel fighters flew their spaceships down the trench that runs around the Death Star. As the camera hurtled along the impossibly narrow trench with the walls rushing by on both sides, I was overcome by a strangely pleasant sensation. Why, I wondered, was the feeling of zooming through a narrow channel so attractive–and so oddly familiar?
 
"It's a memory of when you were a sperm cell, shooting into your mother," my father replied decisively.
 
It was a characteristic response: irritatingly simplistic, patently reductive, yet at the same time curiously interesting, curiously right. A sperm cell shooting toward an egg is, after all, a fragment seeking to become a whole, and it is the whole—that lost and larger part of ourselves—that all space objects in one way or another stand for.
 
Can we ever really find our way back to that wholeness? That, said Jung, was not only the central question posed by the flying saucer phenomenon, but also the central dilemma of our whole modern age. Seen from a psychological perspective, said Jung, UFOs "are impressive manifestations of totality whose simple, round form portrays the archetype of the self, which as we know from experience plays the chief role in uniting apparently irreconcilable opposites and is therefore best suited to compensate the split-mindedness of our age."
 
When we do finally overcome the split between ourselves, when we open the doors that lead to the vast, cold, but vivifying rooms in the rest of our unused psychic mansions, what sort of beings will we become? Will we still be the individuals we experience ourselves as down here on earth, or will we lose our individual identities entirely, merging into some larger form of consciousness that we can't even conceive of?
 
It is here that Jung's thought, which over the decades drew consistently from both Eastern and Western sources, runs into an ambiguity. For the East, the ideal man is the one who has melded with the cosmos—who has rejoined, without remnant, the great cosmic unity. Individual identity for the East is a momentary, provisional, and ultimately rather unimportant affair: a bubble on the surface of a vast black lake. What counts is Brahman, shunyata, the Tao . . . the Absolute by whatever name it goes by.
 
For the West, it's just the opposite. The human ideal is precisely someone who, far from being one with the cosmos, has worked hard to struggle and hack his way free of that oneness, in order to become (in a battle as long and exhausting as it is brutal and dangerous) a separate self. The last thing the ideal heroic figure of the West wants to do is merge with anything.
 
That's why the father God of the West—who divides the waters to create the heavens and the earth much as his Babylonian predecessor Marduk cut the water monster Tiamat in half to create the world—has always retained such a conspicuously masculine and warrior-like character. While Lao Tzu, in the Tao Te Ching, describes the Tao in consistently maternal terms (the "mother of the ten thousand things," etc.), in the West, female cosmic unity is something we must break free of rather than rejoin.
 
The word "individuation"—which Jung used to describe the process of becoming the fully rounded psychological entities we are truly supposed to be—carries the whole story of this long hard battle within it. Jung strongly believed that to become an individual we must establish ourselves as separate beings. But how does this goal jibe with the Eastern notion that to really become "oneself" one must cease being individual–cease being a "self"—altogether?
 
Unity, in other words, is great. Joining the circle of the larger self, which in the Eastern view turns out to mean the same as melding once and for all with the Absolute, is fine too. But what of the individual identities that we spent so much time and care building while down on earth? When we rejoin the full round pie in the sky that forever haunts us during our lives down here on earth, what becomes of that tormented, fragmentary, and stubbornly individual pizza slice that we were while we were here? Do we just leave it behind?
 
Everyone knows about the problems of the modern Western self. It's lonely. It's isolated. It's scared. Having differentiated itself into a truly unique and independent being, it's like a fully furnished hotel room in a vast, empty desert. Inside, all is personable, homey, and familiar. But outside, just beyond the curtains, looms a huge and terrifyingly impersonal wasteland. If the Eastern path is the way out of the isolation, anxiety, and loneliness of the human condition through reunification with the great impersonal circle of the One, the path of the West is the way to a greater feeling of personal identity—of me-ness. This me-ness is in equal parts heroic and tragic because, in the battle to fight free of the great maternal circle, the individual takes on the full brunt and burden of individuality; and the final name of this burden is death. The single all-important fact of life for the modern Western self is that it is doomed to die.
 
Is this paradox surmountable? Can we have our Eastern cake (in the form of an end to existential loneliness) and eat that cake (become fully actualized Western individuals) too?
 
The answer to this question, if we listen to a great many poets and philosophers in the West from the Romantic period on, is yes. And one way it becomes much easier to see why is by envisioning the soul as moving through time from one incarnation to another. A number of contemporary writers on reincarnation have borrowed the American Transcendentalist term "Oversoul" to describe this entity that moves from life to life. "If our ego-self is our natural identity in the physical world," writes Christopher M. Bache in Lifecycles: Reincarnation and the Web of Life, "the Oversoul is our natural identity in the spiritual. . . . When we leave our physical bodies behind at ‘death' and return to the spiritual domain, we (ideally) exchange our ego-identities for the larger identity of the Oversoul. This larger identity consists of all the lives we have ever lived. To be reunited with the Oversoul, therefore, is to experience simultaneously a profound expansion of our being and a coming home to a deeper identity."
 
According to this line of thinking, the "me" that we feel ourselves to be actually encompasses a whole crowd of smaller "me"s–a "hive of selves," as Coleridge once put it. Much like the UFOs, which (in Jung's words) send out "large mother-ships from which little UFOs slip out or in which they take shelter," each of us in our present, earthly state is in fact a kind of courier sent down to earth from the mother-ship of our larger selves.
 
Why do we come to earth to begin with? Why don't we just stay up on the spiritual plane, where—according to virtually all the statements of people who have experienced it—there is altogether less junk to deal with? The answer is deceptively simple: to grow as individuals. As the British philosopher Edward Carpenter wrote, "Limitation and hindrance are a part of the cosmic scheme in the creation of Souls. Soul-stuff is capable of infinitely swifter and more extended perceptions than we are usually aware. What purpose does this limitation serve? It subserves the evolution of self-consciousness and the sense of identity. It is only by pinning sensitiveness down to a point in space and time, by means of a body, and limiting its perceptions by means of the bodily end-organs of sight, hearing, taste, etc., that these new values could be added to creation—the self-conscious self and the sense of identity. Through the development of identity, mankind must ultimately rise to a height of glory otherwise unimaginable."
 
This enormously optimistic scenario of descent and return just might be the new spiritual narrative of our time–the true synthesis of East and West. It's a vision of the cosmos, and human life in that cosmos, that combines the positive aspect of the Eastern view (unity and wholeness) with the positive aspect of the Western view (complete development of individual personality) while leaving the negative aspects of East and West (impersonality and alienation, respectively) behind.
 
Traveling down to earth in the partialness of our individuality while our true and total self floats above us, we live a life that, when it ends, will be added to the vast library of experiences that constitutes the larger self. John Donne once wrote that "death is an ascent to a better library," and there is, indeed, a sense in which our larger selves are a kind of library of experience. "We are the bees of the invisible," the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, in yet another bee-and-hive analogy. And there is indeed something very beelike about the smaller self as it goes out into the world to gather the pollen of earthly experience so that it can be distilled into the honey of character.
 
Did Jung believe in reincarnation? Opinions differ—and Jung, characteristically, never fully committed himself either way. But there is no question that Jung had an appreciation for our need to see our lives as stories–for the idea that each individual life is a narrative in which we travel from small and needy fragment to full and self-sufficient whole. With the doctrine of reincarnation or without it, attaining to the possibility of such a marriage of whole and fragment is a challenge that hovers, flying-saucer-like, over our entire age.

Ptolemy Tompkins is a columnist at Beliefnet.com and the author of This Tree Grows Out of Hell, Paradise Fever, The Beaten Path, and The Divine Life of Animals (forthcoming).


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