The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that have Shaped Our World View

The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that have Shaped Our World View

by Richard Tarnas
Harmony Books, New York, 1991; hardcover.

Where are we, Daddy? How did we get here? What are we to do?- our first profound questions, and, for most of us with interests in the transpersonal, questions we still earnestly ask. Richard Tarnas seeks answers to all of these and more in The Passion of the Western Mind, and, more often than not, succeeds spectacularly in providing a response that is at least provocative and hopeful if not an outright guide to salvation.

The "where we are," as Tarnas describes it, is in troubled postmodern times, caught in a cosmic double-bind between the inner craving for a life of meaning and the relentless attrition of existence in a cosmos that our rational scientific world view has assured us is empty, dead, devoid of all purpose. "How we got here" forms the body of Tarnas' work: a concise yet comprehensive account of the entire span of Western thought, from Plato and before, through early Christianity and the many permutations of the Christian-Hellenic synthesis of the Middle Ages, to the birth and transformation of the modern era through the world- shattering projects of Copernicus, Galilee, and Descartes, and, finally, to the postmodern apocalypse culminating in the systematic stripping away of certainty, soul, and sanity. This part of the book, which could have been as dry and debilitating as a sophomore seminar, is instead an exciting read, a page-burner of a mythic novel. Our history is, after all, the story of the Hero's Quest, with all that high drama – and with the inevitable Hero's tragic flaw. How that flaw is part of the solution as well as part of the problem is resolved in the exciting conclusion of Tarnas' story.

"What are we to do?" It is the great gift of this book that we are not left to sink in the postmodern morass, but are invited - indeed almost compelled by logical and visionary necessity-to recognize that there is an underlying pattern to all this, an archetypal pattern , and a method of archetypal analysis, synthesis, and above all experience, that points to the coming of a new world to which we are not alien but , rather, are fully inspired participants in its formation. Tarnas finds the clearest expression of this underlying archetypal world structure in the work of consciousness researcher Stanislav Grof, whose thirty years of investigation with psychedelics and other depth psychological techniques (i.e., holotropic breathwork) have revealed a four stage sequence of birth experience that has the most profound resonance on physical, psychological, religious, and physical levels. (In addition to his Harvard degree and Ph.D. in psychology, Tarnas was for ten years director of programs at Esalen Institute and Dr. Grof's next door neighbor, friend, and collaborator.) I will leave it to Rick's extended argument to prove to you the efficacy of the perinatal matrix as the "new paradigm" we have all been seeking. Convinced or not, you will surely add richness and complexity to your understanding of transpersonal issues.

Tarnas' conclusions will surely be criticized, misused - even abused. For example. they are subject to the lukewarm embrace of the reductivist: "Hmm, we all do go through a birth process; maybe he's right that coming through the birth canal preconditions human experience." or they may receive cavalier dismissal by scientific fundamentalists as "based on the ravings of the LSD-crazed." That the archetypal pattern revealed in the perinatal matrix underlies both mind and world, and thus unites them, requires an act of recognition that perhaps only the transpersonally experienced can accomplish with ease. However, on the whole Tarnas argues persuasively, and I urge you to encounter that argument. Particularly if you are somewhat new to these ideas, you must read this book to have any notion of what transpersonal psychology is truly about, and where it is destined to lead.

The Passion of the Western Mind is well placed to get a hearing in academic and professional circles as well as to become a hit with the educated public. It is a book that could truly make a difference. We in the transpersonal movement should , especially, take it to heart.

Note: I first heard the material that comprises the epilogue of The Passion of the Western Mind as a speech given at the 1990 "Cycles and Symbols" conference in San Francisco, where psychotherapists and professional astrologers gathered for the first time together to explore similarities in their disciplines and to jointly participate in presentations by Tarnas and Grof as well as other prominent astrologers and therapists. Tarnas brought the crowd roaring to its feet, both through the depth and breadth of his vision, and because he added to the written version an explicit encouragement to astrologers. (After all, if the "astrological premise"-that the movements of the heavens are correlated with human action-is verified, then the postmodern dilemma vanishes.) I for one am looking forward to further exciting developments from the Tarnas-Grof collaboration.


Summer 1992