Dis, the Disconnected Human Experience
In Dante’s Inferno, the one and same author/protagonist adventures from being lost in a forest, guided by Virgil, into the world of Hell. In a literal sense, this story is just a fantasy novel about someone journeying to an imaginary place called Hell. Symbolically, metaphorically, truthfully, he is journeying towards his personal hell, which is a real place which exists within each human being in our own individual ways. Hell, inside, is equivalent to our Shadow, the dark side of our Ego, some deep prison within the Mind, being stuck in the material world. Hell, like Heaven, are real places in the sense that they exist inside us depending on how our life unfolds. Extreme jubilation and meaning might be Heaven, whereas allowing our personal suffering to overcome us might be Hell. Thus, Hell is a place we can all reach and many often do, depending on how our lives are lived and the extent to which the human experience is faced directly or instead clouded by addiction and the many distracting pleasures of the material world.
I know I have certainly gone to a place closely resembling my Hell. The best I can hope is that I learned what I needed to learn there, and that I never choose to return.
Although it will only be discussed relatively briefly, Dante traverses through nine different levels of his own darkness. In each level he encounters various forms of ever deepening darkness. This could be viewed as increasing extremes of vice, ranging from a seemingly benign lie or minor greed or gluttony near the top levels, these vices taken to further extents as the nine levels are descended through living. At the center of Hell lies the City of Dis, in which Dante finds the worst imaginable torment, suffering, pain, misery. Within Dis lies the extreme of everything in life as manifested by the choice of how we live this life.
In being enslaved to the material world to the abandonment of our own development and spiritual care we develop the worst imaginable conditions and vices, often being blind to them. This results in how approaching Dis appears to Dante: a frightening world filled with fiery pools and towers, mosques, the most terrible beasts and monsters with heads fully separated from bodies, along the lord of the underworld himself, Pluto, Hades, the Devil, Satan, all of which are also referred to by the name Dis. Dis is both the place and the person ruling over that place, which we can become if our lives are allowed to run their course in that direction.
Dis also represents Hate, the most destructive force in the universe. Yet, for those of us lost in lives of internal or external Hate, traveling towards Dis is the only way to learn to find and then manifest Love.
The Many Meanings of Dis
The idea of Dis is profound and its appearance in language as a symbol is impossible to ignore once the connection is seen as our own personal Hell. Among a small few in writing this: disconnection, dismemberment, disembodiment, disease, distrust, disintegration, discord, disorder, distortion, among countless others. These words all have an inherently negative quality, something no human would willingly choose to experience, I suspect.
Within Dis, then, we can see the destructive outcome taken to the extreme of every conceivable human experience. Seeing my life and my personal Shadow, I can foretell my future should choices be allowed to unfold in that direction. Distrust, in particular, has been a common theme of my life and represents the pattern of why I have tended to isolate myself from others. In distrust we can imagine a state of paranoia that others have ill intentions, an inability to feel or believe in the ineffable, timeless notion of Love. Because I have trusted so few people in my life, including those closest to me at times, I have run away, very fast at times, much to the detriment of actualizing anything useful in this world. Distrust led me to my own personal hell of isolation, which at times meant living with my own internal dark thoughts.
Although I can see the arbitrariness of being in that place now and hope I don’t slip back to the deepest depths, it is as climbing the steepest mountain when one is enthralled in Dis’ icy grasp. Indeed, parts of center of Hell in Dante’ Inferno is conceived as being as cold as imaginable, with the Icy river Cocytus entrapping countless souls. Although we popularly conceive of Hell as hotter than anywhere imaginable, parts of Dis could also be seen as cold because in approaching there it is as being frozen, encapsulated by ice and unable to escape. I can relate to this during my experience in my house, which represented my worst personal Hell, since there were weeks when it seemed I could only stare at walls, transfixed. With fire one can hope to leave, yet with ice the only hope lies in some bright burning light of another human being arriving to thaw our frozen form.
In modern psychological terms, the most relevant form of Dis is seen in the word disconnection. Although this might mean being disconnected from others, and that is certainly the case, disconnection has a very literal and symbolic meaning in the brain.
The left brain and right brain hemispheres are both conceptualizations of how the holistic brain functions, and a literal way of how science views the brain in terms of cerebral hemispheres. I am now speaking literally, not symbolically as often above. The left hemisphere is responsible for the outwards aspects of our life–logic, materially-oriented, analysis, language, math and science–while the right is associated with anything emotion related–creativity, imagination, feelings, music, art. Although the above pictures the right as idyllic, both are required for the world we live in.
In psychology and symbolism, the right brain is associated with the feminine since this is the side females seem to be typically oriented–though this is obviously not a hard and fast rule. Males, in contrast, tend to be oriented towards the left brain. This can be seem empirically, since men are the ones who have obsessively built the material world until recent cultural changes mandate that woman now partake in material obsession; whereas as women have been traditionally oriented towards child-rearing due to their greater connection to emotions and empathy.
Between the two hemispheres is the corpus callosum, which is a bridge of communication between the two. The bridge allows understanding, for creativity to be manifested outwards or for emotion to be understood–right to left–and perhaps for external art to be interpreted in emotional or aesthetic–from left to right communication. Disconnection, in terms of Dis, refers literally to this bridge being broken down, and symbolically as the formation of our personal Hell as the bridge erodes further and further as we become immersed in senseless, meaningless thought.
Matter vs. Spirit
This disconnection also refers to the disconnection between Matter and Spirit. This disconnection occurs sometime around the age of three, typically–particularly among Western children. In studying the Bible, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and Carl Jung along with other Jungian psychoanalysts, this split is most widespread among Westerners, and a great many seem to not realize it. Interestingly, this split may be every bit as common among extremely religious people, including evangelical Christians, Mormons, and Catholics. Yet, because of their unwavering belief in dogmatic ideas, which are often ungrounded in any real notion of God but rather as some person in the sky, they are among the most blind to this disconnection.
Disconnection occurs in Western children because the material world, oriented towards objects, is something unnatural for which our biology still hasn’t caught up. Children are forced to adopt cultural constructs and zounds of endless rules, norms, customs, and laws, which have no intrinsic meaning but are simply made up. Mathematics, science, time even, are all made up fictions. All of this results in an ever greater split. Yet there is no indication that other cultures, since human consciousness evolved, have also not similarly experienced this split. My argument is simply that the West experiences this split in far greater forms.
Carl Jung suggested that every academic discipline is a byproduct of the psyche, either Matter or Spirit, and thus we can question the basic assumptions upon which our world is now founded. Although technology works and is therefore real in some sense, it doesn’t represent a full picture of reality because of this disconnection. Technology is just one of many symbols, similar to symbols of ancient cultures long since past.
What is most missing from the material world, the Mind Prison we all inhabit each waking hour, is the Spirit within every human. We live in what is often called the conscious world, but there exists an endlessly vast unconscious world that we experience through dreams, emotion, art, and many other forms. While Matter is missing in few, Spirit is missing in most. This spiritual symbolic world is generally disregarded now, as most members of society choose to slave away at jobs oriented in the material world because we have seemingly little other choice, live amidst consumerism, addictions, and be immersed in countless other distractions.
In childhood we live creative imaginative lives, filled with imagery of monsters and saviors. This is the time of our lives into which we have no or few penetrating memories. Our earliest memory of this human experience, whatever that is for each of us, tends to be around the time this disconnection has started to take concrete form; at which time the Ego also develops, our Shadow develops. For a great many men, like myself, I suspect we are stuck in the analytical brain. Women, as feminism offers “liberation” through enslavement to material aims, are now increasingly being entrapped in this side of the brain. In contrast, decreasing numbers of women and now even fewer men are stuck in the right side as the Spirit is lost.
Being stuck in either side, rather than being somewhere closer to the center near the bridge means an inability to bridge the divide. Thus, while one may have a creative idea, it cannot be actualized if you are right brained since that requires an ability to externalize it. Being too analytical, there is often a complete absence of symbolic understanding, such as was the case for most of my life.
Another interesting term out of Dis is disembodiment. Seeing Body contained within the word, we can see the immediate meaning of this word as losing touch with our Body. The Body is a state of feeling of being in contact with what people call God, and feels literally like a rush of water flowing through our insides. In slightly more objective terms, the Body likely represents what some psychologists may refer to as the wise mind which is the second nervous system existing in our stomach.
This feeling of our second Mind is taken away by the split between the brain hemispheres. For the great many of us who live disconnected human lives, bridging Spirit and Matter results in a return, however brief, to this place of being within the Body. The Body is also symbolically equal to the Middle Way as taught by Buddha or Jesus and is the result of taking the Hero’s Journey, of facing the Shadow and dark side of our Ego to the deepest pits of Hell; the key is finding our way back out of that internal dark maze.
The Body isn’t a constant place we live in, and I am not certain it is possible to be there 100% of the time for moderners given the necessity of living in the material world. Yet once someone who has never been there actually reaches it, however briefly, the desire to return is inescapable. On the Camino de Santiago, I know now that this state, equivalent to what is also called flow, was something I started encountering more and more and have been desiring to reconnect with since returning two years ago. In beginning to face my Shadow, I have been able to reexperience this feeling in very brief moments and hope to continue the work of coming closer to integration of these to aspects, living more in the Body as a result. Living in the Body is how we actualize the great creative ideas we all have and are brought into form, through bridging both worlds of the disconnected human psyche.
As an interesting aside, we can typically see the effects of the dominant hemisphere on the Body. In terms of the brain’s nervous system, the right hemisphere controls the left side of our Body, while the left hemisphere controls the right side. Unaddressed, our personal suffering results in disease. Disease, rather than being the commonly conceived idea as coming from without, may come from within as a kind of moral injury resulting from a disconnected Mind. Thus, if there is something wrong in some left side of our body, it may mean an absence of that part of our brain, whereas living in the right brain entirely may mean that our right side is being neglected. Living in one brain means the side that hemisphere controls–which, again, is the opposite side of the hemisphere–has been neglected and my be unhealthier. As an example for me, I am naturally very left-brained, to the absence of my right brain. My left nostril, connected to my right brain, has always been far more clogged than the right nostril connected to my left brain.
Within Hell we lose contact with our own bodies. The path of Jesus Christ, as the Body, is one way of leaving the Evil One’s grasp.
This word has similar meaning as the above two, with disintegration of the bridge between the two hemispheres resulting in the inability to connect emotion to logic/analysis, bring art to form through writing or painting or other creativity–which all require use of language or interpretation, found in the left brain. And so we are generally left stranded in whichever side we most are ingrained to through the unique circumstances of our own individual upbringings.
Integration is the result of rebuilding that bridge, and the path to doing so exists for anyone who wishes to undertake it. In terms of the Hero’s Journey, this integration for Westerners is a spiritual undertaking. I am an obsessive type of person and think of myself as having dedicated my life to doing this in one form or another for much of my life and will continue to do so until I die, no matter what it requires of me to do so. I would so rather keep on the spiritual path of meaning-seeking that I would prefer utter homelessness than any other, more conventional route through life.
Yet, for the majority it could also mean an hour a day, a few hours a week even, of some spiritually oriented practice for men. This could also be a creative practice, such as practicing writing, art, or active imagination even if it is challenging at first. For those more right brained, this practice might be practicing math, science, or some other way of being externally oriented. With each step we take the bridge is slowly reconstructed inside; as creatures of habit, each step takes us towards the center away from the side on which we tend to lean. Some of us are stuck in extremes, and so the path may take longer, but the path is available regardless, to anyone.
For men, the common lacking is a spiritual connection since we tend to be more left brained. This has been and certainly still is the case for me, as I denied the Mormon church as false as a young lad yet still had some lingering feeling that something greater than me was out there. My path started with the right brain oriented discipline of Social Work, continued with the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and now goes ever onward through psychoanalysis, studying myths and stories, and the use of psychedelics on myself. Other paths to integration include meditation, yoga, dream work, and shamanism, among countless others.
As Lao Tzu said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; so what are you waiting for? All spiritual paths lead to the same place for me. The rest of your life is waiting.
Kalsched, D. (2013). Trauma and the soul: A psychospiritual approach to human development and its interruption. New York: Routledge.