“Free” choice may be thought of as the limited options that remain to us after the cruder compulsions (that would otherwise choose for us) have gradually but thoroughly been burned away in the fire of experience – or exhausted, which amounts to the same thing. Such compelling (un-free) factors may be natural (instincts) or conventional (directives, duties, moral commandments, laws) or a heady mixture of both. To the extent that a man is identified or psychically merged with these compelling instinctual drives, affects, duties, and directives, his thoughts and actions can scarcely be called “free.” Therefore, what we call “freedom” (of thought or action) begins with our efforts to objectify these compelling factors – to differentiate them from our uncompelled awareness. This wins for us a crucial measure of conscious distance from them by momentarily interrupting or breaking the accustomed state of identification. It is in these moments of quiet, un-compelled detachment from the motors, gears, and driveshaft that normally propel us into and through life that we may be said to experience freedom. Thus, it should be fairly clear that when we speak of freedom what we mean is a freedom from rather than a freedom to. It is much closer to “neti, neti” (“not this, not that”) than to what the uninitiated suppose freedom to be. What they typically imagine is license – the unconstrained liberty to gratify one’s dreams and desires. I understand the path of freedom as a via negativa and not as the attainment of an earthly paradise as a reward for good behavior. But in holding such a view, here in 21st century America, I certainly am a stranger in a strange land.
If – as I do solemnly swear – I am not an elitist snob, then what the dickens am I? Insofar as the elitist, by common definition, dwells at a cautious remove from the many, I confess as much. And insofar as I have come to believe that indiscriminate intercourse with the many is both fruitless and uncongenial to me in my present state, I admit to standing apart. But if I know myself to be part of an invisible elite, it is not a haughty or self-righteous elite, but a compassionate one that is conscientiously benign in its aims and methods.
To employ a crude example, let us imagine a huge tract of treacherous quicksand. Those who are trapped in the quicksand may be spineless cowards or courageous heroes, but anyone caught there stands a very good chance of dying there. Whether one sinks ever so slowly or hastens his submergence through wild flailing about makes little difference in the end. As it would happen, there has always been a minority of persons who manage to make their way, through some natural instinct or trusted inclination, to the solid bank surrounding the quicksand and pull themselves out. In the vast majority of this minority of cases, considerable effort is required (in addition to the saving instinct) for self-liberation from the quicksand.
These fortunate escapees began to recognize at some point that the quicksand exerts a mysterious, alluring power over those in its grip. The victims were aware that they were being pulled down by the quicksand to their deaths, so they felt a natural urge to free themselves from its engulfing power. But at the same time they felt almost pleasantly at home in the very medium in which they would soon be buried forever. Their hopes, plans, and desires were ultimately stronger than their longing for freedom.
For those of us who have miraculously climbed out of the quicksand on to the solid shore, it became clear at one point that it was our unconscious attachment to an alluringly pleasant substance secreted by the quicksand that was half the problem. This substance might take the form of sensual lust or an ambition to rule over men. It might assume the guise of bars of gold or the prospect of stardom. As soon as we overcame our unconscious attachment to that ensnaring drive or pleasure state, we steadily acquired the ability to swim over the surface of the quagmire.
After we succeeded in pulling ourselves onto the solid bank quicksand bog, our work had just begun. The first step was to undergo a drying out period there on the sun-baked shore. Since much of our bulk had heretofore consisted of water, we lost a great deal of weight during this drying out phase. As soon as we started to become adjusted to our new, freer medium, our thoughts first turned to those we’d left behind in the quicksand. It seemed only natural for us to want to rescue as many of our friends and kinsman from drowning as possible. We searched for a strong limb or branch that we could extend out to these victims – so that they could grab hold, allowing us to pull them to dry land and safety. But we soon found that our best intentions met with one failure after another.
We neglected to work into our calculations the fact that their strong attachments to their quicksand hopes and dreams were stronger, in almost every case, then their desire for freedom. Moreover, the significant weight reduction we experienced during our drying out made it a lot easier for our friends, lovers, and family members to pull us back into the quicksand rather than the reverse. And each one of these fiascoes made it necessary, once we managed to climb out again, to repeat the extended drying out process – and with little success to show for our efforts.
Eventually, we began to learn that no one comes out of the quicksand who isn’t driven from within by a love of freedom that is stronger than all rivaling desires. Such persons – ripe for release – do not need us or anybody else to pull them out with a pole. They can manage on their own, for they have earned their release. Thus, the insight gradually dawns on us that, so long as we are attached to persons who, in turn, are firmly attached to their quicksand pleasures, dreams, and ambitions, we will remain ensnared by the quicksand in an indirect way. We find, as time goes on, that our compassion is most effectively expressed by simply staying in place – by remaining attuned to the silent, still point of centeredness on the solid bank. By standing there we provide the assurance sought by those in the grip of the quicksand who begin to dream – not of gold or sensual oblivion, dominion or fame – but of freedom and abiding serenity.
Perhaps more than any nation that has emerged on this planet, America has gone to greater lengths to sever its connection(s) with the past—with tradition and with memory. This diminished awareness of historical influences and factors—factors that exercise a conspicuous determining power over other nations (that are more thoroughly rooted in the traditions and values carried over from the past) has endowed many native-born Americans with special advantages, to be sure, but it seems also to have exacted a high price, culturally. It seems that our collective exemption from many of the historical and traditional fetters that other nations of the world take for granted has subtly contributed to our collective barbarization, our world-renowned and ridiculed ignorance (about the world beyond our walled borders) and our cultural philistinism and uncouthness. Of course, many Americans cannot (or will not) see this barbarity and this deplorable shallowness for what they are—largely because they lack the knowledge and experience required to make these very serious defects and educational shortcomings objectively evident to themselves. Few Americans, relatively speaking, ever venture out of the protective, insulating bubble of ignorance, half-truths, and self-perpetuating delusions that are continually being recycled by our shallow, intellectually insulting mass media and our culturally bankrupt educational institutions. Traveling extensively outside of the United States—and really getting to know and to trust foreigners who come from very different backgrounds than ours—so that we can learn from them just how different we are as Americans: this sort of educational traveling is comparatively rare among us. We are, as Mark Twain said, ‘Innocents Abroad.’
The dearth of meaningful historical-cultural rootedness in the United States has led to a collective condition wherein there is very little ballast in our ‘ship.’ Either as a consequence or as a cause (or both simultaneously), we tend to be absorbed in thoughts about our future (what we aim to do, what we want to happen, etc.) or in what amounts to a context-less present. Because the past, for us, is often little more than our picayune personal past, our historical context tends to have exclusively personal (or familial) horizons. Certainly this must hamper the sense of continuity and connectedness to the larger, more inclusive past, which remains largely unknown to most of us. And even when our educations expose us to this larger cultural-social-political past, the result is often pretty threadbare and unimpressive, when it is not deliberately distorted for present propagandistic purposes. We are usually presented with a slew of names, dates, and other bits of discrete information that are not at all meaningfully situated within a complex gestalt or context that we imaginatively and intuitively grasp.
I cannot fail to notice a superficial parallel between America’s (more or less foundational and constitutional) suspicion/aversion towards the traditional past, on the one hand, and, on the other, Ramana Maharshi’s implicit repudiation of history (as part of the not-self). All of this suggests another link (explored by James Hillman) between ‘spirit,’ the puer archetype, and the transcendence of time. From the standpoint of these constellated, linked perspectives, history is implicitly regarded as a kind of weight (or a noose) around the neck of the spirit that would be free, detached from all limited and confining forms. When I invoked the word ‘ballast,’ earlier, this same weight was viewed in a favorable, salutary light. Rather than constituting simply an impediment or obstacle to our freedom, this ballast was understood to contribute to our freedom—serving as a check against the ship’s utter helplessness against the force of shifting winds and ocean currents. Without this weight there is no inertial power to resist these potent environmental forces and factors. And without some way of resisting or counteracting these forces, it becomes difficult to speak meaningfully of freedom. To be unhindered merely so that one can be blown around by whatever trend, fashion, gust (or passion) stirs up: this is scarcely a worthwhile goal to aim for, no?
Therefore, if history—in the form of stabilizing traditions and anchoring customs—helps us to ‘stay on course’ with our lives by adding heft and weight to our personalities as a protection against flightiness or fatuousness, then perhaps we should be very careful before dismissing or neglecting it. We do not resolve problems or liberate ourselves from difficulties simply by denying that they are real or that they exist. We resolve them only by encountering them and reckoning with them, right? Have I been convinced, after studying and chewing on Ramana Maharshi’s writings all these years, that he successfully and satisfactorily resolved all the principal problems facing man, as such—or does he not appear simply to have cut the Gordian knot instead of deftly untying it, as it was presumably meant to be dealt with? I am of two minds about Ramana Maharshi on this issue. Usually I find him to be the most radical and demanding ‘teacher’ I have ever encountered—and that his writings set the bar higher than anything else I have ever come across. But every once in awhile I become a bit suspicious—that Ramana Maharshi and the other great yogis and mystics have simply retreated from the battle that being a finite and incarnate human necessarily and inescapably entails. When viewed from this more skeptical perspective, the mystics and sages no longer command my highest respect and admiration, for they seem to have attained their coveted liberation by turning defiantly away from this inescapable, necessary battle rather than truly coming to terms with it. It seems to me that genuinely coming to terms with these persistent, relentless realities (that come with having a body, with having problematic relationships with other persons who demand, in some way or another, be dealt with, etc.) means acknowledging not only their real existence, but their right to real existence. To do this would not necessarily require one to jettison altogether the teachings of the mystics and the ‘detached’ sages, but it would certainly challenge their claims to absolute or comprehensive validity.
For Ramana Maharshi, since the body and the world are regarded as projections from the mind (or that the screen, the movie, the light, the film, and the projector are, all together, the One Eternal Self), there is no real split, and therefore no real problem to be solved. But for anyone who implicitly believes in the independent reality of matter (and the body)—and that may very well be the great majority of human beings, now as ever, since ‘commonsense’ thoroughly supports it—Ramana Maharshi’s position, while intriguing, is nonetheless untenable. Too much compelling evidence stands stubbornly and defiantly in the way of our adopting so outrageous a position. Of course, in those relatively rare moments when I am actually able to see ‘reality’ after the fashion of my radical, subversive teacher, Ramana Maharshi, I remember all over again just how singularly correct his assessment is. But—to hold onto that perspective—genuinely and not merely as an ‘intellectual position’: that is the challenge.
 Of course, they would argue that it is precisely this finitude of the not-self—or personal ego—that has been ‘seen through’ and transcended—making all such pursuits illusory.
For the sake of discussion, let us entertain the idea of three roughly distinct levels of consciousness that we are able to experience or participate in: (1) collective consciousness, (2) individual consciousness, and (3) transcendent consciousness.
Collective or ‘mass’ consciousness (the modern equivalent of ‘tribal’ consciousness), like transcendent, or ‘spiritual’ consciousness, appears to dissolve or absorb individual, personally differentiated ego-consciousness (as when a crowd or mob ceases to be an accumulation of individuals and mysterious acquires a ‘mind’ of its own). Under such conditions, the individual ego is assimilated, either by the instinctual energy field or by the form-vaporizing spirit. In this respect, the integrity or cohesive ‘solidity’ of the individual ego is always potentially under threat of dissolution from both directions—from the side of the collective instincts and from the side of the transcendent spirit. The experience of being dissolved into the instinctual-collective or into the formless-spiritual level can be extremely pleasurable or extremely distressing, depending on the attitude of the individual ego that is being overwhelmed by and absorbed into the larger, more comprehensive realm.
If, however, the individual ego defensively or fearfully isolates itself—and attempts to thrive solely by means of its own limited resources—its experience of both the instinctual and spiritual realms will become increasingly restricted and increasingly adversarial. It will be cutting itself off from spiritual-instinctual nourishment and from the stable sense of equilibrium that can only be attained by venturing beyond its narrow, isolated plot. If the ego thus becomes a kind of ‘shut-in’—cut off, experientially, from both instinctual and spiritual sources of nourishment and animation—it exposes itself to a variety of dangers.
It should be noted and remembered that the individual is fleeting and impermanent, while these two enormous realms—the spiritual and the material/instinctual—are everlasting. The spiritual and instinctual principles are ‘Father’ and ‘Mother,’ respectively. All ephemeral human egos are the offspring of the less than perfect marriage between this eternal Father and this deathless Mother. As their dependent children, our individual egos receive an inheritance from both parents, of course, and all of the problems and difficulties that arise between Father-Spirit and Mother-Matter are carried over into our essentially problematic individual constitutions. In our individual efforts to work through and to work out these riddles and conflicts that are woven into the very fabric of our nature (as dependent children of this Father and this Mother), we indirectly help to nourish and preserve their titanic, shaky marriage. We human egos are, in fact, the frontline—nay, the very battlefield itself—whereupon Daddy-spirit and Mommy-matter collide. Usually they scuffle and tussle. Occasionally they snuggle and couple. But always they misunderstand one another—and it falls to our lot, as their ambivalent, fumbling children, to work more or less continuously at ‘patching things up.’ Tragically, perhaps—but nobly—we struggle, knowing that we are doomed to perish and that our names will gradually fade forever from the memory of those who come after us.
We attend to our tiny portion of this ceaseless cosmic crisis because we must. For, as was said, the battlefield is not upon some field in France or on some remote island in the Pacific, but in our battered and torn hearts, in the caverns and crevasses of our unexplored minds, in the very twists and turnings of our souls. It requires all of our education, imagination, patience, and courage to prevent our tiny portion of the cosmic war-love-fest from spilling over into our neighbor’s yard. Once that starts to happen on a large scale, things go haywire in a hurry. Wildfires, floods, raging epidemics, and devouring earthquakes are fitting images for the chaos and mayhem unleashed upon the skittish, dysfunctional family of man as soon as a critical mass of us stop managing our own individually-tailored, mysteriously allotted portions of the cosmic war-romance and allow our lacerating shrapnel and our potent poisons to assail our neighbors, who are absorbed with managing their own allotted portions.
Our experience of ordinary waking consciousness may be likened to being in a room – large or small, crowded or not – where various activities are underway: a lively conversation, a piece of music or a play is being performed, an animal is loose, etc. Meditation may be equated with stepping out of this room, where activity of one sort or another is guaranteed to be underway at all times. When we step out of the activity room, we are alone in silence and there is nothing there to captivate our attention. When we are ready to meditate, then, we head for the door that leads out of the room. We do not attempt to make everyone in the room shut up and be still. We do not hunt down and kill the animal that is on the loose. It is enough to exit the room, but first we must know where the door is. Then we must trust that when we exit the room we are not simply going to be annihilated or dissolved into nothingness.
Gradually, we learned that the activity room is not a “place” in the usual sense of a location in the external world, but a topos – or inner space – that exists as a level or type of consciousness. Leaving the room is a pictorial metaphor for shifting to a different topos or level of consciousness that is subtler than the level of the room we have left. Here, silence and “not-doing” are experienced. The meditator learns, in time, that it is possible to bring some of the silence and stillness of the meditative state back into the activity room, but the reverse is not the case. In meditation, we become so small and vaporous that we can slither through the keyhole in the door of the activity room, but nothing within the activity room is small or subtle enough to exit through that keyhole.
Eventually, the advanced meditator realizes that it is unnecessary to exit the door of the activity room in order to find the silence and the stillness of formless awareness. They permeate the space he is always in. He sees, at last, that there is no door there, no inside or outside of the room. There are only interpenetrating levels of consciousness – each one at a different level of subtlety – all the way from the densest, bulkiest, and most limited to the most rarefied, boundless, and formless. As the center of gravity of his consciousness moves from one level to the next, the mental environment changes accordingly. What appears real and indisputable on one level – say, that of sensory experience – becomes irrelevant and of little significance as our consciousness shifts to the plane of abstract intuitions and archetypal images. Disputes occur when partisans of one level or arena of conscious experience refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of another level – usually because they have yet to develop the necessary aptitude or subtlety to enter that level. Until then, they regard such unexperienced levels as delusional.
If a writer focuses diligently upon themes and questions that are of essential concern to thinking human beings—and he writes with a modicum of deftness and clarity—his works will be assured of finding an appreciative reading audience. Such works—and we have plenty of examples of them—perform the refreshing service of scraping the non-essential questions and peripheral themes right off our plates, leaving only the lightly seasoned meat and potatoes. Such thinkers and writers about fundamental human questions are attractive to readers who are interested primarily in nutrition for their minds—‘whole food’ for thought—and not chiefly in exotic fruits, over-rich sauces, and sugar-filled desserts.
Rather than coming away from such books feeling stuffed, the grateful reader feels lighter, leaner, and more vitalized than before he or she sat down to read. This is because good, essential questions—well formulated and carefully followed—do not add bulk and excess fat to the reader’s mind but, in vigorously exercising it, help to burn off psychic lipids and to release accumulated mental toxins. It is not principally for answers, then, that readers come to such writings, but for those clear and caustic questions which, like a strong acid, bore right through the layers of torpor and inertia into the molten cores of our encrusted minds. Once these penetrating questions have done their work, our own minds magically prove capable of providing answers on their own. The most we writers and thinkers can—and should—hope for is that our writings may prompt and encourage readers to follow, not us, but their own enkindled fires and guiding lights.
Like gardens, our intellects need practically constant attention if they are to remain robust, elegantly organized, and relatively free of troublesome “weeds” and “pests.” The depth and precision sought by the devoted thinker, in speech and writing, face continual threat by incoming tides of leveling and stupefying generalities… by vision-blurring banks of mental fog. The swiftly rising floodwaters of hurricane Harvey destroyed countless irreplaceable paintings, photographs, multi-generational heirlooms, personal records, unsaved computer data, and family homes that startled evacuees were unable to save and protect here in Houston last month. Something on a much smaller scale, but cumulatively and ultimately just as individually destructive, is continually underway with regard to those irreplaceable insights and penetrating realizations that take shape in our minds after they’ve blown in like exotic seeds from God knows where.
And like the devoted caretakers of quiet, charming gardens that are tucked away in the middle of a noisy, frenetic city—or beside a watering hole in a vast, inhospitable desert—we “constant gardeners” work primarily with seed-ideas that are threatened with extinction by the intellectual equivalent of Monsanto Corporation. The comparison with Monsanto is closer than most of us probably imagine. Not only does this powerful corporation produce hegemonic forms of GM wheat and corn and employ “terminator technology” to give us “sterile seeds.” It was Monsanto that came up with that notorious herbicide, “Agent Orange.” If it seems like it has the bases covered, I would suggest that Monsanto is just the ugly tip of a gigantic dirty iceberg.
I point to a ‘Goliath’ that the intrepid, solitary thinker – slingshot in hand – is up against today. I do this in order to broaden the scope of the problems faced by thinkers who seek to protect and conserve the lingering fragments and organs of a culture that is rapidly succumbing to inner collapse, as it is steadily and insidiously supplanted by an apparently unstoppable, inhuman technological-corporatist system. Like a retrovirus, this irresistible rational-technocratic system exploits human bodies and souls both to replicate itself and to achieve its unswerving goal of global domination. No single group of human beings actually controls or steers the course of this runaway virus, despite popular conspiracy theories and despite the fact that there are highly-placed financial, governmental, and media managers who are indispensable for the continuing assimilation of mankind and the world’s natural resources into its inhuman service. It runs by its own momentum at this point and according to its own inexorable logic. Virtually all of us are its consciously or unconsciously complicit servants and the “beneficiaries” of its soulless gifts. We have literally paid with our souls.
As this epidemic spreads its toxic, dehumanizing tentacles across this scarred and feverish planet, it becomes harder and harder for me to personally justify the tending of a pleasant, tidy, and walled-in Epicurean garden – where, like a man listening to Mozart on a gramophone during an earthquake, I sequester myself with a handful of kindred spirits and a big bottle of red wine. Such an intramural retreat cannot help but appear absurdly out of place and ridiculously incongruous with the grim reality clamoring for attention just beyond those garden walls. How can one justify doting over the care and upkeep of pansies and orchids when redwoods are being sawed down all around the perimeter of our sheltered garden? If this Goliath cannot be brought down even by a pelting barrage of well aimed stones slung by a whole tribe of Davids, is that a good enough reason for withdrawing from the battlefield and into my garden to play the lyre? Or to fiddle?
But I confess to being overwhelmed shortly after I begin, yet again, to take stock of the general situation within our presently collapsing culture. And even if the external state of affairs – despite the routine outburst of irrational slaughters of “innocent” victims by some unhinged madman, such as occurred in Las Vegas two nights ago – seems relatively calm and “contained,” I and others are all too sensitively aware of the black cauldron of chaos boiling and bubbling below this deceptive surface – a pot that will boil over across the surface before long.
Surely an enormous contributor to the sense of frustration – almost paralyzing at times – that I feel these days stems from the fact that, while 98.6% of the population carries on with their generally routine, “paint-by-number” existences as if there were no active volcano poised to erupt from under our giant “game board,” the slender minority that is making a stink about the sulfuric gases seeping up from below are generally dismissed as lunatics, paranoids, religious nut jobs, etc., and ignored. And while such unfortunate and mentally unstable persons are plainly in evidence, there still remains an even smaller segment of us who manage – or attempt to manage – to “keep our heads about us” in the full awareness of the iceberg waiting directly ahead while the crew and passengers are whooping it up in the main ballroom of the “unsinkable” ship.
After the Holocaust there were writers, as I recall, who declared that it was not possible, perhaps not even permissible, to write about such an unspeakable atrocity. The sheer scale of the evil that had been unleashed in the death camps mocked even the most capacious moral and intellectual concepts and categories. Such a staggeringly diabolical but undeniable horror could only be met with dumb silence and awe. Even to begin discussing the Holocaust suggested a bungling kind of arrogance, as if this inconceivable horror – consciously planned, orchestrated, and carried out by humans against other humans – was, after all, too deep to be fathomed and, therefore, somehow beyond forgiveness. How can one’s complicity in such an abomination be forgiven when the extermination camp workers and overseers, like Adolf Eichmann, claimed – as outrageous as it sounds –simply to have been following orders?
Of course, in raising these questions I am not attempting here to absolve or excuse Nazis or present day US citizens of any wrongdoing for their ‘conscious or unconscious’ complicity in diabolical schemes and systems that – when carefully and honestly examined by a person of even average intelligence – will be recognized as a principal source of horrific injustice, human suffering, and the accelerating collapse of civil, moral, and political institutions that stand, precariously, between us and pandemonium.
I am trying here to give the reader a rough idea of how and why I, as a thinker and writer, regularly feel overwhelmed by what I take to be my proper task or calling. Unlike David before Goliath – who, let us remember, was a man, a big man, to be sure, but a human nonetheless – I lack anywhere near David’s youthful self-assurance before my inhuman (or subhuman) foe. David, at least, had those for whom he was fighting on his side in the battle against the Philistines. And unfortunately, most of the persons I know and love – whether they realize it or not – are standing behind Goliath, and placing bets on him!
And yet, I dare anyone to call me “paranoid.” Call me Cassandra, yes, but don’t question my sanity before taking a good hard look at the extent of your embeddedness in an extended poker game that cannot go on forever. And the pot continues to get bigger and bigger.