An Apology for Mind (9/14/15)

A recurring point of difference between me and a number of the other members of the Advaita Facebook group I belong to is that while we all cherish peace, I believe that true peace can only come with (or by means of) understanding, and it would seem that some of the members have a profound aversion to the mind, as such, and to philosophical thinking. I no longer experience mind in such hostile or dismissive terms. I would go so far as to say that—far from vilifying or demonizing it—I often experience the mind as a crucial ally in this psycho-spiritual transformation that is underway. This is not to say that I fail to see how the (badly educated, ceaselessly restless, and utterly undisciplined) mind could easily become a formidable obstacle to one’s peace and to the attainment of enlightened understanding. But the categorical dismissal or rejection of the mind by such ‘victims’ of the restless, untamed mind’s ‘mischief’ and disturbing machinations seems both foolish and inadvisable. I am all too thoroughly aware of what it means—and of how horrible it feels—to be the tormented plaything of the undisciplined, reckless mind. And I also know the blissful peace into which we are delivered when the mind is quiescent. But I am not so rash as to declare that the mind should therefore be forcibly suppressed or eschewed on that account. Such insalubrious and risky campaigns are undertaken by unripe souls who have not been sufficiently patient and modest to learn about the mind in order that they may make profitable use of this valuable but delicate instrument. To rashly embark upon such a sacrificium intellectus is as foolhardy (and ultimately as doomed to failure) as self-castration by someone who has not learned how to properly manage and express his erotic drives and impulses. It is like starving and mortifying the flesh because one does not know how to live moderately and sanely in—or with—his body. No, when I hear persons declaring that I think too much and that I should dispense with the mind altogether, I suspect that person has simply not yet learned to manage and moderate his own (pesky) mental equipment.

With Nisargadatta himself—or Ramana Maharshi—we are dealing with a whole different kettle of fish. In their cases—and with Krishnamurti, as well, so far as I can tell—there was genuine liberation from the sort of mental ensnarement we find in the vast majority of their admirers and followers. And this liberation—I would argue, insistently—was certainly not won by pretending that the mind is merely an inconvenient mirage or illusion, but by experientially proving that it was not the end-all and be-all. This can only be accomplished by a kind of showdown or contest with the (magical) power of the mind—a contest that culminates in a kind of truce or terms of mutual cooperation—a non-aggression pact, if you like.

Of course, in order for such a showdown to occur in the first place, something in or about the seeker that is not merely mind must stand apart from mind—so that it can be faced. Unless and until this momentous event occurs, the seeker is unconsciously or helplessly merged with (or subsumed by) mind. This condition of identification or merger with the mind may, by turns, be pleasant or unpleasant, beneficial or deleterious in its practical consequences, exhilarating or exasperating—but to be merged or identified with mind is not at all the same thing as having a relationship with mind. Identification refers to ONE confused thing or state. Relationship, on the other hand, implies TWO differentiated things or standpoints. Those who recommend the extinction or rejection of mind before first differentiating themselves from the mental vehicle simply cannot KNOW what they are talking about. More pointedly, they have not yet earned the right (as Nisargadatta and Ramana Maharshi did) to recommend putting the mind aside, since they don’t know the first thing about how that actually happens. The caterpillar, stilled lodged in the cocoon, cannot FLY outside the cocoon until functional wings have been formed through metamorphosis. Those seekers after liberation who fail to recognize and rightly employ the transformative powers of the disciplined mind remain wingless spiritual caterpillars.

As I am beginning to see it, Advaita—the non-dual condition of oneness—can only be attained by first differentiating and consciously sorting out that which we first encounter as undifferentiated ‘prima materia’—the raw psyche, as it were. I see many Western devotees to Eastern doctrines speaking and acting as if this protracted, laborsome process of subtle differentiation can simply be leapt or skipped over on their merry, blissful, loving way to Advaita! And of course it makes sense that the mischievous mind is continually mocking and jeering at such preposterous ambitions precisely because its crucial role, or function (as persnickety distinction-drawer and subtle differentiator), is studiously ignored by the over-eager ‘leaper-over.’ It is largely because of these generally neglected (and often haughtily dismissed) matters of mind—and of the critical role the mind can and should play in our inner clarification—that I find 99% of what comes out of the mouths and flowing pens of American and European ‘New Agers’ to be a mixture of poppycock, froth, and blather! There is no such thing as cheaply-won, enduring peace.

If some toes have been stepped on here, there is nevertheless a silver lining here if you look carefully: After toes have been mercilessly stepped on by life (and chiding philosophers)—for years—they gradually begin to flatten into something like webbed feet which, as it happens, are far more useful than standard-issue feet when it comes to subsurface swimming through the mercurial realm of the psyche. Eventually we must leave behind the solid, unyielding dogmas of our spiritual childhood, upon which our old feet and our unmolested toes were wont to amble and gambol, and plunge into the molten realm where boundaries become less visible, more subtle and ambiguous—and where fins, gills, and webbed limbs are better put to use.


Innocence (1/8/16)

The impulse or compulsive desire to defile and shatter innocence—such as we glimpse in Angelo’s behavior towards Isabella in Measure for Measure or Hamlet’s behavior towards Ophelia: where on earth does this come from? There are all kinds of innocence: sexual, moral, cultural, technological, political, psychological, spiritual, philosophical—to name some of the more conspicuous varieties. To what extent is innocence synonymous with ignorance? With unripeness or immaturity? With deludedness and unconsciousness?

If innocence does indeed share a lot of DNA with these acknowledged defects, lacks, weaknesses, and shortcomings, then why do so many of us warm up to it when we encounter it—say, in children, in a lover, in pleasant simpletons, and in pets? Aside from the ‘cuteness’ factor in innocence, isn’t there something inherently disarming about it for most of us? May it be claimed that innocence suggests a form of harmlessness—of vulnerability, even—qualities that, in most decent human beings, elicit warm feelings of affection, compassion, and even protectiveness?

I suspect that this disarming and heartwarming quality of innocence is present only when the innocent one happens also to be modest and incapable of posing any real threat to us. But when we reflect upon the close connection between innocence and ignorance we remember that not all innocent persons—including, of course, young persons—are modest and incapable of doing harm, either to themselves or others.

It is precisely this strong (if not always apparent) link with ignorance and inexperience, is it not, that makes innocence such an ambiguous or problematic attribute? We can see that ignorance and immaturity are not normally associated with modesty, let alone circumspection. ‘Spirited’ or turbo-charged innocence—say, of the idealistic political zealot or the spuming religious fanatic—is rarely ‘cute,’ ‘disarming,’ or pleasantly endearing. But perhaps it will be objected that I have strained and stretched the concept of innocence to such an extent that I have deformed it into some entirely debased or bastardized version of itself. Or have I?

Could it be true that innocence, like the beauty of a nubile maid, has an all too brief ‘shelf life’—and after its expiration date has passed, it swiftly declines into less and ever less pleasing forms? Why is it so often the case that ‘cute’ or endearing displays of innocence—after they’ve been repeatedly, or rather, cloyingly served up to us—become as annoying and tiresome as, before, they were appealing and captivating when we have had our fill of them? Perhaps it’s the case—for mature souls—that innocence is optimally appreciated in economical, and by no means prodigious, doses. And when the mature soul gets a more walloping dose than he or she can politely stomach, what usually happens? Doesn’t the slightly caustic quip—Grow the fuck up, you pesky little whippersnapper!—creep temptingly to the tongue? Possibly, but the mature soul remembers its own (perhaps abrupt or hurried) passage through and beyond such cutesy innocence, and so remains patiently silent.

What, then, excites the cruelty of Hamlet towards the innocent-obedient Ophelia—or the sadistic advances of Angelo towards the ‘pure’ and righteous Isabella? Could it be an eruption of hatred and disgust with ignorant innocence itself—an eruption occasioned by their own battered and shattered innocence? No doubt, Hamlet’s superior intelligence, nobility, honesty, and imagination provide us with much more to work with, here, than Angelo does, who is a mental-moral pygmy when set beside Hamlet (even if both of them show disquieting signs of misogyny). With Hamlet, the ‘occasions’ or detonators for the traumatic dis-illusionment he suffers are plainly evident. The murder of his father by his treacherous, lecherous ‘adulterate beast’ of an uncle, who has seduced Gertrude, his mother, is the most conspicuous blow he receives, but his crushing disappointment with Ophelia—precisely because of her innocence and lack of spiritual-psychological independence—deserves every bit as much critical attention here. There are other—lesser—disappointments, as with his false-hearted ‘friends,’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who deceive and betray him at the behest of cunning Claudius. In the psychological avalanche triggered by these domestic and conjugal-romantic upsets, Hamlet is, in effect, catapulted into a full-blown spiritual-existential crisis of monumental (one might even say archetypal) proportions, insofar as it is proleptic and emblematic—anticipating similar existential crises to come. And in order for this extraordinary work of dramatic-psychological genius to have been produced, Shakespeare, the poet-dramatist, must have suffered an analogous crisis—which is perhaps peerlessly depicted in this groundbreaking text.

I bring Hamlet into this essay on the problematic character of innocence because this play—perhaps as profoundly as any rivaling work of literature—is implicitly and explicitly preoccupied with the problem of lost innocence.[1] When this unmasking of the truth about ourselves and about our actual existential predicament is unveiled in this initiatory crisis of awakening, the ‘victim’ simultaneously perceives the thick web of lies and deceits in which virtually everyone he knows—or is likely to know—is snugly and (usually) unconsciously ensnared. Something of this order of magnitude ‘happens’ to Hamlet—and after he digests it, by Act V, he is a changed man. Instead of hysterically and antically ‘acting out’ his disordered, chaotic passions (as he does while in the throes of his ordeal before going to England), he displays a surprising degree of poise and mature understanding of his own (and perhaps our) existential situation.[2]

Clearly, I am no stranger to these ambivalent feelings about innocence—nor to those ‘traumatic,’ destiny-forging disappointments and dis-coveries that expose the dark underbelly of childlike, unconscious innocence. Does this make me hate innocence so intensely that I wish to attack and destroy it wherever I see it? No. Or rather, not anymore. When those ‘betrayals’ and ‘exposés,’ those terrible revelations and stark unmaskings, occurred—starting in my early teens—before I had learned what I would need to learn before, like an anaconda, I could both swallow and digest these massive, squirming and kicking ‘life lessons’ that were bigger than I was—I often felt as ‘mad’ as Hamlet—as bitterly outraged and impatient with puffed-up simpletons, craven cowards, and shallow hypocrites as the ‘melancholy Dane’ was. Perhaps I am now entering my own ‘fifth act’—learning to let the natural course of life go where it will, without rebuke or interference from me. Does this mean that I am ‘going slack’ inside? Au contraire.

[1] In a similarly profound, but more mythical, manner, Oedipus the King was also concerned with this loss of innocence/ignorance—which is essentially the process of coming to honest and ‘dis-illusioned’ consciousness of oneself.

[2] Something analogous happens to—or inside—Lear after his ‘storm’ scene on the heath.

Ideology and Anti-nature (9/12/16)

If the ideological scheme – or prevailing worldview – into which we were born, indoctrinated, and gradually conscripted is radically out of alignment with the more deeply rooted structural features of the ancestral unconscious from which our psyches were born, then one thing is certain: adaptation to and conformity with these less than natural, craftily engineered ideological imperatives runs afoul of our inherited natures and courts individual and collective catastrophe. Only an equally determined and relentless insurrection against this booby-trapped indoctrination affords some of us a slender chance of forging a thick life, as opposed to the mythically anemic and psychologically threadbare existence we see among “the sleepwalkers.” But for such self-liberation to get off the ground – or off the “drawing board” – we must first earn a clearer understanding of that against which our life is in revolt.

What this understanding consists in – and how it is arrived at – are perhaps my chief concerns as I near the tender age of sixty. To be plain: I have not been lazy or fainthearted all these years; rather, I have devoted my best energies to serious study, reflection, discussion, and “journaling” (as a vital and necessary aid to digestion). I have never been a namby-pamby greenhorn in whose heart the fire of rebellion waits to be kindled, for the process of uprooting and peeling away my own malignant, crippling ideological indoctrination (on a variety of fronts: religious; philosophical; political-national; moral; cultural; etc.) has long been underway. It has advanced side-by-side with the deepening and the subtilization of my understanding – both of the psyche and the forms (of thought, feeling, belief, valuation, etc.) – that makes a measure of such self-liberation possible.

A life that would be free must first come to frank and no-nonsense terms with the mental manacles by which it is bound. Since – like the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave – most of us are not only content with, and possibly even proud of, our state of imprisonment, but oblivious to it – we mistake slavery for freedom, or at least for the acceptable norm. What is it inside some of us that instinctively “smells a rat” in all such norms, regardless of which “culture cave” these norms preside over? Isn’t it the nearly universal acceptance or endorsement of these general norms that arouses our suspicion and mistrust?

What, more specifically, provokes this ineradicable uneasiness and caution where such norms and collective assumptions are concerned? Aware of their anchoring and compelling power over the multitude, I soberly acknowledge the order-imposing power and the steadying influence of these blunt, categorical “rules of thumb” upon the skittish herd. We, too, like less philosophically-minded elites, typically prefer stable socio-political conditions (at least in our own backyard). It is probably safe to say that if cynical oligarchical elites did not promulgate some “noble lie” or pious fraud, around which the people, now as ever, could huddle – as around a magnetic field – the people would clamor for such an order-imposing and stabilizing fabrication. The people will always need and greatly prefer empty generalities to dense, subtle, and dangerously substantial truths – which cause them to fret and scatter – and what are these empty, puffed up generalities if they are not the same noble lies I just referred to?

The chief difference between the philosopher and the cynic is that the former sort cherishes social harmony and stability so that he may be left in peace and quiet to ply his unpopular passion (hoping that his influence upon thinking men and women will promote the common good), while the cynical profiteer sees in the same conditions the most favorable opportunities for fleecing the sheep. Lao-tzu and Plato, both from the first lot, had the temerity to counsel those from the second bunch – but Lao-tzu only as he departed, once and for all, from the palace gates. Plato chose instead, to employ a form of esoteric writing that both hinted at and concealed the radical political conservatism (or muted pessimism?) he actually espoused.

Earning (2/2/16)

When a person has devoted a good deal of care and effort to the cultivation of his/her thinking or feeling function and that function has been brought to a high level of excellence, such excellence cannot justly be criticized or dismissed by someone who has done little or no work upon his own psychological functions. Many persons who are inspired to cultivate their intellects or their feelings do NOT do so chiefly in order to gain the applause of their peers and the admiration of their less ‘cultivated’ brethren and sistren, but this does not mean that they are undeserving of somewhat greater respect than someone who starts off with the same amount of ‘investment capital,’ so to speak and—instead of putting it to fruitful use, squanders it on frivolous pleasures and trifling entertainments until he has bankrupted himself.

Do we not come perilously close, here, to suggesting that there are implicit standards of attainment in the operation and deployment of thinking and feeling—standards that might be invoked as criterial grounds for some kind of hierarchy or meritocracy? Should it come as a surprise that such speculations often meet with popular hostility in a democratic regime that is continually ‘lowering the bar’ and ‘leveling the playing field’ (intellectually, educationally, politically, ethically, spiritually, etc.) in order to flatter itself and to avoid seeing this ‘mediocracy’ for what it truly is? Such exacting standards constitute a direct affront to the ‘mass man’—an unflattering, unforgiving mirror in which all that is there and, perhaps more importantly, all that is not there stands nakedly exposed. We can certainly be forgiven (that is, by ourselves, which is what matters above all) for not doing or becoming more than we are capable of doing or becoming. Miracles and prodigies are not to be expected. But a feeling of profound regret is a perfectly natural response, I would argue, for those persons who are honest and courageous enough to acknowledge how much spiritual, moral, creative, and intellectual potential they have allowed to ‘fust in them, unused’—in choosing to ‘go with the flow’ (of a muddy and often stinky river) instead of strenuously swimming ‘against the current’ towards the clearer, livelier source-waters, upstream from the sluggish, swampish delta.

Moreover, when we reflect upon earning, it can take on a different character, depending on whether what we are earning is intended chiefly for the personal profit of the separate self or for the more enlightened purpose of loosening the hold that such self-interest has upon our soul. Shakespeare wrote plays that were, for the most part, popularly successful at the Globe Theatre, of which he was part-owner. His professional and financial success as a playwright and business owner allowed him to retire comfortably to Stratford after his long and distinguished career. Would anyone be so churlish, myopic, and reductive to suggest that it was only—or even mostly—for these personal/material motivations that Shakespeare wrote plays like Hamlet and King Lear? While there is no need to categorically deny any or all self-interested elements found within the complex concatenation of motivations at work within even the most ‘selfless’ saints and philanthropists, we can readily see the relative prominence or insignificance such self-interested motives play in a person’s psychic economy by carefully observing their actions, words, reactions, etc.

Nowadays, I resist the temptation to judge selfishness primarily as a symptom of a morally debased or vicious soul. Instead, I find it makes wiser sense to regard selfishness as an almost necessary, if preliminary and comparatively immature, stage of moral-psychological development or unfoldment. It is simply something that is to be experienced, properly appreciated, and gradually outgrown—even if vestiges of that selfishness, that flare up from time to time, will always remain part of us. My suspicion is that self-interestedness can neither be completely eradicated nor leapt over, but must be accepted and ‘come to terms with’—rather as we come to terms with the fact that we have BODIES that make pressing demands upon us and which eventually decompose and die.

Socrates, early on, recognized the crucial difference between arguing simply for the sake of winning and analytical inquiry aimed at deepening the understanding of all persons involved—where everyone, potentially at least, comes out a winner. The first—self-serving and extremely limited—technique was called eristics (from ‘Eris,’ the goddess of strife), while the second was called dialectics.

With this idea in mind—the diametrical contrast between strife-sowing, competitive eristics and therapeutic, soul-making dialectics—we have a fresh angle from which to approach the often hidden connections between thinking and feeling. Socrates aptly described himself as a ‘midwife’ of ideas. What he meant, it seems, is that in his carefully directed question-and-answer dialogues with his listeners, he was able to ‘bring to birth’ thoughts and formulated beliefs/opinions (doxa) that had erstwhile existed only as ‘fetal’ or ‘embryonic’ possibilities lurking in the unlit, unexamined psyches of those he questioned. Sometimes the ‘offspring’ born from such ‘obstetrics’ would be healthy and noble (as with Glaucon), while some would be ugly, deformed, or undernourished (Callicles, Meno). But one thing is fairly certain: unless and until these hidden, inner possibilities are lured out of seclusion in the ‘background’ of the psyche, there is little or no chance of applying therapeia to them. So long as these contents remain latent or unformulated—they continue to have an enormous, if unrecognized and ‘mysterious,’ influence upon us, but we can do little or nothing to challenge or override that influence. Now, when these mysterious influences (or ‘invisible angels’) are benign, many persons are content not to ‘look a gift horse in the mouth,’ so to speak—but will simply ‘get out of the way’ and let these inner guides ‘do their thing.’ But when they are more like imps, mischief-makers, satyrs, and devils, a very different situation often obtains. Then, the ‘victim’ of his troublesome inner figures is given every incentive to turn within and face the (menacing) music to which he is otherwise condemned to dance out the rest of his days.


A (probably vain) Attempt to Restore a Nearly Forgotten Word to Popular Usage: Caitiff (1/6/16)

Anyone who’s spent a little time reading Shakespeare has surely come across this word—‘caitiff’—which basically translates as ‘coward.’ But ‘caitiff’ conveys even more contempt by the user than is normally conveyed by the word ‘coward,’ just as ‘knave’ conveys more contemptibility than its modern equivalents, ‘scoundrel’ and ‘loser.’ The caitiff is naturally disposed towards lying—first, to himself and, then, to everyone else. Why is this? For one thing, timidity sets strict limits to what is acceptable, endurable, or tolerable so far as what life throws at him—and life, lest we forget, is no ‘respecter of persons.’ Instead of honestly acknowledging that it is his fearfulness—and not the malicious will of life or of other persons—that paints him into a narrow mental corner of his own making, the caitiff simply blames ‘fortune’ and demonizes others while illegitimately rationalizing and justifying his own reality-distorting stratagems and opinions. If the caitiff, however, is sufficiently courageous to admit (again, first and foremost, to himself) that he is disposed to cowardice—and that he seeks chiefly to protect and insulate himself from life’s ‘slings and arrows’—then a certain measure of honesty can develop.

But alas, the honesty of clever caitiffs tends, like Hobbes’, to derive from a reductive, jaundiced—basically fearful—response to existence and to other human beings. This is the ‘nothing but’ breed of timid posers and pontificators who are always saying “this (or that) noble (or dignified) person (action, or ideal) is nothing but a base, self-serving (and/or deluded) so and so.” In making this sweeping, ‘categorically debunking’ move, the clever caitiff implicitly justifies his guarded, cynical, or pessimistic stance towards…well, just about everyone and everything. We all know the type. These are the ‘lily-livered,’ ‘yellow-bellied’ scaredy-cats whose formerly tender and precious sensitivity has been deeply wounded by the shrapnel regularly delivered by that superficially polite but profoundly hypocritical war zone otherwise known as ‘everyday life.’

Such caitiffs—regardless of how clever they may be—have souls that are simply too cramped and shallow for the deeper sort of suffering—which, as it turns out, is the only sort of suffering capable of bringing about a substantial moral-spiritual transformation of the personality, and of purging it of any lingering frivolity and residual frippery. More than a few jabbering, twittering, and supercilious ‘modern’ atheists belong to this carping camp of critical caitiffs. Such vain and voluble mediocrities are able to proliferate—and even preponderate—in a semi-barbaric and soulless ‘information age’ where they have few natural predators and plenty of protectors against the harsher, stinkier, and more honest realities of life from which they instinctively recoil. But as soon as such favorable and shielding conditions change for the worse—and, eventually, they always do—these imposters and pretenders are the first to be devoured and done away with by the first big wave of ‘corrective,’ order-restoring reality. And, of course, in being thus laid low, their worst fears and suspicions are thoroughly confirmed. But again, because genuine, redemptively transformative suffering can find no place to ‘conduct its business’ in the tiny, cramped soul of the caitiff, such blows and hardships only make him more bitter, resentful, and convinced that life is a cheat.

Caitiffs instinctively avoid genuine solitude, even when they retreat from society. This is not simply because they are deathly afraid of being deprived of the assistance and company of others—but because they desperately need to have persons close at hand who are even more cowardly and spineless than they are, in order to produce the optical illusion that they have an actual ‘pair’ growing down there between their legs. Thus, they seek the society of others not out of love, which actually requires and entails courage and generosity, but from self-interest and a need to feel superior to those who are even more fearful, needy, impotent, and helpless.

Those persons, on the other hand, who are naturally courageous—how do they instinctively respond to the veritable army of self-serving, lying, knavish, pea-souled caitiffs in their midst? Well, of course they cannot help but regard them with politely muted contempt or with the sort of forgivable indulgence that a compassionate, mature parent sometimes shows towards a silly, immature nincompoop of a child. The contempt that is felt is the natural response of real strength or virtue to what amounts to a cluster of interrelated vices and failings—all of which have their roots in a cowardly flight from reality and sobering truths. The indulgence—which, mind you, has its limits—stems from the sober acknowledgement that such born caitiffs and self-deceivers cannot be other than they are—and must simply be tolerated, just as other natural pests, nuisances, banes, and ‘skin irritations’ must be borne with patient forbearance. But to trust—and invest one’s hope—in a caitiff? The courageous person knows all too well what folly that would be!

Seeing Beyond (8/25/17)

The ordinary human eye is capable of responding to visual stimuli or data within a certain range. We know, of course, that there is plenty of data beyond the visible light spectrum – beyond ultraviolet and infrared light, but such information transcends the bounds of ordinary human eyesight. Other instruments – electronic eyes – must be devised and utilized for such “transcendent” vision.

Likewise, each one of our psychological functions – thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation – is naturally associated with a corresponding arena or domain of distinctive experience (thoughts, feelings, intuitions, sensations), just as the eye is associated with objects within the visible light spectrum. This is not to say that the thinking function cannot perceive/apprehend a feeling-content. It can acknowledge that something is there, but that something gets automatically translated into a thought-concept – the sort of content it is equipped to deal with in its own terms. And, as we know, a feeling that is “translated” into a concept is no longer a feeling, but something quite different. In being carried across the wide border between the two functions, the feeling has been transformed into something quite alien to its original form – like a light wave being transformed into a particle, a caterpillar into a moth.

Naturally, the reverse is true, as well. When a concept or thought enters the airspace of the feeling function, a feeling value is either consciously or unconsciously assigned. This is what the feeling function does, for this is its role within the psychic economy. What it does not do is evaluate and analyze the concept as a “thinking type” would. This is not a choice or a decision made by the feeling function. It is simply beyond its power or ability to make such an analysis or logical assessment. This incapacity, however, seldom prevents the feeling function – or the decided “feeling type” – from generating all manner of feeling judgments upon thoughts, ideas, and arguments that it is incapable of understanding or appreciating in their own terms, within their own proper sphere or domain.

This analogy holds true for the ordinary human ego, as well – or so it would seem. Just as the human eye is confined to visual information within a certain limited range – and just as thinking and feeling cannot help but falsify and degrade phenomena that they are unfit to deal with and to properly assess – ego-consciousness, as soon as it begins to arrogate authority and to pronounce judgments upon phenomena that lie beyond its purview, proves to be pitifully inept.

There are almost as many definitions of “ego” as there are egos, but for the sake of discussion we will focus on two features of ego-consciousness that are widely agreed upon: a natural tendency to literalize and a more or less “heroic” drive to bring things under one’s control within one’s sphere of influence – either by hook or by crook. And, to prevent any misunderstanding, let me say at the outset that my aim here is not to denigrate or disparage the ego, as such, but simply to explore and assess its proper sphere of activity and its rightful jurisdiction within the larger totality of the psyche. To be sure, the ego is vulnerable to various maladies and potentially dangerous excesses, but – like the human heart, brain or liver – it serves a vital and necessary function in the “psychic economy.” When the body is afflicted with congestive heart failure or a brain tumor – the diseased organ can bring the whole organism down with it. Analogously, a perilously inflated or stunted ego will often lead to serious trouble for the individual and for those under his/her sway and influence.

With these ideas in mind, let us glance quickly at the functional role played by the ego’s tendencies to literalize and to “heroically” establish a more or less stable and secure place in the world. If we can imagine for a moment the helpless vulnerability of the human infant – or the susceptibility to suggestion, “possession,” overpowering drives and terrors in the primitive – we get a glimpse of the condition that exists before the ego has developed properly. The infant and the primitive are, as it were, submerged or immersed in the enveloping sea of psyche with no solid platform upon which to land. In the case of the infant, a sense of security must be provided, initially, by the mother, the father, and the external circumstances within which its fledgling identity develops. For the primitive, rituals and social roles/duties provide the exoskeletal structures that serve in lieu of a differentiated ego-complex.

Thus, without an adequately developed ego, we are at the mercy, so to speak, of the Gods – or of the elements, or Fortuna, the unconscious, etc. – while a functional ego equips us with a kind of breathing space between our “selves” and the mysterious, enfolding whole. As it happens, some human beings are naturally more favorably disposed towards this surrounding, ineffable mysterium than others, who do everything within their limited power to block it out of their awareness – usually by clinging like barnacles to everyone and everything that is soothingly familiar, predictable, diverting, and reliable.

So, if the ordinary, run-of-the-mill human ego’s chief function is to provide a more or less stable foothold within an otherwise mysterious and uncanny world and/or psyche for the “individual consciousness,” should we therefore assume that the establishment, cultivation, and extension of the ego’s power and sway is the proper aim of human life – and that some persons, like great athletes or musicians, are simply better at ego-ism than others? Nietzsche, as I read him, certainly comes close to such a position – if we bear in mind the fact that he shows a decided preference for what he calls “spiritualized expressions of the will to power.” He is referring here to artistic, ethical, intellectual – i.e., cultural – forms of excellence. Philosophy – for Nietzsche (as well as for Nietzsche’s Plato) – is regarded as the most spiritualized expression of the will to power because it has the responsibility for humanity’s future on its conscience.

So, what about those other persons for whom the strange, the unfamiliar, and the unknown exert greater attractive power than the known, the familiar, and the securely nailed down features of life? These are persons who are more likely to find the whole arena of “normal” and “commonplace” experiences boring, cramping, and even suffocating. This aversion and this sense of frustration with the generally lawful and stable surface of everyday experience do not come from some shallow hankering after novelty and diverting variety. Instead, it seems to arise from a deep skepticism about the adequacy of the ego, alone, to guide us – as humans – to a full and rounded existence. Such seekers after the mystery – beyond the obscuring veil of the familiar – have made the crucial discovery that it is the illegitimate sovereignty of the ego that is behind this appalling, flat, frothy normalcy that is both bowed down to and kept on the throne by the many – now as ever. In effect, it is collective fear and loathing for the abnormal, the pathological, the paradoxical, the anomalous, the bizarre, the uncanny – in a word, the mystery of existence – that is responsible for the sovereignty or tyranny of ego over soul.

Here I have introduced a new term – soul – to denote the perspective that exists, imaginatively, in between the banality of the familiar and the ineffability of the mystery. Jung, in attempting to give a name to this perspective that contrasts with the ego-perspective, spoke of the “transcendent function.” “Active imagination” was enjoined as a means of “dialoguing” with the “inner figures” or archetypal images that serve as the faces presented by the Mystery (of the unconscious). Of course such language and such activities – introduced at a time when positivism still had a strong purchase in most educated minds – sounded like a species of madness itself. Hence, quips like the famous maxim of Karl Kraus: “psychoanalysis is a disease for which it purports to be the cure.”

An Idea whose Time Has Come? (10/26/14)

We can look back and see that the successful establishment and dissemination of Christianity as a major world religion first required the establishment of the Roman Empire, with its extensive network of roads and its political-economic organization—as well as the use of the Greek koine and Latin language throughout the sprawling realm. Because these crucial mundane factors were in place, the radically un-worldly message of Christianity was able to spread like a redemptive epidemic and to dramatically reorient Western values for about a thousand years.

Have globalization, air travel, 24-hour world news, and the ‘worldwide web’—a culmination of the worldly-materialistic phase that got rolling just prior to the ‘Renaissance’—similarly prepared the ground for yet another spiritual movement that will meaningfully link all human cultures for the first time?

Possibly. One might even go so far as to say ‘probably.’ If the frenetic, ruthlessly competitive predation of the planet’s limited resources continues at its present rate, it won’t be long before a bad situation worsens and exhausting wars and disasters devour humanity. The present course of events and policies must collide with the solid wall that is waiting ahead before a new course can be charted and then followed by the ‘remnants.’ A non-catastrophic scenario, whereby humanity sensibly ‘wakes up’ to its imperiled situation before it’s too late, and voluntarily submits to austerities and relatively draconian measures in order to circumvent that wall, is almost guaranteed not to arise, given the blind determination of the cunning ‘engineers’ who have commandeered the train we’re all on.

Genuine quality (of philosophical thought, of artistic excellence, of moral reasoning and action, of spiritual attainment) is almost invariably produced by human beings that are not boorish, loutish, or representative of ‘mass-mindedness.’ In other words, the coarse ‘mass mind’ (and the collective, quantitative terms and values the masses live by and through) seldom creates or authentically responds to true quality—whether it is understood spiritually, ethically, artistically, or politically.[1] By and large, the architects and exploiters of the present scheme of things know little or nothing of such quality—or, if they do, that mere knowledge is wholly insufficient, on its own, to transform them into courageous, self-sacrificing critics and opponents of the current lowbrow culture. All too often, these delinquent trustees of humanity’s future simply ‘milk’ the system for all it’s worth in order to enhance their own personal wealth, power, pleasure, comfort, etc.

Thus it will, of necessity, typically be a spiritual-philosophical-poetical-political-scientific elite that is responsible for whatever there is of the highest quality and the most enduring cultural value to humanity. It never springs up, as if by magic, out of the mass or from mass-mindedness—any more than sonnets and haiku issue from the mouths of kine and swine. What does all this mean to the ordinary, ‘well-educated’ American or European reader? Alas, it means nothing—or next to nothing.

And yet I will no doubt be denounced as an ‘elitist snob’ for holding such a position—for having bucked my egalitarian indoctrination and finally unearthed the sobering truth about the necessary combination of (fateful) genius and exceptional conditions that is required to produce cultural ideas and works of the highest and noblest rank. Interestingly, those who would dismiss my claim have no difficulty acknowledging the fact that the most precious diamonds are only produced under conditions of excruciating heat and pressure. This is just another instance of how anti-meritocratic, leveling ideals have possessed and deformed the minds of the many—and ‘many of the few,’ at that. But then, materialism (our prevailing metaphysical standpoint) has a natural propensity for leveling, and thereby discrediting, all such qualitative hierarchies—by reducing everything to mere stuff.

I bring up these uncomfortable points not in order to settle a score with naïve idealists (i.e., persons who still entertain untenable notions about the ultimate power of natural human goodness, rational self-restraint, and wisdom), but only to call into question the idea that a spiritual renewal (as it is presently conceived) aims to make life on earth more materially pleasurable and desirable. I ask you, the reader, simply to step back a bit from your busy personal affairs and absorbing commitments for an hour or two—and to look deep within the murky well of your heart and ask yourself: If there is any inherent purpose or higher meaning to human existence, is it likely that it consists in the single-minded pursuit of material goods and pleasures? Can that be all that we are here for?

And if ‘yes’ turns out to be the best or the only answer you can come up with—and you believe that armed competition for these limited goods and pleasures is indeed what our brief and fitful lives are all about—then how are we, as a species, any different from mere beasts, aside from the fact that our greater cleverness has permitted us to carry predation to inconceivable, ultimately self-annihilating lengths? The sky is the limit and enough is never enough. And if this is indeed the way of things—then it follows that life on earth have never been anything but a chamber of horrors for the great majority of human animals who have to struggle incessantly in order merely to survive. And, naturally, if this is indeed the stark and implacable ‘way of things,’ you would be an idiot to slacken off and risk losing your hard-won place or rank in the predatory pack, right? Apparently, a lot hinges on how we answer this question for ourselves—the question of what human life is really all about. Somewhere, deep inside each one of us, the answer we have settled upon is lurking—like a wolf or an angel (or a mixture of both)—behind every one of our thoughts, actions, and decisions. To hear people talk, one would think that philosophy is nothing but an esoteric and feckless pursuit engaged in by eggheads and impractical dreamers. But what could be clearer than the fact that there is nothing so intimately urgent or so far-reaching in its impact upon our lives as the answers we have consciously or unconsciously settled upon—answers, that is, to a handful of basic ethical questions, only one of which I have raised here.

The general indifference and aversion to philosophy seems merely to be an indication that most of us are dimly aware of just how disturbing and disruptive its probing questions are. We are frightened by these questions because we half-consciously recognize their power—once they’ve gotten under our skin and infected our minds—to dissolve all the treasured poppycock, sentimentality, and cant upon which our actual lives are solidly erected. And how many of us are ever prepared to be plunged into the sea of uncertainty and insecurity that a few well-aimed questions will unleash within us?


[1] My claim has nothing to do with one’s socio-economic status, origins, or formal education. Individuals who are both responsive to quality and capable of producing works, deeds, and thoughts of superior quality are inwardly compelled to find what they require from their environment—‘by hook or by crook’—in order to realize their ‘qualitative’ potentials. Perhaps in the majority of cases, it is the privations—the lack of educational, monetary, social, and other forms of SUPPORT—that call forth and bring fully to life the potentials for excellence that have been innate in these exceptional souls—from the start.