Shuttle De-plume-acy (5/28-29/11)

The space shuttle program has at last drawn to a close, not for lack of enthusiasm on Americans’ part to hurl themselves into the distant reaches of outer space, but because economic realities have at long last rendered such exorbitantly expensive enterprises an inexcusable extravagance. Whether we are proud of the fact or not, the United States has, for quite some time now displayed its strength as nation primarily through its material or economic might and as an exporter of mass entertainment—rather than through its bequeathals of timeless works of art, literature, philosophy, and spiritual insights—contributions for which a number of former great cultures and empires are esteemed with due gratitude and reverence. The ‘defense-related’ research and development programs which burgeoned (like mushrooms on steroids—or acid) after WWII—and which yielded the high-tech gadgets that no self-respecting teenager, here or elsewhere, can live without these days—were funded by independent capital and by huge federal revenues garnered from U.S. taxpayers. Now we quite literally have more computers, handheld communications and listening devices, creature comforts, and entertainment media than we know what to do with. Apparently—and lamentably, as I see it—this arrangement is perfectly acceptable for a staggering number of mortals throughout the globe. As with pampered house pets or snacking youngsters hypnotically absorbed in their video games, this state of material ease and comfort appears to be sufficient to make life on earth worth ‘suiting up’ for, morning after morning, in the minds of most persons living today.

Regrettably, I have nothing further to say to such complacent and gratified creatures. I certainly wish them the best of luck, but I must confess that I anticipate with dread the day when access to the next generation of these sought-after consumer items and desiderata (not to mention adequate nourishment and drinkable water) are no longer widely available or within relatively easy reach.[1] I address this essay, then, to that troubled and confused segment of society—a small but growing number of thoughtful and courageous men and women—who are no longer morally comfortable being part of the problem, but are convinced that they cannot change the course down which we seem, en masse, to be heading. What is that problem—in the simplest of terms—and why does the present course seem irreversible and unstoppable to most of us who are able to recognize it for what it is—and for what it is not. It most assuredly is not ‘progress’ in any positive sense of that over-used word.

The problem, at bottom, is that, with very few notable exceptions, Western humanity’s interested attention has been turned almost exclusively in one direction for several hundred years—riveted to the outer material world, the only world recognized by most of us, as it would seem. Beginning roughly with the maritime voyages of the 15th century, plunder, pillage, and wars—over land, resources, native populations, religious beliefs, ideologies, and information—have conspicuously dominated human affairs. The daring voyages and expeditions of Columbus, Magellan, Drake, Cortes, Pizarro, and others led to the ‘discovery’ of new worlds to colonize and new populations to exploit, to rob, to convert to ‘Christianity,’ and (where it was deemed ‘necessary’ or expedient) to exterminate. The shuttle expeditions, which used computer navigational systems and rocket fuel instead of sextants and mainsails, have simply been the most recent in a long line of conquests that began centuries ago with the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. As a species, we appear to be dangerously susceptible to being possessed by archaic predatory instincts—instincts that are stubbornly resistant to higher education, moral training, and religious tutelage. We are predatory towards nature and exploitative towards our own kind. In this respect, we seldom display moderation when we are strong enough to take what we want, using the justification that ‘if we don’t take it, someone else surely will.’

Why, it will be asked, has the lion’s share of our attention been riveted to externals, our spirits tirelessly hankering after outer possessions and entertainments? The answer to such a big question is complex and multifaceted, but there are certain social, cultural, and religious factors that have significantly contributed to the current state of affairs. The ‘discovery’ of the unconscious by Freud, Jung, and their less famous precursors was not an accident—but a natural outgrowth of a cultural crisis that was well underway in the 19th century. Jung writes:

Dogma takes the place of the collective unconscious by formulating its contents on a grand scale. The Catholic way of life is completely unaware of psychological problems in this sense. Almost the entire life of the collective unconscious has been channeled into the dogmatic archetypal ideas and flows along like a well-controlled stream in the symbolism of creed and ritual…The collective unconscious, as we understand it today, was never a matter of ‘psychology,’ for before the Christian Church existed there were antique mysteries, and these reach back into the grey mists of Neolithic prehistory. Mankind has never lacked powerful images to lend magical aid against all the uncanny things that live in the depths of the psyche. (CW, Vol. 9, pt. 1:21)

The ‘discovery’ of the unconscious—which was really a re-discovery of the autonomous inner world—occurred only because our religious symbols and rituals had become so emptied of meaning, following the Protestant Reformation and the spread of scientific criticism. Jung continues:

The iconoclasm of the Reformation, however, quite literally made a breach in the protective wall of sacred images, and since then one image after another has crumbled away. They became dubious, for they conflicted with awakening reason. Besides, people had long since forgotten what they meant. Or had they really forgotten? Could it be that men had never really known what they meant, and that only in recent times did it occur to the Protestant part of mankind that actually we haven’t the remotest conception of what is meant by the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Christ, and the complexities of the Trinity? It almost seems as if these images had just lived, and as if their living existence had simply been accepted without question and without reflection, much as everyone decorates Christmas trees or hides Easter eggs without ever knowing what these customs mean…That the gods die from time to time is due to man’s sudden discovery that they do not mean anything, that they are made by human hands, useless idols of wood and stone. In reality, however, he has merely discovered that up till then he has never thought about his images at all. And when he starts thinking about them, he does so with the help of what he calls ‘reason’—which in point of fact is nothing more than the sum-total of all his prejudices and myopic views. The history of Protestantism has been one of chronic iconoclasm. One wall after another fell. And the work of destruction was not too difficult once the authority of the Church had been shattered. (ibid. 22-23)

Because the religious/mythical symbols and internal structures that contained and provided channels for the archetypal energies that constitute our psyches have thus been dismantled and destroyed for so many of us[2], the inner world now bears a striking resemblance to the vast desert of ‘outer space’ with its ‘black holes’ and fiery supernovas, its gaseous clouds and its menacing immensity. Jung observes:

Our intellect has achieved the most tremendous things, but in the meantime our spiritual dwelling has fallen into disrepair. We are absolutely convinced that even with the aid of the latest and largest reflecting telescope, now being built in America, men will discover behind the farthest nebulae no fiery empyrean; and we know that our eyes will wander despairingly through the dead emptiness of interstellar space. Nor is it any better when mathematical physics reveals to us the world of the infinitely small. In the end we dig up the wisdom of all ages and peoples, only to find that everything most dear and precious to us has already been said in the most superb language. (ibid. 31)

Following the psychologically one-sided directives and inducements of the modern Western ‘outlook,’ generations of Europeans and their colonial descendents have been implicitly warned not to ‘look in,’ but only to ‘look out for themselves’ and their families in a fiercely competitive struggle for limited high-paying jobs in a capitalist economy. As an almost inevitable consequence, Western spirituality progressively degenerated into sterile dogma and cold theology, while morality was largely reduced to apish or sincere conformity to behavioral norms and posturing—cut off, as they were, from their inner source springs. Naturally, as the inner realm suffered from prolonged neglect by the cultural, educational, and spiritual institutions within the West, easy and well-lit access to the inner world, as well as to the knowledge, the ‘maps’ and myths which help to guide the initiate through its labyrinths, became more and more difficult to come by (and to make meaningful sense of when such materials were forthcoming). One usually had to go out of his or her way and ‘against the current’ to find and then to decipher such writings and teachings—as Jung was obliged to do with obscure and arcane alchemical texts, the cultural link with the pre-Christian, pagan layers of the Western psyche (that had been buried under authorized doctrine). From the prevalent, rational-materialist metaphysical standpoint, such myths, interior journeys—and even the interior realm itself—were rather arrogantly and contemptuously dismissed as childish superstitions and mumbo jumbo that were unworthy of serious consideration, except as the primitive and pre-scientific lore of traditional cultures that lacked our superior (scientific) understanding of things. Of course, in saying all this, I do not wish for a moment to deny the astounding array of benefits won for mankind by the noble exploits and brilliant insights of scientists. I am, let me repeat, concerned chiefly with any blinding prejudices which may be built into our modern Western worldview—prejudices that are still very much alive and kicking as we rapidly approach what looks very much like a dangerous cliff to a growing number of attentive persons.

The almost pathologically extraverted collective attitude of the Western mind, during the last several centuries, has its inverted, contrasting twin, which prevailed during the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ when the attention of Europeans was turned inwards to such an extent that the external world suffered from a degree of neglect that the internal one now suffers from. Monks, clerics, and even the laity were often obsessed with inner factors in a way and to a degree that occasionally matched Indian yoga philosophy—probably the non plus ultra of cultural introversion thus far in human history. Then, during the High Middle Ages (after 1348 and the end of the Black Death) we can begin to see evidence of a gradual reversal of collective attention from inner to outer factors. Perhaps we might say that this latter half of the Christian aeon, with its ‘antichristian’ (mythologically speaking) infatuation with ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’ has at last begun to play itself out, which is to say exhaust itself, in these ‘end times’ that so many of us feel ourselves enmeshed in.

Now, whether or not we are actually and irreversibly headed like lemmings off the side of a cliff and humanity will be plunged into a new period of savagery and darkness to match any of the nastier periods of the past, it is in our immediate collective interest to rediscover the entrances to the inner world which have, as it were, been overgrown and choked with ‘vegetation’—like Angkor Wat or Tikal before they were unearthed and cleaned up a bit. Moreover, because of the general ignorance with respect to the psyche (which inevitably stemmed from this neglect and culturally-endorsed devaluation) the ‘unconscious’ has understandably acquired more of a menacing than a restorative or healing aspect for many of us. For most, it initially resembles the ‘id’ of Freudian theory—a welter of disturbing affects, amoral impulses, and aggressive drives that we have every reason to fear and to avoid encountering. Freud went so far as to equate civilization itself with the repression of these disturbing erotic, aggressive, and often asocial drives and energies, but repression brings its own demons and harpies—hence, the ‘discontents’ of civilization.

The way ahead will be led by voyagers into the interior who will be psychic cousins to those great navigators and explorers of sea and land during our outward-turned phase. The explorations and insights won by the psychic cartographers yet to come will enable the collective mind to undergo the ‘great reversal’ that has already begun for a growing number of human beings across the globe—from every cultural background. In centuries to come, the early (and excruciatingly lonely) pioneers of this neglected territory which has always been there ‘behind our backs’—and I’m thinking of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung—will be seen as the Leif Erikssons and the Marco Polos who were the first Europeans to glimpse and to bring back sketches of previously unknown realms.

Does the scuttling of the shuttle program perhaps symbolize Icarus’ fall to sea (after soaring so close to the sun with his wax and feather wings that they melted)—the ‘sea’ of the psyche where ‘scuba’ equipment makes more sense than plumage and flapping wings?

[1] My concern—and it is quite a legitimate concern, since supporting evidence for my claim is already conspicuously abundant—is that when the spigots that are now spewing out all these consumer items slow down to a prohibitively expensive trickle or shut down altogether, the restlessly acquisitive and hopeful hordes of today will become the armed and dangerous mobs of tomorrow—ready to do the bidding of ruthless gang lords, demagogues, wicked opportunists, and crafty manipulators of fear and resentment. Anyone with his eyes open today cannot help but see dress rehearsals for this general, all-engulfing tragedy already underway here in the U.S. and in many other parts of the shrinking world.

[2] This the true meaning behind Nietzsche’s famous claim that “God is dead”

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Reflections on Desire and Desirelessness (11/27-28/11)

What would living without desire be like? Ramana Maharshi says: ‘Desirelessness is wisdom.’ What can he possibly mean by this? What enables the state of desirelessness to arise? What is the deep, inner relationship between desire and ego-consciousness? Can the ego, itself, seek (or desire?) desirelessness, or is such a thought as absurd as that of an empty stomach that craves no food or a dry sponge that craves no water? If it is the ego’s nature to desire its own preservation and continuance, then we must look elsewhere for the source of desirelessness, must we not? Obviously, this move presupposes the possibility of a standpoint other than that of the ego. While the possibility of such a standpoint will be granted, its actual existence is not automatically given. In order for such a standpoint beyond the ego to be established and stably inhabited, it must—like any human capacity—be cultivated and exercised. But ‘who’ cultivates and exercises such a capacity? Strictly speaking, it cannot be the ego, as defined, since to do so would be to strive against its inherent interests. And yet something within us—some or most of the time—strives to cultivate, exercise, and stably establish a standpoint beyond the ego. Is it desire of some sort that moves some of us, some or most of the time, to liberate ourselves from ego-enthrallment—or mightn’t it be ‘seeing through’ desire that aids us most?

Certainly, from the standpoint of the ego, nothing sounds more preposterous than renouncing desire—the very motor which drives and propels it through life. At best, it sounds like naïve foolishness and, at worst, it sounds like suicide. And yet, for some of us, liberation from our usual thralldom to the ego is considerably more joyful than the fullest gratification of the ego’s cravings and yearnings. Why is this? How does this happen? Is it, in part, because we have seen through the ego sufficiently to know without a doubt that—as far as the ego’s desires and needs are concerned—‘there is a menacing serpent coiled under every alluring flower?’ Have we not come to see and understand—after much painful disappointment and disillusionment—that whatever is gained or won in the deceptive realm of ego-goods is matched by a loss that is somewhat greater, so that, in the end, the more you win, the more you are bound to lose? And mightn’t it be said that to possess something is to be possessed by it? Even the struggle to hang onto what has been won—or to sustain our pleasure in what we possess—soon begins to cost us more than could ever be repaid to us by the pleasures we hope to gain from our efforts.

When we see through the ego, it is this law of ultimate and ongoing disappointment of our hopes and desires that we uncover. We awaken from the grand deception that we have been encouraged to believe in for as long as we can remember. The lie that we have been taught—a lie that practically everyone we know and love also believes in—is that happiness and satisfaction lie ahead, on the path created, as it were, by our desire. We sustain our particular path-generating desire like a man compulsively shoveling coal into the furnace in the boiler room of our ego. We fear that if that fire should ever go out, we are done for. If it dwindles down, others will openly or secretly mock and disparage us. There is fierce pressure, then, from within and from without, to feed and fan the flames of desire that give strength and a sense of forward propulsion to the ego. From this standpoint, desirelessness is ignominious death, worthlessness, contemptible ineptitude and irresponsibility. Only fools and deluded ne’er-do-wells entertain such preposterous notions.

Desire may be likened to the positive pole of an energy field—or polarity—that has fear (or aversion) at the other end. In connection with spiritual freedom, it makes little or no difference, ultimately, whether we are preoccupied by ‘positive’ desires or ‘negatively-charged’ fears/aversions. Both are correlative and interdependent—and both are inimical to neutrality, a key to unlocking the gate that leads beyond ego-enthrallment. It is practically impossible, however, to talk about cultivating neutrality from the ego-standpoint without sounding paradoxical or self-contradictory. Such difficulties arise from the same source we glanced at earlier: How does the ego desire desirelessness when its very ground and generative source is desire itself? But we must now add ‘fear-aversion’ to the picture, since this constitutes the unavoidable and necessary other half of any ego-situation. Fear is merely the inversion of desire and desire is simply a fear turned upside down. Together they create a magnetic energy field (like the pull of gravity) that attracts attention. ‘Attention’ is synonymous with psychic energy. When our psychic energy is seduced by the magnetism generated by the desire-fear polarity, ego-consciousness appears to be the natural offspring. Only by dissolving the enchanting spell of the desire-fear gravitational field are we able to lift off ‘planet Ego,’ to employ a rather humorous image. But, of course, as long as we are under the captivating spell of those desires and fears that orient and motivate our thought and action, there will be no will or initiative to exit the battlefield where our life is being (exhaustively) played out. Some part of us must already be off the field—out of the game, watching as an uninvolved observer who has ‘no dog in that fight’—before there can be any conscious will to liberate ourselves from our own personal myth of Sisyphus.

As alleged before, the possibility of such a standpoint—beyond the fear-and-desire-driven ego struggle—is present in each and every one of us, but the actual, inhabitable standpoint has been occupied only by a relative minority, if only because of the enormous difficulties and concentration involved in such an uncommon quest or enterprise. While most of us busy ourselves plotting and planning strategies for getting deeper into the desire-and-fear-driven ego-adventure, only a few ever seem to be devoting their best energies to the opposite path—the narrow and steep way that leads out of that all-too-absorbing misadventure known as ‘normal life’ for most modern men and women. The Sufis tell us ‘we must die before we die.’ ‘Death’ here can be taken to mean that very neutrality that is required by our souls in order to wriggle out of the tenacious grip of desire and fear—the Scylla and Charybdis on opposing sides of the narrow straits of ego-hood.

*****

When the ego contemplates desirelessness, it quite frequently imagines a condition of torpor, listlessness, or death-like inertia. This due, of course, to the ego’s application of the familiar terms and conditions of its own nature and modality to the higher Self, which is of a completely different order. It is true, in a sense, that as soon as the ego stops moving, it is ‘dead’—like a wounded wildebeest or stalled baby elephant on the savannah, easy prey for a big cat. But it is only out of this ‘death’ of the ego that the higher Self can be born—i.e., to become the new platform or center of gravity for conscious orientation. In certain respects, the two cancel each other out. We can be ‘situated’ in one or the other but not both at once—or so it would seem. The ego has an agenda, the higher Self does not—or at least it is content simply to be and not to have to act or to pursue something or someone in the luxuriant fields of time and space. This is why the ego may be symbolized by the line or arrow, and the Self by the circle or womb. (sperm + egg = creative principle behind ‘the ten thousand things’?)

The higher Self innately knows that everything it could ever need or want is already present ‘here and now’ (if potentially) and that there is no need to ‘go out’ hunting for anyone or anything. Before acquiring the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve had no need to labor or to hunt to provide for themselves. All was within easy reach. (Being at one with God = being at one with the Self.) But with the splitting of the primordial unity—both of man and of the cosmos—into opposing discordant halves, the blissful paradise was no longer ‘home’ for our first parents. Consciousness of duality was reflected in their expulsion from the garden of blissful union with God. Henceforth man had the capacity to ‘walk with God’—or to walk away from Him—but a capacity, like a mere potential, is ambiguous, unclear, neither one thing nor another. The choices we make transform our capacities and potentials in actualities, and it is these actualities that define us, and to a large degree, decide our fate.

The Journey from Icy Corporeality through Liquid Imagination to Vaporous Spirit (1/16/13)

Ramana Maharshi taught that ‘desirelessness is wisdom.’ It is further alleged that in the state of desirelessness we enjoy the happiness that is native to the Self. From this angle, meditation entails a conscious recognition of those desires and attachments to which our consciousness is most imprisoned, tracing them back to their source, and then attempting to ‘see through’ them in an effort to find release. In the course of my reflections, I have observed that my thoughts have chiefly served as spies, articulators, and enablers of my various desires and interests. As an ‘intellectual’ type person, I often engage in a kind of play with ideas and thoughts in lieu of physically acting out the promptings of my desires and fears, which would probably involve a more significant expenditure of energy. These thoughts and ideas serve as proxies or winged emissaries for the desires and passions that they ‘stand for.’ In fact, they may be said to be masks of the desires, attachments, and passions that they stand for—insofar as they simultaneously reveal and conceal what lies behind the mask.

A far more artfully and splendidly developed example of this process (of invoking and substituting words, concepts, and images for underlying, visceral passions—and then playing with these incorporeal masks and metaphorical forms) is provided by the marvelous tragedies, comedies, and histories of William Shakespeare. In these extraordinary plays—which hold a mirror, as it were, up to (human) nature—we are presented with a ‘virtual’ reality that bears an uncanny resemblance to actual human reality at the concrete, lived level. Shakespeare’s characters—Falstaff, Rosalind, Iago, Bottom the weaver, Hamlet, and so forth—are certainly lifelike, but being fictional, imaginative creations, they are obviously not flesh and blood persons like you and me. Shakespeare’s characters appear to be driven, inspired, dejected, compelled, and buffeted by desires, fears, and longings that are intimately familiar to us—but there is a crucial distinction (that all sane persons immediately acknowledge) between actually killing someone and pretending to kill another actor on a stage—or between truly falling in love with someone and starting an actual family, on the one hand, and empathetically watching television actors pretend to do the same thing, on the other.

Now, I suspect most will agree that we are less likely to produce dramatic disturbances in our own and other persons’ lives when we manage to keep our powerful desires, fears, jealousies, and other passions safely restricted to the realm of imaginative activity and private reflection—rather than acting out all these impulses and emotions on the stage of real life human affairs. By keeping this imaginative enactment of our desires confined to our ‘heads’—and, if we are artistic, to the page, the piano, the canvas, etc.—we are likely to live longer and more stable lives safely beyond the thick and sound-proof walls of prison or the insane asylum.

As we know, there is something deeply satisfying about the experience of watching an excellent film or theatrical production where the writer and the performers have presented us with a compelling depiction of human drama. When reading or viewing the plays of a supreme artist like Shakespeare, much of that satisfaction comes from the fact that a complex array of powerful human drives, desires, inhibitions, illusions, beliefs, and ambitions have been theatrically rendered for us in a manner that is both highly credible and beautifully organized. Because the greatest artists are often blessed with a genius for distilling the essence of the ‘raw’ materials they draw upon—and for intelligently displaying and inter-relating those distilled elements in a way that few of us can duplicate—their works provide a window into the usually concealed motors and circuitry within the human soul. As audience members, we may not be conscious of the fact that we are being granted a glimpse into depths we would scarcely be able to enter and to explore if we were relying solely upon our own less developed powers. Nevertheless, such imaginative experiences mysteriously produce a grounding and anchoring effect upon us. Aristotle famously wrote of the cathartic (purging) effect that tragedy has upon the soul of the viewer—and there is a link between his notion of catharsis and this idea of grounding that I invoke here. Before exploring this idea in greater depth, let us note that an additional benefit we enjoy while watching a play like Hamlet or Oedipus Tyrannos: in vicariously and imaginatively undergoing the trials and sufferings of the protagonists, we are spared the actual ordeal of having to avenge our father’s murder, accidentally slay Polonius, contribute to poor Ophelia’s suicide, kill Laius—our father—and breed children with Jocasta, our mother, before stabbing out our own eyes with her hair clips.

When noble and worthy art achieves its intended aim, the actions it vividly depicts spur us to contemplation.[1] To be sure, there will always be a handful of lunatics who, after watching Hamlet or Macbeth (or The Dark Knight), will feel a strange compulsion to become Hamlet or Macbeth (or the Joker)—to act out instead of act in, as is salutary and proper. The way I approach great works of art—from Homer and the Bible to Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky—is to view these works as invitations and time-tested guidebooks to the life of the imagination. As such, it is my belief that rather than aiming to strengthen and reinforce our attachment (a softer word than ‘bondage’) to the actual concrete world they depict and try to illumine, such works are intended by their authors to loosen and perhaps even to critique those bonds of attachment. They aim, that is, to liberate our souls from literal-mindedness, to nourish and ignite our imaginations, which operate in accordance with very different laws than those that we meet with in the more confined and constricted arena of mundane affairs. Induction or initiation into the world of imaginative experience may be thought of as a stage along the way that leads to the rarefied spiritual condition of desirelessness recommended by Ramana Maharshi—or to the ‘peace that surpasses understanding’ referred to in Christianity.

Just as ice typically passes through a liquid state before it proceeds to a vaporous state, evolving consciousness passes from concretistic, literalistic ego-consciousness through mercurial and imaginative soul-consciousness on its long pilgrimage to formless, serenely detached spiritual consciousness. Great artists, then, may be viewed, from one angle, as crucial ‘middle-men’ who, by helping the ego to dissolve its literalisms in the solvent of the imagination, provide a way-station or bridge between the material, sensual realm and the immaterial, spiritual one. Fittingly, then, soul—or imagination—partakes of both: it employs forms (images), just as sensory perception entails, but these forms ultimately point, as Plato and others have taught, to the formless Source, or Self, that is the ground of all.

Very well: we now have a traditional model before us, a threefold division of the whole human being into spirit, soul, and body. Great art—including the ‘pagan’ art of Sophocles and the secular dramas of Shakespeare—can be of considerable assistance (for those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear) to our liberation from that crudest form of human consciousness, literal-mindedness, which is founded upon and ultimately answerable to the testimony of the senses. Because literal-mindedness is naturally inclined either to reduce everything to causes that are material and therefore presumably apprehensible by one or more of the five senses, it is also inclined, if not compelled, by its own criteria and methods to deny the reality of anything it cannot touch, taste, hear, smell, or see with its own eyes.

Human beings are susceptible to conceiving of many different sorts of imaginary entities, possibilities, fantasies, and so forth, but our shared senses are in general agreement about the phenomena they apprehend. Therefore, the senses—and not the imagination—perhaps understandably provide the basis for ‘commonsense.’ The very word betrays the meaning of what I have just labored to explain: common + sense = shared trust in the evidence of shared senses. I have written elsewhere of the interesting fact that modern empirical science is, from a certain angle, a kind of glorified version of this commonsense[2], so I will limit what I say here about this connection to a few comments. It is precisely because of the almost universal respect accorded to sensory evidence (among members of our species) that science is not one thing in the U.S. and an entirely different practice in India or China. But we are dealing with a very different kettle of fish as soon as we begin to consider cultural, religious, or artistic practices in the U.S., India, and China. And the reason for this should be obvious. Culture, religion, and art all allow large—if not decisively large—doses of imagination to determine their content, while sensory data and brute facts are occasionally ‘consulted,’ but seldom rigorously adhered to (as would be expected from any reputable scientist). On the other hand, precisely because empirical science is strictly limited in what it can legitimately and effectively work with (compared with that stupendous totality of imaginative and/or speculative phenomena that we, as humans, are capable of experiencing), its value as a general guide for us is extremely limited, as well. Science is utterly incapable—not simply by ‘choice’ but in accordance with its own criteria and strict methodological constraints—of making any sort of ethical or moral judgment, or of authoritatively responding to our spiritual needs and quandaries. This should caution us against expecting more from it than it can deliver. Only a fool would be ungrateful for the marvelous material benefits and conveniences that empirical science and technology have blessed us with. But it would be just as foolish to assume that science and its fruits are, by themselves, sufficient to satisfy our greater human needs. I’m referring, of course, to those ‘immaterial,’ spiritual and psychological needs against which all the material comforts and powers of the world can provide no remedy. There are some persons, now as ever, who recognize no needs beyond those that can be answered by material means. I have nothing further to say to such persons except to be careful that, in placing all your hopes in the basket of materialism, you don’t wind up learning that the more you consume, the emptier and more insatiable your neglected soul becomes.

 

[1] The implicit trajectory, then, leads from the realm of action to that of contemplation, or reflection—not the other way around. In other words, we are meant to think about what we see and hear, not imitate it (mimesis). As a spur to reflective thought, the art, say, of Shakespeare, is not overtly didactic or even morally exhortatory. Like good psychotherapy, it provides us with clues to potentially profound insights that we arrive at on our own, and in our own way. In great art—and I am thinking here of Plato’s dialogues, as well—comparatively little is spelled out explicitly. Rather, alluring ‘gaps’ are carefully engineered by the writer—gaps that are to be ‘arced’ or filled in by the creative intelligence of the reader or viewer.

[2] In other ways, science is radically divergent from—one might almost say antithetical to—commonsense, as Goethe astutely understood in his ardent and carefully executed campaign against Newtonian physics/optics, so this issue is far from a simple one.

On Wholeness and its Enemies within the Present System (6/22/10—Asunciόn)

As human beings, we commence our life careers as relatively fuzzy and inchoate creatures—taking on greater definition and more fixed features as we grow older. Certain tendencies, ‘seeds,’ and talents become germinated, nourished, exercised and developed into conspicuous identity-establishing features of our personalities, while other, less prominent, ‘iffier’ seeds and possibilities receive little or no encouraging attention. Normally, when we are growing up, we are strongly nudged by our parents, teachers, and companions to ‘play to our strengths’—to focus upon the development and perfection of those talents and capacities wherein we shine. It only makes good sense to heed such advice and encouragements if we happen to be growing up in a culture or society that lavishly rewards (and has far greater use for) persons who become really good at doing one or maybe two things. And then, in addition to the ‘external’ inducements of monetary compensation and praise for the competent performance of our one or two developed functions or skills, there is the internal, private satisfaction many of us enjoy when we ‘do our thing’ well—whether it’s indoor plumbing or outdoor sports.

But perhaps in addition to these two types of human lives—the one type being conspicuously proficient at one or two functions, and the ‘undistinguished’ other who lacks the requisite talent, discipline, and drive—there is a third type which is neither undisciplined and untalented, on the one hand, nor content merely with the development of one or two skills or talents at the expense of roundedness, on the other. In the past, such a person might be called a ‘Renaissance man’ or even a ‘philosopher’ because of the comprehensiveness of his vision (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare) or the scope of his skills (as with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Goethe). Words often used to describe such ‘whole’ lives and visions include ‘versatile,’ ‘multifaceted,’ and ‘protean.’ Each of these widely recognized ‘geniuses’ made enormous or even incalculable contributions to this (western) culture they helped to shape and inform.

But must all persons who innately and consistently strive for wholeness be geniuses or cultural-historical ‘stars’? In other words, is the very quest for wholeness, roundedness, and a comprehensive life the prerogative of the extraordinary few, the exceptionally gifted and ‘blessed?’ Or could it be that this yearning quite naturally appears in many of us whose native gifts are not quite so stupendous in their reach and fertility (as Plato’s, Shakespeare’s, or Jung’s)? At any event, this yearning for wholeness appears to receive little serious encouragement or support from our present culture, our educators, and—shamefully—even from our parents and our closest friends, who perhaps share a very different notion of success, fulfillment, and of ‘mature adult responsibility.’ Are the currently prevailing notions of human fulfillment and success rather lopsidedly utilitarian or narrowly ‘practical’ in their character?

Or, mightn’t it be even more extreme than this—so that, instead of simply being carelessly and unwittingly negligent of the ‘call’ of wholeness, today’s cultural norms are actually hostile to it? Is it possible that we now live in a culture that forcibly inhibits the full development of its members with the same degree of alacrity it devotes to our partial or lopsided development? Why on earth might a culture deliberately aim at such a goal—the rearing of comparatively fragmented or woefully incomplete creatures, many of whom are nevertheless highly effective in the regular performance of a well rewarded, single function? Is such a system as I am describing here even deserving of the name ‘culture?’ And if we suppose that somewhere within the administrative and governing bodies of this hypothetical system there are highly placed men and women who knowingly and deliberately shape, steer, and implement this elaborate political-economic-educational scheme, then we must ask: what are their ultimate aims, and how did they ever acquire so much power over the minds and destinies of the general population?   Why aren’t there more critics, dissenters, artists, and angry prophets out there blowing the whistle on these social engineers who assist in a strange, systematic crusade to turn us and our children into human fragments and blinkered functionaries instead of helping us to become whole human beings?

Well, to begin with, there most certainly are such critics, dissenters, artists and angry prophets living and expressing themselves around and among us. Unfortunately, what such persons are saying tends either to be drowned out by the much louder sound of ‘business as usual’ humming along or what they are saying is simply not being taken to heart (or to the streets.) This is not the same as saying that they are not being taken seriously by readers and audiences, because many Americans will readily admit that they are very mistrustful of the ‘system’ I’ve described, along with its rulers and its official architects. So, if this nation is in fact equipped with a sizable population of mistrustful, dissenters who are outraged by the current system why are they not attacking the system head-on, withdrawing themselves and their children from its institutions of fragmentation, and rejecting its menu of generally pernicious and psychologically-unfulfilling life career paths? Could they be reluctant to stand up and make a lot of noise for the simple reason that withdrawal from the system and the forfeiture of one’s precious but limited social/economic opportunities within the system are generally believed to be greater hardships than those entailed in unresisting compliance and obedient participation? There is the sense that ‘we can’t buck the system,’ a system which depends for its continuing success upon the widespread enlistment and participation of the populace. And, of course, so long as that participation continues, the warnings and the predictions of the critics and the prophets will be heard but almost never heeded by the inwardly divided and confused participants in the spiritually deforming and unwholesome system. And unless and until a critical mass of the ‘enlightened’ members of the general population actually dismantles the current system and replaces it with something intrinsically superior, the system, its rulers, and its architects will almost certainly remain in place.

We can turn this model around and look at this phenomenon from the ‘inside-out.’ A psychologically imbalanced or barbarous condition exists where one aspect of the whole is exaggerated to such a degree that the other parts of the psyche are eclipsed. If we add too much salt to a recipe, we ruin it—unless we are somehow able to find a way to counteract the excessive saltiness. Too much emotionality hampers rational action and free choice, but an excess of rational deliberation often leads to sterility and a weak connection with the animating/vitalizing passions. A society informed by our collective system, such as we’ve been discussing, is made up of the sum of the individuals participating in or contained by that system. What this means, in simple terms, is that the present system—if indeed it is in a perilously imbalanced condition—will not be restored to a state of balance or equilibrium unless and until a decisive number of individuals have succeeded in balancing themselves. Today’s fragmenting and wholeness-inhibiting system reflects the aggregate of fragmented and lopsided psyches of its members—from the top down. Viewed in this way, the source of the fragmentation and imbalance is seen to reside in the collective psyche of America, while the formal, systemic symptoms constitute the visible exoskeleton—those institutional directives, normative values, educational practices, and so forth which, from a more extraverted perspective, appear to be the source.

While the truth of this observation should be immediately apparent to anyone who recognizes the reality and the primacy of the psyche in all human experience, for those who do not, my observation will appear simply to have inverted the problem—and that I have gotten it all backwards. But such persons, I would argue, are operating from a standpoint that is still excessively mimetic in its orientation and response to culture and its institutions. They are like actors who—at best—have thoroughly memorized and internalized their lines. The culture is the play, and the play is a script, and ‘if it’s not in the script’ these actors cannot make intelligible sense of a ‘foreign’ thing or idea—let alone a completely different kind of play.

Here I am alluding to the authentically creative (as opposed to merely mimetic or imitative) play whereby the psyche itself spontaneously generates living forms and symbols. One commonly-occurring instance of such spontaneously generated images is the nightly dream which—when recalled the next morning—leaves us in a powerfully changed mood or in an imaginatively excited state that lasts through the day, perhaps. Another instance is the reverie we become absorbed in at the office when our attention drifts from the tedious paperwork we’re plodding through. Or it’s the irrational and deeply disturbing anxiety attacks that keep recurring and leaving us with the mounting suspicion that something big needs to be changed about our lives—and soon—or something’s gonna blow.

Where are these other parts of the totality from which we have become estranged in our chronic state of collective disequilibrium (or ‘mass derangement’)? They are not far away in some remote antipodes! They are right here in and around us, surrounding and suffusing us, just like Cuba is ninety miles away from Florida—and great literary and philosophical geniuses live private lives in small towns in Iowa and upstate New York—only ‘we’ don’t recognize them. We don’t enjoy diplomatic and cordial relations with our nearby neighbors and our potential enlargers and enhancers because we don’t yet know how to see them for who they really are.

A Shaky Marriage (3/24/18)

From time to time I remember that the affairs and activities that we, as ordinary human beings, habitually and/or compulsively attend to constitute the principal blinders that prevent us from seeing those telltale symptoms which, if noticed and properly interpreted, would place us in a better position to glimpse “the big picture” in which we, along with everyone we know and don’t know, are embedded. In other words, virtually all we do almost every waking minute of every busy or dragging day is devote our attention to weak or potent distractions from the larger, encompassing reality. In the end, it makes only a negligible difference whether these distractions are generally pleasant or unpleasant, since what matters most is that they succeed diverting our attention away from the big picture. Why is this inclination – this compulsive drive – towards diversion so ferociously strong in human beings? Could it be the case that those rare, fleeting glimpses of the “big picture” that are granted to us – when our guard is down and we are mysteriously visited by such numinous visions – are so profoundly baffling and overwhelming that we cannot help but feel crushed or pulverized by them, even as we recognize the sublimity and majesty of such staggering peeks behind the thick, muffling layers of ignorance in which we are deeply enfolded?

It is precisely here – at the frontier where nature confronts mythos – where culture emerges. Culture’s fundamental function as a buffer or shield against raw reality can clearly be seen at this perilous frontier. Paradoxically, it is to the gradual evolution and refinement of culture (which is dependent on our capacity for language and conceptual thought) that we owe our ability to reflect – and it is this ability to reflect deeply upon our existential predicament vis-à-vis nature, or reality, that allows us to catch a fleeting-staggering glimpse of the big picture, from time to time. If culture is normally, or more or less exclusively, enlisted in the service of distracting us from the starkly sublime reality just beyond the secure horizons of our myths, religious beliefs, and ideological fantasies, philosophical inquiry is perhaps the sole activity enabled by culture that deliberately seeks to break the spells of distraction that impede our mental access to reality, just across the border. In this way, philosophy may be said to constitute a kind of (shaky, problematic) marriage between culture and nature.

Attachment, Nietzsche, Spirit, Soul, and Ego (8/30/12)

The deeper and more tenacious our attachments to material, sensual, emotional, and ideological forms/experiences, the harder it will be, naturally, to surrender to the ‘evolutionary’ impulse of spirit, for this powerful impulse points in the opposite direction from those attachments. The attachments act like durable cords binding us to all manner of phenomena and experiences in the ‘three worlds’ (physical, emotional, intellectual), and the spirit points away from these familiar harbors. As incarnate human beings, we are perhaps naturally disposed to equate these attachments (and the kind of experience that these attachments immerse us in) with life itself. Consequently, surrendering to the spirit is almost inevitably experienced as a virtual death of the personality—the ego-personality that we have long assumed to be our authentic and substantial self or true identity. Surrender to the spirit ultimately reveals this assumption to be only a half-truth. It is only half-true because there appears to be a deeper, subtler root of selfhood that is not synonymous with egoity, or the sense of separate ‘I-consciousness.’ From the standpoint of the immaterial, spiritual self, the ego (and even the body, which in some respects is correlative with ego-consciousness) functions almost as a kind of ‘mask’—a kind of projected identity or actor on the stage of temporal and phenomenal affairs. From the standpoint of the silent, meditating spirit that disinterestedly beholds this long-running stage play (that we are cast in as long as we function as ‘normal’ human beings), the phenomenal world is little more than a ‘coagulated dream.’ It is a kind of movie or epic story that can sometimes be thoroughly captivating and absorbing, while at others times it appears to be futile, a kind of sham or trick, an ‘eternal recurrence of the same,’ as Nietzsche put it.

It is perhaps also worth noting that Nietzsche seems to have consistently believed that the spiritual dimension was itself merely an illusion or a lie fabricated by priests to manage and ‘pastor’ the ignorant and the resentful, and that there was no real possibility of transcending the phenomenal realm—the ‘realm of appearances’—except via death, which is not so much transcendence as extermination. Perhaps as a consequence of a profound religious crisis suffered as a young man, Nietzsche seems to have consciously and irreversibly rejected the idea of the spirit as a transcendent—but nevertheless real and truly experienceable—dimension.[1] Perhaps, as he came to see all things and all processes ultimately in terms of power, he gradually closed himself off from the possibility of making fundamental sense of experience in any other terms. This is most unfortunate when it comes to making some kind of sense of spirit, since the surrender to the spirit-impulse within us is, at the same time, a kind of relinquishment of all power claims within the stage play of phenomenal, ordinary human experience, as mystics and saints from all traditions have attested. Since power remained paramount for Nietzsche—both as a force or energy to be sought for its own sake and as a kind of heuristic or explanatory principle for making ultimate sense of everything—his philosophical legacy is a rhetorically brilliant, but one-sided assault upon the spirit, which, again, he regarded as no more than a hollow ideal, a delusion clung to by powerless (and/or manipulative) people.[2] Nietzsche’s philosophy is perhaps the most eloquent presentation of materialistic metaphysical assumptions—a worldview that reached its cultural zenith in the 19th Century. Former materialists from both the ancient and modern eras (Democritus, Leucippus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Hobbes, Bacon, Gassendi, d’Holbach, Marx, etc.) strike us as crude and fumbling ‘innocents’ compared to Nietzsche, who deliberately and almost ‘religiously’ struggled to close off every possible ‘escape route’ into the ‘nothingness’ of the sham spirit world.

A close and thorough study of Nietzsche’s spellbinding writings reveals that his is, by far, the most seductive and persuasive voice ever to speak out on behalf of the involutionary arc—the thrust into concrete, flesh-and-blood existence and into the agon of contending, embattled human egos.[3] The Iliad is probably his favorite depiction of the ‘noble’ game as it should be played—but I am now fairly certain that Nietzsche missed the whole point that Homer was trying to get across in that timeless story. Perhaps the closest likeness to Nietzsche that we find in Homer is to be found in book eleven of the Odyssey, when Odysseus visits the underworld and hears the words of Achilles’ shade:

Let me hear no smooth talk of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils. Better, I say, to break the sod as farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations, than to lord it over all the exhausted dead.

No wonder Nietzsche constructed strong and elaborate defenses against the spirit. It seems likely that he suffered an actual encounter with it and it had the dual effect of inflating him and scaring the hell out of him—as seems to have been the case with a number of ‘inspired’ men and women, including none other than Carl Jung, who appears to have been slightly better prepared to navigate through the paralyzing and mentally destabilizing paradoxes that appear to accompany numinous experiences. As it turns out, these torturous paradoxes, which are often experienced as menacing and threatening factors when the initial ‘infection’ occurs, eventually metamorphose into antibodies or a kind of psychic auto-immune system that can protect us against…against what? Against ‘personal ego’ obliteration. Against insanity. Against crippling nihilism. The paradoxes, under favorable internal conditions, become the very seeds out of which soul, the ‘third’ factor, is born. Soul, of course, is the middle principle between spirit and concrete, literal consciousness (ego-consciousness). Its distinctive features are the image, the symbol, and the metaphor. As a kind of psychic platform or perspective situated between spirit and ego (or literal consciousness), it is a kind of hybrid that partakes of both spirit and matter. Hence the paradoxicality that is fundamental to soul and to ‘anima consciousness.’ It is an ‘as-if’ mode of consciousness, experience, and manner of interpreting events—a mode well known, of course, to authentic poets to mystics, alchemists, visionaries, and (more recently) to genuine archetypal psychologists. I will employ an ‘as-if’ formulation in an effort to illustrate Nietzsche’s little-reported horror of the spirit—a horror that seems to have compelled him to take an uncharacteristically dogmatic, defensive stand for ego (will to power) and for (a subtle but inevitably reductive form of) materialism as an ultimate explanatory principle.

We might say that the impact of unadulterated spirit upon the typical human ego is analogous to the encounter between a particle of matter and a particle of anti-matter, or between a positively charged ion and a negatively charged one. In the encounter between matter and anti-matter, both are obliterated—at least, according to current theory. A kind of neutralization occurs—and in the case of the ego, this experience is horrifyingly deflationary, from one angle, while from another, it is liberating, releasing, and indescribably pleasant.[4]

What seems to make the crucial difference between a salutary and a lamentable outcome in this encounter is which ‘factor’ the experiencer is most allied with, consciously. If he is identified chiefly with the ego the experience will more likely be crushing and annihilating (because the spirit exposes the utter puniness and frightening fragility of the ego and all that it is attached to), and if he identifies wholly with the spirit, he will almost certainly suffer a dangerous inflation. Neither of these outcomes is desirable or psychologically healthy. If, on the other hand, there is some soul development, there is a good chance that the disturbing and ‘animating’ experience can be assimilated imaginatively or metaphorically, and not merely literally or pneumatically.

[1] An account by Ida Overbeck, the wife of Nietzsche’s close friend, Franz Overbeck, is helpful here. He was on the most intimate terms with both husband and wife and was often a guest in their home: “I had told Nietzsche earlier that the Christian religion could not give me solace and fulfillment and that I had in me the thought and feeling of carrying in everything the fate of all mankind. I dared to say it: the idea of God contained too little reality for me. Deeply moved, he answered: ‘You are saying this only to come to my aid; never give up this idea! You have it unconsciously; for as I know you and find you, including now, one great thought dominates your life. This great thought is the idea of God.’ He swallowed painfully. His features were completely contorted with emotion, until they then took on a stony calm. ‘I have given him up, I want to make something new, I will not and must not go back. I will perish from my passions, they will cast me back and forth; I am constantly falling apart, but I do not care.’ These are his own words from the fall of 1882!” (Conversations with Nietzsche; Sander Gilman, editor, p. 145)

[2] Nietzsche employs the word ‘spirit’ frequently, but with this term he seems to be referring to spiritedness, what the Greeks call ‘thumos.’

[3] However, it cannot, in all fairness, be said that he lived as he wrote, since—plagued with chronic health problems—he was forced to live the life of a virtual ascetic, moving solitarily from one boarding house to another in northern Italy and southern France, after retiring (for health reasons) at the age of 35 from his professorship at the University of Basel. Lonely, sickly, unmarried, and surviving on a modest pension, Nietzsche’s life was lived, especially throughout his last years before his mental collapse at the age of forty-five, in his head.

[4] Not to be flippant, but merely for the sake of illustration: the comparison with an organism seems apt here. The ‘neutralization’ corresponds with the climactic discharge of pent-up sexual force, which is accompanied by a burst of pleasure and a feeling of great contentment. Horror and/or delight may come a short time afterwards when it is learned that pregnancy resulted from the deed and henceforth one’s life will no longer be one’s own! Something roughly analogous occurs when we are impregnated by the (holy) spirit. But then, Nietzsche and Freud would have insisted that Joseph was the real father (in one famous case of questionable insemination).

Ignorance and Arrogance (8/13/14)

Haven’t we all noticed a strong correlation between ignorance and excessive (or unearned) confidence, presumptuousness and self-assurance, in a person’s supposed wisdom about life?  To be perfectly clear, I am not talking here about technical knowledge. As far as toaster ovens or Louisiana divorce laws are concerned, a moderately clever person can know pretty much all one needs to know about such subjects. I’m talking about general wisdom—say, about how geopolitics and the global economy work, or even murkier arenas, such as the mysteries of human nature and human spirituality. I suppose at my age I shouldn’t be, but I continue to be shocked and surprised by the presumptuousness and the arrogance of semi-educated, persons who have little experience outside their narrow cultural horizons. I hasten to add that any skill I have in recognizing the more carefully disguised forms of this practically ubiquitous presumptuousness I owe to years of unpleasant ‘recognitions’ and revelations of my own arrogant presumptuousness!

I live in Houston. With all the cars and the nearby oil refineries, the air quality here is about as bad as it gets in the U.S. The air pollution in Beijing and Jakarta may be worse, but the point I want to make is that when you grow up in a city that has serious air pollution you just take it for granted. It’s normal. You don’t notice it until you go away to the Andes in Patagonia or to a remote Pacific island where there are no cars or refineries—and then you come back home to polluted Houston. A similar situation applies to arrogance and ignorance. When you, yourself, are quite arrogant and ignorant, and the vast majority of your fellow citizens are ignorant and arrogant, too—arrogance and ignorance are normal. And unless we are confronted with particularly egregious and conspicuous examples of ignorance—say, with George W. Bush or Sarah Palin—or outrageous examples of arrogance—say, with Dick Cheney or Donald Trump—we simply go about our business as if nothing were amiss.

But be forewarned. There is comfort in numbers and, no matter how tough we happen to be, being alone—being left alone—tends to be uncomfortable. As long as we are all arrogant and ignorant together, things are quite tolerable, even if this collective arrogance and ignorance is actually hastening our collective demise. On the other hand, as soon as we begin to acknowledge our own arrogance and ignorance we place our happiness and well-being at grave risk, even though this is the honorable and correct thing to do.