Let’s Play an Old Game (3/29/16)

A thought experiment: Imagine yourself to be a member of that small, select cabal of ‘behind the scenes’ elites who actually stage manage the currently-running tragicomedy in which virtually all of humanity is knowingly or unwittingly conscripted.  There is indeed an elaborate, multi-tiered SYSTEM, the rudiments of which stretch back to ancient Sumer and Egypt. The system received a significant overhaul under the Roman emperors and the Caesaropapism of Byzantium, finally assuming its distinctively modern guise after the industrial and ‘democratic’ revolutions in more recent centuries.  This upgraded ‘operating system’ that you and your fellow elites oversee typically goes by the euphemistic name of ‘modern civilization,’ but you properly understand it as a marvelously intricate game.  You also know that the game is so capacious and inviting in its reach that it offers something of compelling interest to just about everybody.  Whether a ‘player’ happens to be driven primarily by acquisitiveness or charitableness, hedonism or patriotism, religious impulses or the romantic love-quest, ethnic pride or intellectual snobbery—the operating system has a suitable place and a slew of enticing prizes for everyone.  Well, almost everyone, but we will postpone our discussion of these anomalous dissenters for the moment.

From the very summit of human affairs, securely out of sight and protected within the game ‘control-room,’ along with your fellow puppet-masters, you are a ‘true believer’ in the absolute necessity of the game’s uninterrupted sovereignty and progressive development.  This conviction of yours—respecting the dire importance of the system’s preservation—is not based, surprisingly, on your personal greed or even your love of power.  To be sure, you cherish both your inestimable wealth and your unfathomable power as a system administrator for the planet Earth, but your unshakable faith in the absolute necessity of the system is founded upon an even deeper, almost impersonal basis.  It is based on your certainty that the game is the only reliable dam or barrier standing between humanity and depraved, all-engulfing barbarism.  The system—like any well-constructed game—provides rules and roles that impose order and dramatic, narrative structure upon the otherwise seething, bubbling stew of anarchic human lusts, cravings, terrors, and aggressive impulses.  From where you are sitting, the game or system—no matter how deeply it descends, from time to time, into an imbalanced and unfair modus operandi—is always infinitely preferable to NO GAME AT ALL!  Nihilism, ‘the Absurd,’ ‘Somalia,’ and ‘Syria’ are but child’s play compared to a collapse of collective faith in the indisputable authority of the system, as such.  The moment the system is understood to consist of artificial constructs and elaborate fictions, ‘the game is up,’ so to speak.  Its authority can be maintained only so long as it holds the players in a dreamlike state of bamboozlement.  The alternative is literally unthinkable, since both language and conceptual (abstract) thought are key components of the subtle, comprehensive game itself!  Within the protective horizons of the ‘dream-game’ of human civilization, values and goals (of all levels and sorts) make some kind of intelligible sense to the variously motivated, diversely talented players—but as soon as those bounds are transgressed, all bets are off.  The transgressor finds himself alone, mute—his mind stuffed with ineffectual, worthless mental currency that has no purchasing power in this ‘no-man’s land’ he’s slithered himself into.  Only the most monstrous courage can impel such serpent-men to proceed deeper into that uncharted, starless region beyond the game—beyond language and all the criteria afforded by the system, now receding in the rear-view mirror.

The serpent-man who has somehow managed to slither through a tiny orifice or crack in the game-wall (without, at the same time, disintegrating into a bubbling brew of barbarous impulses) has miraculously succeeded in breaking the spell of enchantment that imprisons both the conscripted puppets and the elite puppet-masters who control the game but who dare not exit its sacrosanct precincts.  For that, one must be sub- or super-human, and the loyalties of the invisible elites lie ultimately within the bounds of the human, and not beyond them.

A Note on Guilt (1/10/16)

Perhaps the most commonly encountered antonym of ‘innocence’ is ‘guilt.’  Certainly, one of the most culturally significant—trailblazing and trajectory-establishing—instances of the innocence-guilt polarity is to be found in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence, along with the paradisal condition that was predicated upon that innocence.  Here is the ground from which original sin sprang forth.  At this mythical, foundational level of our shared Western culture story, innocence is implicitly associated with blissful ignorance.

Ignorance, that is, of ‘the knowledge of the (metaphysical) duality of Good and Evil.’  Once that fateful bite of the apple has been savored, the bliss of childhood ignorance and innocence is abruptly and irremediably replaced by all manner of hardships, problems, conflicts, and pains that, before, had been safely relegated to the realm of the unconscious.  An adequate (psycho-historical) reading of this ancient myth, as we all know, equates the end of innocence with the birth of self-consciousness in a creature that can now properly be called ‘human.’  Does this suggest that childlike innocence—precisely because it has not yet been superseded by genuine self-consciousness—is, strictly speaking, a sort of ‘sub-human’ or ‘not-yet-fully-human’ condition?  This may seem like reckless toying with words, but with some justice we might ask: Can a creature that has yet to arrive at stable self-consciousness be morally responsible?  Even if, like our ‘first parents’ before they succumbed to temptation, the blissfully ignorant young specimen of homo sapiens obediently follows all the rules laid down by God or the authorities to a tee, such filial compliance and faithful obedience is not quite the same as genuine, moral self-responsibility.  Why not?

Authentic moral choice is unquestionably predicated upon freedom.  Where our actions are compelled, obligatory, or bound by unconditional duty, can we be said to act in an altogether morally responsible manner?  May this exacting stipulation be extended even to soldiers (in their obedience to their commanding officers)?  Only when and where our behavior is un-determined or uncompelled—only in such cases may we claim to be making freely responsible moral choices.  Persons who are compelled (by any number of internal or external factors, irresistible desires, fears) to do harmful, destructive, or evil things may feel guilty after doing such things—or merely in imagining the possible performance of such unwholesome deeds—but insofar as they are acting under compulsions which they see no choice but to obey, they cannot be justly charged with moral responsibility, and therefore, saddled with deserved guilt.  Does this mean that, in countless actual cases, day after day after day, ‘guilt’ is merely an ‘illusion’?  Strictly speaking—yes: but this doesn’t mean that its ghostly shadow or mask isn’t continually mistaken for the genuine article and felt to be real.

Do these regularly-experienced guilt feelings, suffered each day by countless persons throughout the world as they take note of the actions they’ve performed—or fantasize about doing—serve to deter many of these same persons from wreaking even greater mischief and causing more pain and trouble than they have already wrought?  Maybe.  Do we have here a justification for the continuing survival of what is, strictly speaking, an illusion (in perhaps most cases) for the sake of tempering and diminishing, if only a little bit, the havoc and pain that imperfect humans are so adept at instigating and perpetuating?  Maybe.

Aphorisms, Invitations, and Provocations (III)

61. Concerning solitude: It is far more radical to withdraw from the personal ego than to retreat into it.  Ego-consciousness is the portal through which the Self passes into the world (via projection).  In deep meditation that doorway or portal is closed so that the Self abides in itself.  No pain.  No drain.

62. The Gnostics teach us (in their mythology-cosmogony) that the Demiurge—the Creator-God of Genesis—wrongly believed himself to be the highest being, the sole author of Creation.  And we are said to be made in his image.  This means that, as egos, we share this delusion of being the more or less autonomous creators of our microcosms, our ‘little worlds.’  Like the Demiurge, we are frequently unconscious of the fact that we and our worlds are dependent on the ‘hidden God’ (Deus absconditus), the true God—the silent, faceless presence behind all appearances.

63. In earnestly pursuing happiness we learn where our mental manacles are, since we necessarily pass them along the way.

64. Inversion. Spiritual development consists, among other things, in shedding the shells and accretions that have formed around the living core of the Self.  In meditation we work to ‘secure our losses,’ by which means we are able to keep our former ‘gains’ from recapturing the citadel.

65.  We are only as attached to others as we are attached to various aspects of our own egos.  And, lest we forget, hatred is an inverted form of attachment.

66. To the extent that those around us—and near to us—are unreflectively committed to and invested in mundane affairs and the acquisitive drives of the ego, our detachment and divestment from those same pursuits will often be regarded by them as a kind of betrayal and perhaps even as cowardly retreat.  What is of primary concern and interest to their minds will be of less and less importance to us, and vice versa.  For awhile, this deepening gulf between our divergent paths will be covered over by polite niceties and courteous half-truths—on both sides—but eventually there will no longer be any way of concealing the fact that our feet are planted in two very different countries.  These countries are not necessarily at war—but they are two very different countries with two very different languages, constitutions, and currencies, nonetheless.

67. What newcomers to the spiritual path cannot know beforehand is that when they spurn the world, the world returns the ‘dis-courtesy.’  The further we recede from our vanity mirror, the smaller our personal reflection becomes.  On the other hand, when our face is pressed to the mirror all we can see is our own face—and then, despite (or rather, because of) the proximity, not very accurately or distinctly.

68. Fait accompli: From the standpoint of atman—the truly ‘centered’ position that is inhabited during a successful meditation—all of those ‘acts of liberation’ that the ego believes it must accomplish before it can be released from desires, fears, hatreds, memories, and attachments that normally hold it hostage have already been accomplished.  Or rather, such mental acts have no place or relevance to the spirit, since it is by its very nature already free.  In other words, these feats of liberation only make sense from the (blinkered, deluded) standpoint of the ego.  This is why it is a ‘little miracle’ or an ‘act of grace’ each time we have an encounter with the spirit—when the ego is momentarily overshadowed by the spirit.  We have leapt from the muddy bank of the ego-standpoint into the sea of spirit which cleans us up—and holds us up, as well.

69. A short, but thick human life is more likely to bring satisfaction to all parties concerned than a somewhat longer, but pathetically skinny one.

70. We must not attempt to forcefully impose unity and consistency upon our inner lives—or upon Life as such.  Rather, we work our way through disunity and discord, the naturally-occurring fauna and flora of the ‘fallen’ condition.  We employ our will in the service of imperturbability—the gateway that leads to the balancing of the pairs of opposites—rather than in the futile attempt to force blue, yellow, and red to merge into white.  Paradoxically, this employment of the will is an inversion of the ordinary will of the ego.  Our way, therefore, may justly be called a via negativa.

71. Eros: Today I’ve got the urge to merge.  Tomorrow, I’ll feel the urge to purge.

72. ‘Thoroughly contented with his ignorance, he craves no enlightenment.’

73. A new geometry: There is no line emerging from the past and pointing toward the future.  At bottom, there is only a still, silent point.

74. Status quo. What if the degree of respect we owed to others was directly proportional not only to the degree of truth they grasp, intellectually, but the degree to which he or she is able to bring living expression to that truth? Those who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge and to live by the truth because of their habit-reinforced drives and weaknesses seem to require the constant support of lies and self-deception: such persons, whether intentionally or not, contribute to the general catastrophe that always looms over humanity. In their passive acquiescence and conformity to ever-declining norms, they add to the fog of illusion that invisibly corrupts children and preserves the status quo. As far as I can tell, all of us must struggle to the best of our ability against the general calamity constantly posed by the status quo. Why? Bcause it typically functions more in the capacity of a suffocating sarcophagus than as a stabilizing container for the living, evolving process that is always underway within.

75. While there may not be a one-to-one correspondence between greed and spiritual cowardice, the connections are as old as they are tight: chapter of a study of the ‘unity of the vices’?

76. What looks and feels like sacrifice, loss, and irksome renunciation from the personal ego standpoint is experienced as a feeling of liberation and release from the standpoint of the true inner self.  One event—but two radically different interpretations—depending on which standpoint our deepest loyalties are allied with.  This same principle almost assuredly applies to the event of physical death: loss from one side, the gaining of freedom, from the other.  Non-attachment is the key to enlightened release.  Attachment is the doorway into ‘the world,’ the ‘valley.’

77. A paradox: As long as the ego seeks the bliss of nirvana for itself, it will never retain it.  Only as the flame of ego-consciousness is blown out will the flame of bliss ignite.  For the little ego to usurp the sovereign place of the Self is like the little angelfish trying to swallow the entire ocean.  The only way to nirvana is for the little light (the ego) to be absorbed by the greater light (the Self).  Only through loss of self is Self attained.  Our dealings with other persons, therefore, must be conducted with a perfect blend of compassion and detachment, for otherwise we will be imprisoned by our expectations concerning our relationships with other ‘little lights.’  As long as our hopes for happiness are attached to little lights—others’ or our own—we will be blinded not by but to the larger light of the Self, which is always present.

78. When relationships and interactions do not penetrate beyond the persona level, what we have, in effect, is no more than an interchange between masks.  The only suitable name for such a state of affairs, once it becomes normal, is a masquerade.  This observation is valid even when—or especially when—such dealings are conducted with utter sincerity, since then we are less likely to acknowledge the theatricality, vanity, and hypocrisy that are unconsciously afoot.  Thus, the biggest fool-ers are at the same time the biggest fools.

79. Against Irenaeus: Orthodoxy is generally conducive to stultification, laziness, and soulless conformity, while heresy tends to be imaginative, bold, and full of life.

80. One of the principal virtues of the imagination (insofar as our spiritual liberation is at stake) is its ability to melt the rigid, confining walls of those literalistic dogma-closets that can hold our minds captive.  To the extent that we instinctively genuflect before the usurped authority and doubtful pedigree of such dogmatic principles and beliefs—to that extent we nail ourselves to them and mount ourselves, as it were, upon a cross.  A few well-aimed drops of the liquid imagination dissolve those iron spikes, helping us to drop down from our crosses so that we may at last go in search of spirit.  It is the water of imagination that rapidly rusts and softens those iron nails, mind you—not the airy spirit.

81.Every morning when I crawl out of bed I am not who I really am.  Like Gregor Samsa, I am a large cockroach.  When I meditate I realize that this cockroach has been there—crawling out of bed—for decades.   Who knows?  Perhaps for centuries or even millennia.

82. What is underway within me is a ‘regime change.’  This is very much a matter of inner politics.  There is no violent rebellion—no siege upon a fortified city.  The Taoist says ‘a path is formed by walking (on it).’  By simply paying more and more attention to the Self—by spending more and more time in a state of meditative communion with the Self—a gradual relocation of my center of gravity is occurring.  Perhaps eventually, it will be as if the ‘false self’ were to expire peacefully in its sleep.

83. The desire-driven ego naturally tends to think in terms of ‘freedom to…’ while the quiet, onlooking spirit is always about ‘freedom from…’

84. Analogies are rungs on a ladder that leads from the base to the summit—or from the periphery to the center—of reality.  Man—far from merely occupying one or two of these rungs—appears to be uniquely fitted to travel up and down, in and out, across the full spectrum of this encompassing scale, as Pico della Mirandola told us in his famous ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man.’  The vehicle in which he travels?  The analogy or metaphor.  The glue that binds him to one rung or another—hampering his imaginative-speculative mobility?  The inflexible dogma, the intractable prejudice, the fixed habit.

85. If man is viewed principally as the ‘consuming animal,’ then—God forfend!—the present-day world is the very pinnacle and consummation of this peculiar creature’s destiny.  If, however, we raise the bar of our expectations and view man as the ‘child of God’—as the most dignified of creatures in the known universe—because of his creative and spiritual potentials, contemporary man is situated close to the nadir—the very sinkhole of iniquity—an obscene squandering of potential, a lamentable travesty unworthy of democracy, undeserving of science and modern technology, a blinkered and rapacious monster of insatiable cravings before his invisible, retreating creator.

86. The hero expands; the quietist shrinks.

87. Neti, neti, neti:  Authentic spiritual praxis should offer the mind no place to park—only catapults and slingshots, cannons and crossbows, from which it may be fired towards its proper targets.  The Zen masters seem to have understood this best, while the early pharisaical Jews and the ecclesiastical Christians understood it least, being great lovers of arks and chalices, bones and popes.  Thus, the great creative spirit is at the same time the most subtle destroyer.  What is destroyed, of course, is everything that weighs down the spirit—which ultimately turns out to be just about…everything.

88. Alas, compassion does not gush from my heart in a constant, unwavering stream; instead, its volume is decided by the particulars of each case.  For the helpless and incapable, it flows.  For the capable who are beset with misfortune brought on largely by their own recklessness, intemperance, and stupidity, it trickles—grudgingly.  I recognize this as merely a personal prejudice of mine—one that I must strive diligently to overcome.  For, in the end, isn’t every benighted ego equally deserving of our compassion?  I have begun to suspect that those persons who appear to be the most capable are often the most deeply mired in ignorance and self-deception—and so, therefore, require particularly violent wallops from life in order to snap them out of their deluded condition.

89. More often than not, really getting close to and getting to know another person is like opening (dare I say it?) a can of worms.  And this is doubly or triply true if that person happens to be oneself—since, once they’re out, there’s no fleeing the scene.

90.  The ‘sacred’ and the ‘holy’ can scarcely draw a breath in the foul, toxic atmosphere of the present anti-culture.  As a consequence, most truly sacred phenomena have died off–from suffocation and ‘toxic shock’–leaving behind only their corpses, which, of course, are worshipped everywhere by clueless and unwitting idolaters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Nietzsche, Christianity, and Depth Psychology

I have begun reading Nietzsche and Depth Psychology, a collection of essays that establish the strong links between Nietzsche’s work and that of Freud, Adler, and Jung. The introductory essay by Jacob Golomb discusses Nietzsche’s ‘unmasking’ and ‘freezing’ psychologizing—a strategy whereby Nietzsche sought ‘to evoke a mood of deep suspicion and distrust towards metaphysics’ (p. 4). He goes on:

The evocation of a psychic (rather than strictly philosophical) doubt in the viability of metaphysics (or religion and any rational-objective ethics), would freeze our motivation for believing in them…An authentic and healthy culture would then emerge, a culture no longer relying on metaphysical comforts, able to function creatively without the traditional philosophical crutches.

How naïve this sounds to my ears!

Here we see, in slightly different terminology, clear evidence of Nietzsche’s crafty campaign to disparage and discredit the ‘transcendent’ as such. The target of Nietzsche’s smear campaign is the ‘metaphysical need’ that Schopenhauer recognized and explored at length in his writings. Nietzsche’s comments to Ida Overbeck make clear his own deliberate refusal to honor or gratify that metaphysical need within himself, although—from Overbeck’s description of Nietzsche’s tormented state as he confessed his renunciation (of all ‘metaphysical’ comfort)—it seems to be indisputable that this need was formidable in him. (One doesn’t get the impression that this metaphysical need is nearly as strong in Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett—which is why they strike me as superficial when set beside the ‘tortured’ Nietzsche, more ‘tinsel’ than ‘tensile.’ Eric Heller recognized this conflict in Nietzsche, as well.)

The point I actually want to make here is that Nietzsche—unlike Ramana Maharshi or Nisargadatta, Frithjof Schuon or René Guénon—almost certainly never knowingly transcended psyche (or the imaginal realm). What are the implications of this—if my suspicion turns out to be true? If Nietzsche’s experience was—from first to last—confined within the broad and deep (but perhaps not boundless, as Heraclitus would have us assume) expanse of psyche, then he never could have acknowledged the crucial distinction that Nisargadatta never tires of repeating: pure, formless awareness is deeper and subtler than consciousness (psyche). In positing the primacy of pure awareness, the Advaitist (non-dualist) and the founders of the founders of the Sophia Perennis school point beyond psyche (imagination), which necessarily relies upon forms (images, concepts, perceptions) as vehicles for its consciousness. This is a step Nietzsche, as ego, was unable or unwilling to take. Moreover, as Golomb makes clear, Nietzsche perceived a serious threat—ostensibly to culture—lurking within all such ‘metaphysical’ or ‘transcendent’ illusions. But perhaps we get closer to the actual truth of the matter when we say that the real threat posed by this impersonal, transcendent ‘poppycock’ was to the isolated, ambitious, frighteningly clever ego that went by the name of ‘Friedrich Nietzsche.’ Let’s face it: the kinds of persons that Nietzsche dreamed of when he imagined ‘commanders and legislators’ of a ‘healthy’ culture were persons like him: thoroughly ‘this-worldly,’ authentically self-created individuals who had, like him, successfully uprooted and dispensed with all such vitiating metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. Out with the perennial wisdom and in with the will to power of ultra-sophisticated Supermen! As he seems to have seen things, it is only with the courageous relinquishment of all such ‘false comfort’—as metaphysics and religion offer to the credulous and the weak—that one becomes fully human. And for Nietzsche, this achievement of full human development appears to be the absolute most that can be aspired to by humans. This is the non plus ultra. There is no beyond. Apparently, he finds it inconceivable that a Paul, an Origen, a Tertullian, or an Augustine might evince almost superhuman courage in remaining true to their ‘metaphysical’ vocations.

The careful reader will have noticed a subtle but discernible problem at the very root of Nietzsche’s teaching: If the metaphysical (or, if you prefer, ‘religious/spiritual’) need—unlike our ‘needs’ for food, water, shelter, sex, love and attention—has no real object to gratify it, how and why did it grow into such a potent and universally evident psychic factor in the lives of both ordinary and extraordinary human beings? Surely, we are entitled to speak here of something like a religious or spiritual ‘instinct,’ are we not—given the nearly ubiquitous occurrence of this yearning for something beyond the mundane realm of personal and merely human experience. Certainly the other instincts (survival, sexual, aggressive, acquisitive, etc.) can be tamed or repressed—but they do not, so long as we have bodies, simply disappear. And even when they are fiercely repressed, ignored, despised, and vilified by us, does this thereby make us more fully human? Hardly. Nietzsche, interestingly enough, will be the first to agree with us here. But, if our metaphysical need also turns out to be a fundamental human drive (as Jung, incidentally, acknowledges) then how does its disparagement and repression in any way make us—or a culture founded upon such denial—more fully human, and presumably better than a culture which moderately allows for the exercise and expression of that innate drive or instinct?

So, my question is ‘why—if he was such an extraordinary philosopher and arch-psychologist—was Nietzsche unable to see these fairly obvious things that far more modest intellects readily acknowledge?’ What made him either so stubborn or so willfully ignorant—in the face of so much universal, ancient and modern counter-evidence—that he relegated metaphysics, religion, and the need associated with them to the realm of pernicious nonsense? What brazen audacity! Or was it a kind of blindness that is unforgivable in a philosopher—a comprehensive man?

As an amateur psychologist (who makes far less sweeping claims about my importance than Herr Nietzsche regularly indulged in), I locate the source of his blindness concerning these matters to ‘religious trauma.’ Nowadays we have little difficulty getting our minds around cases of sexual dysfunction, PTSD, eating disorders, and other stubborn neuroses that stem from early trauma or deep disturbances in these arenas of experience. When Nietzsche’s early and extraordinarily pious life is carefully analyzed, my suggestion of a traumatic disappointment (by the no longer credible teachings and promised rewards of Christianity) should not be difficult to entertain. Roughly speaking, the vehemence and scope of Nietzsche’s protracted attack upon Christianity (and, by a kind of wholesale extension, upon all ‘transcendent’ claims or dogmas) are directly proportionate to the depth of his traumatic disappointment by a creed to which he had unreservedly assented as a youth! No siree! He would never again allow himself to be ‘fooled,’ by God!

Now, admittedly, Christianity has much to answer for—and Nietzsche was unsparing in his efforts to unearth and expose every ‘un-Christian’ impulse or motive hiding in its founders, its followers, and its scriptures—but it was precipitate of him, to say the least, to place all religions and metaphysical teachings on a par with dogmatic, ecclesiastical Christianity! Many of his criticisms are both trenchant and perfectly valid. His analyses of ressentiment and the will to power masked behind the ascetic ideal are profound and justly excoriating. But all these pluses don’t quite exculpate him from the colossal minus of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The baby, here, of course, is the ‘transcendent’ (and the human instinct/need associated with it).

It should always be remembered that, in fact, there is no metaphysical consolation for the personal ego—qua ego—since what is being ‘transcended’ is precisely the ego-perspective with all its various attachments, hopes, plans, desires, etc. It would not be exaggerating to say that the transcendent lives through the death of the ego—and the comforting fiction of ‘personal identity’ might very well be purchased at the cost of impersonal, transcendent (‘selfless’) awareness. On which side did Nietzsche stake his life savings? Those who talk about personal immortality and of pleasures or pains in the afterlife are erroneously reducing the impersonal transcendent to familiar, personal-earthly terms—and should perhaps be indulgently regarded as spiritual infants who have no actual experience of the transcendent.

Interestingly, I detect much the same species of fanatical immoderation in Nietzsche’s anti-Christianism as I detect in Paul’s one-sided insistence upon anti-worldly, Christian principles of action and belief. Do either display true wisdom, which would appear to be informed with noble moderation and a subtle flexibility that takes the bi-polarity of all manifestation always into account? Two wrongs do not make a right—but they do cancel each other out! The war between Paul and Nietzsche is, in effect, a brothers’ war. Extraordinary brothers, to be sure, but not so indispensable as to leave the world irremediably crippled with their mutual nullification! The rest of us who opt for the middle path—the path of balance and harmony—will fare all the better beyond the histrionics of such wounded noisemakers! Henceforth, all vehement Christians and anti-Christians must be taken cum grano salis.

Am I a Pessimist? (8/20/15)

Am I a pessimist? Do I view the world as ‘fallen’ and ordinary human experience as suspect and untrustworthy? Allow me to address these decisive questions by placing them within the context of Plato’s allegory of the cave. It is true that I equate the world of ordinary, common human experience with the shadows of artificial things—seemingly ‘life-like,’ but ultimately soulless projections upon the wall of the prison-cave. As far as this realm of experience is concerned, I am deeply mistrustful and suspicious. I regard those persons who have adapted themselves exclusively to this inferior and unreliable level of consciousness as deluded and unfree prisoners of perceptions and dogmatic beliefs—beliefs that must be dismantled and dispensed with before deeper understanding is possible. To the limited extent that I have freed my own understanding from the powerful—and potentially suffocating—grip of these ‘normative’ ideas and beliefs, I find myself alienated from the innocently unwitting prisoners around me. I call them ‘unwitting’ because they are essentially content with the ordinary, superficial collective consciousness of the cave. It would seem that unless and until we grow deeply discontent with our inherited, conventional modern bearings, assumptions, and norms, we are not likely to undertake the arduous, protracted labor of transcending them. The alienation that I speak of may be compared to the alienation we feel in the presence of a friend or acquaintance who is heavily intoxicated and has been transformed into someone who is clearly ‘not himself.’ Or it is like the estrangement and uneasiness we feel around a parent or partner who has succumbed to paranoid schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s.

If we are to continue interacting with such impaired or ‘altered’ persons we are obliged to humor them or adjust our words and gestures so as to conform with their very different—and more limited—mode of seeing and making sense of things. They cannot come to us, so—if there is to be any bridge between us at all—we must find a way to come to them. At the mundane level of experience, this benevolent ‘condescension’ is displayed every day by parents with their children, professors with their pupils, gurus with their disciples, shrinkers with their shrinkees, etc., in their sincere and generous attempts to reach them where they are so that they can be inspired to see beyond their more limited horizons.

So, to return to my initial question: I see little real value and importance to be extracted from the ‘fallen’ world of ordinary (benighted) experience wherein the generality, now as ever, is mentally embedded and imprisoned. On the other hand, I continually find pearls of great price at the subtler and deeper level of rich inner experience that is always accessible beneath this ‘literal’ surface upon which the monstrous and crowd-commanding shadows are ceaselessly projected.

Weighty Decisions at a Perilous Pass (3/23/16)

More often than not, the people who complain the loudest and the most about the limitations of rational thought as a vehicle for expressing and conveying spiritual, philosophical, and psychological insights simply have not mastered the use of their own intellects.  It is almost always a case of ‘sour grapes’—loutishly and disingenuously dismissing the intellect because its proper (if admittedly limited) use is beyond their reach—rather than a measured assessment by a qualified practitioner.  Strident anti-intellectuals are usually like those fuddy-duddies of my youth who railed against the ‘new math’ or those who whined about even the most user-friendly software simply because a modicum of effort was required to master it properly.  These are often the same persons who cannot be bothered to read a Facebook post that contains more than 75 words.  ‘tl;dr.”  No doubt, this essay has already scared off 90% of its intended audience because of its overwhelming size, so I’m left preaching to the converted.

Having thus weeded out or ticked off my targeted readers (with my ‘flustering’ observations and my ‘excessive wordiness’), please allow me to shift gears and regale the still curious lingerers with a few private observations about the anti-intellectual peculiarities of our sick (and highly contagious) ‘anti-culture.’  I would argue that in much the same way that both houses of the U.S. Congress have been bought by—and now, for the most part, are owned by—corporate and financial interests, the intellects of the vast majority of my countrymen have been reduced to serving and implementing (rather than analyzing, understanding, and mastering) their selfish appetites and their narrowly material-egoistic interests.  And just as our so-called ‘legislative’ body has venally prostituted itself, for years, thrusting enormous power and unimaginable wealth into the insatiable hands of a treacherous oligarchy that views the rest of us with horror and contempt—while almost monolithically blocking measures and proposed regulations that would actually benefit the ‘body politic’ as a whole—the loutishly anti-intellectual ‘collective mind’ of America is chiefly responsible for the profound cultural sickness we all wake up to each day.  We continue to infect each other and our innocent children with this raging epidemic of ‘unreflective willfulness.’  The epidemic is us writ large.

As soon as the lowest and narrowest form of thinking (calculated self-interest or mere expediency) is elevated to the highest norm and standard among ruling elites within a society or culture, the end is henceforth plainly in sight—although a slow dénouement can drag out the misery to unforeseeable lengths.  This reductive and debasing form of thinking goes by the name of ‘pragmatic’ or ‘instrumental’ reasoning.  It is contrasted with ‘speculative’ or ‘philosophical’ reason, which is more preoccupied with ends (and with the whole) than with mere means, the sole concern of aptly named ‘instrumental’ reason.

The big lie about the intellect is that its full and proper development chiefly involves intellectual exertion, when in fact it more truly involves an arousal of the courageous moral will—at least when it comes to speculative or philosophical thinking about the whole.  The resistances that most blinkered anti-intellectuals are up against are not so much intellectual as they are moral and psychological.  The intellect is quite capable, as it turns out, of clearly grasping that which the moral will permits it to acknowledge.  But so long as the will is opposed to seeing or acknowledging something—for whatever reason—the intellect will remain blind and crippled (rather as the U.S. Congress and Senate have remained blind and crippling whenever presented with legislation that is actually good for the needy whole and not just for the greedy part).

Of course there is sublimely mordant irony in the fact that the greedy few have exploited every conceivable devious stratagem to get the foolish many (who, these days, are often just as narrowly and dogmatically self-interested as the demagogic wizards who manipulate and bamboozle them) to vote against their own true interests!  But again, if we closely examine the moral characters of these dupes for fascistic and corporate demagoguery/propaganda, we see that their intellects are obstinately closed precisely where their corrupt and cowardly moral wills are loath to look in the mirror.  Many of these same moral simpletons and cowards—who love nothing more, of course, than to blame and demonize some targeted scapegoat-group or another for all the problems in the world—are highly functional worker-bees whose thinking abilities are admirably sharp and sound when it comes to their little area of expertise or in the management of their mundane affairs.  But their intellects are adept only to the extent that they have succeeded in breaking free from the gravitational field of that ‘dark planet’—the powerful vortex of fear, lust, hatred, acquisitiveness, racism, envy, and/or anxiety that routinely seizes (and freezes) their intellects.

One of the principal virtues of philosophical—as opposed to merely pragmatic or instrumental—thinking is that, rather than aggrandizing or inflating personal power and importance, it is always opening up the mind and soul to the larger whole of which the individual ego is but an infinitesimally small and insignificant part.  It is precisely the humbling and sobering impact that philosophical thinking has upon the personal or egoistic will that prevents philosophy from ever becoming a popular pursuit!  And yet, from time to time, in the course of human affairs, its bitter but healing medicine is exactly what we most need to if we are just barely to escape a collective debacle, the likes of which the world has never seen.  The question is whether our foolish and puffed-up species is willing to take its medicine—or continue fiddling while the New Rome devours everything in its fiery wake.

On Freedom: Felt, Actual, Absolute and Relative (3/21/16)

To what extent is ‘Paul’—and the ‘world’ that is correlative with that ‘Paul’—governed by habits, patterns, and mental structures over which I have some measure of control?

Clearly, there is something within our inherited psychic constitution that is akin to a tabula rasa—or blank slate—upon which our early ‘formative’ experiences and our educations etch out patterns which, if left to themselves, soon become governing structures at work behind our thinking, feeling, and behavior. When these acquired patterns and governing structures happen to be well adapted to our local environment—allowing us to function smoothly and harmoniously within our ‘little world’—we are seldom presented with powerful incentives to modify or experiment with those acquired patterns and regularly reinforced habits. Because of the close alignment between our psychic structures and the established ‘terms and conditions’ of our environment—and because of the ease and fluency with which we are able to function and interact with our little world—we are practically assured of feeling free and unencumbered. Because our conscious adaptation to the given conditions is nearly perfect, there are few, if any, impediments obstructing the ‘flow’ of our psychic energy.

Our feeling of freedom is indisputable even if we come to acknowledge the fact that this ‘freedom’ is confined within the limits of the governing habits and structures that define the horizons of our inner and outer ‘worlds’ of experience. As soon as either side of this ‘existential equation’ changes, we will immediately begin to feel less free, simply because these changes disturb the former harmony and symmetry between ‘inside’ and ‘out.’ Paradoxically, it is precisely such disturbances and disruptions that usher in the possibility of an actual (as opposed to merely felt) enhancement of freedom—freedom, that is, from complacent, passive confinement to those patterns of thought and behavior that kept us comfortably ensconced in the script that was shoved into our tiny hands at birth.

*****

It would appear to be true that all structures—insofar as they are stably defined, formal constructs or regular patterns—restrict, to some extent, the freedom of those who obey or depend upon them. Pure freedom, then—strictly speaking—implies the transcendence of, or liberation from, all limiting structures and defining patterns. Even the category (or reified concept) of being can be seen as limiting from this speculative perspective, if only because the idea of entity-hood cannot be posited without simultaneously hypostatizing its antithesis: ‘non-existence’ (which ‘foils’ or lies beyond the circumference of being). These musings may sound like mere word-play to some ears, but others will see the value of noting the tension (or logical incommensurability) that exists between all defining structures (of any sort—natural, imaginative, conceptual, moral, etc.) and radical freedom. May we thus agree that, as entities, our freedom can only be relative and never absolute, for reasons merely touched upon here?

Secondly, since freedom is something that is experienced—known or felt—and since experience presupposes consciousness, if follows that there can be no experience of freedom where there is no consciousness. By definition, then, inanimate objects cannot feel or know freedom. If, moreover, to be is to be aware or to be conscious, then freedom pertains only to conscious entities—and, as we’ve seen, only to a relative degree. If the degree of one’s being-ness turns out to be proportionate to the depth and extensiveness of his consciousness, then it would follow that the scope of his freedom will be proportionate to the range and depth of his consciousness and his being-ness.

I would further observe that the sort of freedom I refer to here is ‘freedom from’ (mental impediments and limiting patterns/habits) rather than ‘freedom to’ (gratify one’s cravings, desires, and impulses). A sizable part of what the (relatively) free man is free from would appear to be those practically ubiquitous desires, fears, cravings, and anxieties that hold the un-free in bondage.

*****

The very notion of ‘absolute freedom’—like that of ‘absolute (formless) awareness’—may be regarded as a self-canceling notion or one that points to something that is no-thing. Here, in speaking about absolute freedom and absolute awareness, we are referring to the utterly transcendent, since all that remains after mind and consciousness are shed is mere awareness, not of any forms or objects, but of itself only. The symbol of the Ouroboros, the serpent swallowing its own tail, points to this non-dual, mysterious essence out of which time, space, and mind are spawned: the womb from which all forms emerge as well as the tomb back into which these same forms return after they have served their time. Anaximander’s famous ‘fragment’ articulated this supremely intuitive idea 2600 years ago in Ionia: Whence things have their origin, thence also their destruction happens, as is the order of things; For they execute the sentence upon one another—the condemnation for the crime—in conformity with the ordinance of Time.

*****

Now, as sure as I am sitting here on my bench, writing in front of the Rothko Chapel, there are readers who—if they’ve followed me this far—are saying to themselves, ‘What he’s talking about is over my head. I can’t wrap my mind around such crazy ideas.’ To such remarks I will say once again what I have said dozens of times elsewhere: these ideas, while they may be abstract, are nevertheless simple and accurate descriptions of the writer’s experiences—experiences which are no less real than waking up in the morning, eating a hamburger, making love, or reading a book. What presents difficulties for these readers is not so much my choice of words or the way I describe my inner experience. The obstacle for the reader lies not in his/her intellect. The barrier lies in the will, or in the affects. What do I mean by this?

The will operates like a sphincter or valve that closes as soon as our soul senses something it doesn’t feel ready for—or comfortable/familiar with. This will-governed valve often operates below the threshold of consciousness, effectively blocking out things we are not ready or willing to see. It may be simple fear that is at work behind our censoring of the shunned content, or it may be that it doesn’t agree with our desires and preferences. It may get blocked simply because it presents challenges or inconveniences that we are simply too lazy or too indifferent to deal with. But if and when the will relents and gives it assent, we find that the previously ‘difficult’ idea or person suddenly makes perfectly good sense. It was never a problem with the intellect. It was always just as easy to grasp, cognitively, as it is now—the only difference being the lifting of the ban by the formerly resistant will.

Socrates is reported to have said, ‘To philosophize is to learn to die.’ What I believe he meant by this is that the genuine philosopher has learned how to view life from the (hypothetical or imagined) standpoint of death, as if he were a visiting shade from Hades, the underworld. To view life from the perspective of death is, among other things, to view it without desire or fear. The dead can no longer gratify the desires that drove them when they were alive, so the desires themselves begin to wither and die. They no longer have anything to fear, since the worst is behind them, and no more suffering or harm lies in store.

To the extent that our vision of life can be liberated from desire, fear, and other powerful affects, our will—becoming serene, neutral, and quiet—ceases to cloud and obstruct the mind with its deforming, distorting influence. The mind, thus released from its enslavement by the will, becomes a cleansed mirror capable, at long last, of accurately and wholly reflecting that which was always before it, simply waiting to be acknowledged. The desires and affects that energize the will act like a gravitational field, attracting all manner of light-obstructing particles and debris that accumulate on the mirror-surface of the mind. Before these thick sediments and accretions can be removed, two things must first occur. First, the desires and affects must be significantly reduced in their intensity so that the gravitational field gradually weakens. Then, for a purgative period, the centripetal pull must be reversed, so that the shattered accretions are scattered by centrifugal force. Thus, the polarity of the affects is psychically inverted so that desire turns into aversion while fear is transformed into love. After this temporary ‘conversion’ of the affects, a truly neutral condition of detached equanimity eventually takes root and the mind begins to reflect reality without bias or distortion. Thus, a kind of inversion of the vehement passions precedes the establishment of a divinely dispassionate state of equipoise.

From the standpoint of those who are still enslaved to their passions, this serenely balanced state looks like a kind of death—since it is unmoved and undisturbed by the promptings that move the ‘impassioned’ like pawns on a chessboard. And, of course, from the standpoint of the freed-up, clarified mind, the slaves of passion and appetite appear to be unawakened, blind prisoners.