On how my Self-Education has stamped my Writing and Thinking (9/09)

What follows will no doubt sound like a bizarre confession. It pertains to my style of expressing ideas that are potentially disturbing to ‘uninitiated,’ innocent minds. Because of the ‘from the ground up’ character of my spiritual and psychological education, I feel entitled (for reasons I cannot easily or adequately articulate) to speak with a degree of bluntness about delicate issues that are usually treated with greater caution, delicacy, or flat-out avoidance by thinkers who either regard themselves as having descended from an elite pedigree or who have in fact been groomed and polished within the cultivated ranks, with all the advantages and prerogatives that come with that privileged (and, if genuine, invariably earned) descent.

My case bears a faint resemblance to that of Rousseau in the sense that I am almost entirely self-educated, with respect to formal schooling. But why, it will be asked, should this designation as autodidactic thinker and writer induce (or even oblige) me to speak more candidly and baldly than those who were ‘to the manor born’? Is it perhaps because I feel that my own efforts—as well as my own findings—are somehow less hampered by uninviting academic conventions, off-putting terminology, and constraints? Does my having eluded, to a great extent, these guiding, formative influences allow for a certain natural cohesion in my thinking that compensates for my lack of scholarly erudition and my indifference to the strict guidelines of academic publications? If my thinking and writing do benefit in any noticeable way from my autodidacticism, I would say that they possess the virtue of having grown slowly and undisturbedly from a strong single root: that root is my natural curiosity concerning the origins and interconnections of cultural phenomena—ideas, values, works of art and faith—with my own personality providing the soil and vessel in which these cultural seeds have been planted and in which they continue to grow.

What I do not feel—or feel very strongly—is some obligation to simplify or prettify what I uncover for the minds and hearts of readers who perhaps have not struggled so uninterruptedly to get closer to the bottom of these things. I do not hold the belief (which seems to be cherished by most members of the intellectual priesthood or academic elite) that such hard-won truths should remain guild secrets, and that they should remain hidden from that segment of the public that possesses a modicum of leisure, education, and freedom from the ignorance and compulsion that generally afflicts the poor and semi-literate masses who are ruled for the most part by necessity and external authority. Our disturbed and unexplored psyches may have brought us to the brink of cultural meltdown, and I would argue that it will only be through improved understanding of the psyche that we stand a chance of avoiding a collective slide over that fateful brink.

Because my cultural-philosophical education was not provided in top-notch, ready-made form by celebrated professors at elite private schools and the best universities, but has been carried out largely by my own lights and through my own efforts, I have emerged from this lengthy (and ongoing) process of self-education with a different attitude towards learning than my more formally educated brethren display—especially those who, from youth onwards, have been groomed within the preeminent schools and universities.

I find it difficult, for instance, to write and think very deeply or imaginatively about topics, events, persons, and ideas that do not resonate in some direct way with my innermost nature. This is not to suggest for a moment that such topics, events, persons, and ideas are not worthy of serious concern or attention—just not from me, for I would certainly not be able to do them proper justice—and give them their due. No doubt, the array of particular themes I feel suited by nature to explore is thus limited in ways that would unduly constrain a successful professional journalist or career writer (who is not a mere specialist). Nevertheless, I take some comfort in the fact that my writing and thinking seldom ring false since they emerge, spontaneously, from the roots of my personality. I may be perceived as a deluded fool or an alarmist; I may appear to be preoccupied (or obsessed) with the same handful of linked questions, but I don’t think it can be claimed with any justice that my writing and my thinking are not authentically expressive of my inner and outer experience.

I don’t presume to speak for others—or to be conveying any universally binding truths or moral principles in my writings—but this has never been my aim. My aim is similar, I believe, to that of other essayists who have preceded me—and in whose giant footsteps I modestly follow. I’m thinking chiefly of Montaigne and to a lesser extent of Emerson (where the truly grand and the slightly grandiloquent sometimes become blended and confused). I am thinking of the ‘confessions’ of self-examiners like Augustine and Rousseau, La Rochefoucauld and Nietzsche—persons who struggled—often stumbling along the way—towards some kind of honest and penetrating testimony about life from where they stood—or where they were swimming, falling, dancing, warring, pleading, drowning, convulsing, etc.

 

On the Childlike in Love (4/02-Tanah Rata, Malaysia)

The thought sprang to mind this morning, as I awakened, that my own need for love in my ‘romantic’ relationships is very closely bound up with a strong, recurring desire I have to recover my innocence, the unmolested joy of my early childhood—in two words, my blissful ignorance. I seek to return, atavistically, to a former condition wherein I was as yet unaware of the problems, the dangers, the anxieties and responsibilities with which I am confronted each day as a self-conscious, thinking adult. In my romantic love fantasy I seek a soothing balm against this corrosive knowledge, against the very sobering insights I’ve worked so strenuously to unearth and seize for myself.

It is almost like a longing for return to the Garden—before the Fall, before having tasted the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Of course, one revisits and re-awakens the tender and delicate realm of childhood innocence at considerable risk, since the thin, sensitive skin of the exposed heart cannot easily endure the cold, biting winds which blow and beat so mercilessly against the thick-skinned man of public affairs or the delving, dauntless, authentic psychologist. In romance, spurred on by the sometimes ravenous hunger for the childlike, the lyrical, and for that exquisite and utterly exclusive private intimacy savored by new lovers, we are invited to remove our armor and disarm our skeptical mistrust—and to believe again.

It may be wondered why such love should require the props and buttresses of belief. For one schooled by past disappointments and all-too-frequent glimpses into the fragility and the fickleness of human beings (myself included), it becomes increasingly difficult to regard belief as a substantive or affirmative state. Instead, it may be better described as a tentative and easily reversible suspension of a much deeper, fundamental mistrust. Such ‘belief’ is but a temporary, dreamlike relaxation of one’s painfully and laboriously earned perspective of suspicion, of piercing doubt, and wary detachment. In this sense, ‘belief’ amounts almost to self-contradiction—if not self-betrayal—since the lion’s share of one’s former misfortunes have branded this acquired mistrust into one’s very flesh. But then, I have already said that my craving for this romance which requires belief to support and encourage it is prompted at an even deeper level by the hunger for escape from myself—from the icy loneliness engendered by those hard truths for which the philosopher and psychologist has sacrificed so much ‘innocent’ joy, renounced so many sweet dreams and consoling lies.

I recognize a discernible pattern in my erotic-romantic history. I observe a strange dialectic, the point and counterpoint hidden within the movements, back and forth, between my strenuous labors in the cold depths, on the one hand, and the promised warmth and sweetness found in the arms of a lover, on the other. If, while cooing and kissing with my newfound lover, I am occasionally startled by the jarring declension of my accustomed, ‘ponderous’ discourse into mawkish baby-talk, my pride seems nevertheless willing to endure a bit of mortification just so long as I continue to be accosted with carnal and celestial caresses from my current sweetheart.

The question naturally arises: am I doomed to continue swinging, like a goose in a noose, between these two apparently opposed worlds of warm love and tender childishness, on the one hand, and cold, lonely psychological investigations, on the other? Are the two pursuits mutually exclusive—to the point where one simply cannot loyally (and un-hypocritically) serve the one without eschewing or forfeiting the other? And don’t they both ultimately seem to be despotic in their demands upon my soul, once I have been re-conscripted into their service? Is it possible here to envision—or better, to discover—a continuum between these two seemingly antithetical poles, so that a path, however precarious and steep, may be found between them—an unbroken path—and not, as it seems today, an abyss yawning between them—a deep crevasse over which I am periodically compelled to leap?

After further reflecting upon this problem, I am now inclined to see something suspicious on both sides of this ‘antithesis.’ On the ‘love’ and ‘innocent bliss’ side I suspect that there is a good deal more infantilism and selfishness than there is genuine love—for authentic love is always inclined to think first of what is good for the beloved, and only later of what we want or demand from the beloved. Romantic intoxication, which always has something youthful and ‘foolish’ about it, is perhaps better described as a temporary condition of delighted mutual exploitation than as ‘love,’ as any honest ‘victim/predator’ who has been down this path will admit (after a few belts of Scotch whiskey). And on the other side? I suspect that any philosophical or psychological quest that involves such a stark and spartan diet of isolation, coldness, hardness, darkness, and ascetic aloofness towards the claims of the flesh and the heart cannot, of itself, bring us to wholeness and true wisdom. It is one thing to have to pass through such regions of icy, dark isolation from time to time if we are to gain the wisdom and courage required to stand alone with ourselves (without going mad)—but it is another thing, altogether, to wallow or revel in such inhospitable and uninhabited zones, for in a real sense one eventually becomes merged, almost indistinguishably, with the contexts or the psychological regions he chronically inhabits.

Tattoo Parlours and Surface Tension (3/16)

Given the fact that virtually all the (generally crappy) furniture in our minds has been acquired from our local or national (film-TV-internet) ‘culture,’ it should come as no surprise that we seldom or never think, feel, or do anything sparklingly novel, original, or unanticipated.  The native language we speak—in the very terms of which we clothe or formulate our thoughts; the customs of socially acceptable (or legal) behavior; the procedures we follow in the performance of our jobs and daily tasks; the way we attract and court mate prospects—practically all of these formal and structural patterns, routines, and materials are acquired from the outside—given to us during the course of our ongoing education as adaptive, mimetic creatures.  In every sense of the word, these inherited structures, patterns, conventions, rules, and materials are ‘pre-scripted’—and, as we internalize and enact them we are being ‘con-scripted.’  The structures and materials are prescribed and our souls, hearts, minds, and bodies are being in-scribed.  They are being ‘written’ or etched into us.  And it is not uncommon for many of us to feel elated and proud of our ‘accomplishment’ after we have submitted to this drawn-out, fate-shaping ordeal of having every square inch of the surface area of our souls indelibly tattooed with textual material produced and sold, for the most part, by distant strangers.

These ‘tattoo artists’—the original designers or poet-authors of the textual material that will eventually be injected or burnt into the epidermis of our shallow-obedient young souls by (often equally) shallow-obedient, unquestioning mediocrities commonly referred to as ‘parents,’ ‘teachers,’ ‘preachers,’ ‘leaders,’ and ‘celebrities’—are, in most cases, long since dead and gone.  But if alive, they are not uncommonly contemptuous of the spineless, obliging passivity with which we, the generality, are superficially inscribed by watered-down versions of their originally pungent thoughts and challenging aims.  Are we deserving of their contempt?  Are we not dropped—as innocent babes—right into this gigantic, 24-hour tattoo parlour of a world, surrounded on every side by enthusiastic, tattoo-gun-slinging, rapacious rivals for every unclaimed patch of our unstained flesh—into which they seek to plunge their inky-stinky proboscides?

Do we really want to remove these tattoos—assuming such a feat is possible?  Perhaps some of the more unsightly or embarrassing ones (that we got while we were drunk on love-passion, ‘high’ on Jesus or ‘possessed’ by the devil), but a far more worthwhile and consequential move is simply to descend deep beneath that epidermis where the tattoos are imprinted—and learn to navigate in the subcutaneous regions below.  Here, the superficiality and relative insignificance of much of our ‘imprinting’ can readily be seen.  Merely seeing the imprinting for what it is often suffices to loosen its tenacious grip upon us.  We may not yet know our way around in the as-yet unexplored depths—beneath the etched-out surface of our ‘outer lives,’ but at least we have found a viable alternative to servitude to the surface world of automatic, habitual forms of thought, feeling, and behavior.

So, we see that the problem is not so much what’s on the surface, but how to get below that surface and move with greater ease and assurance in those unpopulated depths.  Those among our friends and family who refuse—either from fear or inability—to accompany us as we dive into those hidden, murky depths will inevitably be reevaluated in the ‘dark light’ accessed through our repeated delving and probing.  Long acquaintance with these sub-surface regions of psychic experience results, in most cases, in the development of a kind of X-ray vision where surface phenomena are concerned.  Those endowed with this flesh-and-muscle-penetrating vision must learn an entirely new code of etiquette.  Surface-dwellers, as a rule, do not take kindly to having their skeletons, sclerotic organs, and other private parts exposed—even to those closest to them, let alone strangers whose intentions are unknown to them.

Thus, it is often the case that the possessors of this surface-piercing vision are sensed to be vaguely menacing or disturbing by the throngs of surface-skimmers darting and flitting about around them.  An indiscreetly uttered comment or piercing psychological observation that betrays his ability to read and decipher hidden agendas or ulterior motives is enough to scatter a crowd of ‘water-bugs’ who rely on the magic of ‘surface tension’ to avoid being swallowed up and drowned, from one moment to the next.  Certain words and phrases disrupt that precarious surface tension, so the denizen of the sub-surface realm must learn to respect the cherished superficiality and mental shallowness of those who are either unready or unwilling to leave the busy, familiar, tattooed surface of human affairs.  He must learn and come to accept the deep truth that most persons will always greatly prefer to lose themselves, daily, in surface-level activities, duties, and amusements.  One might even draw the sobering conclusion that 99% of surface activity is really no more than a thinly veiled means of avoiding the depths at all costs!

If we fancifully liken this surface level to a screen in a movie theater, the surface dwellers are like persons who go up to the screen and attempt to touch, talk to, fight, and even couple with the cinematic figures that are being projected onto the screen.  It’s all pretty sad and pathetic, once we begin to see this delusional behavior for what it truly is.

If Jesus or the Buddha could see what is currently done in their names—and not merely by the falsehearted frauds, but by many sincere believers—we can only wonder if, given the choice, they would ‘do it all over again.’  Would they decide, instead, to refrain from ‘going public’ with teachings that were doomed to be deformed and debased by surface-dwellers?  And why was that deformation inevitable?  Simply because translating their teachings into the terms of vulgar apprehension is like trying to render three- or four-dimensional objects in two- or one-dimensional terms?  Practically everything substantial or important is lost or sacrificed in ‘translating’ a sphere into a circle on a plane.

“Have I Missed my Boat?” (or, “What Happened to my Acorn?”) (9/09)

(1)

At times I am captivated by dizzying anticipations of a far more incandescent and electrically charged existence—an existence that seems to have been within my reach, but one that I have mysteriously shied away from, practically run from. The truth is, I have never looked all that deeply and unflinchingly into this ticklish question. I am dimly aware, nonetheless, of an array of inhibitions that stand between me and this fiery, luminous existence from which I appear to have opted out.

I am left with the rather damning conviction that I have fallen short of fulfilling some promise—of untying and emptying a packet of golden potentials that was dropped into my cradle at birth. I sometimes have the dreadful sensation that I have ‘missed my life’—that I have somehow evaded my destiny. There is the vague sense that I should have been a major player in an arena I was supposed to enter but that somehow I got side-tracked. When I got off this path I was intended to follow I began wandering around in territory and in the company of persons who have become increasingly alien to me—persons who, as it turns out, have never really been my spiritual kin, as I had innocently supposed. Because I am possessed of a resilient constitution, spiritually, I have been able to abide this prolonged ordeal of being alone and of having quite possibly missed my boat.

Strangely enough, my will has not been broken by these perceived misfortunes. Nor has it become tainted with rancor, resentment, or self-loathing—although I am certainly no stranger to these and other potentially crippling and deforming affects. A curious factor of my muted (or repressed?) ambition is a vexing suspicion that I might become a victim of my success, were I to attain some sort of renown or notoriety. By this I mean that I suffer from recurring doubts respecting my powers of self-control if I were faced with the various temptations that might come with worldly renown and success. Interesting and attractive women, refined pleasures, prestige, and other allurements would suddenly be within my grasp. They might enchant and overwhelm me and then I would really despise myself. Or, so my fear-fantasy goes.

The reason I just offered for my shying away from a path that could lead to recognized power among or even over others—to fame and wealth—is perhaps the shallowest and thinnest of them all, but worth mentioning on my way down into deeper issues which have chronically placed a check on my public and ‘worldly’ ambitions.

But before plunging into those issues, though, I want to continue with my examination of this ‘missed life’ that I spoke of. What am I really talking about here? I enjoy (or have contented myself with, depending on how one looks at it) a comparatively quiet, leisurely, and private sort of existence—a life that is well removed from the limelight—a life which does not vie for the attention and approval of the general public. Up till now, the warm and lively interactions I have enjoyed with a handful of loyal friends has satisfied my moderate human need for close contact. And yet, lately I find myself caring less and less even about the attention and approval of these beloved, if imperfect (like myself), intimates.

The incandescent life I claim to have avoided would presumably have been a rather different sort of life than the modest, semi-reclusive one I actually live. It would have been a more highly visible and dynamically influential life—one thoroughly engaged in public affairs in one way or another. Perhaps most importantly, it would have been a life among kindred spirits and true peers. I would have been provided with potent alliances and formidable enemies—all of us, friend and foe alike, positioned rather like Greeks and Trojans on a lofty, well-observed battlefield. Such stature and public esteem befit my potentials, my inner worth and distinction—or, so I seem to believe. Why did I not pursue and rightfully claim such a life for myself if indeed it lay ever within my power to seize it for myself? Who in his right mind wouldn’t vigorously pursue the honors, the privileges, the pleasures, and the wealth that surely could have been amassed if that person was imbued with such promise and potential as I am here crediting myself with?

Can these questions be summarily answered with I was too lazy or I got sidetracked by personal problems that derailed me from the path of worldly success that I was predestined for? Or, adopting even more blunt honesty, mightn’t I humbly confess that in fact I have wound up precisely with the life I deserve, since these grand potentials and this superior innate worthiness have turned out not to be quite so grand or superior as I pompously imagined them to be? In short—am I not just one more deluded dreamer who consoles himself in his isolated impotence with fantasies of what things might have been like if he had only chosen a life career of worldly eminence and accomplishment—and diligently stuck with the program? Many persons are innately endowed with seeds which, when properly germinated and tended with care, will grow into the very sorts of success stories that I claim to have shied away from. But how many ‘acorns’ that fall to the earth wind up as tall, strong oaks?

What happened to my acorn? Was it defective in itself, or did it fall upon unsuitable soil—or upon a patch of earth where insufficient sunlight and water are to blame for a stunted growth? At this point I feel I must pause and introduce a paradox. When viewed through the lens of this fantasy of outward, worldly success and fulfillment, my own life—well into its 52nd year—seems rather ordinary and unspectacular. However, when viewed from the standpoint of inner growth and development, or psychological transformation, my life seems not only quite fortunate—successful, if you wish—but more or less where it’s supposed to be. Moreover, it is fortunate and where it should be, I want to suggest, precisely because I have made an ongoing effort to heed my ‘daimonic’ inner voice—a faintly audible and mysterious voice that has repeatedly warned me against the avid pursuit of conventional and worldly forms of pleasure, success, and security—those more or less easily attained desiderata which are relentlessly being pitched in a this culture. Consequently, these naturally occurring desires, where they have not been half-heartedly pursued, have remained comparatively suppressed or ignored in me. By the world’s—or conventional society’s—yardstick, this counsel by my ‘daimon’ is regarded as irrational and perhaps even ‘unhealthy.’ If you’ve got talent and energy, you develop that talent, you hone and perfect it, and you make your mark in the world. What this basically amounts to from one angle, of course, is ‘cashing in’ on that talent, which entails translating it into widely recognized currency: wealth, prestige or standing among one’s peers, privileges of every stripe, and so forth.

Within the past few years or so, I have begun to appreciate with increasing keenness what the daimon seems to have been up to all along—what lay behind these regularly recurring, gentle discouragements against cashing in my flickering inner light for a more or less steady stream of material, social, and sensual rewards. There has always been an acorn—and so far as I can tell, there are no insuperable defects with the acorn. Moreover, I would argue that the soil in which my acorn was planted—the peculiar circumstances and the ‘formative,’ defining experiences of my life—have been uncannily suited for the germination and nourishment of this slow-growing oak. But there is something very irregular indeed about my variety of oak, something that sets it apart from much of the surrounding flora. For, instead of growing up and out into the light of day, it does something quite peculiar. It appears to grow down and into the darkness of the unlit psyche.

This is my bent—and so far as I can remember, it always has been. I am natively inclined to perceive things invertedly, upside-down. Another way of saying this is that I tend ultimately to see all things, events, and persons symbolically, rather than personally or literally—and this is clearly not the normal way of seeing things, judging from the norms adhered to by most persons in my midst. If my way of seeing the world and my fellow humans is abnormal, then I suppose I must admit to being something of an anomaly—or (God forbid!) a freak.

Or perhaps not. Certainly my inverted, symbolic way of seeing may be starkly contrasted with the literalistic, matter-of-fact way of seeing that constitutes the norm in present-day America. Nevertheless, I sense that there are many persons who readily understand what I am talking about here and that what I’m describing in connection with my own experience applies to a large extent to them, as well. These persons may or may not have explored teachings (of a religious, philosophical, or psychological nature) that address these questions, but they nonetheless have a deep intuitive awareness of the significance of this inverted way of seeing, feeling, and evaluating. Perhaps without their being aware of it in precisely these terms, their ‘trees,’ like mine, are primarily growing inwards—into the unlit interior—and not outward into the common light of day. Moreover, because their inner-directed attention and concern flows against the prevailing current of our extraverted, object-fixated culture, not a few of these native ‘inverts’ may feel the need to downplay, conceal, and occasionally even oppose their natural inclinations, lest they be penalized in some way, or simply deemed ‘weirdos.’

Heraclitus told us that ‘Character is fate’—and the Greek word for fate is ‘daimon.’ These matters I’ve been examining in connection with the daimon (my inner guiding image, or ‘angel’) are felt by me to be intimately bound up with fate—my fate. And by fate I do not mean to emphasize the mundane particulars of my personal biography or the specific day-to-day events of my life—as if each of these were being relentlessly determined by an invisible governing hand. By fate I mean, rather, that seed or acorn (as James Hillman would say) that each of us carries within (or that carries us?)—and which has been there since (or possibly before) birth. It is the seed—peculiar to each of us—of the life intended for us, the life that the daimon wants to live through us. As I said earlier, we may or may not realize (or make manifest) the life we are intended by our daimon to live. We may only sense that daimon in the form of a deep yearning or strong calling but—for one reason or another—turn our will and our attention away from it. There may, in fact, be very good practical (or even moral) reasons or justifications for resisting our fate, but I do not think we can ever fully extinguish or erase it.

Jung writes: ‘In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted.’ I will not for a moment deny that I don’t momentarily freeze up in horror when I read this sobering passage from Jung. It provokes the unsettling suspicion that I may have in fact failed to embody my essential character and that much of my life has accordingly been misspent. Why is this? I have spoken above about my acorn being different from others—that my fate, when judged by collective standards, has been embodied as a kind of inversion of the ‘outwards and upwards’ mode of development that constitutes the norm in this day and age. If this is true, and I am where I’m supposed to be (and not where I’m not supposed to be), as I claimed, then why the occasional, haunting suspicion that I may have missed my boat? Am I merely attempting to put the best face—the most flattering interpretation—on an otherwise insignificant or humdrum life by dressing up my fate in these fetching, apologetic terms? If I am going to be completely honest with myself here, mustn’t I admit that I only have my own laziness, shyness, love of ease and privacy, to blame for what has, so far, turned out to be a rather ordinary outer life? Haven’t I simply contented myself with much, much less than I was capable of accomplishing? And don’t I now console myself and justify my lukewarm efforts by constantly reassuring myself that worldly success and renown are of no real value to a quiet, unassuming person like me? Aren’t there sour grapes lurking somewhere behind these justifications and excuses?

But, in the end, what does the question of worldly success and renown necessarily have to do with living one’s potentials—one’s fated task—to the fullest? Aren’t renown, recognition, and worldly rewards always of secondary or peripheral importance here? Isn’t full and thoroughly disciplined dedication to the work—one’s essential task or calling—the matter of supreme importance?

(2)

In the Iliad, τίμή (‘honor’) is not primarily an internal sense of self-respect, as tends to be the case with many persons today, but very much a tangible, publicly perceived good. When, at the beginning of the epic, the arrogant Agamemnon essentially confiscates Briseis, Achilles’ concubine (awarded by his fellow soldiers as an enviable prize deserving of his greatness in battle), he is in effect stealing some of Achilles’ precious τίμή. A good deal more than sexual jealousy is at work behind Achilles’ tears of outrage. His honor is what he lives (and will die young) for—and a sizable portion of that honor has just been forcibly snatched from him by a man he could easily trounce in single combat.

The quest for τίμή is a zero-sum game, insofar as any increase for one warrior means a decrease for the others. There is a finite supply, as it were, to go around. Achilles and all the other Greeks and Trojans understand this perfectly well. One cannot have too much of such a thing as τίμή —rather as some greedy persons perceive money or as reckless profligates regard sensual pleasures. Τίμή is a desirable possession that one may desire immoderately.

Or is it? There are not a few who see the Iliad itself as a great meditation on precisely this question, for at the very end of the work we recognize a significant moral lesson being learned by Achilles, the hero of the epic. His immoderate, hyper-inflated sense of τίμή has so thoroughly possessed him that he has dragged the body of the slain Hector behind his chariot around the walls of Troy. When the aged king Priam visits his tent, risking his own life to plead for the mangled corpse of his beloved son, we find Achilles mysteriously changed. Recalling to mind his own aged father, with Priam before him, Achilles is moved by compassion. He surrenders the slain hero to the king and provides a break in the battle so that a proper cremation ceremony may be celebrated in Hector’s honor.

If, by the end of the Iliad, moderation of the craving for τίμή has been introduced, the Passion of Christ goes much, much further in its radical ‘revisioning’ of honor. As an object of mockery and public abuse, Jesus is, in effect, stripped of the last shred of τίμή in its outward, concrete aspect. He has not been robbed of his concubine or of his just portion of the spoils of war. But neither has he been robbed of his dignity, which has become spiritualized and relocated entirely within him. This interiorization of Jesus’ worth and value is so complete and total that had Jesus balked or rebelled against the shameful abuses to his body and to his name, it would have been perceived as a lapse of, or blight against, his true dignity and honor. Jesus’ dignity is the inversion of ‘heroic’ τίμή, for Christ’s dignity is revealed in the all but complete indifference he shows towards the external signs and concrete forms that mattered so much to the Greeks—and to Jesus’ Roman tormentors.

If we take these two notable examples from our cultural past, we see that the Western tradition has been reckoning with this question for thousands of years—providing us with much food for thought and reflection. Is it possible that Nietzsche, in his excessive dismissal of Christianity (and all so-called ‘ascetic’ religions and moralities), somehow failed to fully recognize the enormous spiritual and psychological significance of this particular form of ‘otherworldliness’—this profound wariness towards the ‘honors’ and ‘pleasures’ and ‘powers’ of this world?

On Formulated Truths (6/09)

What we call ‘truth’ requires intelligible formulation if it is to be transmitted between thinkers, and formulations are made and refined by humans, obviously. Therefore, to the extent that ‘truth’ is humanly embodied by its formulations, to that extent it is fashioned by and for humans. It is not simply given to us—as a complete, absolute, and self-subsistent thing. If the ‘truth’ occasionally points beyond the human, it is nevertheless always framed in humanly accessible terms. Thus, when delivered unto us from the supersensible realm, ideas and intuitions cannot appear in our human minds without being instantly and thoroughly modified.

Moreover, if someone communicates what he calls a ‘truth’ to me, I must take his formulation and situate it within the intellectual, lexical, and experiential context that I have at my disposal. To the extent that my context differs from his, the ‘truth’ he communicates to me will receive a correspondingly different overall quality, a difference determined by the background against which it is set. No two contexts are identical, any more than two sets of fingerprints are. ‘Truth,’ insofar as it is apprehended within such contexts, varies more or less dramatically from age to age, culture to culture, person to person. Certainly there can be general points of resemblance between truths, but it is quite misleading, if not ridiculous, to speak of truth as absolute in character, as long as our formulations appear against and within mutable, evolving contexts or backgrounds—and as long as our imperfect minds and hearts are incapable of ingesting, digesting, and assimilating the comprehensive totality from which we have sprung as mental fragments or sparks.

The regularity of human (mental and affective) habits provides an effective counterbalance to the fluidity and relativism implicit in this notion of mutable or partial truths. Thus, we should be thankful for a conservative, conventional grounding that can serve as a deterrent against sliding continually into fragmented and incoherent forms of discourse. This is the naturally preservative virtue of half-truths—or ‘lies,’ as some humorless philosophers call them.

The Pendulum: a Parable

An anxious man was escorted into a vast gallery surging with other anxious people who were moving about beneath a colossal metal fixture that was swinging just above their heads. This enormous metal beam, which had a perpendicular segment at its base (making it resemble an upside down ‘T’), was hurtling at a considerable velocity toward the eastern wall of the enormous hall.

Everyone present had his or her attention riveted to the swinging beam. Half of them were chasing after it in terror, shouting: It is heading for the east wall. We must try and stop it with all our might before it slams into the wall and all is lost! The other half of them were running as fast as they could near the base and hopping onto it like persons trying to jump onto a moving railroad car, shouting—This is the train that leads into the future! Hurry and grab a seat or you’ll be left behind with those fools down there who are trying to stop it! Many curses and insults were hurled back and forth between the two opposed parties.

Then, the newcomer witnessed an even stranger event. The swinging beam was getting closer and closer to the east wall. Just as it came within a few feet of colliding, it suddenly reversed its direction, dashing all of those who’d been riding it into the wall. He also noticed that those who’d been chasing after it below also slammed into the wall. There were no casualties, but every one of the ‘riders’ and every one of the ‘stoppers’ was momentarily stunned by the mass collision. Now, all of them were lying near the wall, unconscious.

After a short time had passed, a few of them began to stir to consciousness—then, more and more of them. One of them, who’d been a ‘rider’ just prior, shouted—Look at that beam! It’s headed west. That’s the way of the future! Hurry up, find a way to hop on there or we’ll lose our grand opportunity! Many followed him. Then, another man, who’d been an enthusiastic ‘stopper’ just before the collision shouted—Pay no attention to that man! I have a powerful gut feeling that he’s talking dangerous nonsense! Follow me and let us chase that beam and try to stop it before it’s too late for all of us! The rest of them obediently followed him.

Then—having beheld this strange spectacle—the newcomer looked up at the huge beam, following the shaft with his eyes all the way up to its upper end, where he could see that it was suspended from a high rafter. It’s a pendulum!—he thought to himself. It’s a pendulum—and they don’t realize it! For a moment he felt the profoundest sense of relief, mingled with delight over the foolishness of this strange, pointless, circular ritual being enacted before him. Then, it dawned on him that he was utterly alone with his knowledge. A barely perceptible tremor of fear rippled through his heart, troubling his mind and re-awakening the mysterious anxiety he had felt earlier. A wild man with a crazed expression on his face ran up to him and screamed at the top of his lungs—What are you standing here for? Are you completely insane? Come at once and lend us a hand! We have to stop that thing! As soon as it collides with the west wall, we’re all done for! Hurry up, man! What…are you out of your mind?

For just a fleeting moment, the newcomer hesitated and refused to budge from his position in the center of the room, where he’d entered. Suddenly, however, the anxiety from before returned in full force. As if from outside his body, he watched himself chasing after the beam, riddled with fear, and shouting—We’ve got to stop it! Oh, if there’s a God in heaven—please help us stop it! And each syllable burst from his heart with the blind force of utter conviction.

A Meditation on Freedom (1/13)

(1)

We do not become genuinely free from a person, a habit, or an entire level of experience until our interest there has been more or less exhausted. Ultimately, interest is the tentacle of attachment that binds us to anyone, anything, any set of internal or external conditions. Interest is the magnet hidden within the core of our personality—that attractive, organizing force that ‘pulls together’ the necessary playing pieces required to get the game moving. The desire or interest that invisibly shapes and animates our personal life must be given an opportunity to play itself out. We tend to see everything through—or by means of—our dominant, value-and-meaning-bestowing interest. It cannot help but blind us—at least in part—to other possible interests, other possible ways of seeing and being in the world.

For many, a time comes when this guiding and sustaining interest begins to falter and limp. Because this core-level, animating desire has hitherto been holding our life together in its mysterious magnetic grip, this experience can feel like the waning and death of our personality. At the same time, however, there will often be a strangely welcome sense of release from those bonds of attachment that have chained us to our personal life trajectory—which may suddenly appear to be lamentably limited and almost dreamlike in its insubstantiality. This sense of limitedness and ghostlike insubstantiality is produced by the mysterious withdrawal of life-bestowing interest, or desire, which has played itself out upon the stage of our personal life. Because the magnetic field, once so strong and reliable, has been noticeably weakened, the various components of our inner and outer lives have little or no binding force to hold them firmly in place. Thus, there is an unsettling sense of dissolution, of disintegration, of falling apart. Because it is beyond our power to miraculously restore the interest level to its former intensity—and equally beyond our power to arbitrarily redirect it to some other truly deserving and inspiring object or aim—we are likely to feel diminished and devoid of vitality. It is difficult to suppress the suspicion that, in following our former, captivating interest, we were duped by life. Now that we are no longer captivated and sustained by our exhausted interest, we look back upon our former enthrallment as no more than an intoxicating spell or deceptive dream. It seems we were chasing after a mirage all those years and some deep thirst within us was never truly quenched by the mirage. All too often, when persons reach this disillusioned state they simply ‘make do’ with the reduced circumstances. They stoically resign themselves to their reduced state. They’ve been ‘licked’ and they icily or resentfully accept it. These unfortunate souls typically go to their graves as withered, vanquished vestiges of their former selves.

For some, however, the period of disillusionment, diminishment, and disintegration is eventually succeeded by a gradual rekindling of interest, but the interest now points in a very different direction. With the first stirrings of this new desire, the person is grateful but perhaps a bit confused. He is grateful for the resurgence of the waters of life, but confused about the peculiar direction in which these new springs of interest and longing flow. The old ways no longer make a strong or authentic appeal—but since they are all he has known, there is ambivalence and hesitation. By and by, however, a new magnetism that is part of this rebirth of desire begins to attract precisely those thoughts, images, books, and persons who can be of assistance in giving shape to the mysterious new stirrings.

Another way of approaching a person’s guiding and animating interest is to explore what that person, down deep, wants more than anything else. I have already observed that it is beyond our power to manufacture or, conversely, to arbitrarily extinguish our personality-defining interests or desires. Does it follow, implicitly, that we have only the most limited discretion over what we desire the most (from ourselves, from our relationships, from life, and from our experience)? What if—because of the great depth from which these guiding and energizing predispositions arise—our conscious egos are cast more in the role of servants than masters where these foundational tendencies are concerned? And while perhaps it would be pressing the point too far to claim that in all cases our wills are entirely overshadowed by these primal interests, it seems that the greater share of propulsion comes from them rather than from the (relatively superficial) conscious will of the ordinary man or woman. Are we not justified in asserting that these deep source-interests are the true engines and drive shafts that keep individuals and human societies plugging along? Moreover, because our foundational human drives and interests are, collectively speaking, in general accord, the merry-go-round continues to spin at a fairly regular tempo. It speeds up and slows down from time to time—and every once in awhile it threatens to grind to a halt, but its resiliency and sturdy functioning is owing in large part to the reliable presence of these universally evident, deep-seated interests, shared by humans everywhere and at all times.

To the extent that these compelling subsurface motors (which, from ‘the surface,’ we are prone to interpret simply as conscious desires) are housed beyond the reach of our conscious understanding and control, we may describe much—perhaps most—of human activity as automatic, unconscious, compulsive, and therefore unfree. But because we are, to a considerable extent, animated by these determining energies—and because we consciously feel vitalizing pleasure in the discharge of these compelling forces within us—we tend to imagine that we act freely, solely by our own volition, when in fact we are riding on the top of waves we did not create and which we cannot stop or redirect. But the sensations of pleasure (of surfing?) and of animation (from unconsciously identifying with the impersonal, supra-human wave that is carrying us) conspire to produce the illusion of freedom. In fact, we are more determined than ever when we are being carried away like flotsam by some passion or animal spirit from ‘on high’—or from the infernal depths.

(2)

In my own experience I have come to recognize something like a provisional hierarchy whereby my desires (and their objects) may be classified in terms of how much freedom they afford me. Pleasure and pain are to be found at all levels of this ‘ladder’ that stretches from the crude sensory level to the loftiest spiritual heights, with everything in between: the joys and sufferings of the feelings, the delights and terrors of imaginative experience, the soaring and the drudgery of thought. From the material or bodily level, where the sense of strict causality and determinism is most strongly registered, as I climb the ladder through ordinary feelings, conceptual thinking, and metaphorical imagining, towards autonomous and formless spirit, there is a distinct sense of ascent from relative bondage towards relative freedom. Perhaps because I value freedom as highly as—if not more highly than—pleasure, security, fame, and whatever else there is to allure me, I find that I am almost always searching out new ways to enhance my freedom with respect to my ‘lower attachments.’

It has taken a long time—and many bitter mistakes in the rough and tumble world of human experience—to learn a very simple lesson: ‘lower attachments’ is not quite synonymous with external objects, persons, and circumstances. It is not, therefore, the cigarettes I’m addicted to, or the dead-end relationship I keep going back to because the sex happens to be so hot. It’s not the job that I hate but can’t quit because I have come to depend on the large salary. On an even subtler level, these ‘lower attachments’ are not even internal objects, like recurrent guilt feelings or obsessive memories that keep tormenting me. The simple but crucial lesson I finally learned is that an attachment may be called ‘lower’ whenever it seduces me into believing that I am inextricably bound by it. Of course the objects of binding attachment can, and do, occur on all rungs of this hierarchical ladder that stretches from the body through the heart, the mind, and the imagination, all the way to the gateway into the Self, or spirit.

The Self, we are assured, is boundless—as God is said to be. The word bound or boundary signifies limit (like the bounds of the schoolyard) and, at the same time, to be bound can mean to be determined or to be enchained, as with leg irons. Generally speaking, then, a lower attachment is any thought or desire that imposes artificial limits or bounds upon the Self, which in itself is boundless. The binding thought or desire interposes a cloud or veil between the mind and the Self. Thus, Ramana Maharshi says that ‘desirelessness is wisdom.’ And it makes sense: after one has plunged headlong into the source of everything, how could one desire more—or anything else?

Here we approach the profound mystery of renunciation of desire. It seems that we cannot legitimately be expected to renounce our ordinary desires—which, we are told, obstruct or divert us away from the bliss of the ever-present Self—unless and until we have actually had a genuine taste of that supreme happiness and serenity of the unbounded Self. And yet, it seems highly unlikely that we will ever get a taste of this bliss so long as we are being led around and compelled by our ordinary desires—our lower attachments—our Self-bindings. It is for this reason that I am inclined to believe that unless and until our ‘determining’ and ‘binding’ desires are exhausted, we stand but a slim chance of experiencing the supreme happiness of the Self which may be said to reside at the center of our being. We are too busy looking the other way—namely, towards the periphery, where our lesser, ordinary desires project themselves into more or less alluring (or merely stabilizing) objects, persons, and circumstances.

When we—for one reason or another—come to believe that our happiness depends upon obtaining this person, that car, this salary or that office and title, we are almost sure to suffer eventual disappointment in one way or another. Either we won’t get what we want after much toil and trouble, or we’ll get it and its luster will fade and disappear over the course of time—so that it comes back to haunt us. Either way, we are likely to feel cheated by life. Stoically resigning ourselves to this tepid and lackluster state of affairs is no real victory, even if it isn’t as absurd and immature as trying to fool ourselves into believing that we are still happy with our lot when, plainly, we are not.

The mistake—made at some time or another by virtually everyone who has ever lived—is to equate true happiness merely with the attainment of certain external conditions, or with the acquisition of something peripheral to the Self—something other than abidance in the Self in a state of imperturbable peace and contentment. The counterfeit happiness may take the form of a social attainment, or an erotic, or familial, or financial, or sentimental, or political, or intellectual, or artistic one. But ultimately all such pursuits pull us away from the quiet center, where genuine contentment and stillness are to be found. The objects and prizes of our external quests for happiness turn out to be pale and ephemeral when compared with authentic inner peace and stillness. But for most of us, the habit of pursuing all the deficient and ultimately disappointing peripheral forms of pleasure and happiness is so thoroughly established that it is harder to break the habit than it is simply to endure the inevitable disappointments—and move on. The momentum behind our de-centered state of periphery-preoccupation is usually so strong and so well-established that we can scarcely stop it, let alone, reverse its direction—and it is only with this ‘pivoting’ or ‘about-face’ that we are turned towards the core where authentic fulfillment is to be realized.

Overcoming one’s doomed and dead-end desires cannot truly begin until we fully understand how we are unconsciously colluding in our submersion into error and folly. And our job is made all the more difficult by the fact that the actions of our parents, teachers, and friends—along with the blinkered norms of our culture—are continually telling us that our happiness is to be found in worldly possessions, social success, vain honors, and fleeting pleasures. What little communal support we have for our solitary efforts to turn a skeptical eye—and eventually a defiant will—against the siren song of the world! But then, why should the world want to contribute to its own demise by encouraging us to become disenchanted with its false advertisements and promises? At any event, it should scarcely come as a surprise that truly free spirits are exceedingly rare, considering what they’ve always been up against—both inside and