The Whole Shebang (7/16/14)

What is my ‘spiritual conscience’ and how does it differ from my moral conscience, my intellectual conscience, and my cultural conscience? My spiritual conscience ‘pains’ or disturbs me when I neglect the cultivation of stillness and silent detachment. In a real sense, my inner life consists largely of an ongoing rivalry, or struggle, between these various consciences: spiritual, cultural, intellectual, and moral.

I suspect that my spiritual conscience is, on the whole, the least solidly established of the four. In other words, its demands and imperatives are most frequently neglected or disputed. I would not be exaggerating if I said that its demands and priorities are the most radical that confront me—but, paradoxically, when I honor and obey these radical demands I experience the greatest sense of inner freedom and serenity that I know of. The reason for this is plain. Spirit has the power of liberating my mind, temporarily, from passionate compulsions and from seductive desires—so that while my consciousness is ‘enthused’ and overshadowed by it, my fears, anxieties, attachments, and restlessness are quieted.

If such a pleasant and free state (of inner affairs) is the natural outcome of ‘quieting down’ and surrendering my otherwise restive, project-oriented mind to the spirit, then why on earth would I invest a moment’s concern in anything but this all-soothing silence, it will be asked? There is no easy or readily persuasive answer I can give to this perfectly valid question. Every quick answer I come up with sounds (to my ears) like an excuse or an outright prevarication.

With these qualifying remarks in mind, I will nevertheless give it a stab. I have already mentioned that my inner life consists primarily of an ongoing contest between the competing claims of these various consciences. The fact that I have not (yet) allied an undeviating will with one of them against the other three (as I sometimes suspect Nietzsche—and his nemesis, St. Paul—may have done) suggests that, at the deepest level, I am more committed to wholeness and integration than to purity and a monistic scheme of things. In order to advance this ever-transformative process of integration and wholeness, these various consciences—each with its own criteria and defining ideals—must be permitted to freely interact with one another. What I see emerging here is a kind of ‘political’ pluralism—and not an autocracy, where one set of values forcibly subordinates the other parties to its supreme sovereignty and authority. This path of wholeness is obviously messier and less efficient than a dictatorship (spiritual or intellectual, moral or cultural), but my deepest instincts and highest intuitions suggest to me that this is the fairest and truest (to all implicated parties) way to go.

My task, then, is to do all that is within my limited power to prevent one of two things from happening. The first, I’ve already mentioned—namely, to allow the rise of one tyrannical, all-controlling conscience. The other danger to be avoided, of course, is anarchic fragmentation and ‘Dionysian’ dismemberment. Wholeness and integration are all about meaningful, viable (if temporary) rapprochements—and not about atomization, compartmentalization, insurmountable walls and unquestionable dogmas. But this requires that we establish ourselves in a state of more or less sustained creative tension and uncertainty. The bowstring must not be slack, but neither can it be allowed to become so taut that we snap in two—or three, or four….

It is my task, then, to keep the competing, self-loyal, self-asserting consciences talking and negotiating with one another—to keep them honest and strong so that both repressive ‘imperialism’ and submissive ‘slavery’ are nipped in the bud. It may not always be a peaceful or a permanent coexistence that I seek to achieve—but a viable one, nonetheless. It is my belief that by listening to one another, these rivaling consciences can learn from one another. This is the path of wholeness and it is ultimately preferable to separateness, segregation, autocracy, repression, contempt, hatred, and dualism—all of which inevitably arise as soon as my efforts to keep this diverse congress intact begin to slacken.

So—while this may sound to some ‘purists’ like an elaborate excuse or rationalization (of my present unwillingness to withdraw into simple, serene detachment from this path of complex integration and wholeness), I felt it was necessary to make a case for this impure life that I feel called upon to live.

*****

It is perfectly reasonable at this point to ask: what does such a congress of competing consciences actually look like in action? Let us begin with a word about contexts. Let us further suppose that each one of these consciences corresponds to a more or less defined set of virtues as well as blind spots, strengths as well as weaknesses. These distinctive virtues are expressed fully and appropriately in certain contexts but not so well in others. And yet—as I mentioned before—each of these distinctive virtues privately aspires to reign supreme over the totality of circumstances. The intellect, if left to its own devices, ambitiously strives to reduce all of life to intellectual problems—where its particular strengths can shine—where its distinctive judgments can carry the day—and where its ‘emperor’s clothes’ can be forcibly denied any sniggering press coverage. The same will-to-power—the desire to interpretively tyrannize over the whole of possible experience—can also be encountered in the exclusively moral and cultural perspectives, both of which are prone to reduce complex problems and phenomena to moral or cultural energies—thus forestalling any further debate or critical examination. With the spirit, a somewhat different form of tyranny presents itself: it is the tyranny not so much of reduction as of negation. By relegating all forms to the category of maya or non-reality—and affirming itself to be the only reality—spirit categorically relativizes (and tacitly invalidates) all merely ‘human’ perspectives, pursuits, and powers. ‘Neti, neti’ is the constant refrain of the form-eschewing spirit. Don’t get me wrong. A thoroughgoing annihilation from the ground up is precisely what is called for from time to time. This seems to have been understood by the writers of the Old Testament—not to mention those paragons of spiritual insight, the ancient Hindus, who gave prominent place to Shiva and Kali, acknowledging them to be every bit as crucial to the whole shebang as Brahma and Vishnu.

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