On the Mind and Freedom (9/16/15)

Those familiar with my writings on the subject know that when it comes to mind and/or the ego—like Jung, Hillman, Buddhists, Sufis, and Taoists before me—I follow a middle way. Whether because of incapacity, incomprehension, or temperamental incompatibility I eschew those two extremes: Nietzschean-Randian (of the ‘Ayn’ sort) heroic-Promethean egotism and Eastern-style, yogic campaigns to exterminate the mind/ego. So, assuming a kind of enlightened or properly negotiated truce with the mind is a necessary precondition for the radical transformation of consciousness that culminates in mental liberation, what is the role played by the ego-will (which, we are told, is but the reflection of the light of pure, impersonal awareness in the mercurial mirror of the mental body)?

I sometimes see those ‘spiritual seekers’ who would do away with the mind as dwarfish, low voltage Ahabs, who famously said, “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” Ahab’s daimonic energy and unsettling eloquence lend a kind of sublimity and gravitas (to his revenge against the white whale) that is conspicuously absent from the souls of these harmless, puny revengers against their own shrunken little ‘Moby Dicks’—which, having been malnourished and unexercised for years, are but minnows and small fry next to Melville’s. And they still can’t seem to flush them down the commode!

Do not misunderstand me. I am not wholeheartedly endorsing Ahab’s Promethean-heroic egoism, but it is certainly of a higher order and nobler pedigree than Starbuck’s Hobbesian-Lockean, mercantile-conventional prudence—the clearly reigning outlook (and in-look, for that matter) in 21st, as well as 19th, century, pragmatic America. Whether he was justified or not, Dante assigned Ulysses to one of the lowest circles in hell for a similar sort of ‘titanic’ egoism as we see in Ahab’s ‘mad flight’—but of this we may be certain: Dante, with his own sublimely expansive and self-authorizing spirit, could not help but admire precisely where he condemns—in Ulysses’ case. But my point should be plain: the greatest ‘sinners’ always stand a far better chance of finding genuine salvation than petty and harmless little nebbishes who ‘cannot be bothered’ to confront either black or white whales swimming just below the placid, artificial surface of their scrupulously controlled conscious standpoints. They will tell you that they are ‘busy’ silencing the mind, but some of us know what they’re really up to instead. They are running away from truly disturbing questions and supremely inconvenient ordeals that they would be obliged to recognize and submit to if they weren’t so dreadfully busy trying to distance themselves from that pesky, uncooperative ‘desire-mind’ (kama-manas)—strangling one Hydra head at a time. Well, good luck with that!

Ahab, as we know, goes down with the whale, along with the Pequod and its crew—except for the mercurial Ishmael who, alone, lives to tell the tale. Dante’s Ulysses’ ship and crew are similarly swallowed up by the sea—just offshore from Mt. Purgatory. Ulysses—though close enough almost to touch it—was not permitted to land his vessel upon the shore of Mt. Purgatory. While Dante finds much to admire in Ulysses’ spiritedness, his proud indifference to personal security and emotional attachments, he is troubled by the hero’s brazen refusal to humbly defer to anything whatsoever that might exceed or transcend his cognitive and experiential ambitions. Could this, wonder of wonders, be the fatal flaw that bars his access to the shores of Purgatory? To return to our initial theme: is this what, on a far less sublime level, prevents petty revengers (against the demonized mind) from being able to negotiate a truce with the ‘enemy’?

Understanding the nature of kama-manas, or the desire-mind, is the key to freeing our spirits from its lower, cruder, and heavier (in terms of psychic gravity) power. But as with the ‘external’ natural world, in order to understand the inner nature of the desire-mind, we must to a certain extent obey it. I suspect that alarms and red flags are exploding in the minds of some over-reactive readers, but ‘hold your horses.’ We obey, or submit, chiefly to establish equitable terms between both parties—and not merely to get the better of one another. By ‘obey’ I do not mean ‘indulge in’ or ‘utterly surrender to.’ By ‘obey’ I more precisely mean ‘carefully attend to,’ ‘to alertly observe and take note of’ the mind—the various ways in which it works; how it influences or affects that which it touches, treats, entertains or gives birth to; what happens—or doesn’t happen—when it is quiet and still.

Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, the mind is always with us—‘hanging around,’ much as our bodies are always with us, just hanging around, whether busy with something or not. In fact, it is probably useful to think of the mind as a body—a subtle body—that seems to hang upon us, or even enfold us, rather as our fleshly bodies do. But the great difference between the physical and mental bodies lies in the fact that the physical body deals with solid, concrete objects, persons, and events while the mental body deals with ideas, concepts, emotions, moods, attitudes, and other intangible but nonetheless experienceable forms and phenomena.

The Sanskrit word ‘kama’ means desire, so ‘kama-manas’ refers to a mind that is stamped or infused with more or less stable, distinct desire-habits. These generally stable and established desire-habits operate upon ‘mental matter’ in much the same way that a magnetic field operates upon tiny iron shavings. Understanding the extremely intimate relationship between desire-habits and mental forms (concepts, memories, plans, recurring thoughts, etc.) that are directly shaped by those affective patterns is absolutely crucial to attaining mastery over, and liberation from, these often cramped and confining desires. It is also crucial for overcoming our suspicion/hatred for mind (misology), which is founded upon a deep misunderstanding.

When New-agers (and Shirley Maclaine, back in the 80s) tell us that we create our own ‘worlds’—our own ‘reality’—they are actually speaking the truth, or at least giving voice to a sound spiritual-psychological principle, whether they actually understand what they are saying, or not. Persons with a semi-sensitive or half-awakened intuition are occasionally able to glimpse profound spiritual insights, but that’s about all they can do since they lack the training and the conceptual understanding (of what they’ve glimpsed in ‘flashes’ of insight) that are needed to articulate and to ground these insights in a reasonably intelligible form—to place them in a comprehensive, meaningful context. Only then would such intuitive souls be in a position to make significant contributions to the intellectual, artistic, or spiritual welfare of our ailing culture. Such training and education require time and much discipline—even when we have a passion for learning these things and developing these skills. As it happens, most persons who are drawn to such matters wind up getting side-tracked and absorbed by mundane affairs, so that little real development of these potentials ever occurs. Such persons, alas, are a dime a dozen, but in saying this I am certainly not condemning such half-hearted, well-meaning persons. We all eventually ‘find our level,’ whether we like it or not. As it turns out, it is the specific gravity of our desire-habits that is primarily responsible for assigning us to our particular, all-too-familiar ‘level.’ I am not referring here to some deplorable and oppressive caste system or even to some kind of karmic destiny from which there is no reprieve or escape. Our ‘level assignment’ is not written in stone. We can move ‘up’ or we can move ‘down.’ We see it all the time in persons around us—or in our own lives. What I am trying to argue is that unless and until we figure out how to alter the specific gravity of our desire-habits or affective patterns, we are pretty much obliged to stay put on more or less the same rung of a ladder that stretches from heaven to hell, figuratively (but as the same time, existentially) speaking.

So, in an attempt to tighten up these meandering musings about the mind, let us review some of the polarities or contrasts that were touched upon earlier, and see if this provides any clarification. We spoke of the contrast between negotiating a truce with the mind versus dismissing or disparaging the mind; between daimonic, sublime overreaching egos (like Ahab’s and Ulysses’—and possibly Dante’s) and the puny, run-of-the-milquetoast variety that prefers to ‘stay home,’ preferably under the covers with the TV set on; between a kind of reverent openness to the transcendent and a titanic drive to conquer or dispense with it. Then, with the idea of kama-manas, we began to explore the hidden marriage between two things that are commonly contrasted, or even isolated, from one another: thoughts and desires, or knowledge and affects.

What can we do with these disparate pieces of a puzzle? Can they, indeed, be fitted together naturally—perhaps even seamlessly—into a vivid and clear picture of our general problem: how to regard the mind and how to make the best of our relationship with it? To repeat what has been said elsewhere: no relationship is possible where there is an unconscious merger or identification with the ‘other’—and this goes for the mind, as well. And if the relationship is dysfunctional (because of hatred or neglect or rejection of the other), not much of value can come out of this arrangement either. Therefore, unless and until we have dis-identified with and/or come to workable terms with the mind we can pretty much kiss the prospect of genuine mental liberation goodbye.

In speaking about kama-manas, the desire-mind, I used the analogy of a magnetic field moving and organizing iron filings into distinctive patterns. A powerful magnetic field—generated, say, by an Ahab or a Ulysses—can hold (almost) an entire crew under its enchanting spell—while many persons have trouble holding a single thought or question in their mental grasp for more than a few seconds. Thus, those with potent spirits are capable of either great good or great mischief, while the majority of low-voltage souls will leave the world pretty much as they found it when they depart. But for all of us—from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the world-historical ‘dynamos’ to the backwater bozos—one principle applies to all: thought is but the shadow or lackey of the governing desire or will. It is the will—weak or strong, noble or base, selfish or selfless—that occultly or invisibly formulates and steers the thoughts that populate (and sometimes overpopulate) our minds.

Going after the thoughts, then, is a bit like chasing after shadows or holographic images so long as the inner will or ruling desires remain unconscious and unattended to.

In my own case, which may or may not be universalizable or repeatable by everyone simply on the basis of shared humanity, there are complicating factors which, in all fairness, ought to be addressed here. Something happened to me—inside my soul—that does not happen to everyone, perhaps not even to most persons, so far as I can tell from consulting many others. Without really understanding what it was at the time, I went through a kind of conversion experience. This experience, which I have described as a major shift in my psychic center of gravity, was not—I repeat, not—linked to any confession of faith in Christianity or Judaism or Islam or any other established religion, although after the dust began to settle I recognized unmistakable parallels between my conversion experience and those we can read about in religious histories of all persuasions. Suffice it to say that I am living proof—at least to myself—that one needn’t profess orthodox faith in Christ (as a historical figure, or Allah, or any deity whatsoever) in order to undergo a bona fide spiritual awakening or rebirth experience. On the other hand, I would venture to say that the symbolic value of Christ’s life, teachings, and final ordeal—as with those of the Buddha, Krishna, Lao Tzu, Heraclitus, Mani, Socrates, Valentinus, Augustine, and others—begin, inwardly, to be revealed only after this conversion experience occurs.

Why do I bring this up within the context of this essay, it will be asked? Is it because I realized at one point, while I was writing, that all of the crucial observations that I’ve made are predicated upon that ‘conversion’ ordeal? How does this fact impinge upon the content of the essay? Well, I am not sure I would go so far as to say that the content is worthless and unintelligible to anyone who has yet to undergo an analogously radical ‘pivoting’ or shift in his/her psychic center of gravity—but such readers will not be likely to experience an immediate recognition of the crucial points shared here.

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