Some Thought about Feelings, and some Feelings about Thought (11/29/10)

Although our feelings about this and that are probably not as resistant to changes and significant alterations as our established tastes are, they are probably a good deal less mutable than many of us are prone to believe. And where they are subject to significant change they are likely to be superficial and not rooted very deeply in us.

Feelings, when they do have some depth to them, it is not always easy to make them objectively conscious. In my own case, I have had to work very diligently at making my deeper feelings (say, about the persons close to me or about things going on in my everyday life) fully conscious. Being naturally disposed to approach my experiences (and even my relationships) primarily by way of the thinking function, my feelings have tended, for many years, to remain in the background of my awareness and—relative to thoughts and intuitions—rather deemphasized. Having lately come to realize more clearly the undesirability of such a biased outlook (and in-look) from the standpoint of psychological wholeness, I have begun, slowly but surely, to look deeper into these feelings, and to register them more completely than I used to.

The results of these efforts have been quite interesting—and I am sure there is much more to learn by continuing in the direction I’ve been going in. For one thing, I have found that when my thinking un-tethers itself from my deeper feelings, an illusory sense of freedom is produced. The sense of liberty is (or used to be) real enough, but it is purchased at a considerable price. The neglected or ignored feeling contents are neglected and ignored ‘for good reason’ from the abstract thinker’s standpoint, of course. Why? Because they tend to weigh down and ‘ground’ the ‘light aircraft’ in which the abstract thinker darts and flits about upon the mental plane. By throwing such heavy cargo overboard, his little vessel can rise and maneuver much more easily in the air—its proper element. Of course, another big part of what gets jettisoned—in addition to the heavy water of feeling—is the dense earth of sensation, which binds me to the cumbersome world of ‘hard’ and stubborn facts, but I will confine my attentions to feeling for the moment.

I began by claiming that feelings—or at least our deeper ones—exhibit a natural resistance to change or alteration. They are inherently conservative insofar as they succeed in grounding our personalities in more or less stable soil. I would further suggest that this grounding and anchoring function is performed by our deeper feelings, whether or not we have managed to make those feelings conscious. It is perhaps for this reason that, for those who tend to be most oblivious to these deeper feelings and affective grounds of their personalities, it is only during times of crisis or intense psychological conflict that they become aware of these root-feelings that invisibly shape and govern their lives, their personalities. The crisis or the inner conflict achieves this precisely by pulling our attention away from the comparatively shallow, surface-level of consciousness—and down to where what really matters (what we really want, what really hurts or bothers us about another person or a situation, etc.) is to be found. Here is where the fundamental feelings about who and what genuinely matters, what possesses authentic importance to our lives, are at last confronted. These acknowledged feelings tend, of course, to have a very sobering effect upon us—allowing us to review and reassess our priorities, the values and goals we’ve been oriented by. Much of what the ‘freedom-loving’ abstract thinker has been preoccupied with suddenly seems rather less important—perhaps even frivolous, hollow, or sterile. Like Icarus, who ventured with his wax-and-feather wings too close to the white-hot sun, we plummet, feelingly, earthwards into the sea below us.

It is practically impossible not to notice how deep feelings and affects of the sort I’m discussing here merge, almost imperceptibly, with the instincts themselves—at least where feeling is one’s ‘inferior’ or least differentiated psychological function. One might almost say that the two converge at the frontier where that which is foundational to our personal, individual character encounters the collective, impersonal realm of our psychic, instinctual inheritance—like the river delta merging with the sea. If these deep, character-shaping and invisibly course-plotting feelings constitute what and who we are in a way and to a degree that greatly outweighs even our most powerful thoughts which, by comparison, seem like shadows of these substantial and substantiating feelings, then shouldn’t we simply listen and adapt ourselves to them? Surrender to them, perhaps? Naturally, this is presuming a great deal from the get-go—namely, that we have already managed to burrow down through all of those obscuring, distorting veils that have hardened into a thick accretion or masking shell around our souls. Such burrowing and unearthing requires great honesty and courage from us.

So, assuming that I have successfully managed to break through the many layers of falsifying and obstructive psychological clutter that have interposed themselves between me and my innermost, core feelings (about others, about myself and how I live my life, about existence itself and the culture I inhabit), then what do I do with this more honest and substantial acquaintance I have with myself? What if I don’t particularly like or ‘approve of’ what I have dug up about myself? Can I change these core feelings—or, precisely because they are core feelings and presumably essential to who I am, must I simply learn to accept them, reform my conscious thoughts and values so that they more accurately reflect or conform with these core feelings?


Basing one’s moral behavior on theoretical or rational principles, alone, is a very different kettle of fish than moral action that springs from deep feeling—even if the actions performed outwardly appear to be the same. Is either one more ‘moral’ than the other?[1]

I noted earlier the apparent proximity—psychologically speaking—between our deepest feelings (which are, properly speaking, part of our personal character or even the defining, structure-providing core of our personalities) and the inherited instincts, which are universal in their form and impersonal in their nature. It is generally agreed that, as civilized, law-abiding and morally responsible human beings, we must learn (beginning as children) to manage and/or control (or—an option that is gaining more widespread acceptance in our contemporary world—medicate) our instinctual drives, cravings, aggressive and lustful impulses, and so forth. These instincts, though they may vary in strength and intensity from one person to the next, display a kind of dynamism that distinguishes them from feeling, in certain respects. Feeling (as Jung taught)—speaking with a view to precision—is an evaluative response to some event, person, set of conditions, etc. The feeling—when registered and consulted—tells us how we are disposed towards the person, event, and so forth, in feeling terms. Are we made to feel secure or insecure, comfortable or uneasy, trusting or suspicious, enlivened or depressed, interested or indifferent, and so on, by the person, situation, conditions, etc?

As a rule, moral action—or non-action, for that matter—which is grounded in deep feeling carries more weight with us than the same action or non-action which, relatively devoid of feeling, is based primarily (or exclusively) upon theoretical or rational principles. Because of the crucial ingredient or infusion of feeling, of passion, and affectivity, there is a degree of heft, of ballast, and of substantiality that may be absent from the deed performed by the principle-obeying ideologue or dogmatist. There is a kind of disinterestedness in the principled performance of such duties and obligations (which intellectuals—and dogmatists—often love to emphasize and parade as a mark of ennobling distinction), but this might just be a self-serving way of talking about disengagement from what is actually being done or not done.

On the other hand, it is worthily maintained that in order for an act to be genuinely moral, it must be performed freely. If I am compelled to do something—whether it is to jump into a lion’s den to save a child or to tell the truth about something that is going to cost me my sterling reputation or my marriage—then, strictly speaking, my action is not morally praiseworthy since for some undivulged reason or another, I was forced to perform it. Because it was not undertaken with freedom, it loses any moral value it may have otherwise possessed—just like an event occurring in nature according to the necessary rules of mechanical physics.

This criterion (of freely chosen and uncompelled deeds) throws actions which are rooted in powerful feeling into a somewhat questionable light—does it not? I suppose our sense of the praiseworthiness of his action depends upon how actively engaged the moral agent is in the contest or struggle between powerfully conflicting feelings, passions, and drives. If he simply ‘goes with the flow’ or the prevailing winds of his established feeling preference—more or less passively and unreflectively obeying the dictates of his feelings, then we are left wondering what there is to admire or applaud in what he does. If, on the other hand, we learn that his action is the end result of much deliberation, weighing and carefully assessing the various competing claims or appeals to his assent, then our respect increases proportionally. (We might then ask: “What essential role does ‘respectability’ play in determining the real worth of a moral action?” If its worth is intrinsic, respectability has no place here, insofar as it is an extrinsic factor.)

Of course, what is presupposed in this example of commendable moral action and reflection is that there are conflicting ‘pulls’ or divergent feelings at play in any genuinely moral act. And perhaps we are entitled to move one step further from this initial acknowledgement and say that thinking is also perhaps a crucial part of the process by which a genuinely moral decision is freely but judiciously/dialectically arrived at and performed. Viewed in this light, feeling is necessary, but perhaps not always quite sufficient for moral action. But the same may be justly said of thinking—may it not? Thinking, alone—in an emotionally detached, affectively dead manner—seems grossly insufficient to fully transform a man into a moral agent. He must become engaged—get ‘dirty’ or ‘wet’ or ‘implicated’—at a feeling level in the struggle between the ‘higher’ and ‘lower,’ ‘nobler’ and ‘baser’ elements in his nature—elements which confront him a thousand times a day in the choices he is presented with. He may not be seeing or consciously acknowledging these choices, but they are lurking in the wings nonetheless. They have to do with simple, everyday issues concerning the way he starts his day; how he treats those around him at work or at home or at school; how he performs his job or how deeply he listens to the persons he professes to love.   They have to do with what he reads and why he reads, and how much time he devotes to the cultivation of his understanding of the world and himself. They have to do with big questions like what career path he’s going to pursue—and why; which girl he’s going to marry—and why; where he lives and the extent to which he engages with those around him.

Obviously, all of these matters involve feeling—to some extent—but thinking (analytically, speculatively, and imaginatively) is there, too, hand in hand with the feeling assessments.

[1] Kant (in his teachings about morality and the principle of the categorical imperative) seems to have regarded the feelings either as superfluous to morality or an outright obstacle which justly deserved to be over-ruled by rational thinking, while Rousseau placed enormous importance upon his deepest moral feelings as guiding lights in his life. Philosophers are certainly not in unanimous agreement on how much authority should be accorded to the feelings in the guidance of our lives.

My Fitness (10/25/15)

Have I lost sufficient hope and trust in the ego (and in its correlative, the world) to be a viable candidate for Nisargadatta’s profound teachings? Am I ripe enough—ready enough—for these radical, all-demanding challenges? I wonder.

When honest with myself, I acknowledge my yearning for literary recognition. Despite all my talk and although I have raised the bar considerably, am I not susceptible to being drawn into a passionate conjugal bond if ‘the right woman’ came along at a weak moment (or during a weak year)? I still cherish my personal comfort and my personal freedom to such an extent that much energy and attention is devoted to their upkeep. From time to time, my proud heart still thrills with guilty delight from looking down upon the shabby, undistinguished, blinkered, and crassly profane lives of the many as a devious and unscrupulous means of lifting myself up in my private self-estimation. As soon as any moral or intellectual endeavor becomes more taxing and demanding than personally rewarding or directly beneficial to my ego, my efforts begin to relax. I could go on cataloguing the evidence of my self-centeredness, my self-love, my haughty egotism, my laziness—all the evidence, in brief, of my unripeness and unfitness for Advaita or even for a genuinely Christian way of being in the world. And yet, it is perhaps only in the frank acknowledgement of my profound and cleverly disguised selfishness that I begin the slow, purgatorial work of making myself fit for genuine spiritual understanding and being.

It is probably because of the absoluteness, or stark finality, of Nisargadatta’s teachings—when it comes to letting go of the illusion of the ‘person’—that ‘I’ am consistently shaken up and disturbed by the writings. They are uttered—these teachings—from a standpoint beyond the individual ego and, likewise, they are addressed to that ‘transcendent’ core of the reader’s spiritual constitution which is prior to the ego. How terribly insulting this mode of address is to the ego! To go on and on about reality as if the ego doesn’t even exist! But, of course, from Nisargadatta’s explicitly stated point of view, the ego does not enjoy authentic existence. Life, as we deluded ones know and experience it—and invest in it—is no more and no less than an extended, coagulated dream, nothing more.

Ultimate Privation (7/5/13)

What if the ultimate—and, therefore, the most potentially creative—privation is the absence of God or the divine (transcendent) dimension from our life? I suspect that in order to fully launch the questioning, the probing, the deep inner exploration, and the disciplined study of spiritual scriptures, this privation of God must become acutely, painfully conscious. The pain of this absence must be so intense, in fact, that it plainly exposes the comparative frivolity and unimportance of most of what the mundane/consumerist, the socio-political, and the conventionally religious ‘worlds’ have to offer. We are driven from within to pursue most avidly that which we feel the absence of most stingingly: sexual activity, prestige, the feeling of power, moral-intellectual superiority over others, to be affectionately loved by those around us, money, aesthetic pleasure, God, peace, centeredness. We are, in a deep sense, defined by our driving and compelling privations. In other words, we are most positively identified by our ‘negative’—what we are most fearful of lacking—since it is the dogged or relentless pursuit of that particular object or state of being that reveals our trajectory—our daimon—our fate. What we want most—what matters above all else—is what we are known by and for, whether that is wisdom or orgasms, offspring or celebrity, honesty or knavery.

What is Civilization? (12/28/12)

What is civilization? From a low angle it consists of channeled and coordinated human appetites, fears, longings, and ambitions. Of course, none of these primal drivers of the human pageant are called by their frank and proper names by the more or less compliant participants. They are duplicitously dignified with flattering nomenclature and marshaled into the service of systems that have been devised with consummate artistry and ingenuity. The happily hoodwinked hoi polloi lose sight altogether of the primitive, visceral engines and brutal braking mechanisms at the bottom of this majestic, makeshift monstrosity—civilization. These venerable channels and fragrant falsifiers of our primal drives (which must be harnessed—like slave labor or like the water behind a hydroelectric dam) rose to prominence here and there throughout the nations of the world. They were inspired, perhaps, by a seductive myth or meta-narrative, or by laws handed down by a legendary founder—but after centuries of misuse and benumbing familiarity, these ‘necessary fictions’ inevitably began to ossify into bloodless abstractions, so that the whole elaborate and precarious edifice may be toppled with the slingshot of a single fearless David standing within close range. It seems difficult for the ordinary human being to abide such exposure of his naked drives without withering into self-loathing and despair. The species is not yet sufficiently resilient to withstand the unadorned, unperfumed truth about the motors and crankshafts driving and compelling it from below its ‘hood.’

From a somewhat less sardonic and pessimistic angle, civilization—rather than being merely an effective system for exploiting and euphemistically disguising man’s true and ultimate nature (i.e., that of a clever, calculating beast)—contains and helps to educate man about his double nature. From this theological-philosophical standpoint—one that is currently out of favor in the West—man is a conflicted composite of beast and angel, of animality and divinity, of flesh and spirit. Stretched, as upon the rack, between the rivaling ‘pulls’ of carnality and spirituality, it is man’s fate to be caught up in an ongoing struggle, from womb to tomb, with nothing but his modest intellectual capacities and his timorous, ambivalent will to assist him. In moral terms, man’s essence is neither simply ‘good’ nor simply ‘evil.’ Rather, it is a protracted state of war between the spirit and the flesh, between compassionate love and selfishness, between the better and worse angels within his soul, the true place of reckoning. In such a fierce, relentless war it sometimes happens that now one, now the other, party gains the upper hand. But just as soon as it looks as if victory is assured and triumph complete, a missile fired from ‘God knows where’ disrupts the momentary stasis and trouble erupts afresh. As Heraclitus said, long ago: “Strife is the father of all things.”

To the born lover of peace and of authentic spiritual centeredness, both of these ‘philosophical’ standpoints are ultimately irksome and pitifully insufficient to satisfy his ‘transcendent’ yearnings. The first one—which prevails in present-day Western culture (at its stage of advanced decrepitude)—views man as a kind of ‘trousered ape,’ a hopelessly deluded and weak creature that is riddled with carnal lusts and power cravings that are seldom, if ever, satisfied for more than a few fleeting moments here and there. This is the reductive view of man, since he is thereby reduced to his inescapable animal ground and origins—all the rest being no more than window dressing, frippery, and cant. We tend to think of this as a distinctly modern ‘philosophical’ perspective—associated with names like Machiavelli, Hobbes, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud—but this same reductive view of man (and his hypocritical, delusory culture) appears in Plato’s dialogues in the chilling remarks of Sophists like Callicles and Thrasymachus.

The second one—dominant in the West from ancient times until around the 17th century—we may call the Platonic-Christian. As we have seen, rather than being monolithically reductive, it is essentially dualistic—corresponding to the body and the spirit/soul, or the lower and higher aspects of our composite natures. As dualism implies struggle and conflict—interrupted now and again by brief moments of stasis (or mutual exhaustion!)—it is fundamentally obstructive to enduring peace and stable harmony. This unrelenting agitation and strife persists within the dualistic scheme—both outwardly and inwardly. Because the great majority of unreflective—and therefore psychologically primitive and infantile—men and women locate the enemy, the embodiment of evil, outside themselves (instead of humbly digesting the fact that all such feuds are fueled by projection of one’s own ‘darker’ impulses and aggressive drives), the lion’s share of the trouble and mischief encountered by humans is perceived to be ‘out there,’ usually in the form of another person or group of persons (i.e., my ungrateful boss, my conniving co-workers, my faithless ex-wife, the Democrats, the Republicans, the Jews, Whitey, the Niggers, the Palestinians, Wall Street bankers, Monsanto, Exxon-Mobil, the Muslims, the Chinese, etc., etc., etc.)

If one has accomplished the rare and commendable feat of moving the war ‘indoors’—that is to say, when he has started to withdraw the ‘shadow’ projections and has begun to assume moral responsibility for his own greed, lust, laziness, stupidity, etc., rather than foist all these vices and blemishes upon convenient targets ‘out there’—the ‘war’ does not thereby simply evaporate into thin air. Au contraire! Now one’s soul appropriately becomes the battlefield—rather than the mountain passes of Afghanistan or the streets of Gaza—whereupon ‘the adversary’ is encountered. Of course, to embark upon such an audacious path requires that we be begin to unplug from the ‘normal,’ commonsensical, and popular way of going about things—where all of the problems (and their possible solutions) are believed to be out there, and that as soon as we get rid of Congress, or those evil corporations, this repugnant regime or that despicable race, we will all live in peace, prosperity, and serenity.

Before the modern scientific-technological-consumerist worldview—reductive, outer-directed, popular-based, matter-obsessed, and hedonistic in it fundamental character—succeeded in conscripting the ‘innocent’ hearts and blinkered minds of the Western masses, reflective individuals who unplugged from mundane affairs in order to move the war indoors, where it is properly to be waged, were not automatically and universally regarded as ‘misfits’ or as feckless ‘eccentrics’ by those around them. The contemplative life—a life devoted to self-examination and study rather than to the accumulation of wealth for its own sake, the continual enhancement of sensual pleasures and the avoidance of all inconveniences and hardship—was not generally regarded as a foolish waste of one’s life or a cowardly retreat from the only reality there is. Today—in the present low state to which our dying (and perhaps death-dealing) ‘empire’ has sunk—finding shelter and genuine support for such a quiet, inward-turned life of reflection is like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. But more than this—the man or woman who has managed somehow to ‘see through’ the one-sided, compulsively busy and outer-fixated tendencies and, in doing so, has exposed the emptiness, the futility, and the perilousness of conforming to these norms—such a person soon finds that he has the ‘world against him.’ He may not be threatened with losing his mind-numbing job or his citizenship—with being crucified or barbecued in the public square—even if he opens his mouth and speaks publicly about the urgent and dangerous ‘truths’ he has uncovered. Such punitive measures only made sense in earlier, ‘benighted’ times, when the people and the authorities actually took such silly things seriously! Nowadays, savvy and fashionably cynical little Lilliputians simply avert their squinty eyes and their very large ears from such inscrutable ‘cranks’ and ‘mystics’—robotically turning towards their privately-owned, hand-held or wall-mounted screens. And beholding these screens they see reflected back to them enhanced and better-endowed likenesses of themselves. Nothing too demanding—as Nietzsche told us—“lest it spoil the digestion.”

Branches (6/8/12)

In the act of creating—and then following—the more or less regular, plotted path of our life, we provisionally triumph over the undifferentiated state of mere potentiality out of which we first emerged. As our life takes on its distinctive shape and trajectory—perhaps most of which is automatically foisted upon us by our early environment and reinforced by our education (acculturation)—our acquired habits help to keep us ‘on track.’ From one angle, our mental, emotional, and behavioral habits constitute the primary stabilizers and ‘fixing agents’ holding our personality together, and for this ‘coagulative’ service we typically feel a natural debt. From another angle, these same habits of the heart, mind, and body can be seen functioning as blinders, walls, and dams holding back the waters of the undifferentiated psyche—barring us from a vision of all that we are not, due primarily to these very walls and blinders. Nevertheless, it is only by means of this largely unconscious process of self-limitation and ‘walling ourselves in’ that we are able to develop into moderately cohesive and coherent individual personalities in the first place. The principium individuationis, then, is practically synonymous with our branching off and away from that great river of undifferentiated life—of other possibilities that pass us by as soon as we take a stand and branch off onto our plotted path. Certainly, as branches, we are still attached to that life-giving river, but the thrust of our individual works and explorations point outwards, possibly into as yet uncolonized regions—if we are earnest workers and daring explorers to begin with.

Sticking with this branch image—and now extending it to a tree branch, as well—we can see how the strength and stability of a branch depends on the soundness of its connection to the river or tree from which it emerges. Insofar as it is a branch, its dependency upon its anchoring source is never ‘transcended’ altogether—but the branch can be broken, or cut off from its source. When this happens, it dries up, falls, decomposes, disintegrates. The branch’s value—either in extending the reach of a tree or in bringing life to parched regions through irrigation channels—depends entirely upon its unbroken connection to the main river or the tree.

Similarly with the individual human existence: unless a connection with the undifferentiated psychic energy of the depths is maintained, our ‘branched-off’ lives will surely become narrow, shallow, withered, and weak. The greater the size and reach of the branch—or the reach of the individual life in question—the greater the need for a strong and reliable connection with the life-giving source in the depths.

Limbo and Other Liminal Spaces (11/12/14)

With regard to those outstanding scientists who were at the same time great theoreticians—Archimedes, Copernicus, Keppler, Galileo, Newton, Einstein—we must always attend to the magical mixture of discovery and invention that distinguishes their groundbreaking work. Newton and Einstein required new terms or new means of formulation for the conveyance and expression of the phenomena that were being ‘discovered’—in these cases, gravitational force and relativity.

Doesn’t much the same mixture of discovery and invention apply in the arena of spiritual or religious experience? In order to fully appreciate the significance of what Newton and Einstein accomplished, isn’t it necessary for the student of physics to master the mathematical language and the conceptual apparatus they employed in the setting forth of their respective theories? It is in the mastery of these interpretive inventions that the student equips himself with the proper lens through which he is now in a position to view the ‘discovered’ (or, in some cases, ‘given’) phenomena.[1] Thus, the capable student of physics becomes initiated into that relatively small band of knowers or cognoscenti who have brought their intellects into conscious alignment and accord with the ‘way of things,’ as that way is presented by the theory.[2]

In the vast arena of inner exploration, we find the same, inextricable interdependence between invention and discovery—or, in somewhat broader and more controversial terms, between ‘fiction’ and ‘fact.’ It is chiefly by means of our cultural acquisitions that we make meaningful sense of the natural, or given, phenomena of the outer and inner realms of experience. These invented terms and constructed concepts that are passed on to us during our acculturation or education allow for various degrees of refinement and subtlety, of course. The greater their subtlety, depth, and range, the profounder will be the grasp of the student’s understanding of the inner and outer realms in which he, like everyone else, dwells.

With these simple observations in mind, it is easy to see that understanding is something that allows for enormous variation and depth, depending on how developed one’s functional interpretive scheme is. This is acquired chiefly by study and reflection. The deeper and more extensive the experience and the education, the richer and more comprehensive will be the student’s understanding of the relevant phenomena—and of the entire context within which such phenomena occur. Where such education is coarse-grained and spotty—or lacking altogether—the person’s articulate understanding will be correspondingly dim, narrow, and shallow, even if their intuitive perception is impressive.

It is a well-known fact about the human mind that unless and until it glimpses—and then grasps—a profounder understanding of things than it normally relies upon, it will not be aware of how comparatively dim and restricted its understanding actually is. The sudden burst of ‘inspiration’ (attendant on this extra-ordinary revelation of the depths and the enormous range of knowledge, wisdom, and insight that are always lurking just beyond the limited reach of our ‘educated understanding’ of things) is often both invigorating and demoralizing, inflating and humiliating, at one and the same time. We learn a great deal about someone’s essential character, depending on how he or she responds to such extraordinary glimpses into the ‘heavenly kingdom’ of higher learning and intuitive wisdom. All of us at one time or another have been granted a peek through that majestic doorway that leads into this ‘sacred valley’ of wisdom and learning. Perhaps we glimpsed it in a powerful dream or with the generous assistance of a great poet, sage, philosopher, or psychoactive plant. Was the majesty of the vision so daunting and overwhelming that our spirits were dashed by the unflattering contrast with our own ‘candlelit’ minds? Did we resolve, in that moment of sobering humiliation, never again to venture away from the tidy and well-fortified little plot of mental turf that we could till and harvest for all it was worth?[3]

Or, instead of shrinking back into a prudent determination to stick with the known and the familiar—following our glimpses of these sublime wonders within the palace of wisdom—were the seeds of philosophical yearning within our minds thus germinated, fatefully reorienting the entire course of our life? Though chastened and made modest by what our minds have peeked at, our wills were not demoralized, but excited, by what we glimpsed. Our acute consciousness of the discomfiting gap between our ‘seedling’ minds and this noble forest of higher wisdom instills in us an awareness of the long and arduous path of higher learning ahead of us. We also become uncomfortably aware that this path will lead us in a markedly different direction from many we hold near and dear. One pays dearly for admission into the halls of higher learning. And we cannot know beforehand whether we’ve got what it takes to travel the full distance of this path that calls us. This can only be determined by the severe tests we will undergo along the way. One thing is certain: once we have traveled a considerable distance down the path that leads to higher wisdom, there is no real turning back to the sheltered and uninitiated form of life we have left behind. Nevertheless, some ‘initiates’ will get stuck in limbo—a suspended state where yearning for the divine vision never goes away, despite the fact that one’s feet can advance no further.

What can we say about this limbo state? And, can someone who has become stuck there ever hope—either by his own merits or through the intercession of another—to find release from that state, and a second chance to enter that higher realm of wisdom that lies ahead?

In Dante’s Commedia, the limbo state is the highest condition attainable by unaided human reason. This is certainly no mean accomplishment, but it falls short of the full attainment of divine wisdom, which requires a radical transformation of the will—and not merely the enlightenment of the intellect. Perhaps before the human will can be redemptively transformed, it must be broken. Only after its human propulsion and guidance systems have begun to shut down is it possible for the mind to be reeled into the entirely new center of gravity which grounds and stabilizes supra-human wisdom. From the strictly human perspective, this shift in the center of gravity—this ‘death’ and ‘rebirth’ experience—is utterly and stumpingly paradoxical, if not inimical. There is, let us propose, both human reason and an altogether different kind of ordering scheme that supplants and transcends the horizons of human reason. But there is no way to translate these transcendent, suprahuman experiences and insights into the familiar terms of human reason without egregiously deforming and diluting them. One may as well attempt to express four-dimensional experience in two-dimensional terms. The only way to overcome this problem is for the mind to voluntarily submit to the radical transformation mentioned earlier. It is a leap of faith insofar as it cannot possibly imagine where—or if—it will land after it has leapt. When it leaps it leaves behind forever its exclusive reliance upon the human reason that has carried it this far—and no further. Everything and everyone (including itself) that it has ‘known’ up to this point has been known in terms of criteria and values that are now seen (and felt) to be outgrown, deficient, cramped, reductive, and unequal to the perceptions and experiences it can almost taste, here at the very frontier of its familiar bounds and bearings.

Socrates once said that ‘to philosophize is to learn to die.’ What is the deeper spiritual meaning behind this statement? Mightn’t it be referring to this ‘radical’ transformation and reorientation of the will that must occur before stable access to this higher wisdom is available? One must earn this higher wisdom by voluntarily sacrificing lower, competing forms of mundane ‘know-how’ and interest, right? This divestment from selfish and mundane preoccupations indicates the earnestness of the initiate’s commitment to the disinterested pursuit of spiritual knowledge and understanding. His sacrifice, voluntary privations, and renunciation of social, monetary, sensual preoccupations help to prepare him for the disciplined, solitary work of inner transformation. Not abruptly—and, therefore, not haphazardly and recklessly—but steadily and progressively, he adjusts himself to the new source of strength and spiritual vitality within the depths. Something, to be sure, is withering and falling away from him—but something else, something far more precious, is growing stronger and stronger as the initiate increasingly dedicates his thought, will, and energy to the transformative process that is unmistakably underway.

[1] To ‘dis-cover’ meant to ‘un-cover’ for the Elizabethans. In ancient Greek, the word for ‘truth’ was ‘aletheia’—which meant ‘un-concealed’ or ‘disclosed.’ The common or shared idea here is that that truth is neither plainly evident nor superimposed by the conceptual thinker—but brought out of concealment by an act of mental penetration and unpeeling.

[2] This, in a nutshell, is what Michael Polanyi means by ‘Personal Knowledge’ (in his influential book by that same name), since its occurrence depends on this personal alignment, via theory, of an individual mind with the phenomena viewed by that mind.

[3] As related by Paul Taylor in his book, Zizek and the Media: “An apocryphal story relates how a cop finds a drunk under a street-light looking for his car keys that he dropped on the opposite, dark side of the street. When the cop asks why the drunk is looking for the keys in the wrong place, he receives the defensive retort: ‘Because this is where the light is.’”

On the Artist’s Life (11/27/13-Eureka Springs, Ark.)

Perhaps 90-95 per cent of what I directly know of happiness, well-being, and spiritual enthusiasm has occurred while I was walking, thinking, or writing in solitude. Is this a good thing? Is this a not-so-good thing? I do not even feel tempted to answer such a silly-schizoid pair of questions. You hear people say, ‘If you really want to succeed as a musician, as a poet or a philosopher, you’ve got to pour yourself into it one hundred per cent. I’m not so sure about what they mean by this. When I was young—still in my teens—I opened myself to the creative or artistic spirit inside of me and it seized me. Since then, it has never really released me for more than a brief vacation or a temporary leave of absence before abruptly reeling me back in. If any pouring was going on, it was not me doing the pouring. It has done all the pouring. Over the years it has poured out nearly every bit of me that it cannot use, or that does not suit its tastes or interests. Am I resentful or outraged by this? Can’t say that I am. I defer to its higher tastes and standards. I can only suppose those parts needed to go.

I know a few miserable persons who have a hole where their souls ought to be. Before long, there is likely to be a hole where ‘Paul’ used to be. Is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? I reckon that when this process is finished, there won’t be anybody left to care about it one way or the other—and it has always looked after me, so I’m good with that. Do I even know what it is? In all honesty, I do not. But I surely know when it is present—and when it is not.