Some Thoughts about Thought (3/12/11)

My conception of philosophical thinking is essentially a dramatic or dialectical one—as far removed from a static, uniform, self-consistent explication as possible. Thoughts, ‘positions,’ and statements are principally means to the end of kick-starting and fueling the process of dialectical thinking in the mind and soul of the reader. In themselves, they are inevitably incomplete, partial, fragmentary—and consequently, they are as likely to dampen or to choke the process of dialectical thinking as they are to provoke and nourish it. Whether they help or hinder the process depends in no small part, then, upon the willingness of the reader to move deeper into questions, rather than have them resolved as simply, patly, and expediently as possible. Here, one is entitled, perhaps, to distinguish two contrasting types of readers: one who looks chiefly for explanations and towards an end to questioning; and another who seeks primarily for provocation or stimulation of thought for the sake of pushing the frontier further and further. The ideal piece of writing to issue from my pen would resemble a polarized energy field in its dynamic form or structure. Why is this? The piece would then most likely be capable of sparking or kindling the sort of enquiry (in the reader’s mind) that can burst into the purging, luminous flame of speculative thinking.

I am trying, then, to kick start thinking for its own sake—open-ended thinking. This campaign (modestly approached, but essentially immodest in its ambitions) collides quite dramatically with the widespread, ‘normal’ attitude and practice (at least here in the U.S.). Thinking, for the most part, has a problem-solving character and telos, or aim, in our present-day culture. It has been dubbed ‘pragmatic’ or ‘instrumental’ reason. My own intentions are by no means hostile to pragmatic or instrumental thinking. I am fully aware of the great benefits it has dropped (like a bomb or a golden egg?) upon mankind, especially in the arenas of medicine, technology, and scientific research. I am as grateful as the next person for the role played by instrumental reason in the ‘relief of man’s estate’ (as Francis Bacon, one of the architects of this kind of thinking, so eloquently and—dare I say?—prematurely put it.)

I merely wish to do my small part to help resurrect and resuscitate the dynamic, dialectical, speculative mode of thinking that has largely been eclipsed by instrumental reasoning. Obviously, this eclipse could not have happened if pragmatic thinking had not been so marvelously successful in the arena where its distinctive light and power are most effective—namely in the arena of material events and processes. But the intellectual and material potency of science and instrumental reason has not been able, by itself, to obliterate philosophical, speculative reason from our culture, our educational institutions, and consequently, from our way of approaching reality. There were weaknesses and defects from which philosophical thinking chronically suffered—and it is to everyone’s ultimate benefit, I would argue, that these weaknesses and imperfections be frankly acknowledged, and not elided or swept under the carpet. But that is for another time.

Quietism and Activism (8/14/12)

Like most persons, no doubt, who give Chris Hedges a sympathetic reading, I come away from his writings in an agitated state. I am morally outraged by the evils and injustices that he so provocatively documents. Despite many inner resistances, I am nudged by his galvanizing rhetoric to go out and act on behalf of numberless victims in organized, defiant opposition to the corporate, governmental, and other institutional victimizers. The essays and books are a ‘trumpet call to war’ against the bad guys. While Hedges is not so crudely and buffoonishly black and white in his ‘us versus them’ moral dichotomy as Joe McCarthy was—or, for that matter, certain idiotic demagogues from the Christian right and the imperialistic neo-cons—he certainly comes close to advocating (and trying to incite) class war, if he doesn’t actually cross the line. He tells us to ‘rise up and resist or become serfs.’ It sounds like he’s jonesing for a slave rebellion and that he’s just itching for a modern-day Spartacus to gather an army of disgruntled, marginalized Americans who have nothing left to lose.

All this to make the simple point: I, for one, do not come away from Hedges’ books feeling more centered or more inwardly prepared to deal with the dismal situation we are all in today. His rousing, high-octane agitprop, his nimble command of disquieting facts and his impressive erudition tend to compete with my love for inner centeredness and calm detachment.

In the introduction to The World As It Is, he writes:

I have never sought to be objective. How can you be objective about death squads in El Salvador, massacres in Iraq, or Serbian sniper fire that gunned down unarmed civilians, including children, in Sarajevo? How can you be neutral about the masters and profiteers of war who lie and dissemble to hide the crimes they commit and the profits they make? How can you be objective about human pain? And, finally, how can you be objective about those responsible for this suffering? I am not neutral about rape, torture, or murder. I am not neutral about rapists, torturers, or murderers. I am not neutral about George W. Bush or Barack Obama, who under international law are war criminals. And if you had to see the butchery of war up close, as I did for nearly two decades, you would not be neutral either. (xii)

Now I may be wildly wrong here, but it seems to me that two great spiritual exemplars this benighted planet has miraculously produced—Jesus of Nazareth and Gautama Buddha—were both quite objective about the villainy and the suffering that continue to thrive within this decentered and chronically imbalanced species. Buddha explicitly stated that all life is suffering and that the two fundamental forces that are responsible for our suffering are fear and cupidity, or restless desire. Jesus’ words and example exhort us to ‘resist not evil’ and to ‘love your enemy.’ The result of mentally transcending the pendulum swing between fear and desire is a state of poised centeredness, or, in Buddhist parlance, nirvana. Through cultivated quietness and concentration on the stillpoint at the center of our ‘cyclonic’ existence, consciousness becomes established within the silent, uncompelled eye of this hurricane. The winds still roar and sweep violently throughout the periphery, and will always do so, since that is the ‘objective’ nature of things out beyond the serenity of the immovable axis, or hub, of the inner cosmos. One remains subjected to the ever-recurring clashes and conflicts of competing wills unless and until he learns how to loosen up his sticky attachments to those swirling and bubbling forms—either good or evil, alluring or frightening, noble or base—and sinks, slowly and impersonally, into the center, beyond the fray—beyond the moral and political heroics of the armed conflict of good against evil. Such compassionate detachment—as the examples of Buddha and Christ demonstrate—involves the symbolic death of the personal self, along with all of its attachments. These attachments are of all types and degrees: physical, emotional, ideational, aesthetic, familial, national, ethnic, doctrinal, etc. All must ultimately be tossed into the fire. I have a vision of this process—and this vision of ongoing renunciation and surrender serves as the ‘hidden hand’ that guides my otherwise insignificant little life. From time to time I lose my way, but the vision returns and my spirit is restored.

My sense about Hedges is that he is still so passionately invested in his moral-political crusade that perhaps he has become blind to the unwinnability of this ‘permanent state of war’ that is the ‘objective nature of things’ in the periphery—in the natural and merely human realms. Even the most eloquent writers and thinkers of moral conviction, such as Hedges, must ultimately face the crushing realization that they are beating their heads—and the heads of their entranced followers—against a very solid wall. I should perhaps confess that it is my view that human, all-too-human experience in the natural and moral-political worlds is, at bottom, purgatorial and infernal. Our experience here is meant to teach us a hard but liberating lesson: that liberation from the suffering and the inevitable dissatisfactions that are inherent in a consciously lived human life will never be attained either by fulfilling our instinctual human cravings or killing off all our enemies. It comes, if at all, only by psychologically transcending those cravings and fears, since these are the very ligaments binding us to the turbulent, peripheral world whose very nature is suffering, self-consumption, and ceaseless change.

In offering this brief sketch of a rather uncommon response to the suffering and injustice that are inherent in ordinary human existence (when that existence is meditated on deeply and with unflinching honesty, such as Shakespeare and Dante, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, brought to their work)—I sketch a response that is very different from those of Hedges, Chomsky, Zinn, Nader, Sanders, and other valiant champions of the underdogs and victims of deceit and injustice. I do not for a moment wish to undervalue or disparage their commendable and courageous efforts. The fact that such noble and morally upright champions of truth and justice reach so deeply under my skin with their words and deeds makes it clear to me that I am no stranger to the anger and disgust they feel towards the miserable state of affairs that unbridled human greed, willful ignorance, willful deception, laziness, and cruelty present us with. Such spirited and intelligent critics, whistle-blowers, and dissenters—even when they are shunned and ignored by the very citizens they faithfully serve, or are marginalized and jeered at by the corporate media and power elite they expose and indict—provide a priceless service in reminding us of the unflattering truths about ourselves as a species. They are generally ignored or despised precisely because they hold the mirror up to us and show us—wherever we happened to be situated within the wide range of human fortunes—what part we play in this global mess we are in. Our ‘sins’ may be more of omission than commission—more the result of passive conformity to deplorable norms than of the virulent, aggressive evil that we see in the pernicious puppeteers and profiteers who design and command the systems of exploitation and planetary degradation.

Admittedly, my response tends to be that of a quietist, and not of a political activist or a moralizing Cato. The response of the quietest to socio-political, cultural, and economic breakdown is nothing new or unprecedented. Quietism—whether in the ancient Epicureans or Cynics, Christian mystics or Taoists in China, Vedantists and Buddhists in India and Tibet, or Sufism in Persia and Andalusia—has a long, if understated, history. For the quietist, the ‘war,’ ‘contest,’ or ‘agon’ is ultimately interior and great care is taken to avoid projecting or externalizing the source of the conflict outside, for to do so is to fall into a snare or trap. Satan’s third temptation of Christ and Mara’s temptation of the Buddha symbolize this snare, whereby the spiritual man is tempted to locate the source, both of trouble and salvation, in ‘the world as it is.’ The quietist gently but continually strives to unfetter his spirit, his mind, his heart, and his allegiance from outer, sensory world phenomena/persons and to establish his consciousness in the center, where the pairs of opposites are harmonized. When the various pairs of opposites are reconciled in this way, dualisms and warring antitheses are, as it were, dissolved in the process. At last, unity is known. In this grounding experience of unity, we have the compelling sense, or recognition, that there is nothing to do and no-where to go. All is already done. All is present. I have been fortunate enough to have experienced this condition of blissfully contented oneness numerous times throughout my life. It always serves as a profound reminder of the ultimate futility of seeking salvation and true fulfillment outside of myself in the social, moral, political, and economic realms. Other humans cannot deliver it to us—or us to it. Sensual pleasures and worldly honors are dim shadows and poor substitutes for the contentment of enlightened centeredness. After genuinely experiencing this condition of inner balance and blessedness—and recognizing where our happiness is authentically located—we gradually learn to pull up stakes in the outer world, reducing our investment in its false promises and its deceptive allurements. Eventually, our loyalty and our psychic center of gravity shifts, or pivots, and the plodding, determined, liberating work of uprooting our souls from the purgatorial realm of human life proceeds apace. But only when we’re ready.

Sex, Politics, and Religion (1/25/17)

Perhaps I am speaking here only for or about myself…but I’ll say it anyway: politics, like religious/moral controversy and the tensions inherent in romantic “love,” is yet another snare in which the unwary souls of men may easily become caught. It is precisely the drama and conflict – even when guided inwardly by a quest for resolution, peace, and harmony – that catch us and bind us, is it not? For it is in these dramatic struggles/conflicts that we are best enabled to display our keen reasoning skills; our knowledge of this, that, and the other; our additional virtues (even of “compassionate understanding” of the bigoted and biased ignoramuses we are obliged to wrestle and wrangle with).

It is my “educated” guess that when and where peace and harmony are achieved in the political, romantic/erotic, and religious arenas, this peace is short-lived. There is just enough of a respite for all the players to catch their breath and refresh themselves for the next round in the ring. So, what I have started to suspect is that instead of looking for harmony and equilibrium to prevail within these inherently dramatic and conflictual arenas, we are better advised to retain only the most limited and carefully monitored investments in these problematic realms. What this means, of course, is that if peace and harmony are truly desired above all else, our love of personal display (of our carefully cultivated and cosmetically enhanced – take that as you will – virtues and assets) will have to be soberly and sternly addressed, will it not? For if my (clever and display-worthy!) detective work has exposed the real culprits here, it is vanity, pride, and personal will to power that are chiefly responsible for pulling us, again and again, out onto the contest floor.

The Birthright (1/24/17)

The better part of what the thinker-poet does consists, of course, in suitably matching his available inventory of words, concepts, and metaphors with the more or less steady stream of nebulous seed-intuitions, moods, affects, and perspectives that mysteriously arise from “God knows where.” If truth be told, it is this cloud-like mysterium that assigns the terms and conditions of the relationship, and not the thinker-poet, who is little more than an obliging vessel, a capable servant, and a talented translator of a kind of text without words. Sticking with the image of the cloud (“the raincloud of knowable things”), the mind of the philosopher-poet achieves the “dew point,” enabling these vaporous possibilities to undergo condensation into fluid images and metaphors. It is precisely here that meaning is born.

To employ a different extended metaphor to depict this ongoing oscillation between impregnation and delivery that is always at the core of the creative life: at first, the mind of the thinker-poet and the mysterium are juxtaposed like ovum and sperm.  Following insemination, the developing “embryo” gestates within the watery womb of the philosopher-poet’s imagination. While there, this embryo recaps, figuratively speaking, the intermediate stages (“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”) through which our primordial ancestors clawed and gnawed, slithered and groped, their crooked way to that self-reflexive angel-beast, the human being.  When the moment of delivery arrives, there should be no confusion about what sort of creature has been born. Its past is hidden within its present shape—a long and eventful past has been condensed and woven together in such promising, but fragile children. What you have just read is but a modest example of such a “condensation” – an enactment, if you will.

I have called attention to the seemingly privileged creature, the “thinker-poet” – as though he or she were singled out and specially entrusted with a sacred office: namely, to usher this precious, vital substance into a cultural arena that craves meaning just as hungrily as our bodies crave salt. But make no mistake: all of us, by virtue of our human status, are, without exception, endowed with this sacred office and – if anything is deserving of the term – divine potential. It is our birthright as humans, regardless of the actual scope, depth, and quality of our daily engagement in the work of meaning-creation. This charge or privilege is thrust upon us whether or not we lovingly and gratefully embrace it. But to deny this birthright may prove to be the greatest “sin” we can commit against ourselves and against the mysterium that has inexplicably permitted us, however fleetingly, to appear as individual, conscious creators.

All of us are endowed, from birth, with instincts that propel, roughly define, and guide much of our thought and behavior. When these innate drives and instincts suffer trauma or if they regularly overpower us, problems ensue. Analogously, if our innate meaning-creating capacity remains dormant or becomes damaged and deformed by misuse or mis-education, serious problems arise. We know, intuitively, that a healthy human existence depends, to a large extent, upon awakened, functioning, balanced drives and instincts. I would further suggest that each of us – provided we’ve got a certain amount of experience and reflection under our belts – is equipped with all that is necessary to recognize and to follow his/her calling. Our calling or vocation is not necessarily the professional career path we follow to earn a living (although often enough they coincide), but neither are we talking here about mere hobbies or recreational activities we pursue in our spare time. Our calling or vocation (as this word is used in a religious context) may be said to serve as a kind of portal or gateway between the individual and the much larger whole of which he/she is a part. So we can see here that, rather than being something secondary or peripheral to our life or fate, our innate calling is every bit as essential to our psychic or spiritual well-being as food and shelter are to our physical well-being.

Moreover, while roughly distinguishable, these two arenas – the physical/external and the psychic/internal – are not separate, but constitute two sides of a single coin. Thus, problems or imbalances on one side of the coin invariably lead to problems and imbalances on the other. Sociopathy and depression appear to be the prevalent disorders today. Mightn’t both of these widespread maladies stem, in large part, from the failure of a significant portion of the population to have recognized and followed its innate calling? And, it will be asked, to what extent has our present culture – with its peculiar, lopsided aims and methods of “education” – actively contributed to this widespread psychological malaise? Does such an unnatural and psychologically pernicious system even deserve to be called a “culture”? Or is it not more accurate to call it a breeding ground for disease – every bit as unhygienic for human souls as the mosquito-filled marshes, rat-infested slums, and unsanitary conditions of the past were for the bodies of our forebears? Have we rid ourselves of one set of unsanitary conditions only to replace them with another – on the plane of psyche?

Sharkness and Whaleness (3/22/10-Buenos Aires)

In certain respects, the ego may be likened to a shark—a solitary predator, an efficient killing and eating machine. Not terribly bright and joyful (like the dolphin) or profound (like the whale) but focused, ever on the lookout, single-minded. Even when it is obliged—by the survival instinct —to team up in schools with other sharks, it does so only under a kind of duress, never feeling quite able to bond, fully and permanently, with its own kind. All bonds are ultimately provisional, expedient, and subject to change without notice. The shark is the ultimate consumer. And what strong (and often unconcealable) teeth they have!

Wholeness is not something cobbled together like a Frankenstein monster, assembled from various dead organs and dismembered limbs that have been gathered into a pile and stitched together by an ambitious and hard-working but clumsy shark. Wholeness is perhaps not so much a manufactured thing as a matured or metamorphosed thing—although its discovery may be made, piecemeal, in a long sequence of stages. And while there may be considerable effort involved along the way, it is probably more accurate to describe it as something conferred by grace. If there are disciplines that we can undertake—exercises we may perform—that raise our chances of catching a glimpse of wholeness, these have less to do with capturing it than with eliminating and learning not to be distracted by those commonplace obstacles that block our vision of the wholeness that is always there, potentially, within us. In this sense, wholeness is more likely to be divined by those who have the spiritual audacity to regularly turn a deaf ear to the siren song of ego preoccupations. No sharking through lonely or busy regions of the fallen world of consumable goods and human beings for those who want nothing more than to distance themselves from this game. But to be able, thus, to deafen oneself to such an orgiastic frenzy of ravenous consumption requires considerable strength of resolve. In the shark game, one either plays or he/she gets played. While in the game, one cannot for a moment lower his guard or displease one’s guardians who, in most cases, are simply, if unconsciously, preying upon us. So, from within the shark game it is difficult to make the case for wholeness, while it is very easy to make a case for satiety and security—albeit with the understanding that a full stomach doesn’t stay full any longer than a safe situation remains safe.

Must we infer from this that anyone who seeks wholeness must gradually but thoroughly withdraw from the consuming game that spellbinds the denizens of the fallen world? Is it possible to remain present within this puppeteered world of predation and consumption without being caught up in the game—without being confined psychologically by the rules of the game?

Delvers (6/19/15)

The deepest insights into life might very well be de-personalizing in the strict sense, if only because they momentarily jolt us from our limited personal prejudices, plans, and peculiarities. The deepest moments of understanding saturate our little sponge-minds with the great lessons learned by life of life—or, if we may be permitted to speak mythologically—with the insights won by the Gods about their own natures, and that of their joint emanation, the cosmos.

Yes, the diminutive human sponge-mind can soak up the life-enhancing waters from these subterranean streams that course like vitalizing blood through veins deep below the desert sands. But these pure, cool draughts of the water of archetypal insight are enjoyed at a price by those who dig down to the depths where the waters gather and flow. Henceforth, the desert above will no longer be seen other than as it is—a harsh and, for the most part, sterile wasteland where scarce goods, honors, and clean water are constantly being fought over by the many who know little or nothing about delving or about conserving the precious allotted water they have. Moreover, the carefully monitored and controlled reservoirs on the desert surface are so thoroughly contaminated with filth, toxins, and heavy metals—they are more successful, over time, at inducing insanity and slow snuffing out than at sustaining and nourishing health.

Perhaps one of the most shocking—but ultimately liberating—insights attained by the dedicated delver is that the deepest understanding is not chiefly for the person, but for the indwelling consciousness that is subtly and gradually being liberated from the ‘person.’ And, of course, this disturbing insight can only be registered as a profoundly crushing disappointment so long as the indwelling spirit mistakenly believes that it is the person—or that its awareness is exclusively confined to the person. And this is precisely as it should be—since no real liberation can be possible until that mistaken belief (or identification) is disrupted or shattered. This shattering necessarily and unavoidably feels like death…and resurrection, since the collapse of the personal, ‘interested’ standpoint is followed by the emergence of a more impersonal, selfless one. Here, in Christian terminology, we can see how ‘crucifixion’ and ‘conversion’ are, in a sense, one and the same—since death and rebirth are the ‘pivotal’ elements.

Thus, in seeking spiritual wisdom, the person—perhaps half-wittingly—seeks its own destruction or dissolution, which is the necessary prelude to authentic liberation from itself. Therefore, from the ego’s point of view, the paths of genuine philosophy (search for the highest/deepest truth) and of genuine spirituality (release from avidya, or ignorance) are, in a manner of speaking, suicidal. They make no authentic appeal to the merely self-interested ego since nothing threatens or mocks its desires, plans, and purposes so effectively as the corrosive acid of truth that eats away and tarnishes all metals but the pure gold of selfless submission to the incorruptible and inviolable truth. This may shed some light upon Christ’s cryptic saying, ‘I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.’ That sword slices a clean line of distinction between the ready and the unready—between those who can hear and those whose ears are full of the din of the desert-world above the cool, ever-flowing subterranean streams of cleansing, impersonal truth.

Reflections on Culture and Individuation (8/29/15)

An eviscerated or exhausted culture is like a ‘retired,’ grounded airplane; a permanently decommissioned warship; or a frozen locomotive in a park or museum. The general public is allowed to board these vessels and gawk at their innards and obsolete mechanisms. But they are ultimately no more than defunct relics from an earlier time—a time when they soared above the earth, traversed the broad landscape, or braved the open seas.

The diseased, enervated culture that we moderns have inherited in the West consists of a broad array of outmoded artifacts and charming relics from the past. We are no more able to transport ourselves back to that culturally thriving past than we are capable of returning to the precise circumstances and the peculiar form of consciousness we suffered or enjoyed as kindergarteners or teenagers. As with the defunct cultural forms left over from the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance eras, these earlier phases in our personal biographies have left us with memories, scars, souvenirs, and relics—but they no longer contain and sustain us as implicitly trustworthy living modalities.

If I am more or less correct in my depiction of our shared predicament, what follows? Are we irrevocably condemned to inhabit a kind of cultural graveyard or museum where everything we behold has died and been mummified, like beautiful stuffed animals whose souls have departed, for us to wonder at but never to fully and authentically experience in their once living forms? It is important to realize that these once living forms have been unplugged from the inside, whether we are conscious of this fact or not. There may be a good deal of ‘juice’ within us, collectively, but it is not being chiefly allocated to cultural forms—in the deeper sense invoked here—but to merely economic and instinctual ones. Another word for this is ‘barbarization.’

But—to approach this whole question from a radically different direction—let us ask: “What would the full and proper ‘use’ of culture by a human being look like?” I raise this question because after formulating the foregoing thoughts, it occurred to me that the relationship with culture can be understood in both a passive-adaptive and an active-creative sense. And while it may be necessary or unavoidable to begin with an adaptive assimilation of one’s given cultural inheritance—in whatever state of vitality or decrepitude we find it—this is certainly not the limit of what can achieved by an imaginative or creative spirit.

What chiefly distinguishes the passive-adaptive conformity with one’s cultural inheritance from an active-creative relationship is the attainment of liberation, by the creative spirit, from the deadening effects of the literalizing perspective. When regarded from the literal-reductive standpoint, all products of culture—high or low, refined or vulgar, esoteric or exoteric—are, in a sense, soulless artifacts or merely formal structures. And this is true whether one happens to be living in Periclean Athens, 2nd century Alexandria, Medieval Burgundy, Quatrocento Florence, Elizabethan London, or among the ‘Last Men’ who wander about the ‘Wasteland’ mapped by elegiacs, like Nietzsche, Eliot, and the portly Harold Bloom.

Those who will be most powerfully motivated to engage in an active-creative relationship with some aspect of culture or another are likely to be those persons who find their own cultural inheritance painfully deficient in the particular nutrients they require in order to thrive. Such spirits will be driven from within by a yearning that can only be satisfied by the ongoing, disciplined creation or resurrection of those cultural forms which adequately answer this mysterious need that springs up from deep inside of them. So long as this hunger remains unidentified and unmet, the lives of such exceptional spirits will either have something spurious about them or they will be inwardly tormented—or both. If their actual surroundings and cultural conditions afford only the scantiest opportunities for the germination of the spiritual-imaginative seeds within their famished, uncanny souls, they are likely to feel alienated from their fellows, who appear to be content with conditions and resources that the yearning-burning soul finds unpalatable or insultingly inadequate. He will be on the lookout for a mentor or an exemplar who can offer him guidance and support in his inner quest for proper nourishment.

This initial search will lead him in the general direction of that aspect of culture for which his native endowment is best suited. It may be music, painting, filmmaking, or philosophy. It could be mathematics, science, psychology, political theory, or literature that speaks to him—that calls him. But whatever his ‘vocation,’ whatever arena of cultural creativity his yearning and natural gifts lead him to, this particular art, science, or discipline will gradually come to serve as the alchemical vessel in which his soul is nourished and transformed.

Here, I would suggest, is the compelling rationale behind our Western emphasis upon individuation—the full development and efflorescence of individual consciousness. It should be remembered here that individuated consciousness is not synonymous with merely personal or idiosyncratic consciousness, but necessarily pertains to the more or less articulate and intelligible expression of archetypal motifs and contents through the vessel of the individual human life. Thus, the transformed soul becomes the expressive embodiment, not merely of ‘peculiar,’ personalistic notions, values, tastes, and so forth—but of collective factors that pertain to human existence as such—here, there, now, and always.

As we know, in the East there has traditionally been a de-emphasis of the individual human ego and a corresponding emphasis placed upon impersonal or transcendent factors. Nevertheless, there can be no denying that it is precisely the struggling human ego—or limited, individual consciousness—that becomes the battlefield upon which the all-important spiritual transformation takes place—and takes time. Take away the battlefield—or prematurely eliminate all those raw materials (that comprise the ingredients out of which human ego-consciousness is formed) and you can have no transformation of consciousness. Jung rightly teaches that mere passive adaptation to given cultural conditions adds up to squandered spiritual-creative potential—but so is a passive surrender to—or blissful, ego-dissolving identification with—the void. If, in the East, we are encouraged to blot out or starve the ego so that we may more quickly and finally be liberated from individual consciousness, in the West we are taught something quite different. Here we are encouraged to fully explore and experience what the path of individual development and creativity has to offer as an equally reliable means of transcending merely personal consciousness. In other words, both paths point to transcendence of the limitations inherent in personal consciousness—but on the Western path this is followed with our eyes open and observing the transformation process in archetypal terms, or gradual stages of unfoldment. In Advaita, it is taught that such stages and levels pertain only to the mind and—as mental phenomena—are ultimately unreal and may be dispensed with or leapt over.

 

Puzzlement (1/25-26/12; 2/8/12)

Liken the contemporary American cultural situation to an unfinished jigsaw puzzle laid out on a coffee table. A few sections of the puzzle have been completed, and they sit like modest-sized islands of isolated coherence and intelligibility upon the table. These completed sections are not connected, of course, to any other parts—and, what’s worse, the persons who are working on the puzzle do not possess a clear image of what the finished result is supposed to look like! For some who are working on the puzzle, the lack of a preexistent image of the final result has produced a sense of enormous exhilaration and excitement, while for others this absence of a guiding model is deeply vexing, almost paralyzing. Nevertheless, there is a general, shared belief that all of the pieces are present on the table—and that if everyone proceeds methodically and patiently, the successful working out of the puzzle will eventually take place.

Now, sticking with this simple analogy for our present cultural difficulties and challenges, let us expand it a bit and raise some additional questions of interest. For starters, how did it come about that these persons are without any foreknowledge of what the completed image is supposed to look like? This situation deviates from the normal state of affairs, where we are equipped at the outset with a picture of a gorgeous rural landscape, a pleasant village scene, a royal portrait, or some other worthy image—a structured and organized gestalt that guides our selection and placement of the pieces randomly scattered about the table.

And, given these unusual starting conditions, why is it that some at the table find reason to rejoice, while others feel utterly stumped and obstructed by the very same conditions? Do some rejoice because privately they disbelieve that such a guiding model or completed image has an a priori existence—and that by inventing or creating the final image (even if it means forcing some of the pieces together or deforming them, as with the bed of Procrustes, in order to make them fit), they will be revered and commemorated as great founders and lawgivers? And do those who feel deeply troubled by the absence of a guiding image worry precisely because of this arbitrary power usurped by their ambitious and inventive fellows? Doesn’t this work upon the puzzle seem far too important and consequential to be consigned to the unguided hands of self-interested human beings? For such troubled participants, an even deeper question eventually takes shape: ‘Can the image we are working on with this puzzle actually be constructed—or mustn’t it be divined?’

Can these two seemingly opposed approaches be reconciled—if not logically, then psychologically; if not rationally, then artfully or metaphorically?

*****

A variety of suggestions and questions can be generated by the jigsaw puzzle analogy—as an image of the present condition of our culture:

  1. As we have noted, some persons favor (or feel the intense need for) a given, preexistent image or goal that guides the cooperative assembly of the puzzle pieces, while others (who doubt the preexistence of such an authoritative image or goal) seek to invent such a goal and then convince or, if necessary, compel their fellows to cooperate in bringing it into being with the available puzzle pieces. For the sake of convenience, we might call the first lot ‘transcendentalists’ (since, for them, the preexistent goal transcends mere human invention and arbitrary will) and the second lot ‘pragmatists,’ since they rely solely upon human ingenuity and instrumental reason to guide and assist their efforts.
  2. Both the ‘transcendentalists’ and the ‘pragmatists’ are in agreement about the obvious fact that no guiding image or blueprint for the puzzle assembly is present to hand for all to refer (or defer) to and that such an orienting image must somehow be supplied. Otherwise, the haphazard or controversial arrangement of the individual pieces will continue, causing ceaseless bickering and disagreement among those at the table. Both groups, then, greatly prefer the acquisition of this guiding model, rather than relentless, arbitrary contention between the participants. As the contention and the bickering intensify, a growing number of the participants from both camps become so exasperated that they are tempted to withdraw altogether from the task at hand. But, being aware of how enormous the stakes are for mankind—depending on which group gets the upper hand in this urgent enterprise—they defiantly hold onto their places at the table.
  3. The transcendentalists are, for the most part, traditionalists, for they believe that the guiding image for the puzzle has simply been lost or forgotten and must be recovered, not invented. More importantly—from their traditionalist vantage point—this precious and sacred guiding image was lost or forgotten in the first place because of general neglect that came about under the influence of their anti-traditional rivals, the innovative Why, it will be asked, was the traditional image or blueprint for the puzzle neglected, and even discredited, under the powerful cultural influence of the innovative new breed of pragmatists?
  4. Although a significant number of these influential innovators called themselves ‘deists,’ they were in fact merely humanists. The deity behind deism was a kind of mechanical clock-maker who set the material universe (and all its creatures, including man) into motion, but then backed off and remained aloof from human and terrestrial affairs—just the sort of ‘reduced’ and unmeddlesome deity that was made to order for the anti-traditional humanist innovators and social engineers. The old personal, involved, and anthropomorphic deity had to be displaced—or at least thoroughly ‘rationalized’ and naturalized—in order to make plenty of room for the ‘human, all-too-human,’ thoroughly mundane plans and purposes of the new breed. It is fair to say that these innovators successfully commandeered Western culture over the past few dramatic centuries. Their impact has been so sweeping and decisive that the former ways of living, of seeing, of valuing, and of understanding have largely been forgotten in the modern West. One must swim ceaselessly against the current or burrow ‘underground’ in order to obtain a glimpse into the lost world of our pre-modern ancestors. But it is only after we have undertaken such ‘unpopular’ quests for generally discredited, ‘obsolete’ knowledge that we, for the first time, place ourselves in a position to see modernity with any degree of critical objectivity. Only by recovering these lost ways of seeing, valuing, feeling, and understanding—only then are we in a position to assess the losses and the damage that our souls have collectively sustained as a consequence of this ‘successfully’ severed connection with our own cultural past and the traditions that once provided a context for meaning and value for the lives of our forebears. This meaning and value is not something we can simply or easily produce from the radically deficient soil that presently supports the disinherited, materialist conditions we restlessly and skittishly inhabit—our ‘anti-culture.’
  5. Taking a closer look at these anti-traditional, atheistic or agnostic innovators, we find a variety of types under the large canopy of ‘humanist.’ Some are animated by a genuinely optimistic estimation of ordinary, rationally self-interested human beings, while others are cynical and see humans merely as creatures of appetite, lust, and power drives which are precariously held in check by the triple threats of legal punishment, guilt, and social ostracism. But both are of one mind in placing man at the summit of the known (material) universe, even if it is ultimately the summit of a dunghill or a strategic plateau whereupon he is best able to command the heights overlooking a squalid, teeming, dog-eat-dog valley below. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, the more optimistic sort prevailed, but after the genocidal wars of the last one hundred years, the near evaporation of noble values and exemplars, the proliferation of a vulgar form of atomized, mass, crass consumerist culture, and the steep decline of intellectual and spiritual culture, the cynical or pessimistic sort has gained ascendancy, seizing nearly complete control over the present political and socio-economic realms. This cynical greed- and power-driven system of manipulation, exploitation, and control of the ignorant and gullible masses has, in effect, taken the place of culture in the West. Even if the method of controlling the masses is closer in spirit to that of Huxley’s (pleasure-based system outlined in) Brave New World than to Orwell’s grim, paranoiac scheme in 1984—as Neil Postman suggests in his worthy little book, Amusing Ourselves to Death—the end results are much the same. Ironically, what may have begun with a ‘humanist’ philosophy has ‘progressively’ degenerated into a palpably dehumanized, subhuman system of mass manipulation and exploitation. Geopolitical directives, economic and technological affairs now thoroughly dominate and preoccupy the minds and bodies of the sheepish, soulless multitudes and their lupine, fleecing leaders. Culture and religious faith, along with the literary, visual and performance arts, formerly provided a kind of shelter or refuge for the non-economical, a-political, and comparatively ‘disinterested’ parts of our ancestors’ souls—but today these cultural protections (against our being reduced merely to consumers and pawns for political manipulation) have been effectively appropriated or conscripted into the service of socio-political, entertainment-related, and economic systems of mass control—and, in the process, much of their former power has been lost. Even our presidents are former actors, reality TV show hosts—in a word, ‘entertainers.’
  6. If, by the same token, we take a closer look at the traditionalists, we find that there is a large—if not a unanimous—consensus that religion (and in the West this means the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition) provides the guidance and orientation that mere human beings cannot provide. In other words, a divine or supernatural dimension of the universe is acknowledged, lorded over by a deity who is not aloof but deeply involved in His creation, within which man occupies a crucial place and office. This large group may then be divided between a relatively small minority for whom spiritual experience is direct, unmediated, and thoroughly authentic, and a much larger majority who sincerely place their faith in a literal reading of the Book itself, along with its teachings (without, however, feeling a direct or individual connection with the divine dimension).
  7. To return to our puzzle analogy and the absent image or goal—which must serve as guide and orienter for those who are trying to assemble the pieces properly: we may now be in a suitable position to speculate upon what this model would need to contain within itself if it is to provide the basis or ground for a vital culture that is responsive to more than just our economic and entertainment needs. Since a healthy and wholesome culture must be able to offer place, value, and meaning to a variety of different human types—at all levels of physical, moral, and spiritual development—it must be both comprehensive and complex.

*****

Plato was certainly onto something profound when, in the Republic, he developed his analogy between the healthy human soul and the ideal city. He saw these two as mirror images of one another—macrocosm and microcosm. The health of a predominant number of individual souls would be reflected in wise and just laws for the city, and the city with wise and just laws would provide the best education for healthy and just souls.

If we approach our jigsaw problem from this fruitful direction, we can see that what is absent is a generally accepted idea (or ideal) of the ‘best sort of human being.’ It is this image that guides the work of puzzle construction. But where does it come from? It almost certainly is the image of individual human types writ large. The ‘economic’ man sees a money-making scheme at the ‘end’ of the work, while an honor-loving man sees something very different indeed, and he cannot help but regard the money-preoccupied man with a heaping measure of contempt. The philosopher-saint, in turn, sees a very different image than either the gain-driven man or the honor-seeking man. The preponderance of one type or another establishes the general character and trajectory of the regime.

It should be evident that the ‘lower sort’ of human life—and not the nobler sorts—has stamped the modern West in its image. The fact that we live in a plutocratic or oligarchic (money-dominated) scheme should not fool us into believing that our tastes—from corrupt top to crass and raffish bottom—are not equalitarian through and through. There is practically nothing nobly aristocratic about life in this country—in the arts, in politics, in spirituality, in our values. It is all about comfort, material security, and convenience for the self-interested individual consumer-particle. As a people, we are busy, restless, and narrow in our knowledge and shallow in our understanding of everything beyond the tiny sphere of our pressing personal interests or our blinkered immediate experience. Serious, broad education—rigorous personal discipline and self-sacrifice—a cultivated disdain for all debasing distractions and petty pursuits—the rare ability to stand alone—the will and determination to think and feel for oneself, by oneself: most of these basic requirements (for a nobly individuated existence) are conspicuously ignored not only by the ordinary person today (which has probably always been the case) but even by the leaders and exemplars (which is a rather more serious matter).

 

Going it Alone (2/11/11)

What comfort can my companions (those of them who are not ready to make the sacrifices demanded of a rigorously philosophical life) really avail me? At best, it is like the ambiguous comfort that innocent and unbroken little children offer to their all-too-knowing parents. In other words, their sweetness momentarily distracts us from the saltiness that we must abide with most of the time. The sweetness is a welcome respite, a fleeting distraction from the solitary burden of our starker, subtler, and far less ‘innocent’ consciousness. But such short-lived and—let us admit it!—skin-deep comforts are gently mocked by the sobering individual consciousness that we voluntarily pledged to deepen and extend long ago. We did not know then—how on earth could we have?—where our burden would carry us. We did not anticipate how many of those companions and fellow travelers who started out on the journey by our sides, would drop off, turn back, abandon us, and even turn against us—wrongly assuming that we abandoned them rather than the other way around! We had to learn, did we not, that bewailing and smoldering over these painful losses, betrayals, and disappointments would only freeze us in place and bring an end to our own journey, if we were not careful. We were destined to be alone from the start precisely for taking the side of the ‘individual’ in us over and against the herd animal—against all that was mere species in us, with all its noisy commands and its delicate seductions. It is this transformative recognition and slow digestion of our inescapable aloneness that ultimately helps to free us from the resentment and self-pity which would otherwise surely embitter us and swallow up what remains of our by no means limitless vitality. We have to give up our hopes in others before we can be liberated from our despair of them. They cannot save us from our difficult and solitary path with their promises, but neither can they prevent us from resuming that path after they have broken the promises they could never fulfill in the first place. In any event, they cannot take our ‘cup’ from us.

Jean Paul Sartre wrote ‘Hell is other people’—and to the extent that he actually believed this, he was perhaps unequal to the crucifixion that must be willingly endured by the would-be individual if he is to be transfigured—to achieve a decisive triumph over all that is merely collective and merely ‘species’ in himself. Of course, he does not seek to kill these parts of himself any more than the accomplished horseman seeks to kill the horse he rides upon.

Feelings: Orthodox and Heterodox (11/19/10)

When we claim that feelings as such tend to be conservative, we are implying that most of the time feeling follows the well-worn pathways of habit, convention, and custom. When we feel anger or indignation, for example, over some perceived ‘wrong’ committed against us or against someone else, very often we can see upon closer analysis that the criteria or context within which our angry reaction occurs similarly inform and govern many persons around us. There is much, then, that is collective, generally distributed, and not in the least bit unique or individual about these criteria, these standards which have been affronted or offended, and which provide an archetypal structure or context for our angry reaction. We can call it whatever we like—peer pressure or the internalization of collective values and norms. By noting the collective or societal components of these feelings and affective reactions that we all display, I certainly do not mean to throw into question the sincerity or the felt reality of these reactions. Nor do I mean to dispute the legitimacy or authenticity of such feelings and affects, simply because—far from being unique or individualized—they possess a strong, if not decisive, odor of the herd. Even if such feelings have been universally experienced—almost in a stereotyped form—by billions of others, living and dead, they are no less (and no more) ‘ours’ when they seize us, simply because they are as common as dirt or the often polluted air we breathe.

Perhaps paradoxically, these feelings—say, thoroughly justified indignation or heart-melting sentimentality—precisely because they are shared, as it were, by the species, possess a mysteriously grounding or anchoring quality. If, on the other hand, our feeling reactions frequently deviate in significant ways from the ubiquitous, familiar norms of our day and age, we may experience some uneasiness as we register our heterodox ‘strangeness’—when it occurs to us that we are not reacting as we should, or when we are not feeling what’s expected of us in a given situation.  Or perhaps our distinctive difference (from the majority of those around us) lies in the intensity and/or clarity with which we experience otherwise run of the mill feelings. This, too, can set us apart somewhat from others—constituting a noteworthy feature of our mysterious individuality. Such a difference would be one of degree, but not of kind, as in the prior examples.

Another aspect of feeling as a conservative psychological factor is its seemingly magical power to produce the sense of a shared bond with those who happen to be on more or less the same feeling wavelength—i.e., experiencing approximately the same feeling or emotion. When strong and distinctive sentiments are shared between two or ten, or a crowd of people, there can be a sensation of merging with the other (or the whole mob) that tends to infuse the isolated person with an empowering sense of connectedness—even if the emotion happens to be a ‘negative’ one like outrage or grief. When such collective feelings of camaraderie are powerfully binding, they can lift an individual out of his natural sense of insignificance and isolation and make him feel charged with the intoxicating power of the crowd. This may explain why ticket prices for professional sporting events have risen through the roof as the society itself becomes proportionally atomized and splintered.

But when, as we saw before, our feelings are noticeably at variance with those of the larger group or the society of which we are but a merely infinitesimal unit, we may initially feel insecure and even ashamed because of our abnormal response. And yet, such feelings, when we allow ourselves to register them and to articulate them to ourselves, often serve as key indicators of our nascent individuality. We must, however, overcome certain resistances before we can creatively make use of such heterodox feelings or intense reactions in the gradual unearthing and further development of our individuality.