Cries and Whispers (4/24/18)

Can the general distress in which humanity finds itself somehow be bound up with the fact that we have forgotten that we are—each and every one of us—servants by nature, and not lords and ladies, of this earth and the spiritual realm? A prodigious derailment began a few centuries ago. Only a few living today have any memory or knowledge of what it was like when humanity was still precariously on track. Those of us living today were born into the violent midst of the ongoing disaster—only the smaller part of which occurs on the plane of historical-material events, while the larger part is occurring in our confused, noisy, disoriented minds and hearts.

Our recent ancestors were lured off course by promises not unlike those whispered in the mythical Garden of Eden: that they would become like Gods. This seduction was presented in such cunningly crafted terms that our credulous forebears saw it practically as a moral imperative to throw off the yoke of their servant status and take charge of our species’ destiny. Phaeton would drive his father’s chariot of the sun. Nothing else would do.

Never reluctant to teach humanity a stern lesson, the Gods and other invisible powers stepped back and unplugged from our forebears into the dark, distant silence, where they remain. We would be given an opportunity to demonstrate our ability to manage planetary affairs without the light, the guidance, and support of the invisible powers that were previously served. Thus, the great derailment—called anthropocentrism or ‘Enlightenment humanism’—began.

We have forgotten that we are an ‘in-between’ sort of creature—and not culminations or final goals. It will only be by remembering and recovering our intermediate ‘place’ in the much larger scheme of things that we eventually get back on track and online as servants of that larger scheme. Some of us, scattered here and there around the wobbly globe, have gratefully and obediently returned to a life of service to the whole, rather than living derailed lives of mass consumption and usurped, illegitimate lordship. The invisible powers take note of us only because of our readiness and devotedness to ‘picking up the pieces’ flung and strewn about by the ongoing derailment.

We are quiet and modest workers and only those who quiet down and simmer down can hear the ‘invisibles’ whispering a new-old tune through us.

Radical Equanimity (11/9/11)

The world’s best kept secret: In the human realm, when you win, you lose. And when you fail, you succeed. The “human, all too human” won’t let go of you until you begin to let go of it—and this can only be accomplished from a standpoint that is not, itself, confined to the merely human: an essential paradox concerning spiritual liberation. As long as I believe I can attain freedom within the confines of exclusively human horizons, I will continue to trip over my own feet. What we commonly recognize as ordinary human aspirations, values, desires, and fears constitute the very shackles and hoods which bind and blind us. And yet, as long as we are identified with our ordinary human perspective, it is impossible to acquire any more than momentary, sporadic glimpses of the serenity, wisdom, and freedom that are inherent in the perspective that lies just beyond the horizons of the human, all-too-human. What I am suggesting is that we first must die to the demands and enticements of the human realm before we can be stably initiated into the level awaiting us beyond. Such renunciation cannot be compelled, of course. Moreover, it does not come about through a scornful or bitter rejection—for this is merely a negative bond, an inversion of the attachment of desire, but every bit as sticky, stubborn, and difficult to undo. Release from these confining horizons is only attained with the serene neutrality that sees through and beyond the warring pairs of opposites—chief of which, according to Buddhism, are desire and fear. These, in a real sense, constitute human experience and define its horizons.

So, if we are encouraged to loosen and to extricate our souls from all those positively binding attachments to persons, places, and things—if, that is, we are to achieve the neutrality that is the key to our liberation, we must also let go of any desire to take punitive revenge upon life (for disappointing our hopes, desires, and expectations) or anyone in that life. Both the positive and the negative inducements (or seductions) must be ‘seen through’ and ‘neutralized.’ This is true poise and equanimity—rarely encountered among our kind.

Psychic Topoi and Initiation (3/23/11)

Here, at the tender age of fifty-four, I am beginning to feel as if I am truly becoming myself. There is still much to be done—the ‘image’ at the core of my personality is still becoming more and more clearly defined (like an ever-so-slowly developing photograph) in my words, actions, reactions, and projects. But a Rubicon has been crossed and no longer am I so easily misled or confused by stars that are not mine to follow, paths that are not mine to travel, and rabbit holes down which I am not lured. Although now and then it is halting and still strongly alloyed with the echoes of my elders and my next of kin, my voice has at last started to become my own.

It seems fitting to describe this spiritual milestone as a kind of initiation into a new level of consciousness. And though it may be said that a threshold had to be crossed in a decisive way in order to fix, or clinch, this initiation, it was by no means an experience that happened ‘in a flash.’ In fact, the transition has taken years—moving from one more or less stable orientation and psychic center of gravity to a deeper and more substantive one. I began making brief, fitful excursions across the threshold when I was a youngster, but they were in the manner of momentary visions that would soon end with my return to my former bearings with their very different ‘look’ and ‘feel.’ Over the years, the leaps across the border became more frequent and of greater duration, so that eventually I thought of myself as a more or less experienced traveler between two very different realms of experience, for both of which I possessed a valid passport.

It is perfectly legitimate, I believe, to characterize the new center of gravity as a psychic topos—an imaginatively inhabitable locale within the boundless and largely uncharted inner world. There is a temptation to say that I was able to reach this topos only (or principally) by diving, or descending, but that is not quite adequate. There were ‘sublime’ flights into the thin, bright air involved as well as submergence into deep, dark depressions. In other words, there were highs and lows, peaks and vales (to invoke James Hillman), involved in the gradually executed relocation process whereby ‘I’ moved from ‘there’ to ‘here,’ from ‘before’ to ‘now.’ Perhaps what may be taken from this observation is that we are concerned here with a vertical axis and not so much with a horizontal one.

As it happens, I am best able to stabilize my foothold in the new topos primarily through journaling, as I am doing now, and by speaking to others who are more or less responsive to what I have to say about these matters. I suspect that for some persons who also are engaged in the work of inner transformation and the cultivation of soul, words and language are not the principal means or medium, as they seem to be for me and many others. Silent meditation, prayer, and the other arts—such as music, painting, and dance—are primary for them.

Once I began to experience a surer footing in the richer and more fertile topos, it became easier for me to clarify and to negotiate the differences between the two perspectives, the new one and the former one. This work—this large and very interesting task—seems, at present, to beckon me. It is, in a sense, bridging work. (More precisely, I aim to widen and reinforce the tiny ‘rope bridge’ I have built for myself, following the examples of my own guides and mentors.) One thing I hope to accomplish is to help others learn not only that there are other topoi in the psyche which are just as valid and just as inhabitable as the ones we start from, but that there are paths and bridges (on the vertical axis) that link these very different psychic centers of gravity.

Of course, just knowing that such paths and bridges exist—while this certainly brings its own measure of comfort and encouragement to the curious seeker after spiritual/psychological insight—is by no means the same as actually making the journey. The seven month-long, 8,000 mile overland journey I made from Houston to Buenos a few years ago led me through many very different terrains, climes, and cuisines, but it was still essentially a journey along the horizontal axis. But the momentous ‘shift’ of my psychic center of gravity that began midway through that Pan-American journey occurred on the vertical axis. The profound disturbance occasioned by that interior earthquake left my ‘surface’ features and structures in shambles. What prevented me from suffering a complete meltdown—which could easily have happened had I not been sufficiently prepared to absorb the shock to my ego-consciousness—was the fact that I was not taken completely by surprise. I had already made enough forays into the place where the quake had shifted and deposited me (now in a more permanent way) so that I was not utterly disoriented. The difference, from that point on, was that I could no longer truly go back to my former standpoint and be content to remain there for very long. That standpoint had gradually become more and more tenuous, cramped, and inadequate (as a psychic dwelling place) over the years, so in some respects the shift, which for many might have been an unmitigated disaster, was actually relieving and liberating for me. I had outgrown my former self.

Nevertheless, uprooting from our native interior ground and settling—for the long haul—in a new region of the psyche entails many adjustments and adaptations, just as if we were to move like immigrants into the very different climate, language, cultural and social context of an adopted nation. Our altered bearings are not merely intellectual or ‘virtual’—but quite palpable, visceral, and every bit as ‘real’ in their feel as any sensuously grasped object on the physical plane. The new bearings call, of course, for a completely new sort of language, in keeping with the notion of a vertical, as opposed to a lateral move. It is not so much a shift, say, from English to Spanish or to French—where it is a relatively straightforward procedure to translate a prose sentence from one language into another. It is rather a shift from a literal use of language to one that is non-literal. The new language form—the language befitting the new topos—is fundamentally metaphorical, symbolic, and analogical. Unlike scientific and most logical or commonsense statements, which tend to be nominalistic (i.e., a system whereby words are merely tokens or labels for the fundamentally different things they point to), the language forms of the new topos actually strive to carry and communicate something essential to the qualified perspectives and states of soul themselves. They do not merely point to something abstract (a concept) or to concrete objects. As with successful poetry, they conjure and give intelligible form to the very qualities that they are inwardly wedded to. The language form natural to this topos, then, is poiesis, or poetry, in that ancient Greek sense of the word—a kind of making. And in keeping with this creative function of language as poetry, it is fundamentally imaginative in its source and character. As such, it does not merely label or designate sensually apprehensible objects and abstract intellectual concepts. It opens up and animates with meaning whatever it gives expressive form to. It accomplishes this precisely by cracking through the literal, hard shells that ordinary language works with, releasing ‘wounded’ and crippled meanings that are obscured within those airless isolating shells. Owen Barfield, in his groundbreaking work, Poetic Diction, wrote:

Every modern language, with its thousands of abstract terms and its nuances of meaning and association is apparently, from beginning to end, but an unconscionable tissue of dead, or petrified, metaphors. (Poetic Diction, p. 63)

This imaginative-poetical mode of speaking, writing, thinking, and feeling aims ever to constellate a kind of world or cosmos out of the individual components that it relies upon—so that they always have an implicit, meaning-infusing frame or context as an environment. Words and names, then, are not—as with ordinary language—isolated particles which can be combined and recombined arbitrarily like Lincoln Logs or floor tiles. Rather, they are secretly and inwardly guided like iron filings by invisible magnetic currents—where patterns are waiting to be brought out of concealment with the help of obliging words.


Some Thoughts about Esoteric Writing (3/28/11)

I was reading earlier from Laurence Lampert’s essay about Leo Strauss (‘The Recovery of Esoteric Writing’) and from Strauss himself (concerning Xenophon’s willingness to appear stupider than he was—for the rest of recorded time—in order to conceal his true thoughts behind a mask). Lampert’s intriguing essay opens with Strauss’s 1938-39 discovery of Maimonides’ use of esoteric writing strategies as a way of appearing to be an orthodox Jew while in fact he was a genuine philosopher who fully understood that reason and monotheistic theology (and the morality built upon its dubious foundations) were in fundamental conflict. This momentous discovery of Strauss’s—that this sacrosanct, foundational figure in Judaism was in fact pretending to believe what he did not actually subscribe to—led (through Averroes) back to the Greeks—Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and, most importantly, to Plato, whose influence over western civilization has been incalculable.

A few of the ‘truths’ (about how these genuinely philosophical Greeks saw nature and the human situation) may be listed:

  1. Death ends everything; personal immortality is no more than a consoling myth to give courage to the hoi polloi, who are too fainthearted to stomach the ‘deadly’ truth.
  2. Genuine philosophy (logos), because it is repugnant and hated by the many (‘the city’), must be sheltered by salutary stories (mythos) if it is to survive through time. The code word for this in Strauss is ‘Platonizing.’
  3. The few genuine philosophers were not interested in politics, per se, but in truth, which is both sobering and intoxicating to them, but ‘deadly’ and demoralizing to the many. It was this tension which gave rise to political philosophy, the aim of which was to shelter philosophy from the city and the city from philosophy.

Strauss—in his early study of Plato’s Laws—saw that the philosopher rightly understood that morality’s authority is founded not upon reason, or logos, but upon religion (mythos) for the many. Consequently, genuine philosophers (who, as Nietzsche says, are ‘commanders and legislators’) must prudently make use of religion in their ‘philanthropic’ campaigns to lead mankind in a salutary direction. It is their love of the human that motivates genuine philosophers in this philanthropic activity. In Lampert’s view, Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche were three such ‘philanthropic’ genuine philosophers. Bacon and Descartes both practiced esoteric writing in their ground-breaking campaigns to lead humanity (by way of their sympathetic, alert readers) in the new direction it has taken under their powerful influence. Nietzsche—believing that several hundred years of scientific skepticism and critical thinking (among the educated classes in the West) had prepared humanity for a more honest and frank disclosure of truths that have been kept under wraps since ancient times—dispensed with the ‘Platonizing’ and the ‘noble lies’ that have heretofore reigned over Western culture.

A brief challenge occurred during the Renaissance, but the Protestant Reformation (a popular uprising, a ‘herd’ phenomenon, according to Nietzsche) restored the sovereignty of ‘after-worldly’ Christianity (‘Platonism for the people’). It is primarily this quasi-ascetic, ‘after-worldly’ metaphysical delusion that Nietzsche seeks to uproot, deride, and overcome—a delusion shared by millions—and which profoundly obstructs and hampers humanity’s love of the earth, of this world—the only world, as far as Nietzsche is concerned. We have forsaken and betrayed our true and only homeworld by swallowing and being swindled by this metaphysical-epistemological ruse that devalues the actual world in favor of some ‘true’ and ‘transcendent’ one that only exists in our duped imaginations.

So, Plato and Nietzsche (and, for that matter, all genuine philosophers who have uncovered the ‘truth about beings’ and have faced that sobering truth with reason) are in fundamental agreement about ‘the way of things,’ but because ‘times have changed’ in crucial respects since Plato composed his dialogues, Nietzsche decided to take the gamble of lifting the veil that his predecessors had kept over ‘Isis.’ Plato—who learned this from Socrates’ fate—reckoned that ‘the many’ (non-philosophers) were not ready to receive and to withstand the truths uncovered by natural (unaided) reason without succumbing to wanton immorality and despair. Therefore, he prudently (and seductively) painted a picture of philosophy (in the portrait of the martyred Socrates) that was benign, fascinating, and salutary—rather than starkly sobering and subversive of conventional values, norms, and beliefs. Such an enormous undertaking demanded extraordinary skill and a depth of understanding seldom equaled in the history of western culture, for Plato had to work in the service of two diametrically opposed aims within the individual works he was devising: he had to console and mollify those (weaker and more tender-minded) readers who required salutary lies in order to make life worth living, while at the same time he was providing hints, clues, and piercing questions that might lead his stronger and more resourceful readers (like Nietzsche and Strauss) to radically different (opposite) opinions—nay, truthful insights into reality, the human situation, and the actual order of things.

A problem with Nietzsche’s ‘anti-Christian’ concerns about our nihilistic, ‘after-worldly’ neglect of this world is that this simply does not accord with the facts of life for many, perhaps most educated persons living today. Few persons I know agonize over the question of an afterlife—and whatever people think (or don’t think) about our post-mortem fates, it doesn’t seem to get in the way of their engrossed, enthralled—I am tempted to add ‘ensnared’—condition vis-à-vis this world, the mundane, matter of fact world of the here and now. The problem is not that people—or most people here and even in Asia—suffer from a flimsy allegiance to, or blocked connection with, this world (the apparent world of here and now) because they are fearfully or deludedly preoccupied with concerns about ‘the next life.’ ‘Educated’ persons often regard those who subscribe to that old story as throwbacks to pre-modern times. They are the butt of jokes and sneers. A much larger chunk of the general population is exceedingly immersed in the pleasures and pains, the concerns and opportunities, presented by this world. Nietzsche got much closer to the way things are now in his scathing portrait of ‘the last man’ in Zarathustra. Those pathetic, trivial flea-beetle couch potatoes are very much this-worldlings, not after-worldlings. But the quality of their connection to the earth—and to this world of the here and now—is just as shallow, insipid, and pitiful as their equally barbaric and unimpressive ancestors’ connection with the ‘spiritual’ world often appears to have been. The problem—in either direction—toward the realm of the spirit or towards the earth—concerns the quality of the connection.

Additional Thoughts about Ramana Maharshi and C.G. Jung (6/7/11)

Re-reading Ramana Maharshi’s little book[1]—which I have done periodically since I first discovered the book at an ‘esoteric’ bookstore in 1977—always presents baffling questions to me. In a number of ways it is deeper and far more radical in its claims than Jung’s, Plato’s, Hillman’s, or even Nietzsche’s. Perhaps the point of greatest divergence from Jung and Nietzsche is RM’s firm and uncompromising position towards the ego, or ‘I’ consciousness. For him, the ego is an utter illusion and it is the ‘one big thing’ obstructing the path to Self-realization, happiness, and bliss. Jung and Nietzsche, while they are not at all naïve about humans’ capacity for self-deception (and the crucial role played by the ego in this business), do not preach or recommend the annihilation of the ego by means of radical self-enquiry, as Ramana does.

For Jung, without ego-consciousness there cannot be true moral conscience and responsibility—and to dispense with these is to become sub- rather than super-human. The ego provides a crucial two-fronted defense against outer world seductions and threats, on the one side, and potentially overwhelming unconscious inner drives and impulses, on the other. But it is not merely a defensive factor; it is also integrative and assimilative on those same two, inner and outer, fronts. Jung does not make a simple equation between the inner world of the unconscious and ‘God’ (or the ‘Self’)—as such—as Ramana appears to do. Or, if Jung does recognize parallels between the unconscious (as it is perceived via its phenomenology) and a God-image, it comes much closer to the God-image of the morally ambiguous Old Testament Yahweh than to the All-good and All-forgiving God-image of the New Testament. At any event, the idea of annihilating the ego—if such a feat is even possible—and identifying with a God-image, any God-image, constitutes a kind of madness for Jung—or, at the very least, a dangerous inflation which invites a compensatory deflation by the unconscious.

To be fair to Ramana Maharshi, ‘morality’ as it is conventionally understood (or mis-understood) is irrelevant to the Self (or atman), as the very notion of a ‘doer’ or agent is obliterated in ‘final liberation.’ There is a kind of ‘Catch-22’ or inescapable paradox to this divergence between Jung and Ramana Maharshi, which may stem from their fundamentally incommensurable vantage points. Since Jung is viewing these questions from the standpoint of the ego, or ‘I’-consciousness, and Ramana has presumably transcended ego-consciousness and speaks from the standpoint of atman, it follows that their views must diverge. (Moreover, since I am still ordinarily bound within ‘illusory’ ego-consciousness, it stands to reason that I am likely, under normal conditions, to find Jung’s stated position more persuasive—since it proceeds from a psychological standpoint with which I am all too familiar.) Ego-consciousness is, by its very nature, discriminating consciousness—as Jung repeatedly informs us—while the ecstatic, mystical awareness of the sage is not. What we have here is something vaguely analogous to the difference between the Apollonian and the Dionysian modes of consciousness, as famously described by Nietzsche in his Birth of Tragedy.

The liberation that Ramana Maharshi speaks of is liberation from the pairs of opposites—those very syzygies and polarities from which ego consciousness is generated. Jung’s chief concern, in the more advanced stages of the individuation process, is the reconciliation or balancing of the various pairs of opposites. This problem of the opposites is the focus of his attention in perhaps his magnum opus, The Mysterium Coniunctionis. What are being conjoined are the pairs of opposites. But, paradoxically, the idea of the ego reconciling the opposites from which it is generated is akin to Baron Münchausen lifting himself out of the quicksand by pulling his own ponytail. The ego does not actively orchestrate the coniunctio; it endures it. One necessarily undergoes a shift in one’s psychic center of gravity during this liberating ordeal, this torturous (from the ego-standpoint) crucifixion of the illusory self as the true Self incarnates from the background. The stronger and deeper the attachment to the world of literal forms and to the ego’s accomplishments and holdings, the more painful the process of renunciation, those ‘purgatorial’ fires that burn away the ligaments binding the jiva to the realm of maya.


Another way of presenting RM’s ‘Who am I?’ enquiry (the method of dissolving the ego for which he is best known) is to explore the various meanings and interpretations of the phrase ‘seeing through the ego, or I-consciousness.’ The goal here is to gradually and systematically bring about a stable identification with the seer—and to break the identification with the seen or with the modes or means of seeing. RM repeatedly maintains that the Self or Seer is our true nature and happiness is the natural condition of the Self. In the myriad instances of particular individual beings who are ignorant of the one Self behind all the world and its creatures, the Self has become lost, or absorbed, in its projections. As each individual, one by one, breaks the spell of enchantment (of unconscious projection of Self into forms, names, objects), a splinter or spark of the Self is returned to its timeless, absolute source. The individual ego—as a conduit or fiber-optic channel for the light of the Self—has rendered its highest possible service at that point and it ceases henceforth to claim any separate identity for itself. Its very ‘existence’ is seen to have been illusory and insubstantial.

We might think of ego-consciousness as an illusion produced by the confluence of various real elements which are then viewed from a particular vantage point. It is this crucial factor—the particular vantage point of the perceiving subject—that produces the illusion of separate ego-consciousness. An analogy can be found in the rainbow and in the desert mirage, both of which depend for their appearance, upon a combination of real factors and a particular vantage point of the perceiver. In the case of the mirage—hot air, sand, and sunlight, coupled with the angle of vision of the perceiver, create the optical illusion of water, which happens to be a most alluring appearance to anyone in a desert. Likewise, the rainbow—another image of favorable import to the beholder—depends for its appearance upon water droplets in the air and the sun behind the perceiving subject, whose position vis-à-vis these real factors is crucial for the production of the appearance of the rainbow—which is not ‘actually’ there. It exists, like the desert mirage, in the mind of the perceiving subject. According to RM, the human ego, while no more real, at bottom, than a mirage or a rainbow, feels as real to most of us as the rainbow and mirage appear to be real. Those who are ignorant of the actual and perceptual factors at work behind mirages and rainbows are apt to chase and pursue these elusive (and illusive) appearances, while those who know better will remain still and not run after them. They will see ‘non-things’ as mere phenomena or appearances—and not as substantial or real.

Jung may be said to greatly expand the realm of appearances—which can be taken for efficacious or substantive realities—by including psychic contents, fantasy material, and so forth, within the category of empirical phenomena. Does he render an unequivocally positive service to spiritual enlightenment and liberation by making this move—the ‘discovery’ of the objective ‘reality’ of the psyche? From RM’s position, this is a double-edged sword since, for him, ‘Gods’ and all the psychic images that are continually being generated by the psyche are just as unreal and unworthy of our deferential attachment and belief as our bodies are.

In Hillman’s writings the ego ‘feels’ very different—and a good deal ‘lighter’ or more ‘relativized’—than it does in Jung where, despite his repeated efforts to de-reify and de-hypostatize the concept, it still comes off bearing more bulk and heft than Hillman’s, which is explicitly presented as a fiction…a perspective, even. Nietzsche’s concept of the ego, on the other hand, turns out to be just about everything under the sun; a ghost, a kind of membrane or provisional platform between the will-to-power and the world; a mere assemblage of habits (of thought and feeling); an internalized and reified ‘story,’ etc.

In seeing through the ego—an individual ego—into its murky but discernible archetypal background, Hillman has developed an ‘imaginal’ method of relativizing the ego in an impressive manner. By finessing and sussing out the underlying archetypal image or drama that is being played out (usually without one’s conscious awareness of these secretly guiding motifs), Hillman implicitly articulates and psychologically instantiates various topoi out of which the ego—any ego—emerges like a plant out of its soil.


After watching the 73 minute documentary about Ramana Maharshi’s life and teachings (on Google video), I am moved to ponder how much wider the reach of the sage’s healing wisdom and light might have been if he had bothered to take the ‘network of interconnected caverns’ (my metaphor for the modern global cultural situation —borrowed from Plato and updated) more to heart. Imagine the bridges and corridors he could have constructed and opened up if he had been able to direct the divine light of the Self into that network of dark caverns. Of course, in order to do that he would have had to first acquaint himself with the furnishings, structural features, and points of connection between these caves—along with their respective esoteric and exoteric teachings. This is what the ‘heroic’ Jung attempted, at the very least, along with other notable thinkers like Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, and Mircea Eliade, to name only a few.

At the tender age of sixteen, RM leapt over and beyond the dogmatic bounds of culture—relegating most written and traditional doctrines to the potentially obstructive realm of mayavic illusion. In saying these things, I do not wish to disparage his actual accomplishment, which is undeniably stupendous and indisputably authentic. But there is much, much more to be done if the billions of suffering and confused prisoners huddled and pressed into these culture-caves are to gain a greater measure of inner freedom. This is the obverse side of mysticism—the less attractive side: its characteristic muteness and its sweeping, categorical dismissal of those oppressive or deranged terms and conditions 99.999% of us actually wake up to every day. Perhaps when RM’s ego-personality underwent its dissolution in that moment, early in his extraordinary life, when he became absorbed in Atman, his intellect—while as focused and as potent as a laser beam—was not as well-stocked with learning, literary and cultural knowledge as it would have needed to be in order to produce this very different sort of teacher—and very different sort of path. Do we not see a somewhat similar example in Western culture in the contrast between Jesus and Socrates/Plato?

These two paths—that of the Enlightened Heart and that of the Enlightened Mind—sometimes appear to converge and even to be one and the same. And then, from a slight adjustment of one’s perspective, they appear to be coming at the same questions and problems from radically different directions. But I suspect one must have a capacity for following both of these very different paths in order to see where they converge and where they diverge. Although I show a stronger propensity for the dispassionate and rather cold path of mental illumination, I have a powerful sense for the path of the awakened heart. As we approach the goal of our journey—on either path—the fundamental insights and basic virtues of the ‘other’ path come within our reach, I believe. Seeing and understanding this might prove to be very useful in arbitrating the frequent misunderstandings and tensions that occur between impassioned followers of these two paths that lead to the same goal: abidance in the Self.

[1] The Spiritual Teachings of Ramana Maharshi; Shambhala Publications; 1972

Shuttle De-plume-acy (5/28-29/11)

The space shuttle program has at last drawn to a close, not for lack of enthusiasm on Americans’ part to hurl themselves into the distant reaches of outer space, but because economic realities have at long last rendered such exorbitantly expensive enterprises an inexcusable extravagance. Whether we are proud of the fact or not, the United States has, for quite some time now displayed its strength as nation primarily through its material or economic might and as an exporter of mass entertainment—rather than through its bequeathals of timeless works of art, literature, philosophy, and spiritual insights—contributions for which a number of former great cultures and empires are esteemed with due gratitude and reverence. The ‘defense-related’ research and development programs which burgeoned (like mushrooms on steroids—or acid) after WWII—and which yielded the high-tech gadgets that no self-respecting teenager, here or elsewhere, can live without these days—were funded by independent capital and by huge federal revenues garnered from U.S. taxpayers. Now we quite literally have more computers, handheld communications and listening devices, creature comforts, and entertainment media than we know what to do with. Apparently—and lamentably, as I see it—this arrangement is perfectly acceptable for a staggering number of mortals throughout the globe. As with pampered house pets or snacking youngsters hypnotically absorbed in their video games, this state of material ease and comfort appears to be sufficient to make life on earth worth ‘suiting up’ for, morning after morning, in the minds of most persons living today.

Regrettably, I have nothing further to say to such complacent and gratified creatures. I certainly wish them the best of luck, but I must confess that I anticipate with dread the day when access to the next generation of these sought-after consumer items and desiderata (not to mention adequate nourishment and drinkable water) are no longer widely available or within relatively easy reach.[1] I address this essay, then, to that troubled and confused segment of society—a small but growing number of thoughtful and courageous men and women—who are no longer morally comfortable being part of the problem, but are convinced that they cannot change the course down which we seem, en masse, to be heading. What is that problem—in the simplest of terms—and why does the present course seem irreversible and unstoppable to most of us who are able to recognize it for what it is—and for what it is not. It most assuredly is not ‘progress’ in any positive sense of that over-used word.

The problem, at bottom, is that, with very few notable exceptions, Western humanity’s interested attention has been turned almost exclusively in one direction for several hundred years—riveted to the outer material world, the only world recognized by most of us, as it would seem. Beginning roughly with the maritime voyages of the 15th century, plunder, pillage, and wars—over land, resources, native populations, religious beliefs, ideologies, and information—have conspicuously dominated human affairs. The daring voyages and expeditions of Columbus, Magellan, Drake, Cortes, Pizarro, and others led to the ‘discovery’ of new worlds to colonize and new populations to exploit, to rob, to convert to ‘Christianity,’ and (where it was deemed ‘necessary’ or expedient) to exterminate. The shuttle expeditions, which used computer navigational systems and rocket fuel instead of sextants and mainsails, have simply been the most recent in a long line of conquests that began centuries ago with the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. As a species, we appear to be dangerously susceptible to being possessed by archaic predatory instincts—instincts that are stubbornly resistant to higher education, moral training, and religious tutelage. We are predatory towards nature and exploitative towards our own kind. In this respect, we seldom display moderation when we are strong enough to take what we want, using the justification that ‘if we don’t take it, someone else surely will.’

Why, it will be asked, has the lion’s share of our attention been riveted to externals, our spirits tirelessly hankering after outer possessions and entertainments? The answer to such a big question is complex and multifaceted, but there are certain social, cultural, and religious factors that have significantly contributed to the current state of affairs. The ‘discovery’ of the unconscious by Freud, Jung, and their less famous precursors was not an accident—but a natural outgrowth of a cultural crisis that was well underway in the 19th century. Jung writes:

Dogma takes the place of the collective unconscious by formulating its contents on a grand scale. The Catholic way of life is completely unaware of psychological problems in this sense. Almost the entire life of the collective unconscious has been channeled into the dogmatic archetypal ideas and flows along like a well-controlled stream in the symbolism of creed and ritual…The collective unconscious, as we understand it today, was never a matter of ‘psychology,’ for before the Christian Church existed there were antique mysteries, and these reach back into the grey mists of Neolithic prehistory. Mankind has never lacked powerful images to lend magical aid against all the uncanny things that live in the depths of the psyche. (CW, Vol. 9, pt. 1:21)

The ‘discovery’ of the unconscious—which was really a re-discovery of the autonomous inner world—occurred only because our religious symbols and rituals had become so emptied of meaning, following the Protestant Reformation and the spread of scientific criticism. Jung continues:

The iconoclasm of the Reformation, however, quite literally made a breach in the protective wall of sacred images, and since then one image after another has crumbled away. They became dubious, for they conflicted with awakening reason. Besides, people had long since forgotten what they meant. Or had they really forgotten? Could it be that men had never really known what they meant, and that only in recent times did it occur to the Protestant part of mankind that actually we haven’t the remotest conception of what is meant by the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Christ, and the complexities of the Trinity? It almost seems as if these images had just lived, and as if their living existence had simply been accepted without question and without reflection, much as everyone decorates Christmas trees or hides Easter eggs without ever knowing what these customs mean…That the gods die from time to time is due to man’s sudden discovery that they do not mean anything, that they are made by human hands, useless idols of wood and stone. In reality, however, he has merely discovered that up till then he has never thought about his images at all. And when he starts thinking about them, he does so with the help of what he calls ‘reason’—which in point of fact is nothing more than the sum-total of all his prejudices and myopic views. The history of Protestantism has been one of chronic iconoclasm. One wall after another fell. And the work of destruction was not too difficult once the authority of the Church had been shattered. (ibid. 22-23)

Because the religious/mythical symbols and internal structures that contained and provided channels for the archetypal energies that constitute our psyches have thus been dismantled and destroyed for so many of us[2], the inner world now bears a striking resemblance to the vast desert of ‘outer space’ with its ‘black holes’ and fiery supernovas, its gaseous clouds and its menacing immensity. Jung observes:

Our intellect has achieved the most tremendous things, but in the meantime our spiritual dwelling has fallen into disrepair. We are absolutely convinced that even with the aid of the latest and largest reflecting telescope, now being built in America, men will discover behind the farthest nebulae no fiery empyrean; and we know that our eyes will wander despairingly through the dead emptiness of interstellar space. Nor is it any better when mathematical physics reveals to us the world of the infinitely small. In the end we dig up the wisdom of all ages and peoples, only to find that everything most dear and precious to us has already been said in the most superb language. (ibid. 31)

Following the psychologically one-sided directives and inducements of the modern Western ‘outlook,’ generations of Europeans and their colonial descendents have been implicitly warned not to ‘look in,’ but only to ‘look out for themselves’ and their families in a fiercely competitive struggle for limited high-paying jobs in a capitalist economy. As an almost inevitable consequence, Western spirituality progressively degenerated into sterile dogma and cold theology, while morality was largely reduced to apish or sincere conformity to behavioral norms and posturing—cut off, as they were, from their inner source springs. Naturally, as the inner realm suffered from prolonged neglect by the cultural, educational, and spiritual institutions within the West, easy and well-lit access to the inner world, as well as to the knowledge, the ‘maps’ and myths which help to guide the initiate through its labyrinths, became more and more difficult to come by (and to make meaningful sense of when such materials were forthcoming). One usually had to go out of his or her way and ‘against the current’ to find and then to decipher such writings and teachings—as Jung was obliged to do with obscure and arcane alchemical texts, the cultural link with the pre-Christian, pagan layers of the Western psyche (that had been buried under authorized doctrine). From the prevalent, rational-materialist metaphysical standpoint, such myths, interior journeys—and even the interior realm itself—were rather arrogantly and contemptuously dismissed as childish superstitions and mumbo jumbo that were unworthy of serious consideration, except as the primitive and pre-scientific lore of traditional cultures that lacked our superior (scientific) understanding of things. Of course, in saying all this, I do not wish for a moment to deny the astounding array of benefits won for mankind by the noble exploits and brilliant insights of scientists. I am, let me repeat, concerned chiefly with any blinding prejudices which may be built into our modern Western worldview—prejudices that are still very much alive and kicking as we rapidly approach what looks very much like a dangerous cliff to a growing number of attentive persons.

The almost pathologically extraverted collective attitude of the Western mind, during the last several centuries, has its inverted, contrasting twin, which prevailed during the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ when the attention of Europeans was turned inwards to such an extent that the external world suffered from a degree of neglect that the internal one now suffers from. Monks, clerics, and even the laity were often obsessed with inner factors in a way and to a degree that occasionally matched Indian yoga philosophy—probably the non plus ultra of cultural introversion thus far in human history. Then, during the High Middle Ages (after 1348 and the end of the Black Death) we can begin to see evidence of a gradual reversal of collective attention from inner to outer factors. Perhaps we might say that this latter half of the Christian aeon, with its ‘antichristian’ (mythologically speaking) infatuation with ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’ has at last begun to play itself out, which is to say exhaust itself, in these ‘end times’ that so many of us feel ourselves enmeshed in.

Now, whether or not we are actually and irreversibly headed like lemmings off the side of a cliff and humanity will be plunged into a new period of savagery and darkness to match any of the nastier periods of the past, it is in our immediate collective interest to rediscover the entrances to the inner world which have, as it were, been overgrown and choked with ‘vegetation’—like Angkor Wat or Tikal before they were unearthed and cleaned up a bit. Moreover, because of the general ignorance with respect to the psyche (which inevitably stemmed from this neglect and culturally-endorsed devaluation) the ‘unconscious’ has understandably acquired more of a menacing than a restorative or healing aspect for many of us. For most, it initially resembles the ‘id’ of Freudian theory—a welter of disturbing affects, amoral impulses, and aggressive drives that we have every reason to fear and to avoid encountering. Freud went so far as to equate civilization itself with the repression of these disturbing erotic, aggressive, and often asocial drives and energies, but repression brings its own demons and harpies—hence, the ‘discontents’ of civilization.

The way ahead will be led by voyagers into the interior who will be psychic cousins to those great navigators and explorers of sea and land during our outward-turned phase. The explorations and insights won by the psychic cartographers yet to come will enable the collective mind to undergo the ‘great reversal’ that has already begun for a growing number of human beings across the globe—from every cultural background. In centuries to come, the early (and excruciatingly lonely) pioneers of this neglected territory which has always been there ‘behind our backs’—and I’m thinking of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung—will be seen as the Leif Erikssons and the Marco Polos who were the first Europeans to glimpse and to bring back sketches of previously unknown realms.

Does the scuttling of the shuttle program perhaps symbolize Icarus’ fall to sea (after soaring so close to the sun with his wax and feather wings that they melted)—the ‘sea’ of the psyche where ‘scuba’ equipment makes more sense than plumage and flapping wings?

[1] My concern—and it is quite a legitimate concern, since supporting evidence for my claim is already conspicuously abundant—is that when the spigots that are now spewing out all these consumer items slow down to a prohibitively expensive trickle or shut down altogether, the restlessly acquisitive and hopeful hordes of today will become the armed and dangerous mobs of tomorrow—ready to do the bidding of ruthless gang lords, demagogues, wicked opportunists, and crafty manipulators of fear and resentment. Anyone with his eyes open today cannot help but see dress rehearsals for this general, all-engulfing tragedy already underway here in the U.S. and in many other parts of the shrinking world.

[2] This the true meaning behind Nietzsche’s famous claim that “God is dead”

Reflections on Desire and Desirelessness (11/27-28/11)

What would living without desire be like? Ramana Maharshi says: ‘Desirelessness is wisdom.’ What can he possibly mean by this? What enables the state of desirelessness to arise? What is the deep, inner relationship between desire and ego-consciousness? Can the ego, itself, seek (or desire?) desirelessness, or is such a thought as absurd as that of an empty stomach that craves no food or a dry sponge that craves no water? If it is the ego’s nature to desire its own preservation and continuance, then we must look elsewhere for the source of desirelessness, must we not? Obviously, this move presupposes the possibility of a standpoint other than that of the ego. While the possibility of such a standpoint will be granted, its actual existence is not automatically given. In order for such a standpoint beyond the ego to be established and stably inhabited, it must—like any human capacity—be cultivated and exercised. But ‘who’ cultivates and exercises such a capacity? Strictly speaking, it cannot be the ego, as defined, since to do so would be to strive against its inherent interests. And yet something within us—some or most of the time—strives to cultivate, exercise, and stably establish a standpoint beyond the ego. Is it desire of some sort that moves some of us, some or most of the time, to liberate ourselves from ego-enthrallment—or mightn’t it be ‘seeing through’ desire that aids us most?

Certainly, from the standpoint of the ego, nothing sounds more preposterous than renouncing desire—the very motor which drives and propels it through life. At best, it sounds like naïve foolishness and, at worst, it sounds like suicide. And yet, for some of us, liberation from our usual thralldom to the ego is considerably more joyful than the fullest gratification of the ego’s cravings and yearnings. Why is this? How does this happen? Is it, in part, because we have seen through the ego sufficiently to know without a doubt that—as far as the ego’s desires and needs are concerned—‘there is a menacing serpent coiled under every alluring flower?’ Have we not come to see and understand—after much painful disappointment and disillusionment—that whatever is gained or won in the deceptive realm of ego-goods is matched by a loss that is somewhat greater, so that, in the end, the more you win, the more you are bound to lose? And mightn’t it be said that to possess something is to be possessed by it? Even the struggle to hang onto what has been won—or to sustain our pleasure in what we possess—soon begins to cost us more than could ever be repaid to us by the pleasures we hope to gain from our efforts.

When we see through the ego, it is this law of ultimate and ongoing disappointment of our hopes and desires that we uncover. We awaken from the grand deception that we have been encouraged to believe in for as long as we can remember. The lie that we have been taught—a lie that practically everyone we know and love also believes in—is that happiness and satisfaction lie ahead, on the path created, as it were, by our desire. We sustain our particular path-generating desire like a man compulsively shoveling coal into the furnace in the boiler room of our ego. We fear that if that fire should ever go out, we are done for. If it dwindles down, others will openly or secretly mock and disparage us. There is fierce pressure, then, from within and from without, to feed and fan the flames of desire that give strength and a sense of forward propulsion to the ego. From this standpoint, desirelessness is ignominious death, worthlessness, contemptible ineptitude and irresponsibility. Only fools and deluded ne’er-do-wells entertain such preposterous notions.

Desire may be likened to the positive pole of an energy field—or polarity—that has fear (or aversion) at the other end. In connection with spiritual freedom, it makes little or no difference, ultimately, whether we are preoccupied by ‘positive’ desires or ‘negatively-charged’ fears/aversions. Both are correlative and interdependent—and both are inimical to neutrality, a key to unlocking the gate that leads beyond ego-enthrallment. It is practically impossible, however, to talk about cultivating neutrality from the ego-standpoint without sounding paradoxical or self-contradictory. Such difficulties arise from the same source we glanced at earlier: How does the ego desire desirelessness when its very ground and generative source is desire itself? But we must now add ‘fear-aversion’ to the picture, since this constitutes the unavoidable and necessary other half of any ego-situation. Fear is merely the inversion of desire and desire is simply a fear turned upside down. Together they create a magnetic energy field (like the pull of gravity) that attracts attention. ‘Attention’ is synonymous with psychic energy. When our psychic energy is seduced by the magnetism generated by the desire-fear polarity, ego-consciousness appears to be the natural offspring. Only by dissolving the enchanting spell of the desire-fear gravitational field are we able to lift off ‘planet Ego,’ to employ a rather humorous image. But, of course, as long as we are under the captivating spell of those desires and fears that orient and motivate our thought and action, there will be no will or initiative to exit the battlefield where our life is being (exhaustively) played out. Some part of us must already be off the field—out of the game, watching as an uninvolved observer who has ‘no dog in that fight’—before there can be any conscious will to liberate ourselves from our own personal myth of Sisyphus.

As alleged before, the possibility of such a standpoint—beyond the fear-and-desire-driven ego struggle—is present in each and every one of us, but the actual, inhabitable standpoint has been occupied only by a relative minority, if only because of the enormous difficulties and concentration involved in such an uncommon quest or enterprise. While most of us busy ourselves plotting and planning strategies for getting deeper into the desire-and-fear-driven ego-adventure, only a few ever seem to be devoting their best energies to the opposite path—the narrow and steep way that leads out of that all-too-absorbing misadventure known as ‘normal life’ for most modern men and women. The Sufis tell us ‘we must die before we die.’ ‘Death’ here can be taken to mean that very neutrality that is required by our souls in order to wriggle out of the tenacious grip of desire and fear—the Scylla and Charybdis on opposing sides of the narrow straits of ego-hood.


When the ego contemplates desirelessness, it quite frequently imagines a condition of torpor, listlessness, or death-like inertia. This due, of course, to the ego’s application of the familiar terms and conditions of its own nature and modality to the higher Self, which is of a completely different order. It is true, in a sense, that as soon as the ego stops moving, it is ‘dead’—like a wounded wildebeest or stalled baby elephant on the savannah, easy prey for a big cat. But it is only out of this ‘death’ of the ego that the higher Self can be born—i.e., to become the new platform or center of gravity for conscious orientation. In certain respects, the two cancel each other out. We can be ‘situated’ in one or the other but not both at once—or so it would seem. The ego has an agenda, the higher Self does not—or at least it is content simply to be and not to have to act or to pursue something or someone in the luxuriant fields of time and space. This is why the ego may be symbolized by the line or arrow, and the Self by the circle or womb. (sperm + egg = creative principle behind ‘the ten thousand things’?)

The higher Self innately knows that everything it could ever need or want is already present ‘here and now’ (if potentially) and that there is no need to ‘go out’ hunting for anyone or anything. Before acquiring the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve had no need to labor or to hunt to provide for themselves. All was within easy reach. (Being at one with God = being at one with the Self.) But with the splitting of the primordial unity—both of man and of the cosmos—into opposing discordant halves, the blissful paradise was no longer ‘home’ for our first parents. Consciousness of duality was reflected in their expulsion from the garden of blissful union with God. Henceforth man had the capacity to ‘walk with God’—or to walk away from Him—but a capacity, like a mere potential, is ambiguous, unclear, neither one thing nor another. The choices we make transform our capacities and potentials in actualities, and it is these actualities that define us, and to a large degree, decide our fate.

The Journey from Icy Corporeality through Liquid Imagination to Vaporous Spirit (1/16/13)

Ramana Maharshi taught that ‘desirelessness is wisdom.’ It is further alleged that in the state of desirelessness we enjoy the happiness that is native to the Self. From this angle, meditation entails a conscious recognition of those desires and attachments to which our consciousness is most imprisoned, tracing them back to their source, and then attempting to ‘see through’ them in an effort to find release. In the course of my reflections, I have observed that my thoughts have chiefly served as spies, articulators, and enablers of my various desires and interests. As an ‘intellectual’ type person, I often engage in a kind of play with ideas and thoughts in lieu of physically acting out the promptings of my desires and fears, which would probably involve a more significant expenditure of energy. These thoughts and ideas serve as proxies or winged emissaries for the desires and passions that they ‘stand for.’ In fact, they may be said to be masks of the desires, attachments, and passions that they stand for—insofar as they simultaneously reveal and conceal what lies behind the mask.

A far more artfully and splendidly developed example of this process (of invoking and substituting words, concepts, and images for underlying, visceral passions—and then playing with these incorporeal masks and metaphorical forms) is provided by the marvelous tragedies, comedies, and histories of William Shakespeare. In these extraordinary plays—which hold a mirror, as it were, up to (human) nature—we are presented with a ‘virtual’ reality that bears an uncanny resemblance to actual human reality at the concrete, lived level. Shakespeare’s characters—Falstaff, Rosalind, Iago, Bottom the weaver, Hamlet, and so forth—are certainly lifelike, but being fictional, imaginative creations, they are obviously not flesh and blood persons like you and me. Shakespeare’s characters appear to be driven, inspired, dejected, compelled, and buffeted by desires, fears, and longings that are intimately familiar to us—but there is a crucial distinction (that all sane persons immediately acknowledge) between actually killing someone and pretending to kill another actor on a stage—or between truly falling in love with someone and starting an actual family, on the one hand, and empathetically watching television actors pretend to do the same thing, on the other.

Now, I suspect most will agree that we are less likely to produce dramatic disturbances in our own and other persons’ lives when we manage to keep our powerful desires, fears, jealousies, and other passions safely restricted to the realm of imaginative activity and private reflection—rather than acting out all these impulses and emotions on the stage of real life human affairs. By keeping this imaginative enactment of our desires confined to our ‘heads’—and, if we are artistic, to the page, the piano, the canvas, etc.—we are likely to live longer and more stable lives safely beyond the thick and sound-proof walls of prison or the insane asylum.

As we know, there is something deeply satisfying about the experience of watching an excellent film or theatrical production where the writer and the performers have presented us with a compelling depiction of human drama. When reading or viewing the plays of a supreme artist like Shakespeare, much of that satisfaction comes from the fact that a complex array of powerful human drives, desires, inhibitions, illusions, beliefs, and ambitions have been theatrically rendered for us in a manner that is both highly credible and beautifully organized. Because the greatest artists are often blessed with a genius for distilling the essence of the ‘raw’ materials they draw upon—and for intelligently displaying and inter-relating those distilled elements in a way that few of us can duplicate—their works provide a window into the usually concealed motors and circuitry within the human soul. As audience members, we may not be conscious of the fact that we are being granted a glimpse into depths we would scarcely be able to enter and to explore if we were relying solely upon our own less developed powers. Nevertheless, such imaginative experiences mysteriously produce a grounding and anchoring effect upon us. Aristotle famously wrote of the cathartic (purging) effect that tragedy has upon the soul of the viewer—and there is a link between his notion of catharsis and this idea of grounding that I invoke here. Before exploring this idea in greater depth, let us note that an additional benefit we enjoy while watching a play like Hamlet or Oedipus Tyrannos: in vicariously and imaginatively undergoing the trials and sufferings of the protagonists, we are spared the actual ordeal of having to avenge our father’s murder, accidentally slay Polonius, contribute to poor Ophelia’s suicide, kill Laius—our father—and breed children with Jocasta, our mother, before stabbing out our own eyes with her hair clips.

When noble and worthy art achieves its intended aim, the actions it vividly depicts spur us to contemplation.[1] To be sure, there will always be a handful of lunatics who, after watching Hamlet or Macbeth (or The Dark Knight), will feel a strange compulsion to become Hamlet or Macbeth (or the Joker)—to act out instead of act in, as is salutary and proper. The way I approach great works of art—from Homer and the Bible to Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky—is to view these works as invitations and time-tested guidebooks to the life of the imagination. As such, it is my belief that rather than aiming to strengthen and reinforce our attachment (a softer word than ‘bondage’) to the actual concrete world they depict and try to illumine, such works are intended by their authors to loosen and perhaps even to critique those bonds of attachment. They aim, that is, to liberate our souls from literal-mindedness, to nourish and ignite our imaginations, which operate in accordance with very different laws than those that we meet with in the more confined and constricted arena of mundane affairs. Induction or initiation into the world of imaginative experience may be thought of as a stage along the way that leads to the rarefied spiritual condition of desirelessness recommended by Ramana Maharshi—or to the ‘peace that surpasses understanding’ referred to in Christianity.

Just as ice typically passes through a liquid state before it proceeds to a vaporous state, evolving consciousness passes from concretistic, literalistic ego-consciousness through mercurial and imaginative soul-consciousness on its long pilgrimage to formless, serenely detached spiritual consciousness. Great artists, then, may be viewed, from one angle, as crucial ‘middle-men’ who, by helping the ego to dissolve its literalisms in the solvent of the imagination, provide a way-station or bridge between the material, sensual realm and the immaterial, spiritual one. Fittingly, then, soul—or imagination—partakes of both: it employs forms (images), just as sensory perception entails, but these forms ultimately point, as Plato and others have taught, to the formless Source, or Self, that is the ground of all.

Very well: we now have a traditional model before us, a threefold division of the whole human being into spirit, soul, and body. Great art—including the ‘pagan’ art of Sophocles and the secular dramas of Shakespeare—can be of considerable assistance (for those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear) to our liberation from that crudest form of human consciousness, literal-mindedness, which is founded upon and ultimately answerable to the testimony of the senses. Because literal-mindedness is naturally inclined either to reduce everything to causes that are material and therefore presumably apprehensible by one or more of the five senses, it is also inclined, if not compelled, by its own criteria and methods to deny the reality of anything it cannot touch, taste, hear, smell, or see with its own eyes.

Human beings are susceptible to conceiving of many different sorts of imaginary entities, possibilities, fantasies, and so forth, but our shared senses are in general agreement about the phenomena they apprehend. Therefore, the senses—and not the imagination—perhaps understandably provide the basis for ‘commonsense.’ The very word betrays the meaning of what I have just labored to explain: common + sense = shared trust in the evidence of shared senses. I have written elsewhere of the interesting fact that modern empirical science is, from a certain angle, a kind of glorified version of this commonsense[2], so I will limit what I say here about this connection to a few comments. It is precisely because of the almost universal respect accorded to sensory evidence (among members of our species) that science is not one thing in the U.S. and an entirely different practice in India or China. But we are dealing with a very different kettle of fish as soon as we begin to consider cultural, religious, or artistic practices in the U.S., India, and China. And the reason for this should be obvious. Culture, religion, and art all allow large—if not decisively large—doses of imagination to determine their content, while sensory data and brute facts are occasionally ‘consulted,’ but seldom rigorously adhered to (as would be expected from any reputable scientist). On the other hand, precisely because empirical science is strictly limited in what it can legitimately and effectively work with (compared with that stupendous totality of imaginative and/or speculative phenomena that we, as humans, are capable of experiencing), its value as a general guide for us is extremely limited, as well. Science is utterly incapable—not simply by ‘choice’ but in accordance with its own criteria and strict methodological constraints—of making any sort of ethical or moral judgment, or of authoritatively responding to our spiritual needs and quandaries. This should caution us against expecting more from it than it can deliver. Only a fool would be ungrateful for the marvelous material benefits and conveniences that empirical science and technology have blessed us with. But it would be just as foolish to assume that science and its fruits are, by themselves, sufficient to satisfy our greater human needs. I’m referring, of course, to those ‘immaterial,’ spiritual and psychological needs against which all the material comforts and powers of the world can provide no remedy. There are some persons, now as ever, who recognize no needs beyond those that can be answered by material means. I have nothing further to say to such persons except to be careful that, in placing all your hopes in the basket of materialism, you don’t wind up learning that the more you consume, the emptier and more insatiable your neglected soul becomes.


[1] The implicit trajectory, then, leads from the realm of action to that of contemplation, or reflection—not the other way around. In other words, we are meant to think about what we see and hear, not imitate it (mimesis). As a spur to reflective thought, the art, say, of Shakespeare, is not overtly didactic or even morally exhortatory. Like good psychotherapy, it provides us with clues to potentially profound insights that we arrive at on our own, and in our own way. In great art—and I am thinking here of Plato’s dialogues, as well—comparatively little is spelled out explicitly. Rather, alluring ‘gaps’ are carefully engineered by the writer—gaps that are to be ‘arced’ or filled in by the creative intelligence of the reader or viewer.

[2] In other ways, science is radically divergent from—one might almost say antithetical to—commonsense, as Goethe astutely understood in his ardent and carefully executed campaign against Newtonian physics/optics, so this issue is far from a simple one.

On Wholeness and its Enemies within the Present System (6/22/10—Asunciόn)

As human beings, we commence our life careers as relatively fuzzy and inchoate creatures—taking on greater definition and more fixed features as we grow older. Certain tendencies, ‘seeds,’ and talents become germinated, nourished, exercised and developed into conspicuous identity-establishing features of our personalities, while other, less prominent, ‘iffier’ seeds and possibilities receive little or no encouraging attention. Normally, when we are growing up, we are strongly nudged by our parents, teachers, and companions to ‘play to our strengths’—to focus upon the development and perfection of those talents and capacities wherein we shine. It only makes good sense to heed such advice and encouragements if we happen to be growing up in a culture or society that lavishly rewards (and has far greater use for) persons who become really good at doing one or maybe two things. And then, in addition to the ‘external’ inducements of monetary compensation and praise for the competent performance of our one or two developed functions or skills, there is the internal, private satisfaction many of us enjoy when we ‘do our thing’ well—whether it’s indoor plumbing or outdoor sports.

But perhaps in addition to these two types of human lives—the one type being conspicuously proficient at one or two functions, and the ‘undistinguished’ other who lacks the requisite talent, discipline, and drive—there is a third type which is neither undisciplined and untalented, on the one hand, nor content merely with the development of one or two skills or talents at the expense of roundedness, on the other. In the past, such a person might be called a ‘Renaissance man’ or even a ‘philosopher’ because of the comprehensiveness of his vision (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare) or the scope of his skills (as with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Goethe). Words often used to describe such ‘whole’ lives and visions include ‘versatile,’ ‘multifaceted,’ and ‘protean.’ Each of these widely recognized ‘geniuses’ made enormous or even incalculable contributions to this (western) culture they helped to shape and inform.

But must all persons who innately and consistently strive for wholeness be geniuses or cultural-historical ‘stars’? In other words, is the very quest for wholeness, roundedness, and a comprehensive life the prerogative of the extraordinary few, the exceptionally gifted and ‘blessed?’ Or could it be that this yearning quite naturally appears in many of us whose native gifts are not quite so stupendous in their reach and fertility (as Plato’s, Shakespeare’s, or Jung’s)? At any event, this yearning for wholeness appears to receive little serious encouragement or support from our present culture, our educators, and—shamefully—even from our parents and our closest friends, who perhaps share a very different notion of success, fulfillment, and of ‘mature adult responsibility.’ Are the currently prevailing notions of human fulfillment and success rather lopsidedly utilitarian or narrowly ‘practical’ in their character?

Or, mightn’t it be even more extreme than this—so that, instead of simply being carelessly and unwittingly negligent of the ‘call’ of wholeness, today’s cultural norms are actually hostile to it? Is it possible that we now live in a culture that forcibly inhibits the full development of its members with the same degree of alacrity it devotes to our partial or lopsided development? Why on earth might a culture deliberately aim at such a goal—the rearing of comparatively fragmented or woefully incomplete creatures, many of whom are nevertheless highly effective in the regular performance of a well rewarded, single function? Is such a system as I am describing here even deserving of the name ‘culture?’ And if we suppose that somewhere within the administrative and governing bodies of this hypothetical system there are highly placed men and women who knowingly and deliberately shape, steer, and implement this elaborate political-economic-educational scheme, then we must ask: what are their ultimate aims, and how did they ever acquire so much power over the minds and destinies of the general population?   Why aren’t there more critics, dissenters, artists, and angry prophets out there blowing the whistle on these social engineers who assist in a strange, systematic crusade to turn us and our children into human fragments and blinkered functionaries instead of helping us to become whole human beings?

Well, to begin with, there most certainly are such critics, dissenters, artists and angry prophets living and expressing themselves around and among us. Unfortunately, what such persons are saying tends either to be drowned out by the much louder sound of ‘business as usual’ humming along or what they are saying is simply not being taken to heart (or to the streets.) This is not the same as saying that they are not being taken seriously by readers and audiences, because many Americans will readily admit that they are very mistrustful of the ‘system’ I’ve described, along with its rulers and its official architects. So, if this nation is in fact equipped with a sizable population of mistrustful, dissenters who are outraged by the current system why are they not attacking the system head-on, withdrawing themselves and their children from its institutions of fragmentation, and rejecting its menu of generally pernicious and psychologically-unfulfilling life career paths? Could they be reluctant to stand up and make a lot of noise for the simple reason that withdrawal from the system and the forfeiture of one’s precious but limited social/economic opportunities within the system are generally believed to be greater hardships than those entailed in unresisting compliance and obedient participation? There is the sense that ‘we can’t buck the system,’ a system which depends for its continuing success upon the widespread enlistment and participation of the populace. And, of course, so long as that participation continues, the warnings and the predictions of the critics and the prophets will be heard but almost never heeded by the inwardly divided and confused participants in the spiritually deforming and unwholesome system. And unless and until a critical mass of the ‘enlightened’ members of the general population actually dismantles the current system and replaces it with something intrinsically superior, the system, its rulers, and its architects will almost certainly remain in place.

We can turn this model around and look at this phenomenon from the ‘inside-out.’ A psychologically imbalanced or barbarous condition exists where one aspect of the whole is exaggerated to such a degree that the other parts of the psyche are eclipsed. If we add too much salt to a recipe, we ruin it—unless we are somehow able to find a way to counteract the excessive saltiness. Too much emotionality hampers rational action and free choice, but an excess of rational deliberation often leads to sterility and a weak connection with the animating/vitalizing passions. A society informed by our collective system, such as we’ve been discussing, is made up of the sum of the individuals participating in or contained by that system. What this means, in simple terms, is that the present system—if indeed it is in a perilously imbalanced condition—will not be restored to a state of balance or equilibrium unless and until a decisive number of individuals have succeeded in balancing themselves. Today’s fragmenting and wholeness-inhibiting system reflects the aggregate of fragmented and lopsided psyches of its members—from the top down. Viewed in this way, the source of the fragmentation and imbalance is seen to reside in the collective psyche of America, while the formal, systemic symptoms constitute the visible exoskeleton—those institutional directives, normative values, educational practices, and so forth which, from a more extraverted perspective, appear to be the source.

While the truth of this observation should be immediately apparent to anyone who recognizes the reality and the primacy of the psyche in all human experience, for those who do not, my observation will appear simply to have inverted the problem—and that I have gotten it all backwards. But such persons, I would argue, are operating from a standpoint that is still excessively mimetic in its orientation and response to culture and its institutions. They are like actors who—at best—have thoroughly memorized and internalized their lines. The culture is the play, and the play is a script, and ‘if it’s not in the script’ these actors cannot make intelligible sense of a ‘foreign’ thing or idea—let alone a completely different kind of play.

Here I am alluding to the authentically creative (as opposed to merely mimetic or imitative) play whereby the psyche itself spontaneously generates living forms and symbols. One commonly-occurring instance of such spontaneously generated images is the nightly dream which—when recalled the next morning—leaves us in a powerfully changed mood or in an imaginatively excited state that lasts through the day, perhaps. Another instance is the reverie we become absorbed in at the office when our attention drifts from the tedious paperwork we’re plodding through. Or it’s the irrational and deeply disturbing anxiety attacks that keep recurring and leaving us with the mounting suspicion that something big needs to be changed about our lives—and soon—or something’s gonna blow.

Where are these other parts of the totality from which we have become estranged in our chronic state of collective disequilibrium (or ‘mass derangement’)? They are not far away in some remote antipodes! They are right here in and around us, surrounding and suffusing us, just like Cuba is ninety miles away from Florida—and great literary and philosophical geniuses live private lives in small towns in Iowa and upstate New York—only ‘we’ don’t recognize them. We don’t enjoy diplomatic and cordial relations with our nearby neighbors and our potential enlargers and enhancers because we don’t yet know how to see them for who they really are.