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.

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.

Ideology and Anti-nature (9/12/16)

If the ideological scheme – or prevailing worldview – into which we were born, indoctrinated, and gradually conscripted is radically out of alignment with the more deeply rooted structural features of the ancestral unconscious from which our psyches were born, then one thing is certain: adaptation to and conformity with these less than natural, craftily engineered ideological imperatives runs afoul of our inherited natures and courts individual and collective catastrophe. Only an equally determined and relentless insurrection against this booby-trapped indoctrination affords some of us a slender chance of forging a thick life, as opposed to the mythically anemic and psychologically threadbare existence we see among “the sleepwalkers.” But for such self-liberation to get off the ground – or off the “drawing board” – we must first earn a clearer understanding of that against which our life is in revolt.

What this understanding consists in – and how it is arrived at – are perhaps my chief concerns as I near the tender age of sixty. To be plain: I have not been lazy or fainthearted all these years; rather, I have devoted my best energies to serious study, reflection, discussion, and “journaling” (as a vital and necessary aid to digestion). I have never been a namby-pamby greenhorn in whose heart the fire of rebellion waits to be kindled, for the process of uprooting and peeling away my own malignant, crippling ideological indoctrination (on a variety of fronts: religious; philosophical; political-national; moral; cultural; etc.) has long been underway. It has advanced side-by-side with the deepening and the subtilization of my understanding – both of the psyche and the forms (of thought, feeling, belief, valuation, etc.) – that makes a measure of such self-liberation possible.

A life that would be free must first come to frank and no-nonsense terms with the mental manacles by which it is bound. Since – like the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave – most of us are not only content with, and possibly even proud of, our state of imprisonment, but oblivious to it – we mistake slavery for freedom, or at least for the acceptable norm. What is it inside some of us that instinctively “smells a rat” in all such norms, regardless of which “culture cave” these norms preside over? Isn’t it the nearly universal acceptance or endorsement of these general norms that arouses our suspicion and mistrust?

What, more specifically, provokes this ineradicable uneasiness and caution where such norms and collective assumptions are concerned? Aware of their anchoring and compelling power over the multitude, I soberly acknowledge the order-imposing power and the steadying influence of these blunt, categorical “rules of thumb” upon the skittish herd. We, too, like less philosophically-minded elites, typically prefer stable socio-political conditions (at least in our own backyard). It is probably safe to say that if cynical oligarchical elites did not promulgate some “noble lie” or pious fraud, around which the people, now as ever, could huddle – as around a magnetic field – the people would clamor for such an order-imposing and stabilizing fabrication. The people will always need and greatly prefer empty generalities to dense, subtle, and dangerously substantial truths – which cause them to fret and scatter – and what are these empty, puffed up generalities if they are not the same noble lies I just referred to?

The chief difference between the philosopher and the cynic is that the former sort cherishes social harmony and stability so that he may be left in peace and quiet to ply his unpopular passion (hoping that his influence upon thinking men and women will promote the common good), while the cynical profiteer sees in the same conditions the most favorable opportunities for fleecing the sheep. Lao-tzu and Plato, both from the first lot, had the temerity to counsel those from the second bunch – but Lao-tzu only as he departed, once and for all, from the palace gates. Plato chose instead, to employ a form of esoteric writing that both hinted at and concealed the radical political conservatism (or muted pessimism?) he actually espoused.

Earning (2/2/16)

When a person has devoted a good deal of care and effort to the cultivation of his/her thinking or feeling function and that function has been brought to a high level of excellence, such excellence cannot justly be criticized or dismissed by someone who has done little or no work upon his own psychological functions. Many persons who are inspired to cultivate their intellects or their feelings do NOT do so chiefly in order to gain the applause of their peers and the admiration of their less ‘cultivated’ brethren and sistren, but this does not mean that they are undeserving of somewhat greater respect than someone who starts off with the same amount of ‘investment capital,’ so to speak and—instead of putting it to fruitful use, squanders it on frivolous pleasures and trifling entertainments until he has bankrupted himself.

Do we not come perilously close, here, to suggesting that there are implicit standards of attainment in the operation and deployment of thinking and feeling—standards that might be invoked as criterial grounds for some kind of hierarchy or meritocracy? Should it come as a surprise that such speculations often meet with popular hostility in a democratic regime that is continually ‘lowering the bar’ and ‘leveling the playing field’ (intellectually, educationally, politically, ethically, spiritually, etc.) in order to flatter itself and to avoid seeing this ‘mediocracy’ for what it truly is? Such exacting standards constitute a direct affront to the ‘mass man’—an unflattering, unforgiving mirror in which all that is there and, perhaps more importantly, all that is not there stands nakedly exposed. We can certainly be forgiven (that is, by ourselves, which is what matters above all) for not doing or becoming more than we are capable of doing or becoming. Miracles and prodigies are not to be expected. But a feeling of profound regret is a perfectly natural response, I would argue, for those persons who are honest and courageous enough to acknowledge how much spiritual, moral, creative, and intellectual potential they have allowed to ‘fust in them, unused’—in choosing to ‘go with the flow’ (of a muddy and often stinky river) instead of strenuously swimming ‘against the current’ towards the clearer, livelier source-waters, upstream from the sluggish, swampish delta.

Moreover, when we reflect upon earning, it can take on a different character, depending on whether what we are earning is intended chiefly for the personal profit of the separate self or for the more enlightened purpose of loosening the hold that such self-interest has upon our soul. Shakespeare wrote plays that were, for the most part, popularly successful at the Globe Theatre, of which he was part-owner. His professional and financial success as a playwright and business owner allowed him to retire comfortably to Stratford after his long and distinguished career. Would anyone be so churlish, myopic, and reductive to suggest that it was only—or even mostly—for these personal/material motivations that Shakespeare wrote plays like Hamlet and King Lear? While there is no need to categorically deny any or all self-interested elements found within the complex concatenation of motivations at work within even the most ‘selfless’ saints and philanthropists, we can readily see the relative prominence or insignificance such self-interested motives play in a person’s psychic economy by carefully observing their actions, words, reactions, etc.

Nowadays, I resist the temptation to judge selfishness primarily as a symptom of a morally debased or vicious soul. Instead, I find it makes wiser sense to regard selfishness as an almost necessary, if preliminary and comparatively immature, stage of moral-psychological development or unfoldment. It is simply something that is to be experienced, properly appreciated, and gradually outgrown—even if vestiges of that selfishness, that flare up from time to time, will always remain part of us. My suspicion is that self-interestedness can neither be completely eradicated nor leapt over, but must be accepted and ‘come to terms with’—rather as we come to terms with the fact that we have BODIES that make pressing demands upon us and which eventually decompose and die.

Socrates, early on, recognized the crucial difference between arguing simply for the sake of winning and analytical inquiry aimed at deepening the understanding of all persons involved—where everyone, potentially at least, comes out a winner. The first—self-serving and extremely limited—technique was called eristics (from ‘Eris,’ the goddess of strife), while the second was called dialectics.

With this idea in mind—the diametrical contrast between strife-sowing, competitive eristics and therapeutic, soul-making dialectics—we have a fresh angle from which to approach the often hidden connections between thinking and feeling. Socrates aptly described himself as a ‘midwife’ of ideas. What he meant, it seems, is that in his carefully directed question-and-answer dialogues with his listeners, he was able to ‘bring to birth’ thoughts and formulated beliefs/opinions (doxa) that had erstwhile existed only as ‘fetal’ or ‘embryonic’ possibilities lurking in the unlit, unexamined psyches of those he questioned. Sometimes the ‘offspring’ born from such ‘obstetrics’ would be healthy and noble (as with Glaucon), while some would be ugly, deformed, or undernourished (Callicles, Meno). But one thing is fairly certain: unless and until these hidden, inner possibilities are lured out of seclusion in the ‘background’ of the psyche, there is little or no chance of applying therapeia to them. So long as these contents remain latent or unformulated—they continue to have an enormous, if unrecognized and ‘mysterious,’ influence upon us, but we can do little or nothing to challenge or override that influence. Now, when these mysterious influences (or ‘invisible angels’) are benign, many persons are content not to ‘look a gift horse in the mouth,’ so to speak—but will simply ‘get out of the way’ and let these inner guides ‘do their thing.’ But when they are more like imps, mischief-makers, satyrs, and devils, a very different situation often obtains. Then, the ‘victim’ of his troublesome inner figures is given every incentive to turn within and face the (menacing) music to which he is otherwise condemned to dance out the rest of his days.


Freedom, Maturity, and Self-control (4/9/17)

Following Socrates and the Stoics, I recognize an essential connection between inner freedom and the wise and balanced management of the passions. In order to manage or work wisely with our passions, we must gain some understanding of them. And of course such understanding is gained primarily through experience of, and reflection upon, these passions and emotions: anger, fear, envy, daring, lust, indignation, hatred, insecurity, longing, disgust, suspicion, regret, disappointment, contempt, shame, sorrow, depression, etc. To wisely manage our passions is not to repress or snuff them out, but to cultivate them, artfully express and channel them, to transmute and transfigure them.

The passions—like the instincts and innate drives—are given. What we do with them can be thought of as art, just as the gardener’s cunning and ingenuity with plants found in the wild involves a special kind of horticultural art. Persons who are deficient in the art of managing their drives, passions, emotions, and appetites are regarded as ‘natural,’ rough-hewn, or even barbarous, while those who show a superfluity of such artful control are commonly regarded as unnatural, contrived, effete, ‘precious.’ A garden overgrown with weeds shows a want of artfulness on the gardener’s part, while dried flower arrangements are a poor substitute for a beautiful outdoor garden. Some persons—with respect to their passions—are like gardens choked with weeds, while others are like desiccated roses—perhaps lovely to behold, but lacking in warmth and vitality.

Poisons and Pathogens (9/12/12)

We have long been told that ‘the truth shall set us free,’ but that would be scanned. It may well be the case that in matters of spiritual insight, this old saying actually carries some weight. However, when the ‘truth’ pertains to political/social problems, a different situation often obtains. Instead of feeling liberated by many of the truths that I am uncovering about dubious corporate practices, the World Bank and the IMF, the ‘military-industrial complex,’ cowardly and corrupt Congressional and Senate members, taxpayer-funded bailouts for incompetent and/or villainous financial officers, etc., I am left feeling more and more helpless and powerless as a citizen. It is perfectly correct to say that I am liberated, in part, from my ignorance, but one may ask: does learning the truth, say, about toxic elements or infectious pathogens in our air and our drinking water make us feel free—especially if we’ve been drinking that water and breathing that air for years? Certainly not if we also learn that both the leaders and our fellow citizens in the poisoned, infected city are in denial about the seriousness of the threat facing all of us. Under such conditions, we are scarcely in a suitable position to address and correct the problem. From the standpoint of feeling, mightn’t I actually have been better off never having uncovered the truth about the poisons in our air and the pathogens in our water? I would be just as lamentably (or contemptibly) naïve and credulous as the other ‘ostriches’ and ‘know-nothings,’ but since ignorance and bliss have long been intimate bedfellows, I would not feel as helpless as I actually am. So, it would seem that ignorance and bliss are far more closely connected than are feeling and being (or the actual truth of things)—at least in many cases.

For those who need to be alerted to such things, let me announce that I am about to launch into an extended metaphor. As for the rest of you, my apologies for having to spell out what should be apparent: As long as I see little convincing evidence that a sizable number of my fellow citizens and our elected officials are addressing the pressing issue of poisons and pathogens in ‘air’ and ‘water,’ I don’t know whether I should stay in the endangered city or not. The air is slowly killing me and the water—even though I boil it and meticulously filter it—is still causing fevers for me. I am painfully aware of the fact that I am worthless as a Cassandra uttering prophecies and warnings that no one hears or heeds—and I am worthless dead or senselessly martyred (by continuing to take in poisons and pathogens that are made even more virulent by my consciousness of the havoc they are wreaking upon my vulnerable body). An alarming number of my ‘friends’ have become conspicuously silent and aloof towards me. Perhaps they regard me as a kind of smelly untreated wound or as a disturbing nuisance who spoils their ‘happiness,’ which is easily uprooted, since it is often planted in such thin, poor soil to begin with. Perhaps a number of them regard me as a crank, or worse, a resentful malcontent who is secretly envious of their ‘success,’ their prestige, their material ‘security,’ and their participation in a game which I have long viewed with the profoundest mistrust. How doubtful—how unlikely—that I will convince such persons they are dead wrong about me and about the true nature of my unsightly, stinking wound!

It is quite obvious that the knowledge I have been inwardly compelled to seek is neither welcome nor pleasing to most persons I am acquainted with. This observation applies both to knowledge about the socio-political realities of our own and earlier times, as well as the spiritual and psychological knowledge that pertains to the largely unexplored inner world. The first sort is unpleasant chiefly because it invariably conflicts with the comforting stupidities, official lies, infantile diversions, preposterous over-simplifications, and petty poppycock that we are continually awash in. The second sort is welcome only in small, watered-down, sandalwood-scented doses, but soon is felt to be burdensome and taxing, for its cultivation requires serious discipline and considerable leisure (for study and digestion), two things that are in scant supply for busy professionals who have families to feed and hefty expenses to cover.

So, for this student of life (and of humankind), the acquisition and disciplined cultivation of liberal knowledge (as opposed to merely technical skill and know-how) have occasioned a fair measure of sorrow and disappointment, if I am to be completely honest. Rather than having the effect of puffing up my sense of my own power and personal importance, my knowledge has had a generally deflating and curbing effect upon my native human arrogance and my joie de vivre. The overall effect of the knowledge that I have endured may be likened to the alchemical process of purification through fire in a crucible or to immersion into a vat of corrosive acid—where superfluous impurities are burnt away. Of course, such psychological torture (yes, this is the appropriate word) is not for the squeamish or for those of little faith (in the psyche). The work is necessarily lonely since it is business between me and my own soul, and finally has little to do with other persons. I now am convinced that I and others like me were born for such lonely interior labors, for unless the drive to pursue this work is there from the start, it is not likely to be ‘put there’ by books or by anyone else.

Alas, my ongoing quest for interior knowledge and for authentic (individual) experience—often appears to move in the exact opposite direction taken by the great majority of my fellows. Opening up to this constitutional mistrust of the goals and values of the majority and coming to more or less peaceful terms with this sobering fact about my personality has constituted most of the ‘torture’ and disorientation that I have encountered since I was very young. It is only insofar as I have deeply and irreversibly accepted this fact about my innermost nature that I have been able to lift my head somewhat above the confusion and pain that resulted from bucking against my true nature. What for the majority of persons constitutes their familiar and stable ego-personalities can no longer be more than a kind of mask or provisional platform for me. I no longer experience my ego as my ‘true self’ or my essential being. Someone—or something—different, other, and more essential has always been there—but now I am more inclined to recognize that ‘alien’ as my true ground, my essence.

It has been through my voluntary submission to this mysterious but decisively authoritative essence that I have begun to realize that much suffering, confusion, and folly were necessary by-products and symptoms of the metamorphosis, the seeds of which have been inside me all along. This interior work that I have been drawn to since I was young has been responsible for germinating those seeds. And of course, in realizing what feels like my life-work—how could I possibly regret it? How can one genuinely regret the realization of one’s given nature without at the same time being a traitor to themselves?

We are what we are at the deepest, core levels—and likewise, we can never be what it is not within our nature to be. If all of us could learn to be what we are, as purely and as completely as possible, there would be a lot less unnecessary noise, waste, and confusion in the world. There would still be tensions and conflicts, of course, but they would be purer and more intelligible. They would be meaningful tensions and conflicts—nothing like the conflicts, say, in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, which were founded upon lies, false pretenses, and deeply conflicted motivations. But to learn what we are—and what we are not: is that a priority or even a serious consideration for our teachers, our parents, and others whose responsibility it is to guide and educate children? Or, do we find, instead, that nothing is more common than for these parents, teachers, and guides to mislead by trying to shape their charges after their own idealized image (of themselves)? This is a collective problem of the blind often leading the innocent down narrowly constrictive paths that are seriously out of touch with the innate seeds (the intended tasks) of the young. They are simply being fitted for service within an extremely imbalanced and fundamentally unsound system that has forcefully weakened any ties to nature, to the psychic depths, to the heart, to genuine sanity—and almost always in the interest of material profits and personal power for the winners. Most children today never have a chance to see or to experience any viable alternative to this unsound, anti-natural, pathologically imbalanced system, with its low, vulgar aims and its empty prizes that are quickly found unsatisfying to anyone with healthy or developed taste and judgment.

The High Cost of Education (8/24/16)

A word to idealists: disappointment must be earned. If it is true that there is no such thing as a free lunch, it is even truer that there is no such thing as a free education. Not only does it involve our suffering pain, as Aristotle observed, but we must make an active effort to obtain our freedom from consoling, insulating ignorance. Shared ignorance and prejudice: aren’t these the strongest bonds holding a surprising number of marriages, families, clans, communities, and all nations together? Thus those who, through their painful exertions, liberate their minds and hearts from ignorance and prejudice will also be most acutely aware of their solitariness. Are my words sinking in? Is it becoming clearer why, with this more stringent definition, there are so few truly educated persons around – but, at best, highly informed (or instructed) ones, which is a very different kettle of fish? Yes, indeed, so different, in fact, that these two – the rare, genuinely educated and the far more numerous “informed/instructed” – are naturally at loggerheads with each other.

So there you have it: the continual, strenuous exertion of swimming against the current; the regular experience of painful disenchantment with what’s offered on the established menu; and the often stark solitariness to which we are consigned as we inwardly negotiate the distances between our severely uncompromising sharp-sightedness and the soporific soft-focus simplicitas in which those near and dear to us often dwell! And all for the sake of an extremely limited and precarious, moment-by-moment liberation from the comforting and affiliating fog of ordinary collective consciousness! What a strange (and vexing-perplexing) lot we dogged delvers and diggers are!

Yes, the exorbitant cost of the genuine education will empty the bulging piggy banks of even the wealthiest minds. There is perhaps some consolation to be found, however, when it is at last learned that the currency one has been dispossessed of was inflated, if not counterfeit, all along.

On Our Responsibility for Our Personality Development (9/14/16)

When we think about our personalities (and their cultivation and maturation) as something we are responsible for, important questions may flood upon us. If we slacken in our responsibility, not only will we have to live with the consequences each day, but others will be denied the contributions we might otherwise be in a position to make if we actually made something of ourselves. The fact of the matter is that authentic cultivation of the personality involves significant exertion, broad experience of our fellow human beings, risk, and discipline. I suspect that leisure and a certain degree of economic freedom may also be necessary for the cultivation of the personality, since a life that is severely burdened by poverty and by oppressive energy-absorbing toil will enjoy only restricted opportunity for learning, reflection, the development of one’s given talents, and for the civilized social intercourse that are essential to the full and rounded development of the personality.

But there are certainly other forms of oppression and other limitations (besides poverty and time-and-energy-devouring toil) that will stand in the way of self-cultivation. What first leaps to mind are the common vices – sloth, bitterness, restfulness, all forms of addiction, a weakness for distractions – along with psychological problems that cripple or scatter the will: chronic depression, apathy, low self-esteem, misanthropy, paranoia, etc.

The personalities of some individuals get off to an unfavorable start – with handicaps that must be surmounted before this dark lead may be transformed into shimmering gold. The learning, the reflection, the self-discipline, the courage, and patience required for such life-altering transformations are by no means trivial. What is it that props up and sustains the will-to-transform throughout this lengthy period of inner reformation and plodding growth? It can only be an inspiring vision or foretaste of the alluring goal before the mind’s eye.

Induction (4/3/14)


We often find that when we engage with others, we are typically obliged to engage with them solely on their own, usually unsifted terms—i.e., within the possibly cramped orbit of what may turn out, upon close inspection, to be a myopic but incongruously cocksure conceptions of themselves—and of the whole of reality! If the range and the depth of our own thought, imagination, and expressive power are hemmed in by an unwitting, faithful allegiance to the limiting horizons of the minds, sympathies, and imaginations of the generality, we ultimately have but ourselves to blame for becoming ‘bogged down’ in a steamy swamp of spiritual-mental mediocrity and mendacity.

For those of us who instinctively rebel against being thus corralled into cognitive collusion with the languid, the lumpy, the listless, and the laggard—those of us, that is to say, who have no hankering to become obliging day-care workers in the nescient nursery-school of innocuous nincompootpourri—these klutzily blunting and maiming locutions, differentiations, and explanations must be gathered up in our biggest red wheelbarrow and carried to the nearest incinerator. So much depends on this! Then, and only then, do we begin to place ourselves in the clean and lonely position to re-enact Adam’s ancient office of (re-) naming the animals.

This means that we must not only thoroughly mistrust, but we are also obliged to thoroughly overhaul and regenerate, the ‘commonsense’ understanding of reality and of ourselves—the (mis-) understanding that is lovingly-brutally bludgeoned into our impressionable young minds and souls from the moment of our birth into this amnesiac, blathering, and deracinated culture. We must renegotiate all those eviscerating adaptations, concessions, and dubious terms of agreement that we unwittingly signed and consented to—largely because there was no one around to caution us against what we were getting ourselves into as we were being corkscrewed into the managed pandemonium of manic, modern, mundane madness.

Walking the Plank (8/18/12)

We are not in a position to ‘see through’ the world until we have first made significant headway in seeing the world as it is. Only after we have begun to see the world as it is do we become properly suspicious of our cozy comfortableness in that world. When we have come to deplore lax conformity and passive compliance with the terms and conditions of the socio-political world and—from the other end of the spectrum—after we have stepped back from our fiery-passionate campaigns to alter those terms and conditions: only then, perhaps, do we properly begin to ‘see through’—and beyond—the world as it is.

The perspective that is able to see through and beyond the world is already situated beyond or outside the bounds of the world as it is, even though it is unconscious and not within easy reach for many of us. Therefore, seeing through and beyond the world as it is consists principally of learning how to establish our consciousness within that centered, neutral position, and to hold that position. This is the eye of the storm—the inner standpoint where ‘the lion lies down with the lamb.’ It is not a physical paradise, a socio-political utopia, or some heaven in the sky. It is a quiet, undisturbed inner state of balance—upon a razor’s edge. It is what is left over after we have glutted and rutted, beaten and drubbed, our way into the world—and ultimately found the world to be even more devouring and consuming than our own unbridled appetites!

As we know, all the world’s great religions have both an exoteric body of teachings and an esoteric one. Exoteric Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have evolved, over the centuries, to provide moral guidance, a more or less coherent worldview, and metaphysical comfort for the many, while the esoteric traditions provide teachings for the few—teachings that pertain to release, enlightenment, spiritual liberation, centeredness, and mystical vision. Responding to the human situation as it is—and as it will no doubt continue to be—exoteric religion provides rules and instructive examples to be followed by the many (and their all too frequently venal and mediocre political leaders). It is hoped that such moral instruction will serve as a check against doing mischief to themselves and to others while they are confined or embedded within the world as it is. They are promised rewards—usually in an afterlife, but sometimes in the here and now—if they will only abide by these rules and try to imitate the saintly exemplars. The rewards and punishments that are implicit in the moral teachings which are central to all exoteric religions naturally function as ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ for the followers. As long as they respect these moral prescriptions, they feel themselves to be human beings who possess inherent dignity and are, therefore, deserving of respect from other humans. When they violate or ignore these traditional moral commands they are little more than wild beasts, and are made to feel so—both by other decent humans and by their own guilty consciences. Exoteric religions, at least in the West, are not about release from (or genuine enlightenment about) the nature of the world as it is. They are chiefly concerned with establishing and preserving social and moral order within that world, and are therefore ingredient to human civilization as such.

The esoteric teachings from all the religious traditions, on the other hand, speak to that part or perspective within us that is not merely embedded in ‘the world as it is,’ but which silently and detachedly observes. It is a kind of seeing that gently resists merger or identification with that which is seen. To the extent that it is able to preserve this distinction between itself (as seer) and the seen, the observer within is free, unbound, and content. As a contented, self-subsistent seer, there is no compulsion to act, to go anywhere, to alter anything. For all these actions are perceived either as disturbances or modifications—either faint or tremendous—of the quiet abidance in Being in itself. This state, when assessed from the standpoint of normal human (or ego-) consciousness, appears to be utterly and perhaps shockingly transpersonal. Although the stubborn sense of ‘I-ness’ or personal consciousness begins to dissolve in the centered, uncompelled perspective like a salt crystal in water, this state is by no means sterile, nugatory, inhuman, or devoid of vitality. It is, however, the vitality of light, and not of a dynamo or of spirited animality. The terms and qualities that we are forcibly obliged to employ from the ‘normal’ standpoint of ego-consciousness are simply inapplicable to the serene, centered consciousness of the seer within. [1]

Over the years, my own efforts to deepen and to extend my experiences of this centered state have not been infrequent or half-hearted. Ever since I first experienced ‘mystical’ or ‘transcendent’ states as a youth I have repeatedly undertaken a serious and energetic pursuit of the contemplative life. Nevertheless, my path has certainly not been a straight or direct one. My journey has taken me into a dozen or so different regions of study and experience, but I have always remained faithful, down deep, to the path of liberation, even when I venture from this path from time to time. The state of centeredness is, for me, the most real, the most comprehensive, and the most intrinsically free perspective that I know of from experience. All else—including all that the world and ordinary human experiences have to offer—is, alas, of peripheral or relative worth, and pales by comparison.

Now, whether it should be trusted or deeply suspected, I have long been governed by an inner determination to try to reconcile my intermittent transcendent experiences with my cultural-philosophical-moral knowledge and experience. This seems to be my inwardly assigned, or fated ‘task’—although I am all too painfully aware of how colossal and unfinishable this task ultimately is. It dwarfs my meager abilities and exposes the paucity of my learning. And yet, my commitment to the task is a commitment that I do not—perhaps cannot—shirk or argue away, so integral it is to the health and integrity of my soul. It is my modest contribution to the general campaign—undertaken by spiritually-motivated persons everywhere and at all times—to construct bridges from the bank of the world to that of the contemplative and serene seer.

Although my journey thus far has been circuitous and, at times, seemingly episodic, the ultimate aim has remained unwavering: liberation by means of ingathering of my attention, attaining a state of centeredness, and attempting to maintain a critical distance from the devouring seductions and allurements, the boogies and the threatening phantasms, of the world as it is—the world as it is seen through the distorting lens of the de-centered mind. The seemingly episodic character of my journey stems from my having explored a number of well-traveled regions of typical experience—regions such as ‘romantic,’ conjugal, and friendly love; archetypal psychology and the Western philosophical tradition; artistic creativity and literary studies; politics and moral theory; comparative religion and mythological studies. From the standpoint of the centered seer all of these regions or arenas of knowledge and experience constitute more or less reliable platforms from which we may involve ourselves with the world. They are interrelated but relatively independent realms. And, perhaps most importantly, they can be traps or snares in which the seer may become lost.

My own involvement in each of these realms is ultimately governed by a will to release. Consequently, I have learned to approach them like a latter-day Houdini who is chiefly alert to the often hidden orifices and weak links that allow one to wriggle out of one’s bonds. The strongest weapon against entrapment in any particular domain of relatively coherent and compelling experience is—as I have observed many times in the past—the mental ability to melt literal forms into metaphors. In viewing and experiencing forms and phenomena imaginally instead of concretistically, symbolically instead of literally, we are able to divine the meaning trapped within these forms—meaning that is obscured or blocked from view so long as we think exclusively in literal terms. Unfortunately, this literal, matter-of-fact, reductionist manner of seeing things has been encouraged by the dominant scientific/materialistic worldview lurking behind virtually all ‘acceptable’ and culturally sanctioned statements and positions.

Why am I engaged in this work of searching for weak links and escape routes from the various regions that have captivated my interest throughout the years? I believe now that I was initially drawn to these arenas of experience and these ‘ways of seeing’ precisely because they promised—each in its own distinctive way—to provide a path towards a viable form of personal or spiritual fulfillment. The more I invested in these particular studies and personal involvements the more I came to see that these prospects of fulfillment were only half-true at best. The steps taken within these arenas—as my knowledge and understanding deepened—were like rungs on a ladder. The rungs would mysteriously vanish below me as I climbed higher (or descended lower, as the case may be, since ‘the way up and the way down are one and the same’). My thoughts and insights would progressively become subtler, more inclusive and synthetic, as I moved deeper and deeper into each region. I could see and feel myself becoming absorbed by the realm as I became more absorbed with its particular phenomena. There was certainly as much that was limiting and circumscribing about such immersions as there was liberating and transcendent about them. There would, for example, be a sense of exhilaration or momentary transcendence (say, of a lower or former ‘rung’) as I had an articulate experience of the next depth or stage—but this would soon enough settle into a new norm, or average, and the ‘shine’ of its earlier numinosity would fade.

What I have gradually come to realize is that with the formal, intellectual, emotional, and even imaginal experiences that we undergo as we delve deeper and deeper into the roots of a realm—say, of epistemology or romantic love—we ultimately wind up on a kind of plank, on the side of the craft we’ve been sailing in. The ‘plank’ ordeal is the liminal experience—the encounter with that strange frontier between the continuity of thought and the coherence of familiar experience, on the one hand, and the transcendent mystery that defies adequate formulation and representation by the human intellect, feelings, and imagination, on the other.

If the sea beckons us and we leap—all our accumulated knowledge, insight, and experience are seen no longer as our possessions. They were merely the vessel that brought us to the leaping-off place. At some level we had to already know—or at least strongly suspect—that the vessel could take us no further on our journey, since vessels float upon the surface of the wide expanse of the sea. That is their nature and function, due to their buoyancy. But if the watery depths call us, we already know that in swallowing us up, they more than compensate for the paltry cargo on board the vessel we leapt from. Knowing how to swim—before we leap into the sea—may be helpful, but if we have learned how to breathe underwater, our plunge will yield even richer finds. All platforms, ultimately, turn out to be diving platforms for those who are called, by fate, to the depths, are they not?

[1] It is for this reason that we link apophatic or negative theology with mystical vision. Instead of ascribing to the seer (or the deus absconditus, the hidden ‘God’) virtues and qualities that are known and intelligible to us in our ordinary experience, the apophatic approach says what it is not. The shift from ordinary ego-consciousness to mystical identification with the seer, or the Godhead, involves the transcendence of all the ‘concepts and categories,’ the criteria and rationality, of the former standpoint.