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.

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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.