Ego and Spirit (10/3/12)

A state of unruffled, serene composure is what is left over after all the numerous, naturally-arising distractions of our attention have been gently but thoroughly rebuffed and brought to a stop. For the intellectual, who seems to thrive on the stimulation provided by fresh and provocative ideas, the deliberate cessation of all lines of thought feels almost like a betrayal of his calling. For the moral enthusiast, whose delicious sense of self-worth and personal importance hinges upon his unceasing efforts to ‘do the right thing’ for his fellows, the unplugging from all such thoughts and sentiments can feel like a gross dereliction of duty. For the man of action, whose very sense of identity is bound up with staying busily involved with his absorbing projects, such willed moments of stillness come up against every imaginable form of resistance. In short, numberless are the distractions that eclipse the serene stillness and contentment that are always just within the reach of the quieted mind.

If self-mastery consists largely in learning how to inhabit this ‘still point’ with greater ease and for longer stretches of time, then it depends to a great extent upon our learning how to not do, not think, and not be moved all over the mental chess board or billiard table by our habitual feelings and insistent passions. And yet, for most of us, these are precisely the factors that constitute our ‘humanity’ and our sense of personal identity. Little wonder, then, that they should put up such a fight as soon as our spiritual self (atman) begins to gently announce its presence. It is like the clash or collision between two diametrically opposed worlds, in a sense. The spirit is essentially free. It exists on its own, independently, in a liberated state. But the moment our absorption in that state of spiritual liberation is disturbed by the powerful distractions produced by (our consciousness of) the body, the emotions, and the intellect (i.e., the ego), we cannot help but see and interpret that ego (and its concerns) in completely new way. We begin to understand freedom in a radically new sense. Put simply, we learn that freedom, which is innate to the spirit, is essentially freedom from, while, from the ego’s perspective, it is understood as freedom to. But freedom to do what?

Since the ego is driven by—one might go so far as to say founded upon—desire, fear, and the will to power, freedom is understood to mean the satisfaction of its desires, the continual enhancement and extension of its will to power, and the control (or outright annihilation) of all feared/despised objects. As long as we are identified with the ego, our notion of freedom will naturally conform to these egoic objectives. As soon as there is genuine contact with the spirit, the ego necessarily experiences a profound crisis. Why is this?

From the spirit’s perspective, the ego (as a reified psychological complex) is prone to enslavement by its natural drives, habits, fears, ambitions, and cravings. The more intensely and vehemently the ego pursues its natural (literal, concretistic) aims, the deeper it digs itself into the hole of its imprisonment, which corresponds with its implicit belief in its primacy, its independent reality, and its ‘given’—as opposed to ‘constructed’—nature. Contact with the spirit does two things, then, for the ego. First of all, it presents a vividly experienceable form of freedom and contentment that is utterly new and utterly different from the appetitive forms of freedom and pleasure that it is accustomed to pursuing. Secondly, it subtly—one might almost say insidiously—poisons the ego’s naïve or innocent trust in its goals, its modus operandi, and its general assumptions about itself and the world. The ego gets a glimpse—an unforgettable taste—of the spirit’s radically different form of freedom. This spiritual freedom, as suggested earlier, is not only far more substantial and profound than the fleeting, unstable pleasures and successes won upon the human ego battlefield, but they expose the concretistic, compulsive, and consuming character of the ego’s fundamental tendencies—its dark and smoky engines, if you like.

‘Even if I win, I lose’: thus muses the newly enlightened (and therefore thoroughly humbled) ego. ‘I could be emperor of this world, and I would never really be secure, or contented, or certain of anything—except, that is, certain of my folly for choosing dominion over the whole wide world above humble abidance in the spirit that I have been mysteriously visited by.’

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On Renunciation (10/4/12)

Bliss is not so much the fulfillment of bodily desires and emotional yearnings as it is freedom from enthrallment to these desires and yearnings, which can always be relied upon to disturb or unseat us from our true bliss. This observation is not confined solely to desire, but applies to all of the affects and perturbations of the soul. Bliss and serene contentedness, or poised neutrality, are one and the same. When you meditate, observe how your desires hijack your attention and direct it away from the center. Even the craving for centeredness, when it becomes urgently pressing, stands as a kind of impediment to perfect peace of mind. Our desires spontaneously project imagined objects or ends (desiderata), while genuine bliss seems to consist in the absence of all such objects of desire—being always sufficient unto itself. The inversion of desire, of course, is fear—and fear is every bit as effective a disrupter of our spiritual poise as desire is.

Some persons do not respond trustingly and receptively to the neutral bliss of perfect meditation, or centeredness. It is not that these persons find it unpalatable, an absurd suggestion, since bliss is intrinsically pleasant; rather, they are rattled by the fact that, once experienced, it throws all of their established, long believed-in, human-all-too-human goals, pleasures, and assumptions into a peculiar light. Genuine spiritual illumination necessarily exposes all merely human aims, pleasures, and dreams for the shadows and poor substitutes (for genuine spiritual contentment) that, alas, they are.[1]

I suspect that most, if not all, persons, at one time or another, enjoy spontaneously occurring moments of this unadulterated spiritual bliss. These moments probably occur more frequently during childhood—before the young person has become fully enmeshed in his/her role(s) and functions within society. Once mundane reality and everyday demands have thoroughly conscripted our souls and we become the more or less helpless servants of our desires, duties, talents, fears, and so forth, it becomes far more difficult for us to relax our way into the stillpoint. But if perchance such a moment of grace lifts such a slave out of his bondage, soon after the joy of liberation is savored ‘the world’ and one’s established place in that world reasserts its dominating power over us and the moment of joy is drowned out by the noise and bustle of ‘real life.’

Every once in awhile, here and there among the children of men, someone will say to himself after such a moment of euphoric freedom: ‘This is the true reality! The scripted and plotted life that I lead as an ego among other egos is the inauthentic, artificial realm of experience!’ In deciding to switch his allegiance from the world of social duties and limited personal attachments to the inner path of spiritual liberation, he initially invites all sorts of trouble into his life. The transformation he has inwardly committed himself to will not happen quickly or painlessly. It is perhaps the hardest thing in the world to overcome one’s attachments to the world, for what this ultimately comes down to is overcoming our deeply-rooted desire for incarnation in the world of ordinary human experience.   Before we can truly and enduringly abide in the spirit, we must die to the world. Each lives the other’s death, in a very real sense.

For a long time, therefore, the committed seeker after spiritual liberation will be mired in the agonizing struggle to master those recurring desires and stubborn attachments that define his personal ego consciousness and the general trajectory of his life. It may be the desire for fame as a great teacher or saint that is the secret engine driving his ego, or it may be a sentimental, sticky attachment to his mate or his child. Persons who are profoundly attached—or addicted—to sensual pleasures, to personal power and wealth, or to intoxicants of some kind or another are not likely candidates for enduring spiritual liberation, since these compulsions are exceedingly difficult to break free from, not to speak of the more vicious and brutish inclinations which have captured the helpless souls of the criminally depraved and the possessed.

The protracted and arduous struggles of the committed seeker after release (from the compulsive tendencies and the pet illusions of his own ego) will be rewarded from time to time with reassuring episodes of great inner peace and an extraordinary sense of groundedness in his true and authentic essence. These periodically encountered oases of spiritual refreshment and encouragement have certainly restored my own strength and determination as I have trudged through the desert of the world as experienced and known only by the ego. Only after we have lost our initial innocence and ignorance (about the actual hollowness and essential fraudulence of the ‘constructed’ world and its offerings) are we in a position to systematically deconstruct that world—to see through it and to gradually extricate ourselves from its seductive snares. Without these periodic infusions of spiritual insight and encouragement, we would possess no counterweight against the tantalizing pull of the world—or, contrariwise, against the nihilism of despair, which constitutes every bit as strong an obstacle to our inner freedom.

Who, then, is committed? It is not—it cannot rightfully be—the ego, since it is the ego’s perspective that is being seen through, relativized, and, ultimately transcended. It is the spirit-spark itself—what the Hindus call atman—that is behind the whole process, from start to finish. We find an analogy in Gnostic mythology: Sophia, believing that she was pursuing the light of the hidden God, was actually plunging into matter, where the divine light was being reflected. Similarly, the atman, or spirit, may be said to have become identified with its shadow, or reflection, in the individual human ego—its carnal twin. The spirit is awakening from that slumberous descent—returning to its true home—leaving behind the lesser lights for the ‘invisible sun.’

[1] When we experience exceptional joy or happiness while engaged in some activity or in beholding some beautiful scene, the activity or the scene may best be thought of as opening a portal or window into the joy or bliss that is always native to our innermost being—if we could but see this. What happens though, is that we typically reify the happiness and conflate it with the activity or with the scene which, properly speaking, are merely occasions for the bliss that is always within reach, regardless of the circumstances.

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.

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

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.

East and West: Sober Reflections (4/11/14)

Ronald Schenk, in his terse reply to a question I posed by email (concerning Jung’s and Hillman’s ‘mistrust’ of the Indian psyche) said: ‘Jung and Hillman were both influenced by Indian thought, but both felt it was problematic for Westerners to identify with it, thereby creating a ‘shadow’ of factors that are part of the Western psyche but not included by the East.’

Now, I agree that there is some truth here, but I’m not quite sure it redounds to the credit of the Western psyche—which, on the whole, may be rather more insane and out of alignment with inner reality than the (traditional) Eastern one is.

The formative influences of Christianity, rational philosophy, humanism, republicanism, and the ‘rights of man’ have all contributed to the actual (or purported) sanctity of the individual in the West—while the more ‘collectivist’ East lags behind in its very different regard for the ‘autonomous’ individual. And while no one can deny that a goodly number of humane principles and morally enlightened practices have emerged (in the West) from this more respectful stance towards the individual, this same individualism is inseparably bound up with a slew of collective ills that now threaten to do us in—both culturally and with respect to our natural environment, which is rapidly being compromised and gobbled up by the reckless, unbridled collective appetites of devouring consumers. An honest analysis of the modern ‘individual’ in the West is more likely to reveal an amalgam of generally unfettered, irrational habits, cravings, and compulsions (that demand instant gratification) than the self-controlled, liberally educated, rationally reflective citizen enthusiastically idealized by the founders of modern democracies.

Since the mindless consumer appears to be the rather unpromising and depressing creature in which Western individualism has culminated—the rationally calculating, politically impotent, narrowly-educated conscript, serving a desire-propelled corporate-capitalist economy—we have reason to pause before deeming this a real advance over the more communitarian arrangement of the pre-modern scheme, where the energies, lusts, and personal ambitions of the ordinary human being were, for the most part, suppressed and subordinated to the comparatively restricted needs and the cohesiveness of the larger group—and to the cultural-political elites who lived off this collective labor and sacrifice. The unleashing and the aggressive stimulation of these energies, lusts, and personal ambitions in the modern West has led, unsurprisingly, to evident cultural decline and fragmentation, the evils of colonialism, obscene over-consumption and waste, the ominous ascendency of what Nietzsche famously dubbed ‘the Last Man’—a shallow, frothy, short-sighted creature who is obsessed with his own material and psychological comfort—and sees nothing wrong or ignoble about this.

It is my perception that the East—particularly Indian spiritual teachings, and to a slightly lesser extent, Chinese Taoism and Japanese Zen Buddhism—has something of vital, if not absolutely crucial, importance to offer us here in the West. This perception is founded upon two firm convictions that have come from years of experience, study, travel, and reflection:

  1. The present (and all but unchallenged) scheme in the West almost exclusively promotes personal/collective competition for (limited) material goods and for (personal) power within one’s sphere of (worldly) action.
  2. Unbridled self-interest is the principal source of evil and misery in the world—and the greatest obstacle to spiritual enlightenment and liberation. On a collective scale, aided by modern technology, it constitutes nothing less than a gargantuan pair of jaws, ceaselessly devouring human souls, natural resources, and the future of our own and other species.

It may be the case that from our ‘enlightened,’ ‘sophisticated,’ ‘liberated,’ point of view, the East seems ‘backwards’ and crude, but our forward-rushing, reckless momentum is hurtling all of us into a whole series of walls and barriers that a few of our more alert observers can clearly see directly ahead of us. If going ‘backwards’ is unthinkable—not even an option—then at least we might consider the value of slowing down, of tempering our acquisitiveness, of quieting our compulsive urges and habits, of separating ourselves from the mindless herd. There may be comfort in numbers, but that comfort will vanish as soon as those in the front begin colliding with the walls and are crushed to death by the stampeding skittish simpletons behind them—all those ‘liberated’ goats and sheep who lacked the courage to stray, alone, from the group, from which vantage point they might have clearly discerned the trouble looming ahead. Perhaps for some goats and sheep, mass suicide is preferable to solitary salvation or survival. Who knows what goes on—and doesn’t go on—in the minds of goats and sheep once they get up a full head of steam as a rutting, glutting group? We must leave them in ‘God’s’ hands. Since ‘He’ made them, they are His responsibility and we must not lose heart in dire ruminations about the outcome of the dismal stampede that is so clearly shaping up—clear to anyone with an honest pair of eyes, or even one BIG EYE. Our pity—or, conversely, our outrage and resentment—must be superseded and kept under strict watch, lest we become paralyzed on the sidelines—and miss our (slim) chance of being rescued from our own very different collision with a dead-end.

Assuming we have successfully extricated our solitary souls from the mindless, ‘possessed and enthralled’ mass of self-styled ‘individuals’—and from those positive and negative attachments that prevent the transcendence of egocentricity—what next?

In the unlikely event that my critical assessment of Western ‘individualism’ (or at least its American version, which I have observed with anxious concern and care for many years) has escaped the reader, let me pronounce bluntly: ‘Individualism’ has been thoroughly and systematically debased into an empty concept—a vacuous label signifying nothing—all style and no substance—in this mass culture we presently inhabit. The actual courage, intellectual honesty, and discrimination that are the basic requirements for becoming an authentic individual are becoming harder and harder to find. The cultural soil here is simply too depleted, the air too toxic, and the rainfall too scarce to support more than a few wild and anomalous growths, here and there. And such anomalies typically have the good sense to stay well out of the crass (and, by turns, sentimental and cynical) public spotlight, so that few of us have heard of them. Wide public engagement and activity, while it may nurture mere talent—and even certain forms of genius—often spells doom for genuine individuality, which bears a resemblance to a snowflake exposed to the merciless glare of the afternoon sun. First, the glare effaces the intricate and subtle crystalline detail-work, before reducing it to a micro-puddle of featureless non-identity.

And yet, this stage—of the genuine, self-standing, critically discriminating individual—must be heroically achieved and moved through before being sacrificed in the ‘metamorphosis’ that leads to the Self—i.e., beyond confinement to the personal, individualized ego. There is no skipping over this lonely and usually excruciating baptism by fire and into the crucifixion experience of release from ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine.’ It is harder for the bloated, inflated, puddin’-headed mass man to shrink into the modest, psychologically honest, thoroughly conscious individual (who is capable of slithering through the eye of the needle into the blissful serenity of the Self) than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Both the mass man and the amasser of excessive personal wealth are facing in the wrong direction—in the exact opposite direction from the Self—which is to be found, if at all, in the silent, inner world, not in the noisy, fast-paced, mundane one.

Coniunctio (6/24/14)

I detect a kind of trap in the Advaita path—a trap in which it is easy to become ensnared by those seekers it frequently attracts—namely, persons who want direct results right away. (John Grimes, in his last email to me, says ‘It is true that I am not interested in psychological integration and wholeness. Eventually, even if one were to achieve that, one would still have to discover the Self. As Ramana Maharshi said, ‘Why not go straight to the Self?’)

Why would Nisargadatta bother speaking about ‘ripeness’ and ‘readiness’ for realization if there were no process of maturation—of progressive unfoldment—behind such ripeness, which, as he repeatedly insists, is a crucial factor, and by no means trivial? I am perfectly happy to accept the idea of accelerated development—where the seeker does all he/she can to provide optimal conditions for growth and maturation—the ripening of the understanding and the purification of the spiritual will. But I have trouble with the idea of leaping over or by-passing stages that I suspect are unavoidable in the ‘letting go’ process—the path of return.

I am aware that—as John Grimes has informed me—there is one school of Advaitins (called Vivarana) who recognize no teacher, no student, no teachings –just the one Self—while all else is a time/space-based illusion. The other school—Bhamati—allows for levels of understanding, development, etc., as I am proposing here. Theoretically, at least, I can grasp the idea that if I were able, somehow, to find my way (or catapult myself) into an experience of non-duality, beyond time and space, mind and ego, I would instantaneously experience the transcendence of all ‘lower’ stages. Such stages of development or levels of understanding suddenly become irrelevant as soon as we transcend time and ordinary consciousness—for we are at the goal. The bridge is no longer of any use or value to us once we’ve crossed over.

I have known such experiences—even if they were fleeting—and it is precisely because I have been ‘graced’ with such unearthly inner experiences that I have spent so much time and effort pursuing and assimilating and attempting to put into practice the spiritual teachings that speak to my innermost depths.

I spoke previously of having followed Jung’s method of employing the ‘transcendent function’ as a way to bridge the gap between ‘the path of individuation’ and that of liberation. What, in more precise terms, did I mean? I realize now that I might just as aptly described the process in Hegelian terms (thesis collides with antithesis, out of which struggle emerges a new synthesis—or bridge).

At any event, the expansive and deepening process got started when I took notice of some rather glaring differences between Jung’s individuation (psychological enrichment, development, and integration) and Ramana Maharshi’s Advaita (transcendence of mind, or imagination—letting go of, rather than cultivation of, the personality).

The first stage of the work involved a radical, articulate differentiation (separatio) of the two paths. These would be purified (calcined, sublimated?) into the two poles in the middle of which I would thereafter psychically situate myself—exposing myself to the tension produced by their natural opposition. The stronger the charge generated by the opposed poles, the deeper and wider would be the synthetic perspectives and bridge-ideas produced out of their coupling. The greater their purification/clarification, the stronger the charge.

The aim during this ‘pregnancy’ or ‘gestation’ phase of the work was to remain psychically situated in the womb of creative tension, where I was obliged to patiently nurse the quarter- or half- or three-quarters-formed ‘child’ of this intense union of opposites. Had I been less experienced in this sort of inner work—like a first-time mother instead of a mother of five (or is it six??)—I would have had more difficulty ‘relaxing into’ the strange transformation my psyche was undergoing. I might have become ‘freaked out’—inducing a miscarriage or prompting a desperate abortion. At the very least, I would have gotten in the way of—rather than cooperate wisely with—the natural process. Or perhaps I should say ‘the process that is nature plus art,’ following the alchemists, who—in the more enlightened cases—were up to much the same thing—turning ‘shit’ into ‘gold’—turning flagellating sperms and ovulating eggs into divine children.

A child, being the product of both father and mother, takes something essential from both, of course. But these essential contributions from both parents (or poles?) do not remain un-modified or un-transformed in the child. And just as the child is not—and can never be—simply reducible to father or mother[1], so the synthetic ‘bridge-ideas’ born of the creative strife—say, between psychological wholeness and spiritual liberation—are never simply reducible to the terms of one side or the other. It is for this reason that I firmly resisted the temptation to dissolve Jung into Ramana’s Advaita or to ‘psychologize’ Ramana as a mere avoider or escaper of psychological responsibility and unfoldment. Although they missed the opportunity to meet face to face in 1937 when Jung ducked out of an intended visit to Tiruvannamalai, I like to believe that I am bringing about a post-mortem rendezvous between the ‘Sage of Kusnacht’ and the Saint of Arunachala here at 2046 Sul Ross, apt. 4, in 2014.

[1] Aristotle, brilliant nincompoop that he was, taught that the mother made no real contribution to the child but was merely an obliging oven for Daddy’s little dough-ball to bake in!