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!

An Apology for Mind (9/14/15)

A recurring point of difference between me and a number of the other members of the Advaita Facebook group I belong to is that while we all cherish peace, I believe that true peace can only come with (or by means of) understanding, and it would seem that some of the members have a profound aversion to the mind, as such, and to philosophical thinking. I no longer experience mind in such hostile or dismissive terms. I would go so far as to say that—far from vilifying or demonizing it—I often experience the mind as a crucial ally in this psycho-spiritual transformation that is underway. This is not to say that I fail to see how the (badly educated, ceaselessly restless, and utterly undisciplined) mind could easily become a formidable obstacle to one’s peace and to the attainment of enlightened understanding. But the categorical dismissal or rejection of the mind by such ‘victims’ of the restless, untamed mind’s ‘mischief’ and disturbing machinations seems both foolish and inadvisable. I am all too thoroughly aware of what it means—and of how horrible it feels—to be the tormented plaything of the undisciplined, reckless mind. And I also know the blissful peace into which we are delivered when the mind is quiescent. But I am not so rash as to declare that the mind should therefore be forcibly suppressed or eschewed on that account. Such insalubrious and risky campaigns are undertaken by unripe souls who have not been sufficiently patient and modest to learn about the mind in order that they may make profitable use of this valuable but delicate instrument. To rashly embark upon such a sacrificium intellectus is as foolhardy (and ultimately as doomed to failure) as self-castration by someone who has not learned how to properly manage and express his erotic drives and impulses. It is like starving and mortifying the flesh because one does not know how to live moderately and sanely in—or with—his body. No, when I hear persons declaring that I think too much and that I should dispense with the mind altogether, I suspect that person has simply not yet learned to manage and moderate his own (pesky) mental equipment.

With Nisargadatta himself—or Ramana Maharshi—we are dealing with a whole different kettle of fish. In their cases—and with Krishnamurti, as well, so far as I can tell—there was genuine liberation from the sort of mental ensnarement we find in the vast majority of their admirers and followers. And this liberation—I would argue, insistently—was certainly not won by pretending that the mind is merely an inconvenient mirage or illusion, but by experientially proving that it was not the end-all and be-all. This can only be accomplished by a kind of showdown or contest with the (magical) power of the mind—a contest that culminates in a kind of truce or terms of mutual cooperation—a non-aggression pact, if you like.

Of course, in order for such a showdown to occur in the first place, something in or about the seeker that is not merely mind must stand apart from mind—so that it can be faced. Unless and until this momentous event occurs, the seeker is unconsciously or helplessly merged with (or subsumed by) mind. This condition of identification or merger with the mind may, by turns, be pleasant or unpleasant, beneficial or deleterious in its practical consequences, exhilarating or exasperating—but to be merged or identified with mind is not at all the same thing as having a relationship with mind. Identification refers to ONE confused thing or state. Relationship, on the other hand, implies TWO differentiated things or standpoints. Those who recommend the extinction or rejection of mind before first differentiating themselves from the mental vehicle simply cannot KNOW what they are talking about. More pointedly, they have not yet earned the right (as Nisargadatta and Ramana Maharshi did) to recommend putting the mind aside, since they don’t know the first thing about how that actually happens. The caterpillar, stilled lodged in the cocoon, cannot FLY outside the cocoon until functional wings have been formed through metamorphosis. Those seekers after liberation who fail to recognize and rightly employ the transformative powers of the disciplined mind remain wingless spiritual caterpillars.

As I am beginning to see it, Advaita—the non-dual condition of oneness—can only be attained by first differentiating and consciously sorting out that which we first encounter as undifferentiated ‘prima materia’—the raw psyche, as it were. I see many Western devotees to Eastern doctrines speaking and acting as if this protracted, laborsome process of subtle differentiation can simply be leapt or skipped over on their merry, blissful, loving way to Advaita! And of course it makes sense that the mischievous mind is continually mocking and jeering at such preposterous ambitions precisely because its crucial role, or function (as persnickety distinction-drawer and subtle differentiator), is studiously ignored by the over-eager ‘leaper-over.’ It is largely because of these generally neglected (and often haughtily dismissed) matters of mind—and of the critical role the mind can and should play in our inner clarification—that I find 99% of what comes out of the mouths and flowing pens of American and European ‘New Agers’ to be a mixture of poppycock, froth, and blather! There is no such thing as cheaply-won, enduring peace.

If some toes have been stepped on here, there is nevertheless a silver lining here if you look carefully: After toes have been mercilessly stepped on by life (and chiding philosophers)—for years—they gradually begin to flatten into something like webbed feet which, as it happens, are far more useful than standard-issue feet when it comes to subsurface swimming through the mercurial realm of the psyche. Eventually we must leave behind the solid, unyielding dogmas of our spiritual childhood, upon which our old feet and our unmolested toes were wont to amble and gambol, and plunge into the molten realm where boundaries become less visible, more subtle and ambiguous—and where fins, gills, and webbed limbs are better put to use.

Humanity as Membrane between Spirit and Matter: my own interpretation of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (8/27/10—Buenos Aires)

I want to explore the image of humanity as a kind of permeable membrane figuratively ‘positioned’ between spirit and matter—or, if you like, ‘the observer and the observed’—where the human being partakes of both aspects and embodies a new, third thing—soul. Soul, or creative imagination, is born out of this tension between the two parents that give birth to it. When conceived in this way, humanity (as embodiment and carrier of soul and creativity) is absolutely indispensable in the work of creation, not merely its passive witness or obedient subject. (That would be Blake’s ‘natural’ or ‘Fallen’ man.)
But there are limits, obviously, to his creative freedom. His creative freedom is exercised within the comparatively stable horizons of what we know as natural laws and principles. These endow humanity with a generous frame within which we may exercise the potentials of our creative freedom. But that freedom, it seems, must be won. It is won by establishing a conscious and trustworthy connection with the spirit, which may be said to rest on one side of the membrane that constitutes the human psyche. This energizing and liberating relationship with the spirit enables us to identify in part with the detached observer, with all the liberating benefits that accompany participation in this perspective. Why is this? From the standpoint of the observer, life itself is little more than a kind of theatrical performance or movie. Or a dream from which the dreamer has awakened. Because life itself—or the world—is seen and felt to be a kind of show or generated illusion, it loses some of its binding power over the person who views this pageant from the perspective of the detached observer. The observer is always aware of him- or her-self as observer and is less subject to becoming completely lost in or absorbed by that which is being observed, felt, and experienced. The observer may want to get lost, or become fully absorbed in that which is observed and felt, but this is not within the purview of the observer, as such. Only a very partial absorption of the witnessing bystander is possible.
But what about the observed—or ‘objects’? At bottom, the observed is a kind of screen or blank page such as I am now filling with these words. It is, in effect, ‘nothing’—but a very special sort of nothing insofar as it is capable of receiving the projections of the observer, its correlate and eternal partner in the cosmic construction and demolition business. One may be tempted to suppose that the observed, being nothing in itself, is less than the observer, but we should check that temptation. The observer, without its correlative, the observed (which provides it with a surface upon which it can project its sound and thereby receive an echo, or its image and see a reflection), is nothing, or is aware of nothing, which amounts to the same thing. As active principle, if the observer has no reflection to see and no echo to hear, ‘he’ has nothing upon which to act or to think and so remains asleep, unconscious. If the observed has no image or sound projected upon ‘her,’ her nothingness and uselessness consume and waste her. The observer and the screen arise together and they fall together. Since time begins and ends with them, neither comes first. Neither one is primary. They are two aspects of one and the same entity—an entity which both IS and IS NOT.
Memory is the matrix out of which the creative imagination is born—and it is from the creative imagination that experienceable worlds arise. As soon as the primordial Being awakens from what, in Hindu cosmology, is referred to as Mahapralaya (unconsciousness, or ‘the great dissolution’), the observer and his reflection (‘the Two’) come into existence. Something uncanny but entirely predictable happens: the one being, which is now two, asks itself—‘Have I ever been before?’ The very idea that this might be a ‘singularity’—the one and only instance of conscious being—is unthinkable to it because of the enormous weight of the responsibility attached to such a terrifying thought.
To comfort itself, the one being searches its blank memory for clues to its previous existences. But such clues are not readily forthcoming. What it does receive are the vaguest cloud-like forms that strain its untested powers of fantasy and yearning. It yearns for something—anything—to capture and hold its gathering attention. As far as it ‘knows’ anything, it feels itself to be alone, and alone without sleep or interruption—for eternity—since time as we know it does not yet exist. The thought of being alone and with no one and nothing to attend to for eternity makes the one being experience something akin to a vague anxiety. There is nothing external to it that can really threaten it or weaken it, but neither is there any existing other thing that can help it, entertain it, or console it. Out of its memory, which is actually just its present awareness cast backwards into an imagined past, it digs for hints and clues to guide and direct it into a story that will unfold into a future.
Thus, these fantasy-generated memories become the membrane I spoke of earlier—the psyche or soul which is interposed, as it were, between the observer and his correlative, the reflective screen that invites projection. The membrane gradually evolves into something like an actual memory insofar as it begins to capture and retain imagined forms that are generated from the one being’s spontaneous play of creative fantasy. At first, these imagined forms are crude and simple—perhaps like geometric shapes and clusters of discrete points. Gradually, patterns and complementary/conflictual relationships emerge between these simple elements and from these simple patterns and relationships more and more elaborate complexity are gradually differentiated. The one being slowly but surely becomes more and more absorbed in and by his creation, like an engrossed player of solitaire who keeps adding new twists and variants to the initial, simple game in order to make it more and more challenging.

Nisargadatta-Jung: a Vulgar Comparison (9/2/15)

Nisargadatta is like a man who voluntarily has his penis and testicles lopped off—and then tells (anyone who bothers to ask about why he volunteered for such as ghastly procedure) that unless and until they voluntarily do so, too, they are living a big lie and squandering their limited life force.

Carl Jung, on the other hand, is like a man with a massive member and two big sperm-spouting cojones telling anyone who’ll listen that we should “make (meaningful, individuated) hay” while we can, because before you know it, your generative organs will be shriveled and shrunken to everlasting nothingness.

Nisargadatta has opted for parabrahman, thus disbanding the actors and striking the set of the big play. Carl Jung digs up buried gold to provide an endowment for the theater so that the big play can enjoy an indefinitely extended run—and plenty of out of work actors can get back onstage and play their parts with a refreshed sense of meaningfulness and relevance.

Nisargadatta’s is the hard sell, while Jung has growing numbers lining up to get into the theater, even when they don’t know who Jung is.

On the Mind and Freedom (9/16/15)

Those familiar with my writings on the subject know that when it comes to mind and/or the ego—like Jung, Hillman, Buddhists, Sufis, and Taoists before me—I follow a middle way. Whether because of incapacity, incomprehension, or temperamental incompatibility I eschew those two extremes: Nietzschean-Randian (of the ‘Ayn’ sort) heroic-Promethean egotism and Eastern-style, yogic campaigns to exterminate the mind/ego. So, assuming a kind of enlightened or properly negotiated truce with the mind is a necessary precondition for the radical transformation of consciousness that culminates in mental liberation, what is the role played by the ego-will (which, we are told, is but the reflection of the light of pure, impersonal awareness in the mercurial mirror of the mental body)?

I sometimes see those ‘spiritual seekers’ who would do away with the mind as dwarfish, low voltage Ahabs, who famously said, “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” Ahab’s daimonic energy and unsettling eloquence lend a kind of sublimity and gravitas (to his revenge against the white whale) that is conspicuously absent from the souls of these harmless, puny revengers against their own shrunken little ‘Moby Dicks’—which, having been malnourished and unexercised for years, are but minnows and small fry next to Melville’s. And they still can’t seem to flush them down the commode!

Do not misunderstand me. I am not wholeheartedly endorsing Ahab’s Promethean-heroic egoism, but it is certainly of a higher order and nobler pedigree than Starbuck’s Hobbesian-Lockean, mercantile-conventional prudence—the clearly reigning outlook (and in-look, for that matter) in 21st, as well as 19th, century, pragmatic America. Whether he was justified or not, Dante assigned Ulysses to one of the lowest circles in hell for a similar sort of ‘titanic’ egoism as we see in Ahab’s ‘mad flight’—but of this we may be certain: Dante, with his own sublimely expansive and self-authorizing spirit, could not help but admire precisely where he condemns—in Ulysses’ case. But my point should be plain: the greatest ‘sinners’ always stand a far better chance of finding genuine salvation than petty and harmless little nebbishes who ‘cannot be bothered’ to confront either black or white whales swimming just below the placid, artificial surface of their scrupulously controlled conscious standpoints. They will tell you that they are ‘busy’ silencing the mind, but some of us know what they’re really up to instead. They are running away from truly disturbing questions and supremely inconvenient ordeals that they would be obliged to recognize and submit to if they weren’t so dreadfully busy trying to distance themselves from that pesky, uncooperative ‘desire-mind’ (kama-manas)—strangling one Hydra head at a time. Well, good luck with that!

Ahab, as we know, goes down with the whale, along with the Pequod and its crew—except for the mercurial Ishmael who, alone, lives to tell the tale. Dante’s Ulysses’ ship and crew are similarly swallowed up by the sea—just offshore from Mt. Purgatory. Ulysses—though close enough almost to touch it—was not permitted to land his vessel upon the shore of Mt. Purgatory. While Dante finds much to admire in Ulysses’ spiritedness, his proud indifference to personal security and emotional attachments, he is troubled by the hero’s brazen refusal to humbly defer to anything whatsoever that might exceed or transcend his cognitive and experiential ambitions. Could this, wonder of wonders, be the fatal flaw that bars his access to the shores of Purgatory? To return to our initial theme: is this what, on a far less sublime level, prevents petty revengers (against the demonized mind) from being able to negotiate a truce with the ‘enemy’?

Understanding the nature of kama-manas, or the desire-mind, is the key to freeing our spirits from its lower, cruder, and heavier (in terms of psychic gravity) power. But as with the ‘external’ natural world, in order to understand the inner nature of the desire-mind, we must to a certain extent obey it. I suspect that alarms and red flags are exploding in the minds of some over-reactive readers, but ‘hold your horses.’ We obey, or submit, chiefly to establish equitable terms between both parties—and not merely to get the better of one another. By ‘obey’ I do not mean ‘indulge in’ or ‘utterly surrender to.’ By ‘obey’ I more precisely mean ‘carefully attend to,’ ‘to alertly observe and take note of’ the mind—the various ways in which it works; how it influences or affects that which it touches, treats, entertains or gives birth to; what happens—or doesn’t happen—when it is quiet and still.

Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, the mind is always with us—‘hanging around,’ much as our bodies are always with us, just hanging around, whether busy with something or not. In fact, it is probably useful to think of the mind as a body—a subtle body—that seems to hang upon us, or even enfold us, rather as our fleshly bodies do. But the great difference between the physical and mental bodies lies in the fact that the physical body deals with solid, concrete objects, persons, and events while the mental body deals with ideas, concepts, emotions, moods, attitudes, and other intangible but nonetheless experienceable forms and phenomena.

The Sanskrit word ‘kama’ means desire, so ‘kama-manas’ refers to a mind that is stamped or infused with more or less stable, distinct desire-habits. These generally stable and established desire-habits operate upon ‘mental matter’ in much the same way that a magnetic field operates upon tiny iron shavings. Understanding the extremely intimate relationship between desire-habits and mental forms (concepts, memories, plans, recurring thoughts, etc.) that are directly shaped by those affective patterns is absolutely crucial to attaining mastery over, and liberation from, these often cramped and confining desires. It is also crucial for overcoming our suspicion/hatred for mind (misology), which is founded upon a deep misunderstanding.

When New-agers (and Shirley Maclaine, back in the 80s) tell us that we create our own ‘worlds’—our own ‘reality’—they are actually speaking the truth, or at least giving voice to a sound spiritual-psychological principle, whether they actually understand what they are saying, or not. Persons with a semi-sensitive or half-awakened intuition are occasionally able to glimpse profound spiritual insights, but that’s about all they can do since they lack the training and the conceptual understanding (of what they’ve glimpsed in ‘flashes’ of insight) that are needed to articulate and to ground these insights in a reasonably intelligible form—to place them in a comprehensive, meaningful context. Only then would such intuitive souls be in a position to make significant contributions to the intellectual, artistic, or spiritual welfare of our ailing culture. Such training and education require time and much discipline—even when we have a passion for learning these things and developing these skills. As it happens, most persons who are drawn to such matters wind up getting side-tracked and absorbed by mundane affairs, so that little real development of these potentials ever occurs. Such persons, alas, are a dime a dozen, but in saying this I am certainly not condemning such half-hearted, well-meaning persons. We all eventually ‘find our level,’ whether we like it or not. As it turns out, it is the specific gravity of our desire-habits that is primarily responsible for assigning us to our particular, all-too-familiar ‘level.’ I am not referring here to some deplorable and oppressive caste system or even to some kind of karmic destiny from which there is no reprieve or escape. Our ‘level assignment’ is not written in stone. We can move ‘up’ or we can move ‘down.’ We see it all the time in persons around us—or in our own lives. What I am trying to argue is that unless and until we figure out how to alter the specific gravity of our desire-habits or affective patterns, we are pretty much obliged to stay put on more or less the same rung of a ladder that stretches from heaven to hell, figuratively (but as the same time, existentially) speaking.

So, in an attempt to tighten up these meandering musings about the mind, let us review some of the polarities or contrasts that were touched upon earlier, and see if this provides any clarification. We spoke of the contrast between negotiating a truce with the mind versus dismissing or disparaging the mind; between daimonic, sublime overreaching egos (like Ahab’s and Ulysses’—and possibly Dante’s) and the puny, run-of-the-milquetoast variety that prefers to ‘stay home,’ preferably under the covers with the TV set on; between a kind of reverent openness to the transcendent and a titanic drive to conquer or dispense with it. Then, with the idea of kama-manas, we began to explore the hidden marriage between two things that are commonly contrasted, or even isolated, from one another: thoughts and desires, or knowledge and affects.

What can we do with these disparate pieces of a puzzle? Can they, indeed, be fitted together naturally—perhaps even seamlessly—into a vivid and clear picture of our general problem: how to regard the mind and how to make the best of our relationship with it? To repeat what has been said elsewhere: no relationship is possible where there is an unconscious merger or identification with the ‘other’—and this goes for the mind, as well. And if the relationship is dysfunctional (because of hatred or neglect or rejection of the other), not much of value can come out of this arrangement either. Therefore, unless and until we have dis-identified with and/or come to workable terms with the mind we can pretty much kiss the prospect of genuine mental liberation goodbye.

In speaking about kama-manas, the desire-mind, I used the analogy of a magnetic field moving and organizing iron filings into distinctive patterns. A powerful magnetic field—generated, say, by an Ahab or a Ulysses—can hold (almost) an entire crew under its enchanting spell—while many persons have trouble holding a single thought or question in their mental grasp for more than a few seconds. Thus, those with potent spirits are capable of either great good or great mischief, while the majority of low-voltage souls will leave the world pretty much as they found it when they depart. But for all of us—from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the world-historical ‘dynamos’ to the backwater bozos—one principle applies to all: thought is but the shadow or lackey of the governing desire or will. It is the will—weak or strong, noble or base, selfish or selfless—that occultly or invisibly formulates and steers the thoughts that populate (and sometimes overpopulate) our minds.

Going after the thoughts, then, is a bit like chasing after shadows or holographic images so long as the inner will or ruling desires remain unconscious and unattended to.

In my own case, which may or may not be universalizable or repeatable by everyone simply on the basis of shared humanity, there are complicating factors which, in all fairness, ought to be addressed here. Something happened to me—inside my soul—that does not happen to everyone, perhaps not even to most persons, so far as I can tell from consulting many others. Without really understanding what it was at the time, I went through a kind of conversion experience. This experience, which I have described as a major shift in my psychic center of gravity, was not—I repeat, not—linked to any confession of faith in Christianity or Judaism or Islam or any other established religion, although after the dust began to settle I recognized unmistakable parallels between my conversion experience and those we can read about in religious histories of all persuasions. Suffice it to say that I am living proof—at least to myself—that one needn’t profess orthodox faith in Christ (as a historical figure, or Allah, or any deity whatsoever) in order to undergo a bona fide spiritual awakening or rebirth experience. On the other hand, I would venture to say that the symbolic value of Christ’s life, teachings, and final ordeal—as with those of the Buddha, Krishna, Lao Tzu, Heraclitus, Mani, Socrates, Valentinus, Augustine, and others—begin, inwardly, to be revealed only after this conversion experience occurs.

Why do I bring this up within the context of this essay, it will be asked? Is it because I realized at one point, while I was writing, that all of the crucial observations that I’ve made are predicated upon that ‘conversion’ ordeal? How does this fact impinge upon the content of the essay? Well, I am not sure I would go so far as to say that the content is worthless and unintelligible to anyone who has yet to undergo an analogously radical ‘pivoting’ or shift in his/her psychic center of gravity—but such readers will not be likely to experience an immediate recognition of the crucial points shared here.

The Rarest Marriage (1/11/16)

What if, after the metanoia—the experience of having the world turned inside-out—we don’t simply become more potently and decisively spiritualized, but simultaneously more materialized—in an archetypal sense? What if the expansion or enlargement we undergo doesn’t point exclusively in the direction of spirit—and away from matter—but in both directions at once, so that we become larger, subtler, and more consciously attentive at both ends of the continuum that spans these poles, spirit and matter? If this—or something approximating this—is indeed what happens (in an actual coniunctio), then those ‘spiritual’ disciplines that emphasize and encourage a kind of detachment from (and implicit disparagement of) matter and the body may be (divinely?) misguided. Once again we encounter this strange, elusive rivalry between the aims of wholeness and integration, on the one hand, and spiritual purity and detachment, on the other.

Certainly, some Gnostic sects assumed this rather radical stance towards material and bodily forms, attractions, and tendencies—just as certain ascetic paths in India and other Eastern teachings do. Perhaps Taoism—with its reticence to ascribe priority or preeminence to either yin or yang—comes closest to endorsing this internal process of balancing and harmonizing the various pairs of complementary-contending opposites.

Here again I think Jung was a marvelous visionary and trailblazer—even if he was following clues left behind by the alchemists. Part of the appeal of this line of exploration is that it points to a possible marriage or reconciliation of the ‘male and female’ elements within the psyche. My hunch is that if I am able to make this inner marriage of the male and female my priority, I will be better able to avoid the time-and-energy-consuming detour of unconsciously ‘acting out’ or ‘externalizing’ this inner drama. In the past, that path has given me only so much experience for my pains—and, as Nietzsche said: ‘People need to speak from experience (and experience always seems to mean bad experience, doesn’t it?)’ (BGE, 204)