Attachment, Nietzsche, Spirit, Soul, and Ego (8/30/12)

The deeper and more tenacious our attachments to material, sensual, emotional, and ideological forms/experiences, the harder it will be, naturally, to surrender to the ‘evolutionary’ impulse of spirit, for this powerful impulse points in the opposite direction from those attachments. The attachments act like durable cords binding us to all manner of phenomena and experiences in the ‘three worlds’ (physical, emotional, intellectual), and the spirit points away from these familiar harbors. As incarnate human beings, we are perhaps naturally disposed to equate these attachments (and the kind of experience that these attachments immerse us in) with life itself. Consequently, surrendering to the spirit is almost inevitably experienced as a virtual death of the personality—the ego-personality that we have long assumed to be our authentic and substantial self or true identity. Surrender to the spirit ultimately reveals this assumption to be only a half-truth. It is only half-true because there appears to be a deeper, subtler root of selfhood that is not synonymous with egoity, or the sense of separate ‘I-consciousness.’ From the standpoint of the immaterial, spiritual self, the ego (and even the body, which in some respects is correlative with ego-consciousness) functions almost as a kind of ‘mask’—a kind of projected identity or actor on the stage of temporal and phenomenal affairs. From the standpoint of the silent, meditating spirit that disinterestedly beholds this long-running stage play (that we are cast in as long as we function as ‘normal’ human beings), the phenomenal world is little more than a ‘coagulated dream.’ It is a kind of movie or epic story that can sometimes be thoroughly captivating and absorbing, while at others times it appears to be futile, a kind of sham or trick, an ‘eternal recurrence of the same,’ as Nietzsche put it.

It is perhaps also worth noting that Nietzsche seems to have consistently believed that the spiritual dimension was itself merely an illusion or a lie fabricated by priests to manage and ‘pastor’ the ignorant and the resentful, and that there was no real possibility of transcending the phenomenal realm—the ‘realm of appearances’—except via death, which is not so much transcendence as extermination. Perhaps as a consequence of a profound religious crisis suffered as a young man, Nietzsche seems to have consciously and irreversibly rejected the idea of the spirit as a transcendent—but nevertheless real and truly experienceable—dimension.[1] Perhaps, as he came to see all things and all processes ultimately in terms of power, he gradually closed himself off from the possibility of making fundamental sense of experience in any other terms. This is most unfortunate when it comes to making some kind of sense of spirit, since the surrender to the spirit-impulse within us is, at the same time, a kind of relinquishment of all power claims within the stage play of phenomenal, ordinary human experience, as mystics and saints from all traditions have attested. Since power remained paramount for Nietzsche—both as a force or energy to be sought for its own sake and as a kind of heuristic or explanatory principle for making ultimate sense of everything—his philosophical legacy is a rhetorically brilliant, but one-sided assault upon the spirit, which, again, he regarded as no more than a hollow ideal, a delusion clung to by powerless (and/or manipulative) people.[2] Nietzsche’s philosophy is perhaps the most eloquent presentation of materialistic metaphysical assumptions—a worldview that reached its cultural zenith in the 19th Century. Former materialists from both the ancient and modern eras (Democritus, Leucippus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Hobbes, Bacon, Gassendi, d’Holbach, Marx, etc.) strike us as crude and fumbling ‘innocents’ compared to Nietzsche, who deliberately and almost ‘religiously’ struggled to close off every possible ‘escape route’ into the ‘nothingness’ of the sham spirit world.

A close and thorough study of Nietzsche’s spellbinding writings reveals that his is, by far, the most seductive and persuasive voice ever to speak out on behalf of the involutionary arc—the thrust into concrete, flesh-and-blood existence and into the agon of contending, embattled human egos.[3] The Iliad is probably his favorite depiction of the ‘noble’ game as it should be played—but I am now fairly certain that Nietzsche missed the whole point that Homer was trying to get across in that timeless story. Perhaps the closest likeness to Nietzsche that we find in Homer is to be found in book eleven of the Odyssey, when Odysseus visits the underworld and hears the words of Achilles’ shade:

Let me hear no smooth talk of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils. Better, I say, to break the sod as farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations, than to lord it over all the exhausted dead.

No wonder Nietzsche constructed strong and elaborate defenses against the spirit. It seems likely that he suffered an actual encounter with it and it had the dual effect of inflating him and scaring the hell out of him—as seems to have been the case with a number of ‘inspired’ men and women, including none other than Carl Jung, who appears to have been slightly better prepared to navigate through the paralyzing and mentally destabilizing paradoxes that appear to accompany numinous experiences. As it turns out, these torturous paradoxes, which are often experienced as menacing and threatening factors when the initial ‘infection’ occurs, eventually metamorphose into antibodies or a kind of psychic auto-immune system that can protect us against…against what? Against ‘personal ego’ obliteration. Against insanity. Against crippling nihilism. The paradoxes, under favorable internal conditions, become the very seeds out of which soul, the ‘third’ factor, is born. Soul, of course, is the middle principle between spirit and concrete, literal consciousness (ego-consciousness). Its distinctive features are the image, the symbol, and the metaphor. As a kind of psychic platform or perspective situated between spirit and ego (or literal consciousness), it is a kind of hybrid that partakes of both spirit and matter. Hence the paradoxicality that is fundamental to soul and to ‘anima consciousness.’ It is an ‘as-if’ mode of consciousness, experience, and manner of interpreting events—a mode well known, of course, to authentic poets to mystics, alchemists, visionaries, and (more recently) to genuine archetypal psychologists. I will employ an ‘as-if’ formulation in an effort to illustrate Nietzsche’s little-reported horror of the spirit—a horror that seems to have compelled him to take an uncharacteristically dogmatic, defensive stand for ego (will to power) and for (a subtle but inevitably reductive form of) materialism as an ultimate explanatory principle.

We might say that the impact of unadulterated spirit upon the typical human ego is analogous to the encounter between a particle of matter and a particle of anti-matter, or between a positively charged ion and a negatively charged one. In the encounter between matter and anti-matter, both are obliterated—at least, according to current theory. A kind of neutralization occurs—and in the case of the ego, this experience is horrifyingly deflationary, from one angle, while from another, it is liberating, releasing, and indescribably pleasant.[4]

What seems to make the crucial difference between a salutary and a lamentable outcome in this encounter is which ‘factor’ the experiencer is most allied with, consciously. If he is identified chiefly with the ego the experience will more likely be crushing and annihilating (because the spirit exposes the utter puniness and frightening fragility of the ego and all that it is attached to), and if he identifies wholly with the spirit, he will almost certainly suffer a dangerous inflation. Neither of these outcomes is desirable or psychologically healthy. If, on the other hand, there is some soul development, there is a good chance that the disturbing and ‘animating’ experience can be assimilated imaginatively or metaphorically, and not merely literally or pneumatically.

[1] An account by Ida Overbeck, the wife of Nietzsche’s close friend, Franz Overbeck, is helpful here. He was on the most intimate terms with both husband and wife and was often a guest in their home: “I had told Nietzsche earlier that the Christian religion could not give me solace and fulfillment and that I had in me the thought and feeling of carrying in everything the fate of all mankind. I dared to say it: the idea of God contained too little reality for me. Deeply moved, he answered: ‘You are saying this only to come to my aid; never give up this idea! You have it unconsciously; for as I know you and find you, including now, one great thought dominates your life. This great thought is the idea of God.’ He swallowed painfully. His features were completely contorted with emotion, until they then took on a stony calm. ‘I have given him up, I want to make something new, I will not and must not go back. I will perish from my passions, they will cast me back and forth; I am constantly falling apart, but I do not care.’ These are his own words from the fall of 1882!” (Conversations with Nietzsche; Sander Gilman, editor, p. 145)

[2] Nietzsche employs the word ‘spirit’ frequently, but with this term he seems to be referring to spiritedness, what the Greeks call ‘thumos.’

[3] However, it cannot, in all fairness, be said that he lived as he wrote, since—plagued with chronic health problems—he was forced to live the life of a virtual ascetic, moving solitarily from one boarding house to another in northern Italy and southern France, after retiring (for health reasons) at the age of 35 from his professorship at the University of Basel. Lonely, sickly, unmarried, and surviving on a modest pension, Nietzsche’s life was lived, especially throughout his last years before his mental collapse at the age of forty-five, in his head.

[4] Not to be flippant, but merely for the sake of illustration: the comparison with an organism seems apt here. The ‘neutralization’ corresponds with the climactic discharge of pent-up sexual force, which is accompanied by a burst of pleasure and a feeling of great contentment. Horror and/or delight may come a short time afterwards when it is learned that pregnancy resulted from the deed and henceforth one’s life will no longer be one’s own! Something roughly analogous occurs when we are impregnated by the (holy) spirit. But then, Nietzsche and Freud would have insisted that Joseph was the real father (in one famous case of questionable insemination).

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Seeds and Deeds (3/10/17)

In the stillest and quietest moments of meditation, the entire nexus or intricate array of personal ties and more or less defined affiliations in which I am presently involved dissolve into nothingness. During these brief, blissful moments, all the cords of connection relax and drop into a bottomless well. Duties, obligations, commitments, desires, antagonisms, and ambivalences cease to mean anything or to exert any claims upon my soul during such moments. This liberating sense of being disburdened of these bonds of attachment, aversion, and duty does not spring from exasperation or contempt, hatred or disgust. Instead, it appears to be rooted in a mysterious but indisputable faith that everything and everyone in my life will carry on without significant deviation or disruption with or without my active involvement. The seeds of our ultimate unfoldment or fate, it would seem, are not altered in their essence by the soil and climate conditions into which they are planted. Whether and how fully the seeds mature is, of course, affected by these extrinsic factors – but in the deepest meditation it is the seed-essences we zero in on – the eternal images that appear in, but are not affected by, time, space, matter, and causality.

And then, as my serenely detached meditative state succumbs to the alluring siren song of “Paul in the world,” I watch myself plugging back into those “parts” I play for others on the stage where seeds open and display their inner necessity, as does mine. But each time I reenter Paul and his many parts it is with ever-deepening irony. Would it surprise anyone if I were to say that with this infusion of irony – or double-mindedness – the playing of my parts becomes more genuine, truer to life, and surcharged with the electricity generated by that ironical tension? Here, perhaps as well as anywhere, we are granted a glimpse of the subtle marriage between the richest meaning and strangeness. We know we have stumbled upon truth when we recognize that we are in the presence of something strange – or “strangely familiar,” if you prefer sugar in your coffee. That is why we shiver in the presence of truth. It is shocking and grounding all at once.

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!

A Note on Freedom (11/21/17)

“Free” choice may be thought of as the limited options that remain to us after the cruder compulsions (that would otherwise choose for us) have gradually but thoroughly been burned away in the fire of experience – or exhausted, which amounts to the same thing. Such compelling (un-free) factors may be natural (instincts) or conventional (directives, duties, moral commandments, laws) or a heady mixture of both. To the extent that a man is identified or psychically merged with these compelling instinctual drives, affects, duties, and directives, his thoughts and actions can scarcely be called “free.” Therefore, what we call “freedom” (of thought or action) begins with our efforts to objectify these compelling factors – to differentiate them from our uncompelled awareness. This wins for us a crucial measure of conscious distance from them by momentarily interrupting or breaking the accustomed state of identification. It is in these moments of quiet, un-compelled detachment from the motors, gears, and driveshaft that normally propel us into and through life that we may be said to experience freedom. Thus, it should be fairly clear that when we speak of freedom what we mean is a freedom from rather than a freedom to. It is much closer to “neti, neti” (“not this, not that”) than to what the uninitiated suppose freedom to be. What they typically imagine is license – the unconstrained liberty to gratify one’s dreams and desires. I understand the path of freedom as a via negativa and not as the attainment of an earthly paradise as a reward for good behavior. But in holding such a view, here in 21st century America, I certainly am a stranger in a strange land.

(Pre-) Modern Family (10/30/13)

For the sake of discussion, let us entertain the idea of three roughly distinct levels of consciousness that we are able to experience or participate in: (1) collective consciousness, (2) individual consciousness, and (3) transcendent consciousness.

Collective or ‘mass’ consciousness (the modern equivalent of ‘tribal’ consciousness), like transcendent, or ‘spiritual’ consciousness, appears to dissolve or absorb individual, personally differentiated ego-consciousness (as when a crowd or mob ceases to be an accumulation of individuals and mysterious acquires a ‘mind’ of its own). Under such conditions, the individual ego is assimilated, either by the instinctual energy field or by the form-vaporizing spirit. In this respect, the integrity or cohesive ‘solidity’ of the individual ego is always potentially under threat of dissolution from both directions—from the side of the collective instincts and from the side of the transcendent spirit. The experience of being dissolved into the instinctual-collective or into the formless-spiritual level can be extremely pleasurable or extremely distressing, depending on the attitude of the individual ego that is being overwhelmed by and absorbed into the larger, more comprehensive realm.

If, however, the individual ego defensively or fearfully isolates itself—and attempts to thrive solely by means of its own limited resources—its experience of both the instinctual and spiritual realms will become increasingly restricted and increasingly adversarial. It will be cutting itself off from spiritual-instinctual nourishment and from the stable sense of equilibrium that can only be attained by venturing beyond its narrow, isolated plot. If the ego thus becomes a kind of ‘shut-in’—cut off, experientially, from both instinctual and spiritual sources of nourishment and animation—it exposes itself to a variety of dangers.

It should be noted and remembered that the individual is fleeting and impermanent, while these two enormous realms—the spiritual and the material/instinctual—are everlasting. The spiritual and instinctual principles are ‘Father’ and ‘Mother,’ respectively. All ephemeral human egos are the offspring of the less than perfect marriage between this eternal Father and this deathless Mother. As their dependent children, our individual egos receive an inheritance from both parents, of course, and all of the problems and difficulties that arise between Father-Spirit and Mother-Matter are carried over into our essentially problematic individual constitutions. In our individual efforts to work through and to work out these riddles and conflicts that are woven into the very fabric of our nature (as dependent children of this Father and this Mother), we indirectly help to nourish and preserve their titanic, shaky marriage. We human egos are, in fact, the frontline—nay, the very battlefield itself—whereupon Daddy-spirit and Mommy-matter collide. Usually they scuffle and tussle. Occasionally they snuggle and couple. But always they misunderstand one another—and it falls to our lot, as their ambivalent, fumbling children, to work more or less continuously at ‘patching things up.’ Tragically, perhaps—but nobly—we struggle, knowing that we are doomed to perish and that our names will gradually fade forever from the memory of those who come after us.

We attend to our tiny portion of this ceaseless cosmic crisis because we must. For, as was said, the battlefield is not upon some field in France or on some remote island in the Pacific, but in our battered and torn hearts, in the caverns and crevasses of our unexplored minds, in the very twists and turnings of our souls. It requires all of our education, imagination, patience, and courage to prevent our tiny portion of the cosmic war-love-fest from spilling over into our neighbor’s yard. Once that starts to happen on a large scale, things go haywire in a hurry. Wildfires, floods, raging epidemics, and devouring earthquakes are fitting images for the chaos and mayhem unleashed upon the skittish, dysfunctional family of man as soon as a critical mass of us stop managing our own individually-tailored, mysteriously allotted portions of the cosmic war-romance and allow our lacerating shrapnel and our potent poisons to assail our neighbors, who are absorbed with managing their own allotted portions.

The Room (10/13/17)

Our experience of ordinary waking consciousness may be likened to being in a room – large or small, crowded or not – where various activities are underway: a lively conversation, a piece of music or a play is being performed, an animal is loose, etc. Meditation may be equated with stepping out of this room, where activity of one sort or another is guaranteed to be underway at all times. When we step out of the activity room, we are alone in silence and there is nothing there to captivate our attention. When we are ready to meditate, then, we head for the door that leads out of the room. We do not attempt to make everyone in the room shut up and be still. We do not hunt down and kill the animal that is on the loose. It is enough to exit the room, but first we must know where the door is. Then we must trust that when we exit the room we are not simply going to be annihilated or dissolved into nothingness.

Gradually, we learned that the activity room is not a “place” in the usual sense of a location in the external world, but a topos – or inner space – that exists as a level or type of consciousness. Leaving the room is a pictorial metaphor for shifting to a different topos or level of consciousness that is subtler than the level of the room we have left. Here, silence and “not-doing” are experienced. The meditator learns, in time, that it is possible to bring some of the silence and stillness of the meditative state back into the activity room, but the reverse is not the case. In meditation, we become so small and vaporous that we can slither through the keyhole in the door of the activity room, but nothing within the activity room is small or subtle enough to exit through that keyhole.

Eventually, the advanced meditator realizes that it is unnecessary to exit the door of the activity room in order to find the silence and the stillness of formless awareness. They permeate the space he is always in. He sees, at last, that there is no door there, no inside or outside of the room. There are only interpenetrating levels of consciousness – each one at a different level of subtlety – all the way from the densest, bulkiest, and most limited to the most rarefied, boundless, and formless. As the center of gravity of his consciousness moves from one level to the next, the mental environment changes accordingly. What appears real and indisputable on one level – say, that of sensory experience – becomes irrelevant and of little significance as our consciousness shifts to the plane of abstract intuitions and archetypal images. Disputes occur when partisans of one level or arena of conscious experience refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of another level – usually because they have yet to develop the necessary aptitude or subtlety to enter that level. Until then, they regard such unexperienced levels as delusional.