An Immodest Proposal (or two) (7/6/11)

In their own distinctive way the classical Greek myths—in their totality—probably did a better job of intelligibly representing ‘the whole’ (and man’s place within the whole) than any single rational philosopher, including the inimitable Plato, was able to do. I would support this assertion by pointing to the greater tolerance (in the mythological materials) for archetypal diversity, for unresolved—and ultimately irresolvable—complexities, tensions, paradoxes, and contradictions. While the struggle to approach and to depict the whole in a rational manner may rightly deserve to be called commendable, it is a struggle that is doomed to end again and again in failure and defeat—like the task of Sisyphus. The basic reason for this failure on the part of rational systems of philosophical thought—in their dogged attempts to comprehensively account for the whole—rests in their inherent limitations vis-à-vis the dynamic and protean whole that they strive to tackle and capture within their faulty nets.

We might ask: ‘What is rationality and why does it—why must it—fail to do justice to the whole?’ The whole is essentially baffling and mysterious, while rationality is not. In fact, rationality (as a method of approaching reality) aims at dispelling mystery. But this is just a flattering way of saying that it strives to reduce the mysterious to its unmysterious terms. Rationality’s terms are no longer quite as fixed and inflexible as most of us are encouraged to believe. Like an accomplished and subtle whore (or lawyer), rationality can adapt to the diverse needs (and budgets) of its various clients in order to provide them with what they all want: justification, or at least the momentary illusion that they have a real leg to stand on.

The ineffable mysteriousness of the whole, however, continues to slip right through the most fine-meshed nets provided by the sought-after whore, reason, and this can be bad for business. And bad business for that lovely trollop usually indicates a resurgence of the mysterious whole from which many of us have been pleasantly distracted while we were ‘thrusting and parrying’ down in reason’s seductive and much-coveted hole. And when the mysterious whole catches us with our pants down, embarrassment and panic typically follow.

It is only natural for little men with short swords to purchase those full-length ‘magnifying’ mirrors that make them look bigger and more dangerous (more ‘justee-fied’) than they really are—and reason can function as just this sort of flattering mirror. Such a mirror both reflects and distorts, but after we grow accustomed to seeing such a reflection each morning as we crawl out of bed, we begin to mistake the strapping image for the stripped-down, actual man. Respectful belief in the authority of reason may someday be recognized as one of the greatest curses to befall mankind—and not, as some would have us believe, the noble attribute that distinguishes us from the beasts. It may in fact distinguish us from the other animals, but not necessarily in a manner that does us a whole lot of credit. It may be seen someday (today is far too soon) that the whore enslaved her noble client and began to rule the kingdom from the boudoir and the back rooms of the bordello—and whores of every stripe, let us remember, are notoriously single-minded.

As a man presently employing reason to explain reason itself, I would first direct the reader’s attention to its distinctive virtues as a method of ordering and making some kind of coherent sense of our perceptions and our concepts, the principle materials that reason deals with.

It is the rules of reason (just like the rules of a game such as chess, or those of mathematics and logic) that enable it to give birth to coherent and self-consistent statements about our conceptions and perceptions of reality, about ‘God,’ about natural processes, human behavior, and so forth—whether these statements happen to bear any legitimate truth-content or not. Following or adhering to the rules, then, is a crucial part of reasoning coherently about anything. Without these rules—and a more or less strict adherence to them—our statements lose whatever respectability and dignity they owe to staying within the authorized parameters. To ‘insiders,’ those who utter arbitrary and merely conjectural statements are often privately regarded with a measure of disdain or contempt—the slight regard reserved for the ‘uninitiated’ by fully approved guild members. Or, perhaps they are regarded with the patronizing indulgence some persons feel when they see children trying to bend or re-invent the rules of a game they’re playing in order to stay in the game. One is not allowed to succeed, let alone win, by cheating.

Perhaps I should point out the fact that none of the foregoing has anything whatsoever to do with the whole—the mystery-cloaked ‘big picture’ of which we (and our reason) constitute but a very small and insignificant part. Rules have everything to do with maintaining order—with staying ‘on point’ or ‘on track.’ But what kind of order? What is the point the rule-follower insists on staying on? Where are the ‘tracks’ heading towards? Or perhaps it might be just as worth our while to ask ‘Where do the tracks lead back to?’

Rules, alone, are not enough to bestow upon reason the power and authority it has traditionally enjoyed. That power and authority are under greater suspicion and mistrust in many quarters nowadays than they have been in a long time, but despite all this mistrust and suspicion, nothing has been created that commands the general respect that rationality is steadily having bled from out of itself in today’s skeptical climate.

But, to return to my argument, or my attempt at a rational account of unmysterious reason and of its fundamental incapacity to provide a comprehensive account of the mysterious whole: If we may liken a rational scheme—any rational scheme—to an organism, the rules are analogous to the digestive system of this organism, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the circulatory system that delivers fresh blood to all its tissues and organs. But what keeps this organism alive? Upon what food does it batten and fatten itself? This food—whatever it turns out to be—serves as the analogy for the ground or founding principle of our rational scheme. Some grand rational systems aim at complete transparency. They make their ‘ground’ explicit. Thus, we hear some rational persons tell us, up front, that matter, or material phenomena and processes, constitute the arch-principle of their system. A rational theologian would declare that revealed scripture is his starting place and that all his arguments and positions ultimately refer back and connect to scriptural sources. For Thales, the arch-principle from which all emerges was ‘water’; for Anaximenes, air. For Heraclitus it was fire, while for Anaximander it was ‘the indefinite.’ A Platonist would point to the Ideas and a Pythagorean to integers and numerical proportions. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche speak of the ‘Will’ as the ground—the fons et origo of all that is.

Once the ground and source has been designated and established in this way, all roads lead back to it. The various arch-principles I have just named, because they have all played—or continue to play—a ‘nourishing’ and ‘grounding’ role in Western rational thought and education, deserve to be mentioned as momentous instances. These arch-principles provide the nourishing and sustaining ‘food for thought’ in the more familiar or conspicuous rational schemes which, together, form the spiritual and intellectual foundations of Western culture. Because this once-thriving organism appears to be falling apart and decomposing all around and within us (here in the shallow, silty delta and marshlands of that formerly forceful, deep, and unbroken river), few today are directly acquainted with these ‘macro-systems’ and their respective arch-principles. They have either been defaced by the ravages of time and neglect, like the Pyramids and the Sphinx of Egypt or fallen into disrepute and held to be on a par with astrology and alchemy.

At any event, with the decline and decay of the old philosophical, theological, and rational schemes of past centuries—these macro-systems have gradually given way to micro-systems which, being much more compact and narrowly focused, are both more user-friendly and practically effective. This shift from the grand systems of yore to the much less comprehensive and theoretical micro-systems of rationality that are embraced today roughly corresponds to the general collapse of speculative reason and its replacement by instrumental reason, or pragmatism. This enormously important transformation of reason from a largely theoretical faculty that concerned itself with contemplation of ends to a method of calculating the most efficient means to achieve arbitrary practical aims is masterfully treated by Max Horkheimer in his powerful little book, Eclipse of Reason.

This scaling down of rationality and its redirection from the contemplation of grand ethical aims and philosophical ideals to a religious devotion to thoroughly tested diet plans that promise to bring us to our ideal body weight has certainly brought many of us into a much more intimate relationship with narrow, brute facts and with stubborn concrete realities. And perhaps as a corrective against the ‘metaphysical’ excesses of reason’s past, this move was inevitable—and even salutary. But I am not here to promote or endorse one form of rationality or the other. Remember, I am taking issue with reason itself, whether in its metaphysical or instrumental, its contemplative or its prosaically practical moods and modes. And in taking issue with it, I do not seek the wholesale rejection or dismissal of reason. It is an instrument—whether used as wings for flights of spiritual contemplation or as a hammer for smashing obstructive chunks of ignorance that stand in the way of producing a new GMO or of discovering a new form of sustainable energy. And as an instrument or faculty, it is not an end in itself, even if it happens to be pleasurable to exercise it, to run and jump and play with it. Of course, learning how to run and play with reason may involve some initial pain and discomfort, just as training oneself to carry a football at full speed towards the goal-line with a half-dozen handsomely paid professionals bent upon stopping you will almost surely entail some initial pain and discomfort. But pleasure and pain are states. They are not arguments. The rules of reason are indifferent to the pleasure and pain of those who play by them or break them.

And now for a big shift—back to the pressing issue of foundational arch-principles that I likened to the food that fuels and sustains the various grand rational schemes. I want to suggest that these arch-principles (e.g. ‘matter,’ ‘Ideas,’ ‘the Will,’ ‘God,’, etc.) which ground and nourish the various philosophies and theologies that have traditionally served as vital maps and guides in our human journey through the world and existence—I want to argue that they, themselves, are not and cannot be ultimate sources of meaning and value. They are, themselves, doorways that lead into this source, which inevitably remains mysterious, unknowable and ineffable—beyond all of our limited means of conceptualization, imagination, and grasp. As with the sun, we derive our life and our light from it, but our safety and well-being depend upon the measured distance between us and it. Too far away—warmth and light diminish and we freeze to death in the dark. Too close—and we are burnt to a crisp. The various arch-principles which function like food to the different rational and theological systems owe their power, ultimately, to this hidden and mysterious source—but because so few believers are able (or willing) to look beyond their own particular, inherited arch-principle, they naturally attribute this supreme value and status to ‘God,’ to ‘matter,’ to ‘spirit,’ to ‘Love,’ or whatever arch-principle ‘speaks to’ or ‘calls’ them.

Because they cannot see beyond it—and because it appears to be the ultimate source of meaning and nourishment for them—they are not likely to stand idly by when others disparage or ignore their supreme principles, whatever that may consist in. We are apt to feel that our very lives and our basic sense of orientation within the world depend upon our arch-principal, the ‘mask’ that stands between our fleeting little personal existence and the mystery of the whole that lies behind all such masks. We are naturally confined by our limited capacity to conceptualize or represent complex situations and subtle ideas to ourselves. This is one of those psychological truths that is so obvious that it is sometimes difficult or nearly impossible to see. We are naturally more inclined to trust a familiar untruth or half-truth because it is familiar than we are to trust a deeper truth that we have great deal of trouble formulating or imagining. It sounds obvious, of course, when spelled out like this, but what I have just spelled out here is perhaps the single greatest obstacle standing in the way of our liberation from some blinding but consoling generalization or another. It is our lazy comfortableness with the familiar and the ‘known’ that stands chiefly in the way of a sudden acknowledgement of the mystery we are in fact immersed in. But the comfort provided by such blind trust in the familiar is no argument supporting the ‘truth’ of our position. Pleasure and comfort—in this case the pleasure of hiding comfortably from persons and ideas that disturb our stubborn trust in the familiar—has nothing at all to do with the truth or untruth of what we cling to for comfort. And then there is pain. One man plunges from his warm and cozy comfort-zone of familiar dogmas into the ice-cold pool of mystery, and he feels refreshed, liberated, and energized, while another man who is pulled off his perch into the same water suffers cardiac arrest—from fear—and he’s done with. The first man felt the pain occasioned by the cold shock of the waters of mystery that melt and dissolve the comforting dogma-scales that cling to his skin, but he rejoiced in his initiation. The other was not ready for a plunge, and to pull him before he was ripe was wrong and disastrous.

 

 

Plato’s Cave Allegory Updated (4/27/12)

As I have maintained before, moral obligations have binding power and authoritative force within the large arena of ordinary human affairs and dealings—but beyond this almost untranscendable sphere of operations they appear to have no jurisdiction or relevance. But—and here’s the catch—if there is to be any mental liberation from the potent gravitational field of the human realm, one must first undergo the transformative crisis that allows for the neutralization of one’s deeply rooted attachments to (concrete or literal circumstances and persons within) that realm. It should be remembered, of course, that attachment is not the same thing as love or compassion. These are not relinquished along with our possessive (and possessing) attachments. Love and compassion are radiant light issuing from the heart, while attachment may be likened to glutinous goo oozing from organs a notch or two lower than the heart center.

Let’s compare the ordinary, attached human being to a player in a game, or sport. As a participant in this game—say, football—he is invested in the game. He is in no sense indifferent to the outcome of the game. He has other members of his team to consider, as well. He does not want to let them down, nor does he wish to disgrace himself before them. He can harm his own interests—and those of his team—by not playing his best game each time he ‘suits up.’ He can also disappoint by withdrawing from the game because he is no longer able to believe fully in its importance or its ultimate validity. When his faith is thus shaken, he may try at first to shore up his commitment to the game—for he is instinctively aware that withdrawal carries severe penalties and the threat of great inner distress. But once his faith has been shaken to the core, irrepressible doubts and corrosive questions begin to eat away at him. Eventually, something has to give. He can’t fake it any longer. Without a noisy to-do, he quietly takes leave from the only pursuit he’s ever fully given himself to—the game he lived for, and lived by. He ‘retires’ his helmet and his shoulder pads to storage and surrenders himself to a barrage of menacing reflections. Having relinquished his place as principal player in the game, he feels more alone, disoriented, and armorless than ever. In this weakened and confused state he is assailed by questions, challenges, and dark suspicions by which he feels himself to be outgunned. It is as if his former ‘world’ has been turned upside down or inside out.

Do I belabor or overstress the dramatic features of the game analogy? It would only seem so to one who knows little or nothing of the distress, the sense of alienation, and the seemingly meaningless suffering that often accompany a clean and psychologically responsible withdrawal from one’s accustomed role or position in the game. If I make no effort to gloss over the seriousness of the upheaval and the displacement involved in this withdrawal, it is because I wish to dispel at once any notion that this ‘divestment’ is only, or principally, an intellectual move. Nothing could be less ‘intellectual’ than the visceral agony and the fear for one’s very sanity that frequently attend this shift. A profound intellectual grasp of what is happening may follow, but seldom precedes, these psychological ordeals.

I have not forgotten the theme this essay began with—the thorny question of moral obligation and confinement to the realm of exclusively (or decidedly) human commitments and attachments. But in order for this problem to make any sort of psychological sense—the kind of sense I am concerned with making here—we must approach it by imaginatively surrendering ourselves to this crisis that I have begun to sketch. It is a consuming life crisis that is detonated by an intentional withdrawal from one’s accustomed roles, orientation, and attachments in the formerly absorbing game of one’s personal life. It has to be a consciously willed move in order to qualify as a crisis-detonator, as we will soon see, because an enormous amount of will—among other things—is demanded of the candidate for such an enormous crisis and initiation into a wholly new way of being in the world.

As I have already noted, in our analogy, the withdrawer from the game (and from his functional roles in the game) undergoes the experience of having his world turned upside down. Another way of describing this is to say that he is now in a position—really for the first time—not only to see how makeshift, fictive, and limiting the ‘rules of the game’ are—but to feel this realization so profoundly that his view of his fellow players—as well as all such players of all such games everywhere (now, before, and to come)—is transformed forever. His withdrawal has, as it were, catapulted him into a vastly expanded inner space—one that is felt to be so enormous that he feels quite dwarfed—reduced to puny insignificance. He does not yet know his way around this huge unlit interior dimension into which he has been thrust as a consequence of his consciously willed withdrawal from the game, but he absolutely cannot deny its thoroughly pungent reality. He is as yet a stranger and a newcomer there, although he has almost surely heard accounts of this place from others who have been there, too, and have left records and testimonies behind.

At any event, the only thing that is as real and as pressing as the reality of this strange new environment into which he has entered with scarcely more than a flashlight, a candy bar, and a sweater is his new and startling take on the ‘game world’—the conventional, ‘human, all too human’ world—he has emerged from. The new perspective—afforded by his entrance into this unfamiliar inner territory—throws the human realm into a startlingly fresh light. What our newcomer sees, but does not quite yet understand, is precisely what Plato described so memorably in the allegory of the cave in Book VII of the Republic—or what we find in the movie, The Matrix, which owes its central idea to Plato’s cave analogy. He sees his former teammates, his loved ones, and countrymen imprisoned in something akin to a waking (or coagulated?) dream—only they have no idea that they are dreaming artificially induced dreams.

Our fresh ‘initiate’ is still not sufficiently oriented or ‘at home’ within his new bearings (in the expanded, unlit inner space) to be able to enjoy the greater certainty of judgment that may or may not come later. Because of this ‘margin of doubt’ he is reluctant to categorically reject or dismiss their standpoint—their standards of weights and measures, the legitimacy of their moral and philosophical assumptions, the value of their games and contests—but he simply cannot return to that standpoint with the implicit faith he once shared with them. So, while he continues to maintain relationships with his former friends, family members, and countrymen, something that was once a living and felt part of these relationships has now become thin, wispy, and ghostlike—unless one or two of them has undergone the same withdrawal and survived the ensuing crisis. As for the rest, it is supremely difficult—if not altogether impossible—to feel truly at home with them. Perhaps something similar was felt by a soldier returning from the trenches of WWI—one who was being reacquainted with those back home who could know nothing of what he’d actually been through on the front. Or—to use a more felicitous image—it must be akin to the way a mystic feels when he attempts to describe his raptures to a churlish adolescent know-it-all. The experiences of our fledgling initiate have set him apart from his former kinsmen. The ‘apartness’ that he feels—and suffers from—was not manufactured or concocted by him out of some egotistical need to ‘be different.’ His apartness happened to him when his psychic center of gravity shifted to a level or region that appears to be sealed off from almost everyone around him. When he consciously willed his own withdrawal from the game, it is almost certain that he had no idea that in doing so he would bring this fateful apartness upon himself. Perhaps if he had known this, he would have found a million and one good reasons for remaining on the field until he was too old to play anymore—at which point he would begin his less arduous second career—either as a coach or a sportscaster.

But what makes all of this even more poignantly isolating for him—at least during the ‘limbo phase’ before he has acclimated himself to his newly inhabited standpoint—is that, like a disembodied spirit walking the earth, he can see his fellow mortals for who they are, but they cannot truly see him. Only his outer—remembered—form, the husk of his former self, is seen by them. His inner self, rooted in its new inner soil, is invisible or opaque to them.

Quietism and Activism (8/14/12)

Like most persons, no doubt, who give Chris Hedges a sympathetic reading, I come away from his writings in an agitated state. I am morally outraged by the evils and injustices that he so provocatively documents. Despite many inner resistances, I am nudged by his galvanizing rhetoric to go out and act on behalf of numberless victims in organized, defiant opposition to the corporate, governmental, and other institutional victimizers. The essays and books are a ‘trumpet call to war’ against the bad guys. While Hedges is not so crudely and buffoonishly black and white in his ‘us versus them’ moral dichotomy as Joe McCarthy was—or, for that matter, certain idiotic demagogues from the Christian right and the imperialistic neo-cons—he certainly comes close to advocating (and trying to incite) class war, if he doesn’t actually cross the line. He tells us to ‘rise up and resist or become serfs.’ It sounds like he’s jonesing for a slave rebellion and that he’s just itching for a modern-day Spartacus to gather an army of disgruntled, marginalized Americans who have nothing left to lose.

All this to make the simple point: I, for one, do not come away from Hedges’ books feeling more centered or more inwardly prepared to deal with the dismal situation we are all in today. His rousing, high-octane agitprop, his nimble command of disquieting facts and his impressive erudition tend to compete with my love for inner centeredness and calm detachment.

In the introduction to The World As It Is, he writes:

I have never sought to be objective. How can you be objective about death squads in El Salvador, massacres in Iraq, or Serbian sniper fire that gunned down unarmed civilians, including children, in Sarajevo? How can you be neutral about the masters and profiteers of war who lie and dissemble to hide the crimes they commit and the profits they make? How can you be objective about human pain? And, finally, how can you be objective about those responsible for this suffering? I am not neutral about rape, torture, or murder. I am not neutral about rapists, torturers, or murderers. I am not neutral about George W. Bush or Barack Obama, who under international law are war criminals. And if you had to see the butchery of war up close, as I did for nearly two decades, you would not be neutral either. (xii)

Now I may be wildly wrong here, but it seems to me that two great spiritual exemplars this benighted planet has miraculously produced—Jesus of Nazareth and Gautama Buddha—were both quite objective about the villainy and the suffering that continue to thrive within this decentered and chronically imbalanced species. Buddha explicitly stated that all life is suffering and that the two fundamental forces that are responsible for our suffering are fear and cupidity, or restless desire. Jesus’ words and example exhort us to ‘resist not evil’ and to ‘love your enemy.’ The result of mentally transcending the pendulum swing between fear and desire is a state of poised centeredness, or, in Buddhist parlance, nirvana. Through cultivated quietness and concentration on the stillpoint at the center of our ‘cyclonic’ existence, consciousness becomes established within the silent, uncompelled eye of this hurricane. The winds still roar and sweep violently throughout the periphery, and will always do so, since that is the ‘objective’ nature of things out beyond the serenity of the immovable axis, or hub, of the inner cosmos. One remains subjected to the ever-recurring clashes and conflicts of competing wills unless and until he learns how to loosen up his sticky attachments to those swirling and bubbling forms—either good or evil, alluring or frightening, noble or base—and sinks, slowly and impersonally, into the center, beyond the fray—beyond the moral and political heroics of the armed conflict of good against evil. Such compassionate detachment—as the examples of Buddha and Christ demonstrate—involves the symbolic death of the personal self, along with all of its attachments. These attachments are of all types and degrees: physical, emotional, ideational, aesthetic, familial, national, ethnic, doctrinal, etc. All must ultimately be tossed into the fire. I have a vision of this process—and this vision of ongoing renunciation and surrender serves as the ‘hidden hand’ that guides my otherwise insignificant little life. From time to time I lose my way, but the vision returns and my spirit is restored.

My sense about Hedges is that he is still so passionately invested in his moral-political crusade that perhaps he has become blind to the unwinnability of this ‘permanent state of war’ that is the ‘objective nature of things’ in the periphery—in the natural and merely human realms. Even the most eloquent writers and thinkers of moral conviction, such as Hedges, must ultimately face the crushing realization that they are beating their heads—and the heads of their entranced followers—against a very solid wall. I should perhaps confess that it is my view that human, all-too-human experience in the natural and moral-political worlds is, at bottom, purgatorial and infernal. Our experience here is meant to teach us a hard but liberating lesson: that liberation from the suffering and the inevitable dissatisfactions that are inherent in a consciously lived human life will never be attained either by fulfilling our instinctual human cravings or killing off all our enemies. It comes, if at all, only by psychologically transcending those cravings and fears, since these are the very ligaments binding us to the turbulent, peripheral world whose very nature is suffering, self-consumption, and ceaseless change.

In offering this brief sketch of a rather uncommon response to the suffering and injustice that are inherent in ordinary human existence (when that existence is meditated on deeply and with unflinching honesty, such as Shakespeare and Dante, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, brought to their work)—I sketch a response that is very different from those of Hedges, Chomsky, Zinn, Nader, Sanders, and other valiant champions of the underdogs and victims of deceit and injustice. I do not for a moment wish to undervalue or disparage their commendable and courageous efforts. The fact that such noble and morally upright champions of truth and justice reach so deeply under my skin with their words and deeds makes it clear to me that I am no stranger to the anger and disgust they feel towards the miserable state of affairs that unbridled human greed, willful ignorance, willful deception, laziness, and cruelty present us with. Such spirited and intelligent critics, whistle-blowers, and dissenters—even when they are shunned and ignored by the very citizens they faithfully serve, or are marginalized and jeered at by the corporate media and power elite they expose and indict—provide a priceless service in reminding us of the unflattering truths about ourselves as a species. They are generally ignored or despised precisely because they hold the mirror up to us and show us—wherever we happened to be situated within the wide range of human fortunes—what part we play in this global mess we are in. Our ‘sins’ may be more of omission than commission—more the result of passive conformity to deplorable norms than of the virulent, aggressive evil that we see in the pernicious puppeteers and profiteers who design and command the systems of exploitation and planetary degradation.

Admittedly, my response tends to be that of a quietist, and not of a political activist or a moralizing Cato. The response of the quietest to socio-political, cultural, and economic breakdown is nothing new or unprecedented. Quietism—whether in the ancient Epicureans or Cynics, Christian mystics or Taoists in China, Vedantists and Buddhists in India and Tibet, or Sufism in Persia and Andalusia—has a long, if understated, history. For the quietist, the ‘war,’ ‘contest,’ or ‘agon’ is ultimately interior and great care is taken to avoid projecting or externalizing the source of the conflict outside, for to do so is to fall into a snare or trap. Satan’s third temptation of Christ and Mara’s temptation of the Buddha symbolize this snare, whereby the spiritual man is tempted to locate the source, both of trouble and salvation, in ‘the world as it is.’ The quietist gently but continually strives to unfetter his spirit, his mind, his heart, and his allegiance from outer, sensory world phenomena/persons and to establish his consciousness in the center, where the pairs of opposites are harmonized. When the various pairs of opposites are reconciled in this way, dualisms and warring antitheses are, as it were, dissolved in the process. At last, unity is known. In this grounding experience of unity, we have the compelling sense, or recognition, that there is nothing to do and no-where to go. All is already done. All is present. I have been fortunate enough to have experienced this condition of blissfully contented oneness numerous times throughout my life. It always serves as a profound reminder of the ultimate futility of seeking salvation and true fulfillment outside of myself in the social, moral, political, and economic realms. Other humans cannot deliver it to us—or us to it. Sensual pleasures and worldly honors are dim shadows and poor substitutes for the contentment of enlightened centeredness. After genuinely experiencing this condition of inner balance and blessedness—and recognizing where our happiness is authentically located—we gradually learn to pull up stakes in the outer world, reducing our investment in its false promises and its deceptive allurements. Eventually, our loyalty and our psychic center of gravity shifts, or pivots, and the plodding, determined, liberating work of uprooting our souls from the purgatorial realm of human life proceeds apace. But only when we’re ready.

Limbo and Other Liminal Spaces (11/12/14)

With regard to those outstanding scientists who were at the same time great theoreticians—Archimedes, Copernicus, Keppler, Galileo, Newton, Einstein—we must always attend to the magical mixture of discovery and invention that distinguishes their groundbreaking work. Newton and Einstein required new terms or new means of formulation for the conveyance and expression of the phenomena that were being ‘discovered’—in these cases, gravitational force and relativity.

Doesn’t much the same mixture of discovery and invention apply in the arena of spiritual or religious experience? In order to fully appreciate the significance of what Newton and Einstein accomplished, isn’t it necessary for the student of physics to master the mathematical language and the conceptual apparatus they employed in the setting forth of their respective theories? It is in the mastery of these interpretive inventions that the student equips himself with the proper lens through which he is now in a position to view the ‘discovered’ (or, in some cases, ‘given’) phenomena.[1] Thus, the capable student of physics becomes initiated into that relatively small band of knowers or cognoscenti who have brought their intellects into conscious alignment and accord with the ‘way of things,’ as that way is presented by the theory.[2]

In the vast arena of inner exploration, we find the same, inextricable interdependence between invention and discovery—or, in somewhat broader and more controversial terms, between ‘fiction’ and ‘fact.’ It is chiefly by means of our cultural acquisitions that we make meaningful sense of the natural, or given, phenomena of the outer and inner realms of experience. These invented terms and constructed concepts that are passed on to us during our acculturation or education allow for various degrees of refinement and subtlety, of course. The greater their subtlety, depth, and range, the profounder will be the grasp of the student’s understanding of the inner and outer realms in which he, like everyone else, dwells.

With these simple observations in mind, it is easy to see that understanding is something that allows for enormous variation and depth, depending on how developed one’s functional interpretive scheme is. This is acquired chiefly by study and reflection. The deeper and more extensive the experience and the education, the richer and more comprehensive will be the student’s understanding of the relevant phenomena—and of the entire context within which such phenomena occur. Where such education is coarse-grained and spotty—or lacking altogether—the person’s articulate understanding will be correspondingly dim, narrow, and shallow, even if their intuitive perception is impressive.

It is a well-known fact about the human mind that unless and until it glimpses—and then grasps—a profounder understanding of things than it normally relies upon, it will not be aware of how comparatively dim and restricted its understanding actually is. The sudden burst of ‘inspiration’ (attendant on this extra-ordinary revelation of the depths and the enormous range of knowledge, wisdom, and insight that are always lurking just beyond the limited reach of our ‘educated understanding’ of things) is often both invigorating and demoralizing, inflating and humiliating, at one and the same time. We learn a great deal about someone’s essential character, depending on how he or she responds to such extraordinary glimpses into the ‘heavenly kingdom’ of higher learning and intuitive wisdom. All of us at one time or another have been granted a peek through that majestic doorway that leads into this ‘sacred valley’ of wisdom and learning. Perhaps we glimpsed it in a powerful dream or with the generous assistance of a great poet, sage, philosopher, or psychoactive plant. Was the majesty of the vision so daunting and overwhelming that our spirits were dashed by the unflattering contrast with our own ‘candlelit’ minds? Did we resolve, in that moment of sobering humiliation, never again to venture away from the tidy and well-fortified little plot of mental turf that we could till and harvest for all it was worth?[3]

Or, instead of shrinking back into a prudent determination to stick with the known and the familiar—following our glimpses of these sublime wonders within the palace of wisdom—were the seeds of philosophical yearning within our minds thus germinated, fatefully reorienting the entire course of our life? Though chastened and made modest by what our minds have peeked at, our wills were not demoralized, but excited, by what we glimpsed. Our acute consciousness of the discomfiting gap between our ‘seedling’ minds and this noble forest of higher wisdom instills in us an awareness of the long and arduous path of higher learning ahead of us. We also become uncomfortably aware that this path will lead us in a markedly different direction from many we hold near and dear. One pays dearly for admission into the halls of higher learning. And we cannot know beforehand whether we’ve got what it takes to travel the full distance of this path that calls us. This can only be determined by the severe tests we will undergo along the way. One thing is certain: once we have traveled a considerable distance down the path that leads to higher wisdom, there is no real turning back to the sheltered and uninitiated form of life we have left behind. Nevertheless, some ‘initiates’ will get stuck in limbo—a suspended state where yearning for the divine vision never goes away, despite the fact that one’s feet can advance no further.

What can we say about this limbo state? And, can someone who has become stuck there ever hope—either by his own merits or through the intercession of another—to find release from that state, and a second chance to enter that higher realm of wisdom that lies ahead?

In Dante’s Commedia, the limbo state is the highest condition attainable by unaided human reason. This is certainly no mean accomplishment, but it falls short of the full attainment of divine wisdom, which requires a radical transformation of the will—and not merely the enlightenment of the intellect. Perhaps before the human will can be redemptively transformed, it must be broken. Only after its human propulsion and guidance systems have begun to shut down is it possible for the mind to be reeled into the entirely new center of gravity which grounds and stabilizes supra-human wisdom. From the strictly human perspective, this shift in the center of gravity—this ‘death’ and ‘rebirth’ experience—is utterly and stumpingly paradoxical, if not inimical. There is, let us propose, both human reason and an altogether different kind of ordering scheme that supplants and transcends the horizons of human reason. But there is no way to translate these transcendent, suprahuman experiences and insights into the familiar terms of human reason without egregiously deforming and diluting them. One may as well attempt to express four-dimensional experience in two-dimensional terms. The only way to overcome this problem is for the mind to voluntarily submit to the radical transformation mentioned earlier. It is a leap of faith insofar as it cannot possibly imagine where—or if—it will land after it has leapt. When it leaps it leaves behind forever its exclusive reliance upon the human reason that has carried it this far—and no further. Everything and everyone (including itself) that it has ‘known’ up to this point has been known in terms of criteria and values that are now seen (and felt) to be outgrown, deficient, cramped, reductive, and unequal to the perceptions and experiences it can almost taste, here at the very frontier of its familiar bounds and bearings.

Socrates once said that ‘to philosophize is to learn to die.’ What is the deeper spiritual meaning behind this statement? Mightn’t it be referring to this ‘radical’ transformation and reorientation of the will that must occur before stable access to this higher wisdom is available? One must earn this higher wisdom by voluntarily sacrificing lower, competing forms of mundane ‘know-how’ and interest, right? This divestment from selfish and mundane preoccupations indicates the earnestness of the initiate’s commitment to the disinterested pursuit of spiritual knowledge and understanding. His sacrifice, voluntary privations, and renunciation of social, monetary, sensual preoccupations help to prepare him for the disciplined, solitary work of inner transformation. Not abruptly—and, therefore, not haphazardly and recklessly—but steadily and progressively, he adjusts himself to the new source of strength and spiritual vitality within the depths. Something, to be sure, is withering and falling away from him—but something else, something far more precious, is growing stronger and stronger as the initiate increasingly dedicates his thought, will, and energy to the transformative process that is unmistakably underway.

[1] To ‘dis-cover’ meant to ‘un-cover’ for the Elizabethans. In ancient Greek, the word for ‘truth’ was ‘aletheia’—which meant ‘un-concealed’ or ‘disclosed.’ The common or shared idea here is that that truth is neither plainly evident nor superimposed by the conceptual thinker—but brought out of concealment by an act of mental penetration and unpeeling.

[2] This, in a nutshell, is what Michael Polanyi means by ‘Personal Knowledge’ (in his influential book by that same name), since its occurrence depends on this personal alignment, via theory, of an individual mind with the phenomena viewed by that mind.

[3] As related by Paul Taylor in his book, Zizek and the Media: “An apocryphal story relates how a cop finds a drunk under a street-light looking for his car keys that he dropped on the opposite, dark side of the street. When the cop asks why the drunk is looking for the keys in the wrong place, he receives the defensive retort: ‘Because this is where the light is.’”

Diet of Worms (9/1/13)

We understand this pathologized language to be intentionally not speaking of human perfection, or even about the complete human being carrying his wounds and his cross; rather the psyche is telling us about its lacunae, its gaps and wasteland. And we believe that the tale told in these images is not even about us, men and women, not about human being mainly, but about itself, about psychic being; so that the deformation of human images with maimings, breaks, and suppurations decomposes our humanistic icon and our spiritual vision of the perfectibility of man, cracks all normative images, presenting instead a psychological fantasy of man to which neither naturalism nor spiritualism can apply. Both spiritual man and natural man are transformed by being deformed into psychological man. (James Hillman; Revisioning Psychology, p. 89)

As we become initiated into the strange, impersonal mysteries of the psyche, our relationships with those who have been near and familiar to us undergo a disquieting transformation. The unsettling transformation of these once strong and trustworthy bonds corresponds with the death of the old familiar personality that we once felt identical with and rooted in. We continue to live, to draw breath, and to take sustenance—that is to say, our body remains alive. But inwardly, our former self is decomposing while a new, regenerated self ever-so-slowly slithers forth from the rotting corpse of the old one. During this psycho-spiritual metamorphosis—which can take years to run its full course (in India it can take lifetimes!)—there is a phase during which we vacillate back and forth between the old, collapsing standpoint and the newly emerging one. The new one is not yet sufficiently established or stable enough to be fully relied upon—and the old one has fallen into such a state of dissolution that its assumptions, its habits…its compass…can no longer be trusted implicitly. Nonetheless, because all of us need some kind of ‘face to meet the world,’ we have little choice but to fall back upon this ‘death mask’ as a persona, or ‘stand-in,’ while the inner metamorphosis takes its own sweet time. This may be thought of as our ‘walking dead’ phase. It is thoroughly depressing but it must be endured. Or rather, this depression must be welcomed and embraced—not simply put up with. Its gravity, heaviness, and its slowness are precisely what are needed to pull us into the cold, dark depths where we learn all those things they don’t teach us in school—above ground.

The new, inwardly gestating self draws its nourishment from a radically different source, or matrix, than the former self suckled upon. In those occasional moments during the metamorphosis when we are consciously aligned with the new self, we feel inspiration and replenishment. We have tapped into this pleroma out of which the new self will be spawned. But when this connection is disturbed—a common occurrence in the early stages—we are tempted to look back to our old, familiar relationships and beliefs for support and solace. But after tasting the nectar from the inner spiritual dimension, the old ‘food’ tastes rancid. The old beliefs look and feel like scripted lies and itchy straitjackets. And as we look around, virtually everyone we have ever known is greedily gobbling up heaping platefuls of this rancid, worm-ridden food and thrashing about inside their cramped, smelly straitjackets. But because our own vital link to the ‘plenitude’ of the spiritual realm is still wobbly and unreliable, we are able, only in fits and starts, to feed ourselves and a few other starving souls who are willing and able to digest such rich fare.

It may be useful to pause for a moment and explore the psycho-spiritual metamorphosis through the lens of this ‘dietary preference’ metaphor. Like hyenas or vultures, the coarsely solid human type can consume hefty quantities of the psycho-spiritual equivalent of carrion—and never wince at the rancidity or festering corruption in what he/she relishes with gusto or rapt contentment. For the newly reborn spirit that has decisively inched its way through and beyond the metamorphosis stage, such carrion is to be strictly avoided. Why? Although these ‘transformed’ spirits have no trouble digesting it without toxic side effects, it can no longer provide adequate nourishment for them. Like plants, they have evolved a capacity for feeding on something akin to light and have, therefore, moved into a completely different category of nutritional requirements.

For those, like me, however, who are transiting through this ‘in between’ stage, a ‘mixed diet’ is advisable. We are not quite ready to subsist solely upon the nectar of purely spiritual sustenance—which corresponds to the sunlight that the plant photosynthesizes into food. Though we are able to digest and metabolize quantities of this sun-like nectar that would either be lethal to the ‘solidly human’ creature—or would simply pass through his/her system like a swallowed jewel, being of no immediate nutritional value whatsoever—we still have too much of the ‘human, all too human’ about us to fully renounce ‘dead, putrefying flesh’ as part of a square, daily meal. While the dietary value of the rank chunk of flesh is negligible, ironically we continue to relish such vile vittles because of their familiar, bracing flavorfulness! It is also generally known that chemicals secreted by tiny maggots in this rotten meat help to temper and weaken the disorienting and intoxicating initial effects of the spiritual nectar. More than a few in-betweeners have been driven to madness by prematurely imbibing large quantities of nectar and fastidiously eliminating rotten, putrefying flesh altogether from their diet. But we in-betweeners must be patient and gradually wean ourselves from the corrupt (but ever so tasty!), rancid (but oh, so familiar!) flesh that prevents us from flying off to heaven before we’ve actually grown real wings. A good rule of thumb is:

While larval, partake—

When alar, forsake…the offal.

 

Metanoia I (9/22/14)

A principal consequence of the spiritual ‘about-face’—or metanoia—is an incipient acknowledgement not so much of the reality of the psyche, but of the primacy of the psyche. Before the conversion crisis, one’s consciousness was still, by and large, directed outwards—as is normal among the great bulk of humanity—now as ever. After this transformation has definitively and decisively occurred, the initiate has struck the first serious blow against his enslavement and his puppet-like obedience to thoughts and beliefs that have been sovereign in his mind since earliest childhood.

One way of describing the initiation experience is to speak of a decisive shift in one’s psychic center of gravity. The hub or center of consciousness is more deeply interiorized. There is a distinct sense of being relocated further upstream, psychically—closer to the source of all mental activities and processes. It is this liberation from the muddy delta into the clearer, purer ‘source-waters’ of one’s stream of consciousness, that activates the initiate’s innate capacity to see external events, behaviors, and formulated thoughts as effects rather than as causes of intrapsychic factors. This capacity must, of course, be developed and cultivated if it is to be turned into a reliable and trustworthy faculty. If the capacity is not cultivated and disciplined, it will not be able to elevate the initiate to the next rung of spiritual development.

This next level of development generally pertains to breaking the spell of enchantment and attachment to the sensual world and its contents. The initiate has fashioned the instruments or the means of his release and now he must put them to proper use. The insights and powers he has earned through the initiatory process can be improperly used for selfish purposes—since they give him certain advantages that are not enjoyed by those whose consciousness is more or less exclusively confined to the world of effects. Compared to these non-initiates, he is like someone who is equipped with X-ray vision that enables him to see through masking surfaces into the hidden realm of causal factors—a realm that is inferable, but invisible, to the uninitiated. Therefore, unless and until the initiate’s ethical and spiritual maturity matches his powers of intellectual or psychological penetration, he is likely to be of more harm to himself and to others than a force for good.

This is why it is necessary for the initiate to undergo the ‘death of the world’—or crucifixion—ordeal before he can truly be trusted not to abuse his powers for selfish ends. Only after the world and its varied enticements have been ‘seen through’—and their hollowness thoroughly acknowledged by the initiate—only then is he fit to perform the proper task of awakening and assisting others along the steep path of inner freedom.

What we find, then, is that the fate-altering shift in one’s psychic center of gravity—a momentous transformation of the initiate’s mental bearings—must be accompanied by an equally momentous change of heart, or a transfigured will. St. Augustine clearly understood the importance of this two-pronged conversion process. His early and earnest embrace of Platonic and Plotinian philosophical reflection—or mental inspiration—flooded his intellect with the light of higher illumination, but it was not, by itself, sufficient to transform his will. In the language of Christianity: for this ‘conversion,’ it was necessary to press beyond intellectual-philosophical to spiritual redemption of his corrupt will.

Such ‘terms and conditions’ have fallen out of favor in our post-Christian era. But regardless of whether we approach this initiatory experience from a Christian, a Sufi, a Buddhist, or Vedantic perspective—each tradition possessing its own distinctive terminology, formulas, figures, and so forth—the underlying esoteric spiritual principles remain identical, regardless of the peculiarities of form, inflection, and emphasis that exoterically differentiate one path from the next.

On Ignorance and Vision (10/14/12)

When speaking of ignorance and its eradication, much more is at play than is commonly assumed. It is not enough simply to uproot our delusions and intellectually acknowledge the wrong-headedness or absurdity of our former assumptions. To be sure, this is an important and perhaps necessary preliminary step on the way towards our release from error, but it is relatively insignificant compared to the moral-psychological transformation we must undergo if we are to authentically liberate our souls and bodies from the binding desires and imprisoning habits that retard our spiritual maturation.

For this we require an inspiring vision of the way ahead. This vision is not simply invented by the ego or lifted out of some self-help book, although good books and wise counsel can be instrumental in evoking the orienting vision, which is produced autonomously by the unconscious. In this sense, the inspiring vision (that lifts us, at least momentarily, out of our spiritual blindness) is similar to grace, since it comes—if at all—of its own accord and not because our ego wills it to come.[1] The vision—which is actually a psychic experience and not simply an intellectual acknowledgement of something ‘new and promising’—is a kind of gnosis in the true sense. It is a knowing that penetrates deep into the core of Being, so that the higher will of the recipient of grace is profoundly stirred and aroused.

So, to sum up: the principal form of ignorance from which the natural man suffers, and which indirectly renders him powerless to transcend his ‘animal nature’ is ignorance of his spiritual essence. In other words, his mental bondage to matter, the body, and the ‘fallen’ world is not merely due to ignorance and/or denial of his vicious or selfish drives and unconscious mental habits. Nevertheless, it is not within the power of the ego, as such, to ‘will’ the vision (or recollection) of one’s spiritual essence into being. Such vision or gnosis happens to us—or it doesn’t—but as egos we are not in a position to force its occurrence, since the vision—the gnosis—issues from a level or realm beyond the ego’s grasp. As Krishnamurti said: ‘In all the world there are only two kinds of people—those who know and those who do not know; and this knowledge is the thing which matters.’ He is referring to the Gnostic vision, which is the only standpoint from which the human realm can be authentically relativized.

And while gnosis—or direct experience of the transcendent, spiritual reality—is necessary for our liberation from ignorance and bondage to the fallen world, it is not sufficient. We must work at our own transformation and regeneration. The visionary experience provides us with the inspirational fuel or impetus we will need to sustain us in our renunciatory, purgatorial ordeal. The ordeal, of course, is that great reversal whereby the ‘pilgrim’ consciously triumphs over his fettering attachments—sensual, emotional, and mental—to the world via the ego. As the ego-personality wanes in authority, the spirit waxes in strength.

If a person lives a morally upright life—in accordance with received or traditional principles of justice, decency, and due consideration for others—but he remains untouched by the suprahuman, transcendent vision of the spiritual realm, can he ever amount to more than a ‘good man’? Of course this is greatly preferable to being a vicious or selfish hypocrite, but it falls short of being a pneumatic.

From the standpoint of the ego, it appears that the goal—after one has experienced the transcendent vision—is to integrate the spiritual perspective into the ego perspective. Although this is a highly problematic judgment call, to say the least, it is practically inevitable since the ego-perspective initially strives with the soul-perspective for dominance over the neophyte’s sense of (personal) identity. Eventually, there will be a shift—or a series of them—that will lead to a new psychic center of gravity that lies beyond the precincts of ego, but initially our ‘numinous’ experiences are unavoidably interpreted in terms of ego-consciousness, if only because that is the ‘lens’ through which the fresh initiate is still looking.

Nevertheless, the vision, if it is authentic, is seriously disruptive of the ego’s ordinary bearings, its accustomed sense of orientation. The autonomous spiritual contents will therefore have an inflating or deflating effect on the ego—or both, in oscillating waves.[2] Inflation leads to all sorts of trouble in the ego’s relationships with others, understandably, but these checks and misfortunes can be of crucial value in educating the ego about the distinctions between spirit, soul, and ego. As long as the ego attempts (in a tragic-heroic, Nietzschean fashion) to arrogate or assimilate to itself the ‘divine inflatus’ of the spirit archetype, there is a real risk of insanity, megalomania, and other colossal unpleasantries. A walloping deflation, on the other hand, carries its own serious risks. There may, for instance, be a crippling sense of unworthiness before the spirit (just the opposite response of the inflated ego that identifies with the archetype!), so that the desired ‘dialectic’ between Self and ego never gathers momentum.[3]

 

[1] This distinguishes our approach from Nietzsche’s, incidentally, which is all about the ego’s willing its own path.

[2] When the ego identifies with the numinous or archetypal contents, there is an inflation; when the ego experiences these intrapsychic energies as ‘other’ and ‘intrusive,’ it can easily feel overwhelmed, and its sense of power and security will be dramatically deflated.

[3] For an excellent treatment of this dialectical relationship between the ego and the Self archetype, see Edward Edinger’s Ego and Archetype; Shambala; 1992