Holding Hands (8/23/13)

I am at last facing the consequences of my insistent burrowing, deviating, unmasking, and inverting. As I distance myself more and more fatefully and irreversibly from the encircled hearth of normality, instead of feeling nostalgia and warm affection for the tired old stories being swapped and lovingly preserved by those who are gathered around the campfire, I feel more and more humbly-proudly alone, more and more firmly resolved never to scurry back to my forfeited seat within that enchanted circle.

The more intensely conscious we become of our actual existential predicament, the sharper and more penetrating will be our awareness of the inability of even our boon companions to muffle or silence our spiritual uncertainties and anxieties. Even if one or two of them can actually follow us into the enveloping murk that awaits anyone who ventures off from that cozy campfire flickering in the wilderness, what more can these ‘allies’ do but hold our trembling hand? I don’t mean, here, to dismiss altogether the value of having such hands to hold in the dark. I merely mean to take the honest measure of such alliances. Their ultimate powerlessness against that darkness should dispel any illusions that we cling to in this regard, for these illusions are no remedy against it.

The big, rough, but generally reliable ‘hands’ of normality have evolved over the millennia as a protection—not against the mysterious darkness, per se, for which there is no genuine antidote—but against acute consciousness of that darkness, that inscrutable mystery, that Medusa whose direct gaze turns heroes into stone (and the unheroic into hollowed-out zombies). The groping, too-familiar hands of normality that hold the many snugly within their incestuous grip—these hands are what the few are up against if it is desired above all else to be released from the shameful stupor that their stifling embrace induces. Those who would be free of the stupefying, deforming grip of the giant, warty hands of the normal are certainly not big enough or strong enough to compel the normal to release them. Rather, it is their very smallness and their uncommon lack of rigidity that enables them to slither through the tiny openings between the gargantuan fingers of the colossal hands of the normal.

What then? Do we not at once plummet to our deaths—or worse, into insanity? Isn’t this wish to wriggle free from the big stinky hands of the normal a kind of death wish? It certainly can be—and if one’s despair is so overwhelming that nothing but extinction will suffice, then that is always an option: eternal sleep for those who have abruptly awakened from the stuporous suffocating dream induced by the oafish, smelly hands of the normal. Such persons cannot bear to stay awake but they have too much inflexible pride to return to the stupefying dream.

But what happens to those of us who recklessly and defiantly choose to stay awake, as we unblinkingly strive to wriggle like slender snakes through the narrow chinks between those thick clumsy fingers? Once we manage, miraculously, to slither through these tiny passageways—uncertain as to what will befall us as we cross over into terra incognita, or the ab-normal—do we simply keep falling or can we survive out there in the darkness and the cold?

What we learn is that the sheer enormity of the hands of the normal produces a gravitational field beyond which we are prevented from drifting. Although we have been freed up from the suffocating grip of the hands of the normal, we are nonetheless bound within an orbital path that encircles the hands. Everyone we have known or loved is still snugly enclosed within the tight grasp of those enormous hands. A gap now exists between us and them that cannot be closed without wreaking havoc for those below. The very real darkness we carry is to their false light what a particle of antimatter is to an ordinary atom. We must henceforth maintain a ‘polite’ distance from one another. Just the right distance and there is the spark born of creative tension. If we get too close, we cancel each other out in a puff of smoke.

Once we are in orbit around the hands that hold our fellows securely in place, the game has decisively changed for us. Our position in orbit affords us a clear, synoptic view, both of the hands of the normal and of the myriad constellations that twinkle in the remote reaches of the vast surrounding darkness. Such vision is our partial compensation for the isolation we are now consigned to after slithering like snakes through the narrow gaps between the colossal fingers of the gargantuan hands of the normal.

From time to time—as lonely satellites—we pick up cryptic transmissions from the distant reaches of the ineffable cosmos enveloping us—and we work diligently and solitarily, like a Kepler or a Heraclitus, to decode them.




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!

Topsy-Turvy (1/26/13)

Commonsense may roughly be defined as that mental outlook—or set of bearings—that has come to accommodating terms with human life as it is ordinarily experienced. Turning this around, we might say that in obeying the dictates of commonsense, we place ourselves in a better position to stay aligned, mentally, with the normal way of doing and evaluating things in our world of communal human experience. Genuine spiritual enlightenment, on the other hand, consists for the most part in liberating the mind and the heart from exclusive confinement within these ordinary horizons. It is therefore profoundly subversive of ‘commonsense’ and certainly not a further development of it. Spiritual illumination turns the ordinary world of commonsense experience inside out, and thus it bears perhaps more than a superficial resemblance to madness—at least from the commonsense perspective. Of course, the same holds in reverse: from the authentically ‘awakened’ perspective, ordinary human consciousness appears to be a form of delusional insanity, or more precisely, mental blindness, which amounts to more or less the same thing. But when practically everyone within a society is unwittingly blind or mad, blindness and madness are acknowledged in only the most hopeless and extreme cases. In everyone else, they go unnoticed and constitute the normal state of affairs.

Ordinary language use and practical reason, in its everyday application, help to prop up the commonsense notions and values of blind (because unreflective and information-obsessed) ordinary human consciousness. Ordinary language use and pragmatic reasoning are abstract distillations or, if you like, highly condensed summaries of the repeated experiences of our ancestors—a mixed bag, to say the least! Little wonder, then, that all genuine sages and persons of exceptional insight have been unanimous in their wariness towards (if not their denunciation of) ordinary (or popular) language use and the ‘commonsense’ perspective that everyday language use and uncritically imbibed traditional ideas protect and serve. This is why such heterodox figures are generally misunderstood and not infrequently reviled—at least while they are still alive. They arouse suspicion and anger when they challenge the otherwise blind authority of commonsense and revered tradition, both of which purchase their cherished stability and precarious inviolability at the expense of truly subtle insight, which almost invariably explodes and subverts the fixed dogmas cherished by MOST pastors and ALL sheep.

The mulish conservatism of many traditional values and commonsensical norms reflects the even deeper conservatism of our inherited human instincts. The paradoxical words and unorthodox perspectives espoused by mentally liberated sages constitute a direct assault upon the sovereignty of the sanctified ignorance and spiritual vapidity that are bound up with ‘collective ideas’ and ‘practical reason.’   It should be noted that these crude collective notions and the light of practical reason pertain almost exclusively to the ‘common’ world of everyday, literal experience. As such, they have no more legitimate place or jurisdiction in the imaginal and spiritual dimensions of human experience than do Newton’s laws of mechanics. This may have been what Jesus was talking about when he announced that he did not come to bring peace, but that he brought a sword. Thus, authentic spiritual experience is nothing if it is not subversive of collective assumptions and mass values, while ordinary religious belief has traditionally been one of the principal adhesives holding these assumptions and values together. This is perhaps what Carl Jung had in mind when he wrote: ‘Religion is a defense against the experience of God.’

The ordinary community of believers (in unexamined values and opinions passed down to them from their often equally blinkered, if well-meaning forebears) misuses these empty formulas to keep itself firmly attached to the surface layer of experience. Those persons who are driven to look deeper into these inherited notions are in a better position to see through their surface meaning. Such ‘unmaskers’ are often lured (or perilously pulled) into that terra incognita where transformative experiences can, at last, be had. Here they are shocked to discover that all they’ve learned up on the surface is pretty thin gruel and that the pleasures, the inflated sense of security and justice, and even the sense of ‘community’ enjoyed by the surface-clingers are similarly of little real value and assistance in this new territory. On every front within, lines are being drawn and choices are being forced upon him that will dramatically affect the course and quality of his life.

As he becomes acclimated to these dark and unpopulated depths, his destiny is clinched. There will be no return (or regression) to ordinary life experience upon the surface except as a sobering emissary from below. But first, he must learn as much as he can about the danger-and-wonder-packed territory he has entered, so he tries to settle down and learn something. In order to avoid having his connection with the surface world completely severed, he keeps one foot in that realm and one below. This dual focus (or allegiance) stretches him almost to the snapping point at first, but by and by he acquires the requisite elasticity to maintain this dual citizenship. The genuine spiritual seeker willingly weans himself from all merely mundane pleasures, honors, and mental palliatives. Such ‘sacrifices’ are voluntarily enjoined because his primary allegiance has shifted to the mystery that has opened itself up to him. It presents him with novel opportunities for inner experience—opportunities for which he increasingly feels himself fatefully called.

In effect, he first breaks the spell of enchantment that the ordinary commonsense perspective has exercised over him, and then—as mentioned above—he gradually acclimates and establishes himself in the newly opened arena of experience. This realm is ‘transcendent’ from the comparatively cramped horizons of ordinary literalistic and ultimately reductive commonsense. Gradually, in measured steps, he returns to the surface world with its variously contented and discontented prisoners. He ‘conforms,’ but only ironically and apparently, to the terms and conditions of life on the oxygen-poor, spiritually anemic surface. He must make regular ‘return trips’ to the depths (through daily meditation) in order to restore the vitality and centeredness that are partially weakened in his surface dealings. His words and the example of his life are chiefly intended not for the many, but for the few, since the fitness and the willingness to let go of the common world for the sake of entrance into the mysterious inner world are not lavishly distributed.

To the happily befuddled or thoroughly resigned prisoners of the commonsense realm of experience, his words are, at best, clever and perplexing oddities—objects of their gentle or malicious mockery. Or, they are regarded as no more than plain old poppycock. The self-authorized teacher, returning from his initiatory experiences in the inner world, who fails to acknowledge this fundamental unsuitableness of his teachings for the many will come to a sad, but avoidable, end. He should never expect miracles to happen, no matter how powerful and compelling his own inner vision may be. He must adjust his expectations (about others) to the actual state of their spiritual maturity and not to his own quite natural longings for a morally and spiritually regenerated humanity. He rightly understands that by ‘humanity’ what is meant is a crisis zone of possible transformation. ‘Humanity,’ therefore, is not an end in itself, but a bridge or passageway from intelligent animality to an enlightened spiritual condition.

The transformation is brought about by fire—by gradually burning away all those gross and subtle attachments that bind consciousness to its vehicles—physical, emotional, and intellectual. The aim of his teachings is certainly not to encourage complacency or resignation to this imprisoned state (which is the direct and inevitable result of lingering attachments at all levels). Rather, it is to inspire a healthy mistrust of appearances, of received opinions, and of all mass values that one has not forged within the crucible of one’s own direct experience and prolonged reflection. Without the help of this salubriously corrosive doubt—and without the continual self-examination that it underpins—there is little chance of recovering from the blindness, the torpor, the gnawing anxiety, and the isolation that ultimately assail the powerful, self-interested ego. These are extremely difficult choices, to be sure, but they are choices all the same. The will is never completely determined by extrinsic factors and bad habits—although these do exert a formidable influence that can often seem invincible.

Success in turning things around (from literal-mundane to metaphorical-imaginal orientation) requires patient, disciplined defiance of all that is comfortingly familiar, sentimentally appealing, intoxicating, and taken for granted. Enduring transformation does not—and should not—occur hastily, but gradually, watchfully, and as sure-footedly as circumstances, inner resources, and education allow. The aim is a thorough overhauling and reorientation of the life—and it goes without saying that such transformation is by no means merely an intellectual revolution. Theoretical materials and intellectual development can certainly be of valuable assistance in guiding, inspiring, and even stabilizing the spiritual will, but ultimately these are no more than training wheels on a bicycle which must eventually be ridden without their help.

Seeing Beyond (8/25/17)

The ordinary human eye is capable of responding to visual stimuli or data within a certain range. We know, of course, that there is plenty of data beyond the visible light spectrum – beyond ultraviolet and infrared light—but such information transcends the bounds of ordinary human eyesight. Other instruments – electronic eyes – must be devised and utilized for such “transcendent” vision.

Likewise, each one of our psychological functions – thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation – is naturally associated with a corresponding arena or domain of distinctive experience (thoughts, feelings, intuitions, sensations), just as the eye is associated with objects within the visible light spectrum. This is not to say that the thinking function cannot perceive/apprehend a feeling-content. It can acknowledge that something is there, but that something gets automatically translated into a thought-concept – the sort of content it is equipped to deal with in its own terms. And, as we know, a feeling that is “translated” into a concept is no longer a feeling, but something quite different. In being carried across the wide border between the two functions, the feeling has been transformed into something quite alien to its original form – like a light wave being transformed into a particle, a caterpillar into a moth.

Naturally, the reverse is true, as well. When a concept or thought enters the airspace of the feeling function, a feeling value is either consciously or unconsciously assigned. This is what the feeling function does, for this is its role within the psychic economy. What it does not do is evaluate and analyze the concept as a “thinking type” would. This is not a choice or a decision made by the feeling function. It is simply beyond its power or ability to make such an analysis or logical assessment. This incapacity, however, seldom prevents the feeling function – or the decided “feeling type” – from foisting all manner of feeling judgments upon thoughts, ideas, and arguments that he/she is incapable of understanding or appreciating in their own terms, within their own proper sphere or domain.

This analogy holds true for the ordinary human ego, as well – or so it would seem. Just as the human eye is confined to visual information within a certain limited range – and just as thinking and feeling cannot help but falsify and distort phenomena that they are unfit to deal with and to properly assess – ego-consciousness, as soon as it begins to arrogate authority and to pronounce judgments upon phenomena that lie beyond its purview, proves to be reliably inept.

There are almost as many definitions of “ego” as there are egos, but for the sake of discussion we will focus on two features of ego-consciousness that are widely agreed upon: a natural tendency to literalize and a more or less “heroic” drive to bring things under control within one’s sphere of influence – either by hook or by crook. And, to prevent any misunderstanding, let me say at the outset that my aim here is not to denigrate or disparage the ego, as such, but simply to explore and assess its proper sphere of activity and its rightful jurisdiction within the larger totality of the psyche. To be sure, the ego is vulnerable to various maladies and potentially dangerous excesses, but – like the human heart, brain or liver – it serves a vital and necessary function in the “psychic economy.” When the body is afflicted with congestive heart failure or a brain tumor – the diseased organ can bring the whole organism down with it. Analogously, a perilously inflated or stunted ego will often lead to serious trouble for the individual and for those under his/her sway and influence.

With these ideas in mind, let us glance quickly at the functional role played by the ego’s tendencies to literalize and to “heroically” establish a more or less stable and secure place in the world. If we can imagine for a moment the helpless vulnerability of the human infant – or the susceptibility to suggestion, “possession,” and overpowering terrors in the primitive – we get a glimpse of the condition that exists before the ego has developed properly. The infant and the primitive are, as it were, submerged or immersed in the enveloping sea of psyche with no solid platform upon which to land. In the case of the infant, a sense of security must be provided, initially, by the mother, the father, and the external circumstances within which its fledgling identity develops. For the primitive, rituals and social roles/duties provide the exoskeletal structures that serve in lieu of a differentiated ego-complex.

Thus, without a minimally developed ego, we are at the mercy, so to speak, of the Gods – or of the elements, or Fortuna, the unconscious, etc. – while a functional ego equips us with a kind of breathing space between our “selves” and the mysterious, enfolding whole. As it happens, some human beings appear to be more favorably disposed towards this surrounding, ineffable mysterium than others, who do everything within their limited power to block it out of their awareness – usually by clinging like barnacles to everyone and everything that is soothingly familiar, predictable, diverting, and reliable.

So, if the ordinary, run-of-the-mill human ego’s essential function is to provide a more or less stable foothold within an otherwise mysterious and uncanny world and/or psyche for the “individual consciousness,” should we therefore jump to the conclusion that the establishment, cultivation, and extension of the ego’s power and sway is the proper aim of human life – and that some persons, like great athletes or musicians, are simply better at ego-ism than others? Nietzsche, as I read him, certainly comes close to such a position – if we bear in mind the fact that he shows a decided preference for what he calls “spiritualized expressions of the will to power.” He is referring here to artistic, political, and intellectual – i.e., cultural – forms of excellence. Philosophy – for Nietzsche (as well as for Nietzsche’s Plato) – is regarded as the most spiritualized expression of the will to power because it has the responsibility for humanity’s future on its conscience.

So, what about those other persons for whom the strange, the unfamiliar, and the unknown exert greater attractive power than the known, the familiar, and the securely nailed down features of life? These are persons who are more likely to find the whole arena of “normal” and “commonplace” experiences boring, cramping, and even suffocating. This impatience and dissatisfaction with the generally lawful and stable surface of everyday experience do not come from some shallow hankering after novelty and diverting variety. Instead, such dissatisfaction seems to arise from a deep skepticism about the adequacy of the ego, alone, to guide us – as humans – to a full and rounded existence. Such seekers after the mystery – beyond the deceptive veil of the familiar – have made the crucial discovery that it is the questionable or illegitimate authority of the ego that is behind this tyrannical, leveling normalcy that is revered and kept on the throne by the many – now as ever. In effect, it is collective fear and loathing for the abnormal, the pathological, the paradoxical, the anomalous, the bizarre, the uncanny – the ever-unsettling mystery of existence – that is responsible for the sovereignty or tyranny of ego over soul.

Here I have introduced a new term – soul – to denote the perspective that exists, imaginatively, in between the staleness of the habitual and the ineffability of the mystery. Jung, in attempting to give a name to this perspective that contrasts with the ego-perspective, spoke of the “transcendent function.” “Active imagination” was enjoined as a means of “dialoguing” with the “inner figures” or archetypal images that serve as the faces presented by the Mystery (of the unconscious). Of course such language and such activities – introduced at a time when positivism still had a strong purchase in most educated minds – sounded like a species of madness itself. Hence, quips like the famous maxim of Karl Kraus: “Psychoanalysis is a disease for which it purports to be the cure.”

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.