(Pre-) Modern Family (10/30/13)

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

An Apology for Mind (9/14/15)

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

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

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

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

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

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 generating all manner of feeling judgments upon thoughts, ideas, and arguments that it 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 degrade 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 pitifully 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 one’s 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,” overpowering drives and 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 an adequately 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 are naturally 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 chief 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 assume 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, ethical, 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 aversion and this sense of frustration with the generally lawful and stable surface of everyday experience do not come from some shallow hankering after novelty and diverting variety. Instead, it 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 obscuring veil of the familiar – have made the crucial discovery that it is the illegitimate sovereignty of the ego that is behind this appalling, flat, frothy normalcy that is both bowed down to 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 – in a word, the 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 banality of the familiar 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 Idea whose Time Has Come? (10/26/14)

We can look back and see that the successful establishment and dissemination of Christianity as a major world religion first required the establishment of the Roman Empire, with its extensive network of roads and its political-economic organization—as well as the use of the Greek koine and Latin language throughout the sprawling realm. Because these crucial mundane factors were in place, the radically un-worldly message of Christianity was able to spread like a redemptive epidemic and to dramatically reorient Western values for about a thousand years.

Have globalization, air travel, 24-hour world news, and the ‘worldwide web’—a culmination of the worldly-materialistic phase that got rolling just prior to the ‘Renaissance’—similarly prepared the ground for yet another spiritual movement that will meaningfully link all human cultures for the first time?

Possibly. One might even go so far as to say ‘probably.’ If the frenetic, ruthlessly competitive predation of the planet’s limited resources continues at its present rate, it won’t be long before a bad situation worsens and exhausting wars and disasters devour humanity. The present course of events and policies must collide with the solid wall that is waiting ahead before a new course can be charted and then followed by the ‘remnants.’ A non-catastrophic scenario, whereby humanity sensibly ‘wakes up’ to its imperiled situation before it’s too late, and voluntarily submits to austerities and relatively draconian measures in order to circumvent that wall, is almost guaranteed not to arise, given the blind determination of the cunning ‘engineers’ who have commandeered the train we’re all on.

Genuine quality (of philosophical thought, of artistic excellence, of moral reasoning and action, of spiritual attainment) is almost invariably produced by human beings that are not boorish, loutish, or representative of ‘mass-mindedness.’ In other words, the coarse ‘mass mind’ (and the collective, quantitative terms and values the masses live by and through) seldom creates or authentically responds to true quality—whether it is understood spiritually, ethically, artistically, or politically.[1] By and large, the architects and exploiters of the present scheme of things know little or nothing of such quality—or, if they do, that mere knowledge is wholly insufficient, on its own, to transform them into courageous, self-sacrificing critics and opponents of the current lowbrow culture. All too often, these delinquent trustees of humanity’s future simply ‘milk’ the system for all it’s worth in order to enhance their own personal wealth, power, pleasure, comfort, etc.

Thus it will, of necessity, typically be a spiritual-philosophical-poetical-political-scientific elite that is responsible for whatever there is of the highest quality and the most enduring cultural value to humanity. It never springs up, as if by magic, out of the mass or from mass-mindedness—any more than sonnets and haiku issue from the mouths of kine and swine. What does all this mean to the ordinary, ‘well-educated’ American or European reader? Alas, it means nothing—or next to nothing.

And yet I will no doubt be denounced as an ‘elitist snob’ for holding such a position—for having bucked my egalitarian indoctrination and finally unearthed the sobering truth about the necessary combination of (fateful) genius and exceptional conditions that is required to produce cultural ideas and works of the highest and noblest rank. Interestingly, those who would dismiss my claim have no difficulty acknowledging the fact that the most precious diamonds are only produced under conditions of excruciating heat and pressure. This is just another instance of how anti-meritocratic, leveling ideals have possessed and deformed the minds of the many—and ‘many of the few,’ at that. But then, materialism (our prevailing metaphysical standpoint) has a natural propensity for leveling, and thereby discrediting, all such qualitative hierarchies—by reducing everything to mere stuff.

I bring up these uncomfortable points not in order to settle a score with naïve idealists (i.e., persons who still entertain untenable notions about the ultimate power of natural human goodness, rational self-restraint, and wisdom), but only to call into question the idea that a spiritual renewal (as it is presently conceived) aims to make life on earth more materially pleasurable and desirable. I ask you, the reader, simply to step back a bit from your busy personal affairs and absorbing commitments for an hour or two—and to look deep within the murky well of your heart and ask yourself: If there is any inherent purpose or higher meaning to human existence, is it likely that it consists in the single-minded pursuit of material goods and pleasures? Can that be all that we are here for?

And if ‘yes’ turns out to be the best or the only answer you can come up with—and you believe that armed competition for these limited goods and pleasures is indeed what our brief and fitful lives are all about—then how are we, as a species, any different from mere beasts, aside from the fact that our greater cleverness has permitted us to carry predation to inconceivable, ultimately self-annihilating lengths? The sky is the limit and enough is never enough. And if this is indeed the way of things—then it follows that life on earth have never been anything but a chamber of horrors for the great majority of human animals who have to struggle incessantly in order merely to survive. And, naturally, if this is indeed the stark and implacable ‘way of things,’ you would be an idiot to slacken off and risk losing your hard-won place or rank in the predatory pack, right? Apparently, a lot hinges on how we answer this question for ourselves—the question of what human life is really all about. Somewhere, deep inside each one of us, the answer we have settled upon is lurking—like a wolf or an angel (or a mixture of both)—behind every one of our thoughts, actions, and decisions. To hear people talk, one would think that philosophy is nothing but an esoteric and feckless pursuit engaged in by eggheads and impractical dreamers. But what could be clearer than the fact that there is nothing so intimately urgent or so far-reaching in its impact upon our lives as the answers we have consciously or unconsciously settled upon—answers, that is, to a handful of basic ethical questions, only one of which I have raised here.

The general indifference and aversion to philosophy seems merely to be an indication that most of us are dimly aware of just how disturbing and disruptive its probing questions are. We are frightened by these questions because we half-consciously recognize their power—once they’ve gotten under our skin and infected our minds—to dissolve all the treasured poppycock, sentimentality, and cant upon which our actual lives are solidly erected. And how many of us are ever prepared to be plunged into the sea of uncertainty and insecurity that a few well-aimed questions will unleash within us?

 

[1] My claim has nothing to do with one’s socio-economic status, origins, or formal education. Individuals who are both responsive to quality and capable of producing works, deeds, and thoughts of superior quality are inwardly compelled to find what they require from their environment—‘by hook or by crook’—in order to realize their ‘qualitative’ potentials. Perhaps in the majority of cases, it is the privations—the lack of educational, monetary, social, and other forms of SUPPORT—that call forth and bring fully to life the potentials for excellence that have been innate in these exceptional souls—from the start.

Wholeness and Time (8/15/17)

If I’m on the right track and supposing that “called or not, the Gods are present,” then the quest for wholeness – or the full unfoldment of the personality – may be somewhat less dependent upon actual or manifest cultural-historical conditions than is commonly assumed. How do I arrive at this view?

In the field of time, or history, the eternal archetypal drama must perforce be enacted in narrative form, as a kind of complex story-line. As a sequence of events, one episode, mood, or character conflict/resolution comes into prominence after another as the archetypes – like the colored bits of glass in the kaleidoscope – continually move into and out of new configurations. The primordial archetypal factors – like the colored chips in the kaleidoscope or the Greek Gods and Goddesses of Olympus – retain their distinctive characters, but the enacted dramas and kaleidoscopic permutations emphasize this and now that mythic situation, color scheme, mood, and set of opportunities/obstacles.

With these helpful analogies in mind, let us return to our original question about the quest for psychological wholeness within the field of space-time – or the present cultural-historical context. Out here on the surface of mundane experience – the flat screen, as it were, upon which the eternal (timeless) archetypal drama is continually being projected – we are granted only a partial, slit-like vision of the whole, since certain aspects are always being emphasized at the expense of others. Thus, our actual birth in space-time – say in prerevolutionary France or postwar America – inserts or embeds us in a particular scene or worldview within a very long play or, if we get stuck, into one frame of a motion picture. If perchance we allow ourselves to become too comfortably adapted or attached to that particular scene or frozen movie frame, all our little psychic tendrils groping for wholeness will gradually wither and die. To become fully invested in and stubbornly attached to one’s “day and age” – one’s particular cultural-historical setting – is to become a conscripted servant or slave to those particular limited terms, conditions, and role requirements. This would seem to be a rough description, now as ever, of upwards of 95% of humanity.

If we are denied the freedom to literally teleport or catapult ourselves into earlier or future eras and cultures – in our quest for an experience of the full drama underway in space-time via archetypal projection through humanity – we are not forcibly prevented from vicariously experiencing other “scenes,” stages, worldviews, aeons, etc., imaginally.

It will be apparent, then, to some readers that our incremental advances towards psychological wholeness will be dependent in large part upon our ability to loosen up the mental straitjackets and manacles that confine us to our limited/limiting scene – our day and age, our inherited worldview – so that we may regard our situation from fresh and different perspectives. Thus we are continually extricating ourselves from Plato’s cave, striving to get a glimpse or two of the drama as a whole – from start to restart, from soup to nuts! There can be no vision quest that is more comprehensive or demanding.

In my kaleidoscope analogy, a reversion or archetypal reduction process corresponds with attending primarily to the turning, reconfiguring colored ships that are the source of all the particular images appearing at the far end of the kaleidoscope through the peephole. Practically speaking, this is achieved by immersing ourselves in ongoing researches into mythology, history, comparative religion, philosophy, the visual arts, world literature, depth psychology, and other disciplines in and by means of which we are granted glimpses of these archetypal figures and motifs.

There are two points I want to get across here: 1.) The development of the individual towards wholeness is significantly but by no means exclusively dependent upon the prevailing cultural opportunities, collective preoccupations, and other outer factors – but has as much or more to do with the inner work involved in germinating those seed-potentials (for wholeness) within the psyche and tending to their growth. 2.) The distinctive seed-potentials, along with the peculiar cultural-political soil into which we are born, do not – by themselves – make us into conscious, whole personalities. Together they comprise the “original state” or “prima materia” with which we began our artful work.

If we look, say, at a hundred persons who receive the same splendid formal education and upbringing or thousand persons born with the same balanced, auspicious horoscope, we will find that perhaps one or two from both groups will make extraordinary use of these exceptional, given conditions, while the majority will have un-exceptional success. And conversely, a minority among those born into palpably adverse conditions will – precisely in their creative/heroic response to these hurdles and adversities – be spurred on to achievements that would otherwise lie beyond their grasp. What is being singled out for emphasis, of course, is the role played by our individual effort, imagination, and ingenuity in the alchemical-transformative process we are engaged in here.

Mere mimesis – or adaptive inculcation and imitation of given, prevalent cultural forms, values, and directives –serves only as a point of departure for the individuation process. If we get stuck there, the process of inner growth and differentiation comes to a halt. Naturally, such compliant and obedient adaptation and conscription into the prevalent system is always being encouraged by those who profit (materially, politically, socially, etc.) from such systems and schemes. As compliant servants – say, to an unscrupulous, profit-driven corporation or a reactionary political party – we may “gain the world and lose our souls.”

That being said, unless we initially adapt to and gain an “insider” understanding, as it were, of the scheme, system, or “day and age” into which fate has dropped us, we will thereafter be hampered in our most strenuous efforts to move beyond this preliminary level of acculturation. The more clearly and thoroughly we see and understand our limited and limiting beginnings – i.e., our peculiar insertion point into time-space – the greater will be our success, later, when it becomes necessary to push off from that first platform into terra incognita. If our understanding of our early formation and stamping is dim and sketchy, our attempts, later, to differentiate our consciousness from these horizons will be correspondingly sketchy and ineffectual. The platform against which we push will feel mushy and flimsy, giving way under our feet.

Contemporary Culture Makers (5/23/11)

Making culture is not as easy as making pasta or making whoopee. It is an enterprise fraught with difficult choices and competing ‘pulls’ that continually threaten to ruin or mar our work. Making culture is not simply rehashing time-tested formulas with a fresh, new makeover. The genuinely developed (and therefore, more fully conscious) human being will be obliged to take an adversarial stance towards the present mass culture—pointing out its weaknesses; its shallowness; its enormous blind spots and its deforming imbalances. When the line between culture and mass entertainment becomes blurry—as it has here and now—our work becomes more difficult. Until not so long ago (before widespread democratization and the corresponding degradation and dilution of cultural education), the line between culture and cheap entertainment was clear and thick. One needed leisure and at least a general acquaintance with the natural sciences and mathematics, some philosophy—ancient and modern, canonical works of literature, religious doctrines, modern languages, and practical skills in order to be able to wrestle capably with salient cultural questions.

When the dominant cultural norms and values are thus utterly failing to produce balanced and healthy individuals who then serve as revered exemplars of salutary morals and spiritual values—and I challenge anyone to prove that such a healthy situation is in place today!—then something happens which should come as no surprise: the makers (or re-makers) of genuine, life-affirming and sanity-promoting culture become conspicuous ‘counter-culture’ figures—men and women who seem ‘untimely’ or ‘out of season’ from the standpoint of the prevalent value scheme.

But before we start picturing Jesus writhing on the cross, Socrates resignedly downing his cup of hemlock, and barbecued Bruno, let us consider the idea that, while it can certainly be beneficial to stir up public controversy and fierce, ongoing debates about values and ideals, it is always possible to keep this tumultuous and profoundly upsetting contest between enlightenment and ignorance, energy and inertia, courage and fearfulness within the private, microcosmic compass of the individual’s own exquisitely tormented soul (á la Emily Dickinson). So, instead of mocking and scorning ‘Sadducees’ or ‘Sophists’ out there in the agora, I might concentrate upon my own interior struggle to maintain moral probity, a philosophically enlightened and psychologically balanced attitude, despite the inner resistances I reliably come up against—resistances, of course, that bear an uncanny resemblance to those qualities I find it all too easy to attack and make a fuss over in the philistine, the Sophist, the infidel, or any other scapegoat who serves as a convenient ‘hook’ for the projection of my own shadow.

The essential idea we are considering here is not the self-appointed task of criticizing and haranguing against the general culture—even when it appears to be suffering from the most egregious displays of high-level corruption, general wrongheadedness and imbalance—but that of overcoming and liberating oneself from these inherited, ubiquitous mental pathogens and blinders in order to see, to speak, and to act in far more balanced and just manner. Only then have we earned the right or the inner poise to be able to speak ‘healingly’ instead of merely ‘feelingly,’ as those great destroyers, Nietzsche and Freud, did—to mention only two well-known examples. When great minds make wrong turns many lesser minds follow them down a slope to one side or the other, into blindness and error, but usually without the strength to make their way back up to the middle way from which they have fallen. The middle way is like a narrow ridge at the top of a mountain range—a ridge that drops off dramatically to either side, so that when we fall to one side or the other, the further we fall, the further away we get from those who have fallen down the other side, making it harder for us to hear them, see them, love them, and eventually—even to remember them. They—and all they stand for—comprise the projection of our unconscious.

The greatest minds, on the other hand, enjoy—or suffer—a somewhat ambiguous position vis-à-vis our ‘grasp’ and our easy understanding. The words and teachings of the greatest thinkers and sages seem deceptively easy for us to imbibe, but what we take from them, more often than not, is as different from what they are actually saying as a genuine VIEW from the top of the Empire State building is from the mere possession of the little metal effigy of the same famous skyscraper that is attached to our key chain. The living wisdom from the middle way—directly experienced only when we are perched upon that high, narrow and perilous ridge where mighty winds blow in from every direction—resonates with us wherever we are, but it originates only on that ridge, to continue with my metaphor. This is something of a paradox, of course, because if we have managed to position ourselves on that narrow, middle path, we have no need for such teachings—for we see and feel and know in our very bones all that such teachings can convey only indirectly, for they are diluted by being verbalized and conceptualized. With the greatest minds, direct experience is always primary; words are always secondary and peripheral.

So, returning to the difficulties involved in making culture: if spiritual culture in its most salutary forms consists in utterances made from this precarious place of balance between descending valleys of error, excess, and psychological one-sidedness, the we might reasonably ask—‘When, if ever, has there been a broadly distributed or widely shared spiritual-ethical culture on this planet?’ But then, surely the relatively small number of men and women who have managed to climb up to that high ridge from either slope (where all of us seem to begin our journey) have recognized this fact and pondered its meaning. Because they have (repeatedly) had to overcome the resistances, the attachments, the cherished hatreds and personal battles, etc., that keep most of us glued to our SLOPE, they are all-too-aware of how useless mere words and teaching are except as pointers of the way. They know firsthand of the sacrifices—of comfort, of companionship, of the sense of security, and the diversion afforded by our affiliation with the ‘people of the slope’—that are demanded of anyone who would stand steadfastly in the center.

The utterances of the great spirits poised in the center of this tension of the various pairs of opposites are metaphoric shells still faintly trembling with the paradoxical energy that spontaneously gave them shape and animation—only to abandon them shortly after these shells were formed. The poised, tension-bearing, great spirits are psychic cartographers of the first order. Their ‘exhaust’—their sweat—their flayed skins—are bits of the map, the full extent of which is never known because it can never be finished. Or, so I have heard.

Cloaks and Daggers (7/1/11)

I am put off a bit—as well, perhaps, I should be—by the gaminess of a great philosopher like Plato, even if I confess to finding much pleasure in unlocking the secrets and hidden insights buried in—or inferable from—the dialogues. I mention Plato, but I might just as well have mentioned Heraclitus or Lao-tzu, Shakespeare or Bacon, Spinoza or Nietzsche, Montaigne or Joyce. All of them were expert gamesmen in their writing. Should Jung—and perhaps even Hillman—be included in this elite class of artful purveyors of recondite truths and unpopular insights?

Some voice inside me cries out ‘Why not simply say what you mean to say as clearly and plainly as you can?’ All gaminess would come to a screeching halt if such plain-speaking had been adopted from the start. There would be far fewer places to hide today if the greatest truth-finders had also been the plainest of truth-sayers. But of course if Nietzsche (and others who have voiced much the same idea) was onto something when he spoke of the ‘true but deadly’ ideas of the genuine philosophers, we can begin to understand why Plato (and according to Seth Benardete, the great epic poets and tragedians before him) wrote in a less than completely candid manner—and why his principal alter ego, Socrates, is ‘ironic’ much of the time. Philosophy can die out, perhaps, as some have claimed, if it is not properly sheltered from those—always in the majority—who prefer soothing fictions to ‘deadly truths’ and disturbing insights. But we truth-seekers have a moral obligation—imposed by our intellectual consciences and our psychological courage—not to stop at the gamy surface, but to allow the barbs and daggers hidden within these outwardly delightful and playful works to sting and to pierce our sensitized innards. Only thus will we earn the right to meet our spiritual kin—our (usually) long-dead ancestors who are writing specifically to us—their scattered, scant progeny—across the centuries.