Training and Deviants (9/3/13)

A rather fetching—and tipsy—young married woman offered to buy me a drink at Hearsay last night where I was performing, after telling me that my voice was ‘amazing.’ I expressed my sincere thanks and ordered a second IPA. Her young husband was thoroughly engrossed in conversation with the fellow sitting to his right, at the bar, so I sat down beside ‘Darcie’ and commenced to chat. She designs ‘out of the way’ aircraft routes for well-to-do private pilots (like ‘John Travolta’) but she finds the work utterly boring because of the narrowly defined and unimaginative nature of the job. When I told her that my first passion is for philosophy she lit up—as if to tell me that this was a love we shared. After a moment she asked me: What is your philosophy? In thirty words or less—what is it? I was taken aback. In all these years, so far as I can recall, no one has ever asked me precisely this question. It made me think of two things that are worth taking a closer look at: (1) I am not in possession of a thoroughly articulated, positive philosophical program, and (2) there is a danger of distortion (of perceptions and ideas) bound up with abbreviation and abstraction.

Abbreviating and compressing our responses to the persons, events, ideas, and so forth that we encounter in daily life appears to be a trend that is on the rise. The tempo of urban life is speeding up and we communicate more and more exclusively by means of email, iPhones, and other electronic media. Does this accelerated tempo of our routine, daily activities at school, office, gym, shopping center, and so forth, produce side effects that are deserving of our serious concern? Does this electronically based, accelerated lifestyle typically result in the trimming away of everything but the ‘headline news’ from our awareness of ourselves? From our relationships with others and with our environment?   Our consciousness of our place in history and of our relationship with the ‘sacred’ (if such a ‘relationship’ exists in the first place), to name but the most important arenas?

As the actual number of such wafer-thin, piss poor communications and cognitive experiences proliferates, our chances of encountering and bonding with persons who have managed somehow to avoid being carried away by this trend—persons who are still able to ‘take their time’ with ideas, feelings, friends, family, themselves—become slimmer and slimmer. Because the engrossing, unleisurely contemporary American life has become the ‘new normal’ for a majority of educated persons, a markedly rushed, superficial form of interior and interpersonal ‘discourse’ has emerged as perhaps the unavoidable by-product of our new busy-ness and our absorbing mundane priorities. Having unofficially become the new standard of consciousness and everyday communication, this new, degraded mode of discourse both mirrors and serves to prop up the hurried, undeviating pattern of daily behavior that many of us are enmeshed in today. Other, more deeply-delving and leisurely modes of thinking, evaluating, imagining, talking, loving, playing, etc., simply entail too much effort and inconvenience, once we’ve become accustomed to the brisk (and often unintentionally brusque) mode of thinking and speaking that has emerged as the new norm.

Make no mistake: this new mode of consciousness is nothing if it is not pragmatic. It is all about getting things done—and done with—for the moment, for the day, for the quarter, forever. It doesn’t really have a talent for ruminating or for allowing the creative imagination to wander ‘off track’ into terra incognita. That sort of thing feels like an expensive luxury or an unforgivable indulgence—or worse, a flirtation with danger: the very real threat of derailment. Derailment, that is, of the forward-racing, destination-seeking train from the narrow tracks that must be followed to the end of the line. When our lives are on track, wandering is anathema. It simply means error, deviation, and a sudden collapse of momentum. Breakdown. Better to keep steaming along once you get your speed up—otherwise, you will never be able to make it up the steep inclines that one encounters, now and then, along the way. And when we slow down—when we stall—say, because of some little damsel tied to the tracks up ahead—we use up so much fuel just to get up and running again! Better to maintain a brisk pace and worry about all that we’ve run over and flown by later on, after we’ve reached our goal.

But at some point, many of us experience one of two things: either the destination keeps receding, so there’s no end in sight, or we reach our long-desired goal and, after a day or two of festivities and tooting our own horn, we are hammered by the crushing question: Was this worth all that effort?

I am tempted to suggest that the surest path towards a wasted or missed life is this straight line—this plotted course—that I have been sketching. At some point, doesn’t it become painfully clear for some of us that everything linear, everything ‘plotted,’ everything ‘mapped out,’ either has to be thoroughly anatomized or ‘put on ice’ before a more spiral-like way of moving into and through life can be explored? The straight line—of the directed course, say, of a compulsive habit or a rational system of some sort—is recognized as the great impediment to our rounded development. We see—in a flash, as of lightning—that following a straight path leads to a kind of sterility, a gradual loss of color-vision, imaginative degradation unto death. The longer we follow such undeviating lines, the more helplessly addicted we become to the meager, narrowly-restricted rewards won from our long years of fretful, dogged servitude. And, of course, as we become increasingly dependent upon the meager sustenance and the dubious sense of security provided by our straight path, we simultaneously become more and more unfit for living the larger, messier, richer, and more adventurous life that has secretly been beckoning us—from both sides of our straight highway.

At some point, it seems, the straight road actually turns into a kind of conveyor belt carrying us towards a giant warehouse full of others who have lost their ability to walk (let alone, run) and who are left to shrivel up and expire. But we do not die peacefully in that malodorous warehouse. In that ‘Hotel Terminus’ into which the conveyor belt delivers our crippled, worn out bodies and our much-abbreviated souls, we are compelled to wonder, with irrepressible regret: Why didn’t I exit from that crowded ‘freeway’ while I still had good strong legs? Why didn’t I deviate? Was it because I had the wife and kids in the car—and I was worried that they might not be able to hack it in that mysterious, off-road territory? Or was I too wrapped up in a competitive race for the ‘finish line’—where even if you win, you lose, since victory is obtained at the cost of an unlived life (as a fully-fledged deviant)? Or was I simply too timid to stray from the familiar?

It seems to me that the best remedy against such a dismal denouement is to start questioning and energetically challenging all straight lines, all plotted courses, all conveyor belts, and all rational systems as soon as we start to feel the redemptive-subversive impulse to deviate, to wander, to err, to slow down, and to defy. Alas, many will never feel this impulse—or at least not with sufficient strength to come with us or even to understand why we must stray ‘off course’ in order to locate the spiral path that meaningfully combines circularity and depth, extensiveness and intensiveness. We cannot persuade or convert such persons and it is best to waste as little time as possible attempting lure them from their treadmills and their cubicles. We may be lucky and find a few persons, here and there, who can travel part of the way with us, but much of the journey will necessarily consist in solitary travel at night, since daylight hours in the desert-waste are brutal and can overpower even the strongest and most resourceful deviants. I am told, however, that after putting this desert behind us, we eventually arrive at the edge of a luxuriant forest—filled with creatures the likes of which we have never beheld.

 

A Modest Proposal (9/7/16)

What benefit, if any, comes from viewing our relations with others in terms of energy transactions? How much vital, mental, and emotional energy is being expended in our various relationships? How much of that expended energy is being put to fruitful use? How much is being wasted? Are there some relationships that are quite simply bottomless pits – so that no matter how much we pour into them, it is never enough – leaving us exhausted in the long run?

Now let’s look at the energy itself. As we expend – or burn – our energy in (or upon) those relationships in our life, does that energy burn cleanly – or poorly, so that there is a lot of sputtering and smoke? When the energy that we expend burns poorly or inefficiently, who is chiefly responsible for this? Does our engine need to be tuned, cleaned, or overhauled? Are we in the habit of using low-octane fuel? When we are talking about energy transactions, the other person’s engine conditions and fuel choices must be factored in, as well, right? Are these relationships which rob us of our energy – which repay us poorly, or not at all, for our investment – always deserving of the axe, or are some of these “non-profit” enterprises necessary or unavoidable, even in the best human life? Should moral, intellectual, psychological, and spiritual maturation be understood in terms of ever-improving energy utilization – all the way from the selection of fuel and the partners for transactions (where possible), to engine maintenance?

What I’m describing in the abstract here – human interactions strictly in terms of energy use and transactions – will no doubt strike some readers as inhuman, heartless, and cold-blooded. In removing all those endearing additives like sentimental attachment, personal loyalty, moral duty, and so forth, it would appear that I have reduced something that is arguably the most “human” activity of all – our defining relationships with others – to terms that are as devoid of charm as food digestion or photosynthesis. So, I pose the question: where is the value, if any, in viewing this “quintessentially human activity” strictly in terms of energy exchanges that have been carefully and thoroughly purged of all familiarly recognizable “human” features?

I will confess to a fascination with this strange and peculiarly disturbing approach to human relations. It may readily be likened to the “creepy” fascination certain young medical students have for the human cadavers they are dissecting and getting to know, intimately, in anatomy class. They are gazing into – nay, getting their knives and fingers into – the “nuts and bolts” within a once-living man or woman. And it is precisely this delightfully gruesome initiation that clears a path that can lead to open-heart surgery – where a living heart’s valves and aorta might be purged of nasty encrustations or plaque build-up that reduce the efficiency of the patient’s circulatory system.

I will confess that I have a penchant for the sort of psychological vivisection that depersonalizes my own ego – allowing me glimpses of the governing powers and structures therein as utterly impersonal mechanisms. I admit that this sort of flaying away of layer after layer of familiar and grounding anthropomorphic masks and fictions can be about as harrowing an experience as Neo’s rude awakening and release from his pod in The Matrix for anyone coming at this stuff innocently unprepared. But once the transpersonal or non-human psychic building blocks and architectonic schemes (that provide a platform and a variety of perfectly adequate scripts to get the human spectacle up and running) have been peeked into, the jig is up. For good or ill, the initiated one can never return to la comedie humaine (or is it the “divine comedy” with the humans as unwitting actors for hire?) without remembering, always in the back of his mind, what he saw when the curtains were pulled away! How can he not see mouthing personae where he once imagined there to be solid persons – scripted performances by hypnotized thespians who have become lost in their labyrinthine roles? And all this unmasking began, of course, with his own ego-personality. He may yearn to say to another, “Yes, yes – but it is simply a grand illusion – live theater – a vast, complicated plot into which we’ve all been woven! But it’s no more substantial than Bottom’s Dream, from which it is possible, at least for a few, to awaken.”

But no one who hasn’t himself pulled aside the curtain and seen through all the props and costumes and magical artifice has earned the right to say such things.

On the Difficulties Involved in Attempting to Move Beyond Politics and the Personal (10/14)

I recognize that what chiefly attracts me to various religious doctrines is not so much their function as guides within the realm of moral experience, but the light they shed upon transcendent, suprahuman truths. I am therefore more concerned with liberation from the arena of moral-political action and conflict than I am with learning how to thrive more optimally within that large arena. The truth is that I want to have as little to do with the moral-political and personal realms of experience as is minimally required to get through my life with as little worldly encumbrance as possible. By temperament and breeding, I am a contemplative—and a quietist. Over time I have weaned myself from much of my former worldliness and tempered my cupidity—divesting from the sorts of involvements, responsibilities, commitments, and pursuits that most active persons live for and by.

Because of this crucial difference between my contemplative, di-vested life and the more active, in-vested lives of others, I often find that I have little of substance to contribute to the ever-simmering cauldron of debate and (frequently confused) discussion of mundane affairs. In a real sense, I don’t have a dog in that fight. Such rights and privileges should rightfully be reserved for those persons of superior talent and experience who are deeply invested in, and committed to, worldly and ethical struggles.

And yet, in protesting my unfitness for meddling in cultural-political conundrums from which I have extricated myself to the extent that I can, I seem to be challenged by Plato and the old Hindus. At the summit of the social-political hierarchy of Plato’s Republic—and as the ruling caste in Indian cultural-political life—we find world-renouncing, contemplative philosopher-priests. Presumably, in the case of the Indians—and explicitly in the Socratic-Platonic arguments of the Republic—it is precisely because the philosopher and the Brahmin have ascetically renounced a personal stake in political affairs, having devoted themselves to spiritual-philosophical understanding, they can be trusted to rule wisely and justly.

And while I can surely appreciate the insightfulness of such arguments, history has shown us that their implementation—even to a limited or provisional extent—ultimately depends on the compliance and assent of the ‘invested,’ worldly majority. And how is such compliance and assent to be obtained? How are ordinary, worldly, desire-driven majorities persuaded to go against their perceived self-interest by an elite minority of unworldly Brahmins, priests, philosophers, and ascetics? Is there a snowball’s chance in hell of such a ‘coup’ being pulled off—and sustained? If there is one thing we’ve learned from history, it is this: blatant hypocrisy will not be tolerated for long in self-professed ‘world-renouncers.’ When the Vatican cardinals and many Catholic bishops became conspicuously worldly and ‘profane’ in their values and in their extravagant lifestyles, it was only natural that even uneducated peasants would be outraged by the flagrant hypocrisy and the abuse of church wealth and power for personal ends. But when candidates for leadership are, themselves, epitomes of acquisitiveness and the pursuit of sensual/worldly power in a sybaritic, consumerist culture that almost unanimously pursues the same aims, there is no foil or touchstone against which such ‘hypocrisy’ can be measured.

Thus, the ‘hierarchy’ (there’s always a hierarchy, except during those extremely rare episodes of complete social-political meltdown) that is in place today in the U.S. (and in most of the capitalist West) is one based almost entirely on economic-hedonistic aims and priorities. Hierarchies are pretty much defined by, and organized around, some arch-value or primary objective. In an unbridled globalized, neo-capitalist system—one that is only nominally regulated and restrained, such as we see today under corporate-domination of the planet, with its captive labor force and resources—the primary objective is the maximum accumulation of wealth in the pockets of the most successful players and functionaries in this game. This is certainly not the first time in human history that the accumulation of wealth was the principal aim of a people or nation, but because of the power unleashed by modern technology and mind control (through ultra-sophisticated media), the impact upon human life and welfare is exponentially greater than ever before. A simple comparison between 14th-15th century Florence and contemporary America will suffice: both are ostensibly motivated by capitalistic acquisitiveness, and while Dante describes well the moral degeneration of old Florence, we have that plus environmental and human degradation on a vastly larger scale.

Contra Rousseau (2/14)

The ‘general will’ is never the enlightened will. Therefore, any state founded upon the general will is ultimately bound to founder. Fortunately, no such states have ever actually existed—and if one ever did arise it would last no longer than a frat party crashed by uninvited, mischief-making ‘outsiders.’ In fact, the ‘general will’ is a phrase without meaning—like a signifier that points fecklessly to no actual, existing thing. We can indulge in a science fiction fantasy and say that immediately following an attack upon the earth by alien invaders, there may very well be a kind of forced or makeshift uniformity of the will of mankind—but within a few days, or even hours, people all over the place would be taking sides with the enemy against—in more than a few cases—even their own family members.

It is one thing to say that a state exists because of general forbearance and another thing altogether to say that it exists because of the general will. The former tends towards passivity and inertia—and therefore constitutes no more than an appearance of stability. The latter, however, tends towards volatility and seething activity and is therefore typically quite unstable and immoderate. Humans have always generally preferred merely apparent and torpid stability (and the false sense of security that it breeds) to actual, will-infused instability (and the chaotic disorientation that it spawns).

There is a third course—just as there is a third guna[1] (namely, sattva—or serene, detached harmony) distinct from rajas (restless, impulsive activity) and tamas (dense, weighty inertia)—but it has absolutely nothing to do with politics and mass behavior.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gu%E1%B9%87a

Scientism and other ‘-isms’ (1/12)

The enormous amount of time, effort, and imagination that was channeled into deciphering the Minoan Linear B script eventually paid off when the enigmatic ancient language was finally cracked. But this great triumph was accompanied by disappointment that was no less momentous, for the Linear B records turned out to be mere inventory lists (16 jars of olive oil, 9 of wine, 21 goats, etc.) kept by the stewards of a royal household. Of that which scholars had hoped to find in these writings—earlier versions of Greek myths and matters of rich cultural significance—there wasn’t the faintest trace.

Aren’t the present-day attempts in genetic and neurological research to isolate the specific genes and neurological processes (which are believed to be responsible for poetic imagination, musical ability, speculative thinking, and compassion) likely to spawn similar disappointments?   Don’t such paths of inquiry lead only to a vision or perspective that defrocks humanity of the very last vestiges of freedom, dignity, and ‘meaningfulness’ that still precariously cling to us? When both the best and the worst, the noblest and the most deplorable—all of it!—is reduced to chemical and biological factors which are simply given, then the very contents of our thoughts and imaginings, our profoundest religious and moral sentiments, our loftiest flights of spiritual inspiration and musical rapture, are systematically and dutifully downgraded to the humble status of intricate chemical processes such as photosynthesis and digestive activity. Is this an abominable desecration performed every day by honest men and women, boys and girls, who ‘know not what they do’—at least insofar as they are obediently subscribing to the dominant, authoritative norms and directives of the modern worldview—the scientific-materialistic, anti-traditional worldview that was already well established long before anyone reading this was born? Are we blinded by science—or by the unconscious (i.e., unacknowledged) ‘metaphysical’ assumptions upon which it is founded? Is it perhaps necessary to study a bit of philosophy and/or depth psychology—and then do some hard-core reflection—before we can acquire the intellectual tools required to objectify, see through, and improve upon these implicit assumptions? Perhaps it is not sufficient to simply see these things by means of occasional intuitions that, like lightning flashes, briefly but vividly illuminate the darkness in which we are collectively enveloped. These intuitions—experienced by many—must be thoroughly formulated in substantial concepts and rigorously critiqued if they are to protect us from these highly contagious (and philosophically retrograde) assumptions. If we can learn to see through them, then perhaps we can see for ourselves that they are hypostatized assumptions, which is to say unprovable assumptions that have been illegitimately exalted to the status of metaphysical principles.

It is not difficult to see why these popular, materialistic assumptions have been imbibed and embraced by millions of persons. Metaphysical principles or premises of any sort have always provided human beings with a consoling sense of being rooted upon a more or less solid foundation, even if that foundation, in this case, happens to be merely biochemical at its core. This sense of trustworthiness and indisputable authority is incalculably more appealing, persuasive, and comforting for most human beings than the alternative—a critical suspension of all such certainties, the relinquishment of all such implicitly trusted foundations, is it not? Unfortunately, very few persons today genuinely recognize and intellectually grasp the fact that the materialistic metaphysical foundations of the modern scientific worldview are no more demonstrably inviolable than those of ancient Babylonian cosmology or present-day Hindu theology. Sense data, mathematical rigor, repeatability of experimental results: these, alone, do not constitute absolute or invincible proofs of the validity of the scientific standpoint itself. They are its constituent ingredients, its terms and conditions, its game rules and criteria. One either accepts them or one does not. The evidence of the senses is only final and decisive for someone who recognizes no other criteria as superior, more authoritative, more real—and there are plenty of persons, now as ever, who sincerely and, as it were, ‘religiously’ believe non-material, non-sensory, intangible factors and forces to be far more decisive—both in their own experience and in the governance of the world—than mechanical, biological, and quantitatively measurable factors. For these persons—who are not strictly ‘scientific’ in their theorizing—the criteria of the scientist are not altogether irrelevant or negligible. They are just secondary, subordinate to the invisible factors that mysteriously operate behind and within the material world that is apprehended by the senses.

From the biased standpoint of dogmatic ‘scientism’ (a standpoint assumed by many shallow-minded secular humanists and hardnosed atheists), all competing metaphysical or explanatory schemes ultimately amount, in the end, to little more than groundless superstitions—but the dogmatic believer in science (as the only legitimate or adequate system of making sense of our experience) has just as superstitiously invested science with the same magical power and majesty that he denies to all other systems or worldviews. Unwittingly, he has sunk to the level of an idolater. It should hardly come as a surprise that our recent forebears—after being dazzled by the marvels of scientific invention and explanation—would have their worldviews dramatically reformed by what they beheld. So profound and sweeping were the changes to everyday human life that were introduced by science and technology, it should come as little surprise that they were bowled over by what they were witnessing. Among educated elites and those who lockstepped behind them, it was just a matter of time before all former systems of philosophy, religious faith, and culture that were pre-scientific would come to be skeptically, if not contemptuously, regarded as methodologically inferior to modern science. Its tangible results and the power of its techniques seemed both miraculous and natural at one and the same time, magical and perfectly lawful. The nearly universal gratitude with which science and modern technology were embraced by the Western mind made it difficult (to put it mildly) to approach and to assess science (as an institution and as a cultural-societal force) with the degree of sober objectivity and detachment that is now becoming possible for an increasing number of serious thinkers. Some of us are now at last in a position to step back a few paces from the enormous, ongoing impact of science upon man and his world. And for anyone who has glimpsed this ‘problem’ of science and the modern world with a measure of objectivity, there are few problems more interesting, more challenging, or more urgent.

In calling science—or, rather, the unexamined (and therefore dogmatic, spellbinding) ‘scientific worldview’—a ‘problem,’ I should say at once that I am no enemy or opponent of science, as such, nor do I long for the day when material science will be expunged from the face of the Earth. I am, however, not quite so comfortable with dogmatism—of any stripe or persuasion—as soon as it attempts to govern human affairs or to impose its will and its congenital blindness upon undefended human beings. And because of the (ultimately groundless and illegitimate) sense of certainty typically fostered by dogmatic creeds, such fanatical willfulness and assertions of authority are the all too frequent consequences of dogmatism. We know that fanaticism always masks hidden or troubling doubts within the soul of the fanatic. The willful assertion of his/her dogmatic principles and beliefs—their enforcement and evangelical proselytization—stem, of course, from the burning need to silence or suppress these nagging doubts.

As a form of dogmatism, ‘scientism’ (which is different—and I cannot stress this fact strongly enough—from the mere practice of science as a method of inquiry into physical nature) is no less susceptible to blind willfulness and the arrogant assertion of its exaggerated claims than dogmatic (Fundamentalist) Christianity, scientology, astrology, or behaviorist psychology. As soon as any such ‘system,’ mythology, religion, or worldview is taken literally—as statements of concrete factuality about the ultimate nature of things—we can already recognize the unmistakable symptoms of dogmatism and idolatry. Those persons who are already ‘true believers’ fail to see this fact when it comes to their own belief system, of course, but they have no trouble seeing when it comes to (deluded!) dogmatists of a completely different system, religion, or worldview. For those who are thoroughly conscripted into dogmatic Christianity, there is nothing amiss about believing in literal interpretations of the Immaculate Conception, the miracle at Cana, or the bodily Resurrection. Likewise, a dogmatic conscriptee of the ruling scientific worldview will see nothing problematic about a literal reading of Ptolemy’s geocentric model, or (later on) Newton’s mechanistic/heliocentric model, or (even later) the Big Bang & Expanding Universe model. The problem, therefore, is not science, but scientism—not scientific skepticism but exclusive, dogmatic faith in the ultimate authority of the scientific method. Dogmatism is that nearly ubiquitous mental disorder which mistakes a ‘way of seeing’ or of ‘making intelligible sense of our experience’ for the Truth, pure and simple—and we humans tend to be quite righteous about the Truth, as soon as we believe we’ve got our paws on it! We are blessed with a cornucopia of inherited and currently operational ways of seeing and of making some kind of intelligible sense of our otherwise opaque and cryptic experience. But instead of recognizing that all of them—some perhaps a wee bit more than others, for this reason or that—have something to add or to contribute to our curious journeys through life, we tend to elevate one (typically the one we’re presented with as children and never pause to question or to look beyond) to supreme status, relegating all the others to the rubbish heap.

Thoughts on Independence Day

Humans naturally desire a kind of moral compass or guidance system with which to navigate through the often tough choices and situations that life throws at us all.  Under ideal circumstances, the ethical values or standards that we defer to would be part of the weave of our own hearts, minds, souls—and not merely in some revered text or tablets of culturally-imposed commandments, served up to us from a pulpit or a Smartphone.

The question, I suppose, that intrigues me here is: “How does one advance from faithful obedience to environmentally derived and enforced moral commandments and prescriptions to a presumably more mature state of affairs wherein the internally rooted (and cultivated) moral resources start to prevail?”  If the adoption of culturally inherited moral laws and principles may be likened to the use of training wheels to keep us upright while we’re learning to ride a bicycle during childhood, the eventual aim is to achieve sufficient balance and confidence to remove those supporting wheels and ride independently, is it not?

It has not escaped my notice that certain persons become incensed with muffled indignation whenever they observe someone genuinely dispensing with the training wheels.  They have learned to navigate through their moral dilemmas without continually referring to some scriptural passage or citing some hallowed philosophical principle to prop them up and sanction what they’re doing or saying.  So, what triggers such indignation and resentment?  What lies behind the ‘righteous anger’ that obedient ‘believers’ occasionally direct towards more independent, self-reliant thinkers and actors?  Is it petty childishness?  Is it something like the obedient, approval-craving, younger brother saying to his more independent, self-directed older sibling, “How dare you act without Mom and Dad’s permission and approval!”?  Mightn’t this merely be a confession of his own lack of ‘adult’ independence and self-assurance instead of an indication of his unquestioning filial obedience—so that a disguised weakness is slyly parading itself as a virtue?  And, of course, such pesky little prigs generally desire nothing so much as to see their elder, more independent siblings punished for defying established authority and acting on their own.  Such tiresome little goody-goodies and tattle-tales are always ready and eager to shout with a sneer, “See, I told you so!” as soon as mavericks become bruised and bloodied from their collisions with the stony wall of conformity, or when ‘free spirits’ and ‘heretics’ receive a humiliating public drubbing from philistines.

Perhaps the most grievous and irretrievable loss that we suffer in our obedient conformity to principles and rules that we have not road-tested and ‘authorized’ ourselves is that we are thereby insidiously deformed into liars, both to ourselves and to everyone around us.  Without ever realizing what we’re throwing away, we resign ourselves to the indisputable, damning fact that we—and pretty much everyone we’re affiliated with in our morally and intellectually smug, enthusiastically self-righteous conformity to ‘game rules’ that we have neither genuinely understood nor arrived at through our own efforts and exertions—are no more than loud-mouthed little hypocrites.  Could it be true, as some have suggested, that this ‘type’ comprises upwards of 90% of humanity, now as ever?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this gnawing, needling suspicion of his own pettiness, puniness, and fundamental duplicity actually spurs on the phlegmatic, hypocritical conformist to noisier and ever noisier name-calling and vilification of the truly independent and self-authorizing persons he secretly envies, while his own timidity, mendacity, and passivity are his true enemies.  His deep hatred for the independent spirit stems largely from the disquieting fact that such persons—rare though they be—cannot help but direct an unnerving spotlight on all the conformist’s unflattering flaws, failings, and blind spots.  What poor wretches most of us prove to be as soon as the searchlight of truth is directed inside that dark, reverberant cave that is our ‘soul’!  No wonder so many of us run from that searchlight as passionately as we would from a humorless I.R.S. auditor or a zealously probing proctologist!

The truly independent spirit cannot help but feel flickers and cinders of scorn and contempt for cowardice when he stumbles upon it within himself.  It turns his stomach when his ruthless searchlight exposes self-deception or dishonesty lurking and skulking within his soul.  To be sure, he has a knowledgeable grasp of these flaws and weaknesses, but self-understanding is not equivalent to ‘indulgent acceptance’ or ‘patient tolerance’—at least not in his own case, where the very fate of his soul is at stake.  Certainly he displays ‘patient understanding’ and forbearance where the weaknesses and failings of others are concerned.  He humbly acknowledges that these are beyond his jurisdiction, unlike the worms and spiders squirming and spinning webs and stories within his own breast. The independent, self-responsible spirit knows that others’ inner blindnesses and weaknesses are not his business precisely because he understands ultimately only we ourselves can do anything ultimate for or against our Self-liberation.  To be sure, others may offer helpful advice and even profound instruction but, in the end, it comes down to a confrontation between the individual soul and its mysteriously impersonal source, does it not?

On the Feminine Today (11/13)

There is still a good deal of talk about how needful the present world is of ‘the feminine’—and of how patriarchal, or male-dominated forms of thinking and governing are somehow resistant to this ‘feminine’ energy that could help to heal us and the planet. But this whole position seems very suspicious—if not cockeyed—to me. For one thing, materialism—which, last time I checked, does in fact appear to be the prevailing metaphysical scheme behind the vast majority of Western cultural-political-economic initiatives, is intimately bound up with mater. And if ‘mother’ is not female, what (or who) is? From where I am standing (or swimming), the obsession with material objects, with the body, with owning and acquiring, and so forth, seems to be the antithesis of (noble, ‘Brahmin,’ ‘Spartan,’ etc.) male disdain for such ‘sticky’ and ‘binding’ preoccupations. It may be worth noting here that ancient sages—East and West—typically regarded the ‘merchant class’—as well as wealthy oligarchs—with a heaping (and healthy) measure of contempt. What I detect is the eclipse of the genuinely masculine revolt against all such ‘worldly’ and ‘possessive’ concerns. Like the spirit, the truly male side of the continuum prefers liberty over liberality, inner autonomy over ‘global economy,’ stillness over busy-ness, composure over exposure. Contrary to many Jungians, who often argue that our male-dominated culture needs more of the feminine, I would claim that the current (popular) obsession with wealth, economics, sensual pleasures, bodily concerns, the feverish acquisition of goods and property is more closely tied up with the feminine (material) end of the spectrum than the masculine (immaterial) end. Yet another of my ‘unpopular’ opinions.

Culture and its Roots (11/15)

Nietzsche speaks, in Zarathustra, of the ‘thousand and one goals’ that have paraded before us in our diverse human past. Each culture projected before itself a kind of revered goal or ideal—a kind of exemplary existence against which all other possible life-paths were compared and contrasted.

These various ideals—or exemplary life-paths—would emphasize or accentuate some particular drive, virtue, or human capacity (or a more or less cogent cluster of them) as primary, while other, competing or incompatible drives and values would necessarily be deemphasized or ignored. Thus, one culture would endorse and cultivate martial or aggressively competitive instincts while another would accentuate compassion and peaceful cooperation. One would exaggerate the value and importance of worldly wealth, pleasures, and deeds, while another—in the spirit of contemptus mundi—would attach excessive importance to spiritual or transcendent goods. Some cultures would prize differentiated or specialized talents over wholeness and roundedness, while another would regard such fragmenting specialization as a kind of spiritual barbarism and corruption.

There would seem to be a natural basis for each of these diverse cultural schemes in much the same way that diverse ecosystems (deciduous forests, savannah, rainforests, tundra, deserts, swamps, etc.) all have a basis in earth, sunlight, and moisture. But as rainfall and temperature differences, soil conditions and other factors decide what can grow—and how much growth can occur—so the panoply of distinctive cultural schemes seem to reflect and/or encourage the preponderance of this or that constellation of collective instincts—influencing the relative vitality or exhaustion of the various drives. Thus, form and energy combine to establish the matrix out of which a collective cultural scheme emerges. And given the disproportion between these dominant cultural forms and norms, on the one hand, and the puniness of the ordinary member of the culture, on the other, much cultural activity has an automatic, mimetic, and compulsory character. Moreover, those individual specimens whose natural endowment essentially agrees or conforms to the dominant culture are more likely to thrive than those whose natural predispositions are out of sync or at odds with the dominant thrust of the culture. These ‘misfits’ will typically feel themselves swimming against the current. And of course these misfits will be most acutely and painfully aware of the one-sidedness—the pathological bias—implicit in the uncongenial culture into which they were dropped at birth.

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In founding cultural—and, by extension, moral—value systems upon a natural basis in this way, we dispense with all unequivocal moral criteria and all moral absolutes, do we not? In showing their dependence upon the collective human drives and inclinations that they, in turn, reflect and express in a more or less pure, articulate form, we establish the plurality of bases upon which a culture—any culture—can be erected. In the course of development and further elaboration, a cultural or moral scheme will take on greater and greater definition, clarity, and distinctiveness. It will move away from its origins in a murky, inchoate welter of crude, poorly defined drives, potentials, impulses, and inclinations. The trajectory may be roughly described in this manner: formalization, rationalization, conventionalization, normalization, stultification and finally, ossification.

There may be something within reach of our experience that can, with some justice, be called ‘absolute’—but it has next to nothing to do with life as it is confronted in its dynamic, protean character. The absolute has rightly been likened to the pure light that is at the source of a cinema-show. The light, while necessary for the movie to appear on the screen, is itself utterly unaffected by the film, the lens, the screen, or the images that are projected upon the screen. Absolute awareness, like the source-light, is what makes consciousness possible, but it transcends all conscious forms.

Some Thoughts on Leisure and Reflection (6/10)

Perhaps no human tendency is more annoyingly reliable or “knee-jerk” than is our instinct for self-justification—and if that were all one may expect to hear about in the essay that follows, I should need to beg the reader’s forgiveness for robbing him or her of precious time. If I plead for anything here, it is not, I think, for myself that I plead—and if I make a dagger-thrust or two, these jabs are not intended for other persons. I am attempting to make a new case for an old value while focusing the spotlight upon a present-day malady. I propose a defense of leisure and, in doing so, I have no choice, it would seem, but to critique its presently triumphant arch-rival, busy-ness.

Now, loosely defined, “busy-ness” may be said to entail our preoccupations not only with practical and professional affairs, but—as I see it—with all ephemeral and non-essential matters, as well. By this definition, then, leisure is an activity that may properly begin only when all occupational responsibilities, household chores, relationship negotiations/squabbles, and recreational pursuits (TV, internet, tennis, video games, etc.) have been temporarily laid aside. Essentially, leisure consists in stepping back a few paces from our busy lives and loosening the noose a bit, so that we can actually remember the exquisite taste of a state that is on the brink of extinction in our present age. Now, many will no doubt claim that recreational activities (lounging in front of the TV would certainly top the list here) are free. I have no wish to propose a black-and-white, either-or dichotomy between leisure—as I understand the word—and recreation, as it is actually experienced by most of us. Nevertheless, following the redoubtable Aristotle, I recognize a significant qualitative distinction between these two—a distinction I will examine more closely during the course of my argument. From what has already been said, the reader may infer that leisure involves at least two components: seriousness and a kind of stepping back, mentally, from our roles, duties, and regular activities. Out of this arises the possibility of what I hold to be perhaps the most precious of human attainments—spiritual and intellectual liberation.

Fine-sounding words, you say, but what do they actually signify? Our advertisement-blasted and sound-bite-saturated brains must be wary of seduction by catchy phrases and dressed-up idols, as hollow as they are hypnotic. Leisure may turn out to be our un-doing, literally as well as figuratively speaking, as we shall discover, since its emergence quite explicitly depends on our gradually acquiring a skill for not-doing—what the ancient Taoists called “wu-wei.” As with many forms of meditation, leisure involves a letting-go not only of the actual performance of our accustomed activities, for a period of time, but also the letting go of our accustomed mental preoccupation with those activities and duties. We are, therefore, not directly concerned, in our moments of genuine leisure, with becoming better husbands, mothers, engineers, Muslims, or Christians, but with the very serious business of relaxing the often relentless stranglehold over our actions, thoughts and feelings that these daily roles and preoccupations impose.

In our leisure, then, we energetically seek a form of irresponsibility, in a figurative sense. We work at shedding, for a certain amount of time each day, our assigned as well as our self-chosen roles, our justifications and rationale for sticking to these roles in this drama or comedy (or farce) of one’s daily professional-social-family life. We know all too well that, even if we succeed in stepping back for a few stolen moments from our stage performance, it will soon enough pull us back in and recapture our participating soul—either by way of a call from the kitchen at dinnertime, or through the cell phone in our pocket. But we may also come to know such stolen moments of not-doing as the saving breath of charged air that prevents us from completely drowning in an ever-surging, syrupy sea of claims and encroachments upon our skittish and limited attention. From this re-worked notion of what leisure can be and is capable of meaning—switching on the TV may eventually come to be seen as a sin against the Holy Spirit.

Leisure, as we are depicting it here, entails more than a momentary interruption of our accustomed duties and activities. We seek in our daily periods of reflection to disengage as fully as we can from those automatic mental processes and habitual concerns which link us psychically to our outer roles and the actions we repeatedly/compulsively perform there. Such concerns and mental processes are internal matters, of course, and are not directly bound up with the noise and frenetic activity of outer life—but they form a bridge that connects us to that world, even when we are alone in a quiet room. It is this bridge we seek to remove, for a time, when we reflect in leisure. Perhaps now the reader is getting a somewhat clearer sense of what I meant when I said that this sort of reflection is our “undoing,” psychologically speaking.

Alas, for many persons, there is little of what we might call “personal identity” beyond these roles that are either religiously or grudgingly performed in the “outer life”—so a disengagement from these self-defining credentials, projects, concerns, values, and so forth is not uncommonly experienced as an assault upon the sovereignty of the ego, the stabilizing sense of “who we are.”   This is to be expected, since most of us unconsciously assume “I am what I do,” which is practically synonymous with “My personal identity is constituted by the roles that I play in the world.” But eventually we may begin to see that these are only a part of who we are—the more visible and familiar part, to be sure, but by no means the whole story.

What real value, it will be wondered, does such detachment from our normal everyday personalities hold for us? If the anchoring and stabilizing sense of security that we’ve attained by becoming the person we presently believe ourself to be is felt to be valuable per se, why tamper with it? Why disturb the consoling confidence we have in our “performance?” There are some who would argue that such confidence or faith in one’s persona is harder and harder to come by these days and that it should be preserved and protected against corrosive doubt at all costs. Here I can only concede that this work of detachment is not for everyone, and that each must determine for himself whether he is willing to step back from his dogmatic faith in his adopted or assigned role(s) in the world—and entertain a less literal notion of who he is. My own grounds for adopting this somewhat more playful and provisional attitude towards my ego-personality, along with “his” duties and responsibilities stem from the sheer desire to be more. Perhaps like a spirited and curious stage actor, I want to play, at least within my imagination, the whole gamut of heroes and villains, lovers and madmen, fathers and soldiers, teachers and students—rather than get locked into, and forever identified with, the role, say, of Horatio or Mercutio, Pip or Mr. Micawber. In other words, we relativize or “see through” our outer personalities to the extent that we can, partly in order to clear the way for alternative visions of life. For, are not our characters, at bottom, lenses (or more precisely, psychological complexes) through which our spirits look out upon the world, and which profoundly influence, in turn, the way the “world” looks back at us? To a surprising degree, seeing is being. In other words, we are what (or rather, how) we see. And are we not confronting deeply established habits when we concern ourselves with these characters? Without going as far as Emerson and vilifying a foolish consistency as “the hobgoblin of little minds,” mightn’t we acknowledge an intimate connection between this stability of our familiar and trusted characters and the stubborn and conservative staying power of sheer habit?

Reflection—which aims at loosening up the otherwise choking grip that our mental and emotional conditioning has upon us—involves a good deal of courage, it would seem, since we are almost guaranteed to suffer through periods of more or less severe disorientation and destabilization along the winding road that leads to greater freedom and greater wisdom. Wisdom entails an articulate awareness of our composite, complex nature. Of course, I refer not to our established characters here, which tend to be comparatively uniform and consistent (even if consistently bi-polar!)—like easily recognizable masks—but to the psyches behind the character, which are obliged to work through the mask when making an appearance upon the stage of human affairs where we play out our roles as sincerely or as enthusiastically as we can. When we learn how to break our generally fixed identification with our roles, we free ourselves, perhaps for the first time, to learn something of the deeper regions of the psyche. So long as we are engrossed in our own performance (or the performances of our fellow cast members) there is simply very little room for the (transpersonal) psyche to introduce its very different take on things. We are often too busy talking to be able to hear the whisperings of this inner voice. And perhaps one reason why so many people are chatterboxes (and even internally, as well, when they are alone) lies in the fact that they are not eager to hear what the psyche is whispering to them. It is an unfortunate truth that for persons who desperately cling to the myth of their enormous personal importance and who attach inflated value to their role in the ongoing tragi-comedy of human affairs—silence is seldom golden and true solitude is to be shouted down at all costs.

Ironically, the anxiety and pressure that are behind the logorrhea of the “motor mouth” and the neurotic restlessness of the busybody stem from this unconscious attachment to the “narrow self,” the cramped character that could be dissolved or exploded in a flash by penetrating reflection. If the image is not too gruesome, a life would be saved (and we would all be spared a near eternity of groans and moans) if the gangrenous leg were simply amputated or the blood-clot dissolved. These were the sources of the noise and pain, the compulsive behavior and the putrid discharges.

I do not believe I overstate the case for reflection when I attribute such liberating and salubrious powers to it. Two of its chief benefits are its expansion of inner space and the enhancement of the quality of inner experience, as I have suggested, and many of our psychic and affective irritations and maladies derive specifically from a condition of interior constriction—of being cramped and strait-jacketed by our orthodox conceptions of who and what we are—and what we are not. When it is understood that relief is always at hand and that distressed and suffering persons typically look outside themselves for solutions, pain-deadeners, and attentions-diverters, we are often obliged to look on in mute sadness, if not exasperation, since there must first be some faith on the sufferer’s part that such available relief is real—and that he/she qualifies for its benefits. But so established and normative are the outer-directed tendencies in our culture (a culture which not only looks outward to an excessive degree, but acts out, as well) it may very well require decades or even centuries of spiritual/psychological counter-culture before the tide may turn in the reflective direction.

 

Remote Control (8/12)

The big corporation may be likened to an enormous bulldozer or steamroller. These powerful contraptions can be operated by one high school dropout with a hangover but they can do the work of hundreds of persons of quality laboring only with shovels and pickaxes. Because of the greatly enhanced power of the ‘corporate machine’ either to benefit or to harm both humans and the environment, one scarcely needs to argue that corporations ought be monitored and wisely administered with a proportionately greater degree of care and judiciousness. But, as we all know, just the opposite state of affairs prevails today. Blinded by the sheer power that modern corporations have to generate record sums of money for their stockholders and their hired servants—which now include governing bodies, such as the U.S. Congress—restraints on corporate and financial power (and upon the greed of those who run these institutions) are being lifted or ignored. As we can see, it is ‘every man for himself’ in a mad scramble after loot for as long as the limited resources hold out. The widespread, cynical and pessimistic belief that the whole house of cards is poised for collapse is actually used to justify the reckless greed of the short-sighted, opportunists rather than as a sobering ‘reality check’ that might help to bring about a cautious, ‘top-down’ reassessment of our capitalist aims and methods. Mikhail Gorbachev almost single-handedly engineered such a ‘top-down’ reassessment of the Soviet economic/political machine—responding to popular unrest and general dissatisfaction with the Communist system. Like our own militarist-corporate system, the Soviet Union was pouring the lion’s share of its wealth and its intellectual resources into military defense and expansionism, while a growing number of ordinary persons lived in poverty and/or an alcoholic stupor.

The analogy between these technological implements/machines that greatly extend the power of a single person or ‘user’ and these institutional means, such as the multi-national corporation and the Pentagon, is a valid one. A simple handgun enables the single individual either to defend his family from an assailant or to slaughter that family, ‘execution style,’ in cold blood. The handgun or rifle provides power from a distance—remote control over the life or death of the targets. Drone weaponry provides army personnel with the power to slaughter entire villages on the other side of the world from an isolated control room in Virginia, where video monitors navigate them into and through the satellite-guided mission. The fact that these remote killers from afar are freed up from any risk to themselves or their own families is advertized by our military as an unquestionable or unequivocal ‘plus’ for our ‘team’ in the war on terror. It is simply assumed by many of us that whatever materially benefits us and thwarts or harms our perceived (or artfully fabricated and unjustly provoked) enemies is simply good. Even to suggest that the situation on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan is a good deal more complicated and morally ambiguous than this naïve, ostrich-worthy, binaristic ‘us versus them’ simplification is to invite the wrath and scorn of many Americans—the self-centered simpletons who need things to be as uncomplicated as possible. Complex situations, morally dubious pretexts for war, and honest accounts which do not flatter Americans’ dogmatic convictions about their moral superiority over peoples they have never met—either within or outside the borders of their tottering empire—do not sit well with a dumbed-down, agitprop-indoctrinated herd of overfed, skittish, hardheaded, thin-skinned, hypocritically ‘Christian’ or spinelessly atheistic consumers.