Glimpses (6/27/13)

That drive to discover and then to abide in some inviolable ‘palace of truth’—a drive that certainly had its way with my mind and soul for many years—was gradually whittled down to a trickle of intermittent ejaculations after my grudging recognition that such a palace appears only in fairy tales, but not in reality, or at least not in the reality I have precariously and gradually come to inhabit. And when the target of one’s restless yearnings is seen to be a phantasm or, worse, an elaborate deception willed into (fictional) existence out of the yearning itself, then honesty counsels us to temper rather than inflame and nurture that drive.

It was by such a circuitous course that I arrived at a more pluralistic—or polytheistic—view of that most elusive of mirages, the Truth. At bottom, it may very well be ‘true’ that eventually all roads lead to some privileged center that is synonymous with Truth (deserving of a capital T) in some thoroughly comprehensive or complete sense. But, in all honesty, from where I am presently situated on my journey, my understanding is infused more with the sense of polycentricity, variety, and complexity than with unity, simplicity, or oneness. I am not saying that oneness is not implied, but as of now, such implied, ultimate unity registers far more faintly to my mind than the image of multiple inner galaxies, each with its own abundant supply of distinctive solar systems, composed, in turn, of various planets—all of which dwarf in size and complexity the individual creatures (or features) found thereupon.

I have spontaneously employed a cosmic analogy to express my point here. In the enormity of its scale, this cosmic image underscores the puniness and the restrictedness of the individual human ego’s field of vision, or range of experience. Always keeping this image of the puniness and restrictedness of the ego’s range of experience clearly in mind helps me to maintain my salutary mistrust of convenient ‘unitary models’ and all simple, self-consistent schemes. As far as I can see, all such models and schemes ultimately do more to hamper and slacken my thinking (and the questioning behind such thinking) than to invigorate and push that thought as far as it can go. It may be different for other thinkers, but for this one, the seductions of oneness and of all-embracing unity are a bit like the pull of a so-called ‘mother-complex’—a hankering to return to mother’s breast—or even to climb back up into her warm and watery belly. Of course, we could just as easily invoke the ‘father complex’ here, insofar as it stands for the urge to submit, in complete, selfless obedience, to the will of the All-Seeing Nobodaddy. At any event, nothing so successfully collapses or ‘shorts’ the electrical tension that is the sine qua non for soaring (or deep-delving) thought than such pat unities and crude simplifications.

I would suggest that a glimpse of authentic unity is possible only after we have courageously weathered and withstood this profound electrical tension—and emerged, as it were, on the other side of the charged field. Note that such glimpses are fleeting—even if the ‘mark’ they leave behind is as indelible as a tattoo. If I may be permitted to employ an erotic metaphor, such a ‘mark’ is like the memory of a supremely satisfying consummation of love with an ardently pursued partner—after many struggles and frustrations have been endured.

By way of contrast, the crude and spurious unities resorted to by the impatient, the careless, the shallow, and the negligent are like a doorbell or telephone ringing just as we are about to achieve our ‘climax.’ They ruin everything!

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.

Horror Vacui (10/9/13)

Lurking within the handful of reliably terrifying thoughts that periodically sneak up from behind and have their way with us is the harrowing suspicion that we lack reality in some substantive, metaphysical sense. I point here to an insidious, paralyzing suspicion that our dotingly tended and cultivated personalities are founded not upon some transcendent, undying essence but upon fanciful fictions and our frangible physical frames. Such a creature more closely resembles a wave on the ocean or a dispersible breeze blowing through a forest, if that wave or breeze could somehow be endowed with reflexive consciousness. Perhaps only a minority of us will be possessed and then reduced to quivering jelly by this crushing, annihilating thought—but once it is thoroughly digested, our lives will never be the same thereafter.

As with any profoundly moving experience, a bundle of quite different responses are possible. One person may never fully recover from this thought which, of course, does not strike us as a mere ‘thought experiment’ or an armchair speculation, but as a momentous, potentially traumatizing, realization. It is an abrupt and shocking glimpse into the baffling vacuousness and vexing vapidity of 99 per cent of everyday, mundane experience. If one can become too intoxicated (with ideals, blinding passions, tyrannical desires, inescapable attachments, etc.), mightn’t one’s life suffer derailment from an excess of sobriety, as well? If one person is maimed and crippled by this sobering thought, another person will be moved to immerse himself as unreservedly and unreflectively into his actual, everyday life and relationships as he can. This psychological ordeal—this anticipation of the nullification of the personal self—will, in such cases, incite a frenzied assertion and aggrandizement of that imperiled self—even if that ‘walking shadow’ is now inwardly known to be little more than a second-rate actor strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage. This frenetic abandonment to busy-ness and action will, of course, constitute a kind of manic defense against the stumping nullity and insubstantiality that have been glimpsed in the abyss. The exuberance of the personal life—the enormity of one’s investment in his projects, involvements, and duties—will be roughly equivalent to the intensity of the horror vacui suffered by the person.

And yet another person will suffer neither from a catatonic collapse and withdrawal nor from a manic defense—but will be prompted to imaginatively cultivate a fresh new set of bearings that enables him, gradually, to avoid either of these two questionable turns. The new perspective that is gradually composed is that of the soul. The soul-perspective is distinguished from the ego-perspective by its capacity to approach all things, persons, and events imaginally or metaphorically—and not only literally or concretistically, as the ego is wont to do. It is this capacity for ‘seeing through’ and beyond literalism that safeguards the soul-perspective against the very real psychic maladies of paralysis and of manic defense. Thus, it is only the reified or hypostatized personal ego that is paralyzed—or driven to a kind of madness (of reckless immersion and flight from reflection)—by this startling vision of the transpersonal core. From the soul-perspective—which is fluid, imaginative, and not entirely ‘human’—this vision, so devastating to the limited/limiting ego, is the doorway into a subtler and deeper dimension than the one normally inhabited by that ego. To say it again: as soul waxes, ego wanes.

 

The Birthright (1/24/17)

The better part of what the thinker-poet does consists, of course, in suitably matching his available inventory of words, concepts, and metaphors with the more or less steady stream of nebulous seed-intuitions, moods, affects, and perspectives that mysteriously arise from “God knows where.” If truth be told, it is this cloud-like mysterium that assigns the terms and conditions of the relationship, and not the thinker-poet, who is little more than an obliging vessel, a capable servant, and a talented translator of a kind of text without words. Sticking with the image of the cloud (“the raincloud of knowable things”), the mind of the philosopher-poet achieves the “dew point,” enabling these vaporous possibilities to undergo condensation into fluid images and metaphors. It is precisely here that meaning is born.

To employ a different extended metaphor to depict this ongoing oscillation between impregnation and delivery that is always at the core of the creative life: at first, the mind of the thinker-poet and the mysterium are juxtaposed like ovum and sperm.  Following insemination, the developing “embryo” gestates within the watery womb of the philosopher-poet’s imagination. While there, this embryo recaps, figuratively speaking, the intermediate stages (“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”) through which our primordial ancestors clawed and gnawed, slithered and groped, their crooked way to that self-reflexive angel-beast, the human being.  When the moment of delivery arrives, there should be no confusion about what sort of creature has been born. Its past is hidden within its present shape—a long and eventful past has been condensed and woven together in such promising, but fragile children. What you have just read is but a modest example of such a “condensation” – an enactment, if you will.

I have called attention to the seemingly privileged creature, the “thinker-poet” – as though he or she were singled out and specially entrusted with a sacred office: namely, to usher this precious, vital substance into a cultural arena that craves meaning just as hungrily as our bodies crave salt. But make no mistake: all of us, by virtue of our human status, are, without exception, endowed with this sacred office and – if anything is deserving of the term – divine potential. It is our birthright as humans, regardless of the actual scope, depth, and quality of our daily engagement in the work of meaning-creation. This charge or privilege is thrust upon us whether or not we lovingly and gratefully embrace it. But to deny this birthright may prove to be the greatest “sin” we can commit against ourselves and against the mysterium that has inexplicably permitted us, however fleetingly, to appear as individual, conscious creators.

All of us are endowed, from birth, with instincts that propel, roughly define, and guide much of our thought and behavior. When these innate drives and instincts suffer trauma or if they regularly overpower us, problems ensue. Analogously, if our innate meaning-creating capacity remains dormant or becomes damaged and deformed by misuse or mis-education, serious problems arise. We know, intuitively, that a healthy human existence depends, to a large extent, upon awakened, functioning, balanced drives and instincts. I would further suggest that each of us – provided we’ve got a certain amount of experience and reflection under our belts – is equipped with all that is necessary to recognize and to follow his/her calling. Our calling or vocation is not necessarily the professional career path we follow to earn a living (although often enough they coincide), but neither are we talking here about mere hobbies or recreational activities we pursue in our spare time. Our calling or vocation (as this word is used in a religious context) may be said to serve as a kind of portal or gateway between the individual and the much larger whole of which he/she is a part. So we can see here that, rather than being something secondary or peripheral to our life or fate, our innate calling is every bit as essential to our psychic or spiritual well-being as food and shelter are to our physical well-being.

Moreover, while roughly distinguishable, these two arenas – the physical/external and the psychic/internal – are not separate, but constitute two sides of a single coin. Thus, problems or imbalances on one side of the coin invariably lead to problems and imbalances on the other. Sociopathy and depression appear to be the prevalent disorders today. Mightn’t both of these widespread maladies stem, in large part, from the failure of a significant portion of the population to have recognized and followed its innate calling? And, it will be asked, to what extent has our present culture – with its peculiar, lopsided aims and methods of “education” – actively contributed to this widespread psychological malaise? Does such an unnatural and psychologically pernicious system even deserve to be called a “culture”? Or is it not more accurate to call it a breeding ground for disease – every bit as unhygienic for human souls as the mosquito-filled marshes, rat-infested slums, and unsanitary conditions of the past were for the bodies of our forebears? Have we rid ourselves of one set of unsanitary conditions only to replace them with another – on the plane of psyche?

The Children’s Hour (3/8/14)

In an essay I wrote some time ago, I (half-facetiously) posed the suggestion that childhood is the highest and purest state (or condition) generally experienceable by humans. I argued that, more often than not, adulthood culminates in a degeneration or degradation of consciousness rather than its flowering and flourishing. Only in those exceptional cases where the imaginative elasticity, compassionate sensitivity, and capacity for wonder are kept alive throughout adulthood do we encounter the fulfillment of spiritual promise. Instead, what we find in almost all instances is a gradual rigidification and narrowing of the elastic innocence, the sensitivity, and potentiality of the child’s consciousness. All this is brought about as the child is molded into a reliable functionary within the various soulless systems that constitute the ordinary educational, social, economic, and political arenas of experience in the contemporary world.

In my previous essay I argued that adults should assiduously devote themselves to the protection and care of children—or, more precisely, to the care and protection of their exceptional consciousness and their spiritualimaginative potentials. But instead, because most adults have already become so desensitized, imaginatively crippled, and indoctrinated by the time they have children, they are not only incapable of protecting and caring for their sacred charges, they are their principal deformers and corrupters.

The debased condition of modern ‘adulthood’ is exacerbated by a unflinching identification with the (self-serving) ego and the body (as opposed to the soul, imagination, or spirit)—an identification that frequently hardens and deepens with the advance of years. During childhood, our egos are, on the whole, more elastic and provisional—and our bodies are more resilient and flexible. Without being aware of it, as children we tend to be more ‘playful’ in our attitude towards our own and other persons’ egos—as if we were beholding theatrical rehearsals and not sacrosanct vessels of fragile porcelain that must be handled with kid gloves. As we emerge from childhood into the world of ‘grown-up’ relationships, responsibilities, and duties, we tend to take ourselves—our ego personalities—more and more seriously, which often translates into ‘more narrowly.’ As our investment in our own ego deepens and becomes more preoccupying, or desperate, we obliterate that ‘sense of humor’ about ourselves that we may have had when we were five year olds and less ‘religiously’ attached to the ‘figure’ we were cutting on the stage of human affairs. Typically, then, self-concerned adults take themselves and their attachments far more seriously than resilient, carefree and en-spirited children do.

Commonly employed labels for this adult preoccupation with the ego, its attachments, its ‘rights,’ and its accomplishments are ‘narcissism’ and ‘selfishness.’ Spiritually awakened adults tend to be more childlike and less anxious than self-obsessed egotists. It is a mark of spiritually mature persons that very little (of what takes place in the world) is allowed to get under their skin—since the ultimate reality and importance of these transient events (and egos) is known to be doubtful. People who get too ‘bent out of shape’ by worldly and ego-related affairs are like those persons who throw objects at villains on the screen in a movie theater. It’s a sign of derangement and low breeding.

Plato’s ‘myth of recollection’ (from Meno) makes good sense to me in connection with this idea of the priority of childhood over adulthood in human experience. While we are children, our consciousness is, in certain respects, closer to the source—the Self. As we grow older—and as we adapt (read: surrender) ourselves more and more completely to the second-hand, derived, dogmatic, and (comparatively) shallow forms of consciousness and behavior that we are collectively awash in—our range of awareness and our very being tend to shrink and ossify. Unless serious measures are taken to strengthen and stabilize our beleaguered connection with the source, we are likely to suffer the fate of a Roman candle that has been shot into the night sky. We start off with a lot of thrust and much brilliance, but as we hurtle into the sky we slow down, cool down, fade out—falling back to earth as ashes.

By earnestly tracking our consciousness back to its source, however, we counteract the process of burn-out and fade-out that results from identifying with the ever-changing and ever-dying forms that make up the outer world, starting with our own bodies. In order to pull this off, however, we must inwardly reverse the natural order and the conventional order—and this profound inversion requires uncommon faith in the insight that comes from beyond this (visible, conventional, collective) world. We should probably not look for much support from others. We may discover that most of them are facing (and racing) in the opposite direction. We won’t find many exemplars or successful cases (of life-inversion) and even if we do, they can be no more than examples. We must do the actual work alone.

String Theory (10/1/14)

‘Tightening the bowstring of my soul’: what do I mean by this? What, actually, is entailed? How do I go about it?

Is one end of the ‘string’ firmly and securely tied down—so that my task is to elevate or extend the other end as far and as tightly as I can? Does the string retain a set length—or does it vary in length from time to time? How does the length of the string affect or determine the quality of the sound it produces when ‘plucked’ at various degrees of tautness?

I intuit a link between tightening the bowstring and philosophical dialectics. Suppose we ‘plant’ (or harpoon) one end of our portable string firmly into a theme or topic—say, ‘justice’ or ‘eros’ or ‘Moby Dick’—and then we slowly and carefully begin to increase the tension of the string. Can we thereby make ‘justice’ and ‘eros’ and ‘Moby Dick’ sing—to reveal their full polyphonic potentials? Does the string—only after it has reached a certain level of tension—begin to vibrate in accordance with signals emanating from the ground source (‘justice,’ ‘eros,’ Moby Dick, etc.) in which it is planted?

Clearly, so long as there is a lot of slackness in the string, we won’t be affected or tugged upon when the ‘subject’ of our dialectical investigation begins to move. Like a hound on a very long (or very elastic) leash, it will go where it pleases and we’ll be left standing where we started from, with the other end in our hand. If, however, that connecting cord is tight and as capable of ‘carrying a tune’ as a violin string, a sensitive dialectician can detect the heartbeat and even the blood flow of the ‘catch’ at the other end.

I intuit yet another analogy—this one is between tightening the bowstring and cleaning a dirty mirror. The mirror is the intellect. Its ability to reflect that which is before it is greatly affected by the cleanliness of its surface. The intellect, which—like the mirror—is always present to the conscious thinker, may be enfeebled and greatly degraded in its reflective capacity by various petty preoccupations, distractions, and other impairments that can only be removed by the owner and master of that intellect. Others can provide cleaning tips and solutions but the actual work of scrubbing away all those pesky preoccupations and fitful distractions must ultimately be performed by the owner of the ‘mirror.’

To coordinate our two analogies, then: a slack string corresponds with a dirty mirror, while a taut, resonant string may be likened to a clean and accurately reflective mirror. The ‘work’ of tightening the string and keeping the mirror clean—on a daily basis—falls upon the shoulders of the individual thinker and to no one else. Others can exemplify taut and slack, long and short bowstrings—but we waste valuable time and opportunities if we spend all our time merely ranking ourselves against them. Others can display their shiny or grimy mirrors but they can do nothing to clean or besmirch our own—since only we are permitted direct access to the cleaning tools necessary for the job.

I find that there are naturally-occurring limits to my own dialectical ‘soundings’ of various themes and subjects of interest. These limits or natural bounds to my probing and soundings reflect my general character and capacities as a thinker. Another thinker might very well push his investigations further than I do, while yet another would not push them to the same depth that seems fitting and adequate for me. Many other perfectly capable and accomplished thinkers wouldn’t even bother to pursue the sorts of questions that have always interested me—precisely because such questions and themes do not speak to—or call—them.

Because, for me, philosophical and spiritual thinking is both absorbingly exciting and mentally nourishing, I have made the mistake, many times, of assuming that this particular brand of thinking is essentially and universally appealing—or should be if other persons only knew better. But the facts clearly do not support my assumption. Not only are most persons plainly indifferent to ‘philosophical and spiritual thinking’—a great number of them are passionately hostile towards such thinking—and for a number of more or less understandable reasons. I believe it was Homer who said ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’—and this warning probably applies most appropriately to philosophical and religious ‘learning,’ if only because these comprehensive and ‘architectonic’ arenas of thought typically have a correspondingly large and far-reaching effect upon those who court and cultivate knowledge there. Unlike the serious study of ceramics or Haiku, even a ‘little learning’ of philosophy or religion can set one on a path of no return. Because genuine philosophy and authentic religion may justly be regarded as the repositories of the distilled wisdom (and folly!) of the human race, one big gulp from this cup can change everything for a person. It is precisely because of the level of concentration and condensation of human thought and experience in the greatest religious and philosophical works that they carry such a wallop. But—perhaps fortunately—most persons have only a shallow acquaintance with such works, preferring more accessible pleasures instead. After tightening their bowstrings to hit targets at the office all day, they are happy to slacken them when they have leisure time. And, of course, those who designed, tweaked, and benefit most from this system very much want to keep it that way.

Complexio Oppositorum (4/11/11)

Deeply embedded in my attraction for certain women is a disguised yearning for abandon and for forgetfulness—as I have noted before. Knowing this, should I simply avoid pursuing such prospects altogether—since such involvements, if they happen at all, never last long or satisfy both of us? (Or, they last too long, which is infinitely worse.)

James Hillman has something to say in ‘Rudiments’ that seems germane to this question:

Thou shalt not repress/Thou shalt not act out… On the one hand, fire (alchemically understood) will act out. It cannot be concealed…Fire insists on being visible. It does not want to be repressed…It will smolder long after the flames have died. On the other hand, desire may not be released straight into the world. The work is spoiled, say the alchemists, by direct heat. Do not let flames touch the material. Direct fire scorches, blackens the seeds…Do not act out; do not hold in. A paradox. And a double negative that suggests a via negativa, a de-literalizing cancellation of both commandments. A mercurial escape from the exhausting oscillation between them. Instead of holding in or acting out, act in. Cook in the rotundum, as one vessel was called, referring both to a container and to the roundness of the skull. Hold the heart inside the head by warming the mind’s reveries. Imagine, project, fantasize. Think. (Alchemical Psychology, 36-37)

Now, (what little there is of) the ‘man of action’ in me finds all this to be somewhat ‘unmanly’ and even a bit unhealthy. ‘He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence,’ Blake tells us, along with ‘Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.’ On the other hand there is no surer way of imprisoning oneself within the Nidana Chain[1] than by yielding to the desire to act—to follow the drives and impulses arising within the body. To do so certainly can bring pleasure, momentary satisfaction, and even a vitalizing sense of empowerment—but in doing so we are simply discharging and temporarily exhausting the fire of longing, are we not? We become immersed in natural life by yielding to these desires, but becoming ‘embedded’ in life is not real freedom or individual empowerment; these are only the fleeting simulacra and counterfeits of authentic power and freedom—or so it seems. And while I am reluctant to profess that I fully understand Blake’s true meanings behind these maxims, I am not quite ready to equate mere acting upon one’s desires with health, as such, or with strength—even if I readily agree that repression of the same usually leads to some kind of neurosis (unhealthiness) and can be the sign of weakness (a failure to be true to one’s actual desires). Thus, we thereby betray our natures.

Many persons ‘act out’ their desires. Many repress them, stewing in frustration, envy, and bitter resentment. Or, they oscillate back and forth between these two extremes until their lives are finished. Very few, on the other hand, are able to ‘contain’ these drives, desires, and impulses in such a way as to internally cook and transform them into ‘soul’—i.e., into the stuff of creative fantasy or constructive thinking—which is not the same thing as mere repression and denial. If the actualization of our desires is sweet and their forcible repression leads to a kind of bitterness, then ‘soul’—the interior balancing act that cancels out both while deliteralizing them—is bittersweet, poignant (in the sense of painfully intense, and pungent, insofar as it releases all the usually hidden and buried odors, fragrances, shadings, and subtle hints that one can best experience by festina lente: ‘make haste slowly’). Little wonder, then, that the deliberate cultivation of soul is not a commonplace pursuit. Its paradoxical nature puzzles the innocent or unsubtle mind, its conjunction of opposing qualities vexes the multitude, who tend always to prefer simple goodness or clear-cut unpleasantness to all hybrids and complex pairings. It is perhaps this general uncomfortableness with the complexio oppositorum that bars most of us from the art of soul-cultivation.

If souls were simply given instead of made (poiesis) then at least most of us would have some place to stand from the get-go—and there would be a general recognition or acknowledgement of the soul’s actual, as opposed to its conventionally depicted, nature (a phantom or bogey). It would no longer be widely regarded as an empty theological concept, a metaphysical entity that is immortal, or a mere ‘vital principle’ (along Aristotelian lines). It would be known as an inner perspective with its own distinctive dynamic and quality—a state of tension occurring in time. Not an artifact, not a thought, not a mere feeling or powerful intuition, although all of these may issue from soul, just as a potent work of art, poetry, or music issues from a highly charged and qualitatively exceptional state. If no such state is reachable or tenable for the would-be artist, no such works will issue from his mind, heart, or hand. The great works of art and of thought are the reliquaries and shells once inhabited and then vacated by exceptional states of soul. In our attempts to commune with these ‘leavings’ we hope to have our imaginations stirred and our minds moved as if some echo or imaginative catalyst were left behind. We use such works like ladders to climb or to descend from the flat level ground of ordinary ego-consciousness with all its literalness and its simple, ‘commonsense’ notions. If our feet cannot find or feel the rungs of these ladders, these works are not for us. We must remain among the flatlanders and the flatliners. These dead works come alive only for those who are themselves alive and awake. To the dead they remain dead, silent, and uninteresting.

Ego-bound persons quite naturally (and naively) seek to fix the problems and to resolve the tensions out of which soul is generated. The ego seeks to make things manageable by translating everything into the literal and concrete terms with which it is familiar and which are natural to its standpoint. Unsurprisingly, most of us are unwitting ‘soul-killers.’ In ‘acting out’ instead of ‘acting in,’ we slacken or collapse altogether the inner tension required for the lyre string to produce its note. In repressing, on the other hand, we retreat from the tension (of the tuning peg) needed to provide the basis for music that will never be possible otherwise.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nidana