We have this articulated space we can all discuss, and outside of that we have something that is more akin to a dream that we are embedded in… And in that dream, that is where the mystics live, and the artists, and they are the meditators between the absolute unknown and the things we know for sure. And if those two things are out of sync, if our articulated knowledge is out of sync with our dreams, then we become dissociated internally….And that produces a kind of sickness of the spirit. And [in that sickness] people turn to ideologies, which I regard as parasites on an underlying religious substructure to try to organize their thinking, and then that is a catastrophe. That is what Nietzsche saw. He knew that when we knock the slats out of the base of Western civilization by destroying this representation, this God ideal, let’s say, we would destablize and move back and forth violently between nihilism and the extremes of ideology…. And we have been oscillating back and forth between left and right ever since, and with some nihilism and despair thrown in. That is the situation of the modern Western person.(8:30 mark)
The Bible … exists in that space that is half into dream and half into articulated knowledge. And going into it to find out what the stories are about can aid our self-understanding… If Nietzsche was correct and if Dostoevsky and Jung were correct, without the corner stone that understanding provides, we are lost. And that’s not good because then we are susceptible to psychic pathologies. People who are adamant anti-religious thinkers seem to believe that if we abandoned our immersement in the underlying dream, we would all instantly become rationalists like Descartes or Bacon, intelligent, clear thinking, rational, scientific people. I don’t believe that for a moment, because I don’t think there is any evidence for it. I think we would become so irrational so rapidly that the weirdest mysteries of Catholicism would seem rational by contrast, and that is already happening.(44:00 mark) – Jordan Peterson
These quotes are from Jordan Peterson’s first lecture in his course on the psychological significance of the Biblical stories. It is an amazing lecture, in which he puts his finger on why spirituality matters in society.
At root religious fundamentalists and ardent atheists make the same mistake: they assume that a rationally articulated understanding of the world is, or can be, the basis of human experience and society. The religious fundamentalist claims his favorite religion and culture for the role of that rational articulation. The ardent atheist claims a clear-headed scientific awareness for that role. But what both show thereby is a naive understanding of human psychology.
It also highlights the limits of philosophy as traditionally understood.
Human consciousness is rooted primarily in deep story telling. A sense of where one came from, and where one is going. Of who we are, and why we are going through this thing called life, and how best to go through it.
This story telling resonates with us when it comes from the depth of our being, from the space of, as Peterson put it, our dreams. From beyond the control and guidance of our conscious awareness.
This captures both what Rorty got right, and what he got wrong. He was right that a fundamental role of philosophy is to tell stories, intellectual stories. But he was wrong in that the stories can be told mainly from the level of the intellect. They need to come from deeper within us. They need to come from a space and point of being and consciousness in us where we have let go of our conscious crutches and fears and anxieties and ideas, and give ourselves to a deeper energy.
Ancient texts such as the Bible or the Vedas were many things. Science, philosophy, literature, culture. But at bottom, beyond all that, they were telling deep stories at the level of our deepest consciousness, so as to awaken within us to that deeper, higher form of consciousness.
Since the time of those texts, science, philosophy, literature and so on have gone on to be modes of activity on their own. They are not done in one text. And that’s great. That allows us to explore the different dimensions of life and world without running them together. Science doesn’t have to be beholden to literature or moral needs. Similarly, with literature and so on.
But there is still the need for deep stories which tap into the depth of being and have a kind of unifying and guiding structure.
Peterson is totally right that political ideologies on the right and the left have their appeal because they mimic these deep stories of spirituality, and for the people who get pulled into them, they feel like the deepest stories they know. Hence debate goes nowhere between proponents of different ideologies. The appeal of the ideology just is that it speaks to a realm of consciousness within us much deeper than that of debate. And so “debate” becomes rather just a way of fighting about which deeper realm is better. This is what happens on cable news, facebook, twitter, etc.
As was evident in the 19th century, nationalism in politics is a particularly powerful deep story. As are trans-national stories like communism, or the spread of capitalism and freedom, etc. Nowadays we can add these the deep stories of multi-culturalism, feminism and so on.
The fact that these deep stories get a grip on us means that they are deeply right about something. They speak to something deep in us. Trying to debate which of them is right never succeeds because the realm of debate cannot move by itself the deeper currents which make the deep story appealing in the first place.
Hence what is produced is what thinkers have long noticed, since the time of Socrates, Buddha and Lao Tzu, that there are forms of debate which are mainly unproductive. They have merely the form of understanding and engaging with the other side, but which are really just expressions of an already accepted and unshakable worldview, and which the debaters have no intention of changing or giving up.
If not through debate, how do we deal with the conflicting deep stories in our lives? If not debate, what can bring some structure and peace?
Deeper deep stories. Much, much deeper deep stories.
Nationalism, communism, post-colonialism, feminism, religious fundamentalism, combative atheism – these have the form of deep stories, and they evoke the passions and identifications which come from below our more ordinary, surface awareness. And one can identify the ups and downs of each view – and yet not really move the needle much.
There is only one way to engage with and move beyond a deep story: to tell a deeper story. To go even deeper into the human consciousness, to be more courageous, to forgo the surface ego and rational consciousness more, to be more fearless and less self-protective. To dive wholesale into the ocean which is the human psyche and to trust that the more you immerse yourself in that psyche without fear, the more our shared human psyche will speak out deeper deep stories which move us and open up new avenues of awareness and action.
In our world of science, philosophy, politics, literature and overall modernity and clear-sightedness, there is still a deep need for shamans of the soul.
Not the kind who embrace an irrationality which is sub-rational. But ones who plumb the depths of the consciousness in a supra-rational way. Who embrace all the insights of modernity and rationality to such an extent that they self consciously recognize the limits of modern rationality itself, and who give themselves to the mysteries of the deep unconscious to lead the way.
Isn’t this a recipe for chaos? If we don’t hold on to the rational mind, how do we know which stories to follow and which to reject? How do we tell the stories of a Hitler apart from those of a Gandhi? Or stories of sensible people from those of lunatics?
There is a way. And it doesn’t require the policing of the rational mind. Nor guidelines of what constitutes good thought, and how to avoid bad thought. It doesn’t require guidelines at all.
It is: Peace. Stillness. Faith. Trust.
The deepest of the deep stories evoke the peace at the eye of the hurricane. The deep stories of people who have reached that space, or near there, move people without people debating whether it is good or not. The goodness of following those stories and of giving oneself to them will be evident in the very peace and harmony and love which they raise up in one’s consciousness. It is self-evident in the transformation not just of one’s ideas or hopes, but of one’s being from its very core.
Outer peace is only possible in human life when all humans are self-reflective enough to be able to be aware of that consciousness of peace within themselves, and so able to tell the deepest stories from within their own awareness. Lacking that ability to hear those deepest stories within their own consciousness, people look outside themselves for stories which will move them, and so they are susceptible to stories which have only a surface depth.
To really overcome shallow deep stories, there is only one way.
Dive deeper into your consciousness. Listen to the stories coming from the innermost depths of peace within yourself. And if from there you feel so moved, speak those stories and be their mouthpiece with love and compassion.
The meaning of life is obvious once you accept a simple fact: you are not yet fully grown. You have not reached the full potential of your life.
You might be 30 or 60 and fully physically grown. But still, there is more growth happening in you. Even as you read this. There is a part of you that is still in seed form, that has not yet broken through the ground and into the light.
What is the meaning of an acorn? Simple, right? It is to blossom into an oak tree. That is it’s purpose. It’s meaning. It’s inner form guiding it unfolding.
Doesn’t mean the acorn will become an oak tree. It might fall into the ocean. Or someone might crack it open. Or there is no rain. The meaning of the acorn guides its development when it is properly nourished. It’s meaning is it’s inner blue print, it’s form. But the form isn’t a guarantee of success. It structures how the acorn will develop when the circumstances are correct.
Hold on to this idea about the acorn. It solves the riddle of the meaning of life.
Ordinarily, discussions of the meaning of life fall into two extremes: the super-naturalists and the naturalists. Or in common parlance, the theists and the atheists. These discussions go nowhere and only confuse issues.
Super-naturalists claim that life has meaning because there is a super-natural world we are going to – heaven. And we get there through our soul, which leaves our body after we die. The meaning of life then is to get to heaven. The naturalists claim there is no such super-natural world, and there is no soul, and no heaven. Life is just as we see it in this world. This is all there is.
Super-naturalists and naturalists both forget about the acorn!
Meaning doesn’t require anything super-natural. In the acorn there isn’t a soul of the oak tree which leaves the acorn in order to become an oak tree. The soul of the acorn – if you want to talk like that – just is the form of acorn. It’s inner structure which guides its unfolding in its growth.
Any object which grows has a meaning to its life – the meaning being what it is growing into. That’s it. This doesn’t require any spooky non-natural souls.
The human analogue of the acorn is a baby. So, then, what is the meaning of life of that baby?
Well, it is to be a fully developed human being. What does that mean? No, it doesn’t mean something ableist, like that it means having two functioning legs, ears, eyes, etc. After all, the meaning of an acorn is to be an oak tree, but still there are many, many ways that an oak tree can be – some bigger, some smaller, some with more branches, some with fewer leaves, etc.
To get hooked on if a person has legs, or if they can hear or speak, is to be limited to only one dimension of human life – the body. Of course, people vary vastly in their bodily capacities: I am not Michael Jordan. But that doesn’t mean Jordan is more fully human than I am, as if I am a lower version of human compared to him.
That’s because humans have modes beyond the bodily. And no, not because of something super-natural. It’s because humans are fundamentally socio-technological beings. Humans tap into the social world of culture as part of their growth. This was the great transformation that made humans so dominant on Earth. They have collective learning. One generation makes some changes, and leaves those changes in the form of better artifacts (tools, technology), and the next generation hooks into the better artifacts and meets the world running faster than the previous generations.
Collective learning, and the pliable nature of the human brain which enables that, created modes of growth for humans which aren’t true for other forms of life. It created, beyond bodily growth, mental growth.
So the meaning of a human baby is not only to grow physically, but also mentally. But mentally how? We roughly know what a fully formed human body looks like. What does a fully formed human mind look like?
No, forget about Mozart and Einstein. That’s like Jordan all over again. Of course, Einstein is much smarter than me, just like Jordan is faster and can jump higher than me. I am now 40. I know what I know. And in some ways I can improve my mind and learn more. But this much is guaranteed – in my life I am not going to be composing symphonies like Mozart, or making new discoveries in physics.
Does that mean I am bound to be mentally limited in comparison to Einstein? That he is big, fully formed oak tree, but I am a small, less capable oak tree? No!
The kind of mental skills Einstein had are not intrinsic to all mental growth as such. They are a particular form of mental growth. A great, wonderful, beautiful form that is essential to our modern lives. But still, not essential to mental growth as such. Just as Jordan or Tom Brady’s skills are a great form of physical growth, but they are not intrinsic to physical growth as such. One is not less mature physically for not being a superior athlete.
Just as there is mental growth beyond physical growth, so too there is spiritual growth beyond mental growth.
Mental growth is not some spooky non-natural thing involves souls. It is the result of cultural learning becoming essential to humans.
Likewise, spiritual growth is not spooky, metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. It is a particular form of cultural learning.
Jordan can dunk beautifully, but he can’t compose jazz like Miles Davis. Davis can compose and play beautiful jazz – and so could greatly control sound – but he couldn’t control his emotions. Not like Christ or the Buddha could, or even as Martin Luther King or Gandhi could.
When one grows mentally, one doesn’t function on a different plane from the physical. Instead, one re-orients one’s physical being in a new way. Similarly, when one grows spiritually, one doesn’t leave the mental realm. Rather, one re-orients one’s mental being in a new way, such that one’s whole mode of being in and seeing the world changes.
That reorientation of the mental is called transcendence.
If society only had people with mental skills like Einstein and Darwin and Mozart and Davis, there would be great technological and artistic creations. But there would still be fighting and war, distrust and anger. To create a more peaceful world, there would have to be people who are able not just to excel at a particular mental activity (math, music, etc.), but who are able to root out the pain and angst within themselves so that they are walking beacons of peace and stillness.
People who are able to transform not just cultural artifacts in society (physics books, sculptures, etc.), but who are able to treat their own mind as an artifact and so change it from the root up. And who are then able to pass on that transformed consciousness to the next generation so that they are able to build on that progress. This is the spiritual story of human kind.
It is the growth happening within each person. To reach that kind of self-awareness and self-transformation. This is the main difference between you and the acorn. The acorn’s meaning unfolds without its awareness. Your meaning unfolds essentially through your awareness, and so how you guide your awareness and nurture it and take care of it is essential to your own growth.
The spiritual dimension of your being is unfolding at this moment, and at every moment of your life. It is the next stage of your consciousness, just as a sexual awakening is the next stage of teenager’s growth. Your daily consciousness is but a fraction of your overall consciousness – a mere tip of the iceberg of awareness. The unfolding towards a greater awareness of the iceberg is the inner journey beyond the outer journey of the physical body’s growth.
You might resist it, or deny it. But the growth in you continues to happen. You might love it and want it to happen faster. But the growth in you continues at its pace. Find that growth in you, and the pace at which it is happening, and you will discover the unfolding of your meaning, and the purpose of your life.
It is right there, within you, waiting to be discovered. And when you see it, it is like seeing an old friend who you knew all along you would meet again.
Yoga demands a total dedication of the life to the aspiration for the discovery and embodiment of the Divine Truth and to nothing else whatsoever… You must go inside yourself and enter into a complete dedication to the spiritual life. All clinging to mental preferences must fall away from you, all insistence on vital aims and interests and attachments must be put away, all egoistic clinging to family, friends, country must disappear if you want to succeed in yoga.
– Sri Aurobindo, Internal Yoga
There are great upheavals happening our world – political, social, technological. Watching the news, things seems unpredictable, chaotic, transformative. But for good or for bad? Sides are being chosen. And people call out, “Don’t be silent. Don’t pretend to be neutral. Choose a side now, before it is too late!”
In this situation, Aurobindo’s quote is a great soothing balm.
There are always upheavals happening in the world. Old regimes topple, new regimes arrive promising heaven on Earth. Each side claims only it can lead the way, and claims you have to choose them now, before all is lost.
Currently, the big issue, if you are on the left, is whether Democracy will survive. The issue is raised with a pitch of frenzy and urgency. I can understand where they are coming from. But no – I will not embrace the frenzy and the anxiety.
I am here on Earth mainly to grow spiritually – to be with the Divine. That is my primary task. My primary task isn’t to ensure whether this form of government or that form, this form of economy or that form thrives. Christ was born in a time without democracy. So was the Buddha. It didn’t diminish their lives any less for that. By modern standards, they were “unfree”, subjugated (Buddha after he left his kingdom, anyway!), rendered voiceless. All true in a sense. In an important sense.
And yet! Oh, what a yet!
And yet, they lived a full life, as full a life as imaginable, because they lived primarily for their spiritual calling on Earth. They lived for spiritual awakening, for the Divine, for the Truth of a cosmic awareness.
This is the main task. My main task for myself. What Christ calls me to do – to be with Him!
Like with the left, I understand the concerns of the right. The world seems to be hurtling into a choatic free for all, where traditional ways of life and cultures and modes of interaction are being upended. Or so it seems very much. And I also want to say “Merry Christmas!” and mean it to speak of the Lord who died for my sins, rather than a mundane “Happy Holidays!” which speaks to an economic event.
And yet! Oh, thank god for that yet!
The purpose of my life is to be with Christ. To find that connection within me, every moment, every second. To nurture that relationship at all costs, prior to all needs. It is the most personal and immediate relationship. And no one can get between me and Christ. No one can inhibit my relation to Him. There is no threat to me, as long as I look to Christ and make him the center of my life. In that relation is a deep peace, a deep fulfillment. A deep awareness of the passing ups and downs of cultures, times, empires, traditions.
I was born to be with Christ. To realize that relation to Him. To nurture it, to grow in it, to feel it within me with a bond that cannot be broken. That is the purpose of life. That is the purposes of yoga, of the spiritual calling at the heart of every human being.
Raise to that calling! Embrace it! Live just for the Divine, and not for what the mental attachments of what your mind says, no matter how important or how big, or how much it concerns famous people living in famous buildings doing famous things.
Revolutions are happening out there, yes. True. But the deepest revolution is always happening not out there, but in you. Be revolutionary. Change the world. Embrace the Divine in you, and live as it seems impossible to do.
Likewise, traditions are in danger. Cultures are being lost. Yes. True. But the deepest and oldest and greatest tradition is not other there, but in you. Be a stand for tradition. Uphold the past. Do what the great humans of the past did: live for the Divine in you, without expecting the Divine to live for you in the way you imagine.
The whirlwinds in the world blow always. Sometimes they die down a little, sometimes they rise up into major storms. But either way, your life isn’t decided by the whirlwinds. It is decided by what you were born to do.
There is much talk of globalism nowadays. I like this, as it is us coming to grips with our shared human situation. At the same time, much of the talk of globalism – pro and con – is confusing, because it blurs together so many different concepts of globalism.
I believe the 21st century is the dawn of a new era of human life. Future generations will look at this time the way we now look back to the Axial Age in the 5th century BC, or the Islamic middle ages, or the Western Enlightenment. But a new era means the conceptual framework for that era is also in its infancy, and so many of the concepts and distinctions that will be natural to people living in 2100 or later are for us still in their fledgling form.
Globalism is one such concept. There are so many things it means. Some we are already living with and are non-negotiable parts of our lives. Some we might want but don’t have. Some we are not sure we want or can have. And some which we probably don’t want or is impossible at any rate.
Natural science globalism (Already here): In thinking about quantum mechanics or how the body works, it doesn’t matter in the least what one’s national or cultural identities are. All one needs is to be part of the conversation of science. Also true for technology. This kind of globalism started several millennia ago, but really ramped up in the last two centuries. The global infrastructure of the natural science and technological communities binds all of us now.
Human science globalism (Started and in early stages): This is trickier. There are obvious senses in which fields like psychology, anthropology and economics apply to all human beings, and they have developed in the last 100 years. And yet, these areas concern our modes of life that are fully cultural – which raises the question whether we have an understanding of ourselves as human beings which is global. That such a global understanding is possible in some sense and necessary, I don’t doubt. But what it means to have it is a big, wide open issue. For example, what does it mean to have a global human history, since the dawn of hominids to the present? Big history as a field attempts to tell such a story (humans from hunter gatherers to agricultural age to industrial age to beyond), and surely this is deeply right in some sense. But still, the question hangs in the air: is human history the kind of thing which can have just one narrative?
Philosophy-wisdom-religion globalism (Just starting): Philosophy aims to reflect on issues which pertain to all humans as humans. Same with wisdom and religion. Every culture has, and has had, some form of philosophical thinking. So what does a global philosophy look like, which incorporates the philosophical and wisdom traditions of Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, Australia and the Americas? No one knows. Collectively, we have a breadth of knowledge of traditions which was not there for previous generations. Yet, individually, no know so far has managed to integrate anything like a truly global perspective of philosophy. The Axial age 2,500-3,000 years ago was when humans developed the very idea of a global philosophy – something which applies irrespective of culture, gender, race, etc. Zoroaster, Socrates, Buddha, Christ – there was a universal scope to their views which heralded a global perspective. But it is one thing to make a universal claim, another to truly achieve it. 3,000 years after the dawn of modern religion and philosophy, we are entering a century which might take the next steps forward.
A global culture (Developing in one sense; impossible in another): Sometimes this is meant as if all local cultures are going to merge into one, mega, global culture. In one sense, insofar as people of all backgrounds are living and interacting together, this is in progress. But in another sense, this is far fetched and impossible. There isn’t going to be one culture – Human culture – which all humans will partake of, such that divisions between peoples will disappear. This idea vastly under-estimates the necessity of difference in human identity. There is not going to be one global culture – one way that people of all background will coexist – but there will be innumerable global cultures – many ways that of coming together to embrace global perspectives. A global era will be defined not by a kumbaya unity, but by the arguments/differences/contrasts of different ways of having a global perspective.
We are already seeing this in our politics. Contra liberals who see Trump as just the id of past racism, Trump is ushering in a new era with its disagreements about what taking a global perspective means – who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, who should “we” be friends with, what are the issues on the global stage. What is developing are the contours of the debates of the coming century – debates about how to interpret and cultivate the reality that all nations are in some deep sense intertwined. We are all starting to understand ourselves as one big, global family. But, of course, families are filled with strife about themselves, and that is where we are headed.
Intra-national globalism (Developing): Globalism is often taken to mean a perspective on the whole globe. But there is another sense of globalism that has formed in the last fifty years. This sense contrasts with racial nationalism, which claims that nations are defined by a racial and cultural identity. Opposed to this is what might be called pluralist nationalism, which defines a nation mainly in terms of its laws and citizenship, and is compatible with pluralism of cultures, values, races and backgrounds.
A racial nationalist like Richard Spencer conflates Inter-national globalism with Intra-national globalism. The idea being that if American becomes a true melting pot of cultures, there is some international network of globalists who are trying to make this happen. Of course, that is not true. Even if American ends immigration altogether, there is still the fact that its existing citizens come from a great variety of cultures and backgrounds. Diverse Americans living together suggests a globalness, though it is not something that goes beyond national boundaries.
* Politics – Institutions
Global government (To be determined): The above kinds of globalism are compatible with their not being any global government. But should there be a global government. Many opponents of globalism see this as the big bug bear of globalism. As if any move towards pluralism or diversity is a move towards a global government, which is then seen as fascist. Paranoia aside, there is still a big open question of what global governance can mean, and how feasible it is. Diversity as in intra-national globalism above is already a big issue. How can it be navigated at the inter-national level? Also, how to do so without further separating the majority of people from the power in the hands of the ultra-rich?
Open-borders globalism (To be determined): This is another big worry for the anti-globalists. As if embracing globalism in any form immediately implies leveling any boundaries between nations. It doesn’t help when proponents of diversity affirm the same implication. Perhaps this is the future. Perhaps not. But this is not implied by globalism as such, and not even if there is a global government. Open borders globalism is ultimately a balance between the right to self-determination (the right to, say, have a border wall) with the claims of morality and human decency (if people are seeking asylum or escaping disasters in their previous country). This is really tied to…
Disaster globalism (Imminent for all; already a reality for some): A big natural disaster which wipes out a major city, or a small country. Or nuclear war. Or artificial intelligence turns rogue. Or aliens. Well, maybe that last one won’t happen soon. But the others are real possibilities in the coming decades. At which point globalism in its starkest form – all countries on Earth working together to face a common problem – will go from being a hippie fantasy to an urgent reality. When that times comes, the more ground work we have laid for a global perspective – not just logistically and economically, but also intellectually, socially and philosophically – the better off we will be. Otherwise, we will have to fight the reality even as we continue to fight each other and our own habits of more local ways of thinking.
* The Future
Teleological globalism (Will be what we make of it): Perhaps the most basic form of globalism is the sense that all humans are headed towards a common goal. Whether this is in the form of a religious heaven, or a Hegelian or Marxist future state, or a Nietzschean or Aurobindoesque post-human consciousness, this teleological end is not guaranteed by nature. We might become extinct, or head back to a post-apocalyptic hunter-gather stage. But such a teleological end is part of our own shared consciousness as human beings. Not in the sense of where nature is inevitably taking us. But in the sense of: where do we want to go ourselves? What do we want to make of ourselves? What future do we want? What obstacles and what lower forms of consciousness do we want to overcome?
Though they are our ancestors, we cannot now imagine or inhabit the consciousness of hunter-gatherers 100,000 years ago. We have come a long way since then. Our genes might be basically the same, and so might our brains. But our culture, our habits, our social, cognitive infrastructure has changed deeply, and along with it, our modes of awareness, self-reflection and understanding of the world. But there is so much more we do not know, and so much more love and care we can nurture in our lives and interactions. We are not the end point of human cultural evolution. We are but a stage. And our shared journey beyond our current stage binds us together, as we grow together towards the potential of a greater, more heightened awareness.
It is better to do one’s own dharma, even though imperfectly, than to do another’s dharma, even though perfectly. By doing one’s innate duties, a person does not incur sin. (The Bhagavad-Gita, 18:47)
This week, as I watched the Trump-Putin new conference and the subsequent coverage, I have been pondering this quote from The Gita.
Unlike many of the commentators, I don’t find Trump’s friendliness to Putin, or Trump trusting Putin more than he trusts his own intelligence community, that surprising. Even a cursory attention to people like the alt-righter Alex Jones or the white supremacist Richard Spencer shows that many people in America (how many?) feel greater affinity to white nationalists in other countries than they do to fellow Americans who they see as globalists.
On this view, all the following are basically the same: liberal democracy, globalism, a global state, multi-culturalism, feminism, anti-colonialism, secularism, liberal fascism, etc. And opposed to it is are basically various forms of nationalisms, where to each nation there corresponds a people bonded along cultural and racial lines. So each nation belongs, first and foremost, to the unique people who culturally define it.
So, then, on this view, the big fight now is between nationalists and globalists. The nationalists want nothing more – from their perspective – than to have their country, as it is true to their culture and race. They are simply trying to be themselves. And then here come these globalists imposing a fake/false/imperialistic universal framework which they are trying to impose on everyone else.
I have no doubt that when the cameras aren’t around this is how Trump talks to his friends. And how he talks to Putin and Kim Jong Un. Trump’s famed confidence that he can make deals with these autocrats is just the confidence that he and them can get aligned against the globalists. The issue isn’t democrats vs republicans, or capitalism vs communism, or even democracy vs dictatorship. Those are all by and by. The main issue is seen as: a global cadre of elites have formed in the last 50 years, who espouse multiculturalism and anti-colonialism and feminism and all other such “good” things, and in the name of that goodness, they are taking most of the wealth for themselves. This cadre is diverse in gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and so because of that diversity, it assumes that it has found a universal framework for all people. This group presumes that it is more enlightened because it embraces people beyond culture, race, religion and nationality. And the “main stream media” gives them the praise and adoration, since it is part of this cadre itself. So people like Trump and Putin, though wealthy, feel as if their not being globalists limits their ability to have more wealth – and, as importantly, to have prestige and admiration. So they feel more affection for each other than to, as they see it, globalists who are betraying America and Russia.
This isn’t to deny that Putin might have something on Trump. Or that Trump’s finances might be tied into Russian money. Things which give Putin leverage over Trump. But it is to say that beyond that, there is here an alignment of resentiments and worldviews against the coalition of “globalists” like Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, George Soros, etc. (women, blacks, jews, etc.).
Much of the dizzying sense around Trump and his actions in our politics and media is created by the confluence of two facts:
- Trump is operating with a framework of globalists versus nationalists, and
- The American cultural, media and political consciousness is still mired in the framework from the last 50 years, in which it is unthinkable that a prominent American might feel he has more in common with a Russian than he does with many of his fellow Americans.
Ironically, while nationalists like Trump and Steven Bannon are so intent on physical boundaries around America, they are doing more than anyone to explode the old conceptual boundaries of America. It’s an issue even beyond race. Trump seems more comfortable with a non-white nationalist like Kim Jung Un than with a white, spreading freedom globalist like George W. Bush.
I predict that as our media and political consciousness itself comes to adopt the globalists vs nationalists framework, much of Trump’s actions will stop seeming mysterious, and thereby will stop seeming miraculous and as if he can never be held accountable. Right now he is gliding in between the old and the new frameworks, and so getting by without being held responsible in one or the other.
So, what does all this have to do with the Gita quote?
It’s a reminder to myself to keep doing my dharma, and not to get lost in all the cultural upheavals of the moment. I am not just a spectator of the history that is happening out there out in the world, or on TV. I am a part of the history myself. Trump has his dharma. Putin has his. Robert Muller has his. Politicians have theirs. Academics have theirs. And I have mine. Everyone’s dharma is to listen to the voice of God in them and to not worry about the dharma of others. Whether they are able to do that will determine how joyful and peaceful a life they lead, and ultimately how transformative.
The seismic shifts happening our culture and politics are huge. And they can be confusing and disorienting. But as long as one listens to one’s own dharma without worrying about the dharma of others, one can be grounded in that reality, the true reality. One then still feels in control, or at least not out of control. For one is then not trying to control others or the world. Not trying to control how Trump or Putin or the Republicans or the Democrats or the media should act, but focusing only on the source of inspiration within oneself. Content in the awareness that the inspiration within oneself which doesn’t put down others is the greatest and the shortest path towards a brighter future, and that such inspiration is always within us and guiding us. All we have to do is listen.
What does spirituality imply for daily human life? How does a spiritually realized person act?
It is natural to imagine how Christ or Buddha would act in a given situation. When one is cut off in traffic. When someone vents their emotions at us. Or in the midst of daily human drama of family, work, politics, personal anxieties and social upheavels. We imagine the Buddha would be serene, calm, blissful, at peace. That he would overcome all anger, resentment and fear. He would be still, unmoved, unperturbed by the ceaseless flow of life in all its forms.
So far, so good. This is a wonderful ideal to imagine, to strive for. As long as one doesn’t take it too seriously. As long as one looks on the ideal as well with a Buddha smile as a mental projection our mind tends to foster.
Spirituality is fundamentally about being. Just being. To grow into a larger awareness of ourselves and all things as part of the same fabric of Being.
Being implies only being.
It doesn’t imply what clothes to wear, what music to listen to, what food to eat, what books to read, what people to hang out with. And it doesn’t imply what emotions to foster or look down on, what actions to admire or curtail. Being sees itself in all things, as all things have being. All things are an aspect of being. All things participate fully in being.
A reader sent me a blog post on anger by the author Derrick Jensen. In it Jensen is concerned to resist a kind of spiritual forcedness which is pretty common. He is annoyed by Buddhists who tell him that we shouldn’t worry about the extinction of animals since it all part of the flow of nature. Or that we should never be angry, even at oppressors or abusers. Or that we should never be violent, even if we are being physically attacked.
Jensen thinks this is a bunch of crap. I agree. If I am being mugged, I will do what I will do. How I find it appropriate to act in that moment. As long as I am comfortable with myself, I will be comfortable with however I choose to act in that moment, be it with or without violence. With or without anger.
When people talk about how a spiritual person should or would act in this or that circumstance, or what emotions they should or would have, I get a little cautious. Because I know what I am about to hear are some strong mental projections of this other person’s mind. Most of the time my mind is already projecting a lot, with how as a spiritual aspirant I should be acting. How I am failing in this regard, or how I am better than others or worse than others, or how far short of the ideal I am falling in this or that regard. This is the constant mental static of normal consciousness. So when others externalize that static, that too with an assumption of spiritual awakening, I guard myself. Because I know what is about to happen in me as a result of me listening to this person waxing enlightenment. The spiritual competitor in me is about to awaken, and boy, am I going to enjoy dissecting the other person’s delusions and arrogance. And in the process get caught in the rip tide of my own projections.
People usually seem eager to draw, or seek, practical implications of spirituality. What it means for politics. For environmentalism. For human relationships. Marriage. Parenting. For many years I was like this myself. So eager to emulate the great spiritual figures. To really understand spirituality and practice it by focusing on how I should let it guide my beliefs and actions. And how I can spread the right beliefs and actions.
But spirituality doesn’t give answers like that. About what to do. It doesn’t divide the world in that way. At least not in the strait forward way we want.
What Wittgenstein said about philosophy is more apt for spirituality (though for him there was no distinction between the two):
“Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language, it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.”(Philosophical Investigations, section 124)
This was the deeply meditative aspect of Wittgenstein’s thinking. I think there is a lot of philosophy of which this isn’t true. A lot of philosophy and even spirituality doesn’t leave everything as it is. But of philosophy as the core of spirituality, it is right on.
The aim isn’t to do spirituality in order to come up with answers which will then guide action. The aim instead is to be without the distorting effects of language and thought. What causes pain and confusion isn’t that we don’t know the right thing. It is the manner in which we are trying to know. It is the projections we are unconsciously making about what being is.
So when someone says, “spirituality means never being angry”, they are really substituting one projection (“he wronged me! I will show him!”) with another projection (“I will be at peace and not angry. And you should too!”)
Wittgenstein’s point – like the Buddha’s and Christ’s – is that trying to figure out if anger as such is justified is a fool’s errand. One might as well wonder if hunger or thirst or an itch as such are justified. And well, many do, assuming overcoming hunger or thirst as such is needed to be spiritual. As if hunger is anger of the stomach, and surely we should resist all anger! And so one starves oneself and tells others to do that as part of the spiritual life.
Here understanding anger or a universal prescription about avoiding anger is treated as a precondition for how to be with one’s own anger. It is like saying, “Before I fulfill my hunger, I need to understand if it’s ok to eat at all.” But in spirituality there is no need for such a precondition. Better to simply be with the anger – be with one’s feeling of it – than to judge it or determine if it is justified.
Wittgenstein’s descriptive methodology is often taken to be a form of conservativism. As the opposite of Marx’s dictum: “Philosophers have only sought to interpret the world. The point, however, is to change it.” As if Wittgenstein didn’t even get to the interpreting part, but got stuck at describing!
But Wittgenstein is not substituting sociology for philosophy. He is bringing out the spiritual and the meditative aspect of philosophy. That what soothes our existential pain is not this as opposed to that projection, but simply being aware of the projecting nature of the mind. Live into that stillness and openess, and on the other side are not answers you can pass on to others (“Don’t worry about the environment” “Never be angry”) but better, the real discovery that “gives philosophy peace so that it is not tormented by questions which bring itself into question.”(Philosophical Investigations, 133)
It is the irony of spirituality that the more one is able to just be, without seeking change as the mind projects it, the more the changes one needs will happen. The projecting mind is like us whipping ourselves, thinking that if I whip myself in just the right way, it will foster growth and heal my pain. What the projecting mind fails to see is that the main obstacle to growth is the whipping itself. If we stop whipping ourselves, the body will naturally heal and grow.
In contrast to the Buddhist who disavows anger altogether, Jensen suggests that there is no point or need to transcend anger. That it is a natural emotion, often suited to its situation, as long as it doesn’t involve abusing people. He says, “Anger is just anger.”
I get what he means. But it strikes me as unhelpful. Of course, anger is natural. And loved ones often swipe at each other in anger only to have it pass soon enough. Still, it is not easy to distinguish the harmless anger that his dogs which love each other and yet exhibit towards each other when hungry from the harmful anger which might make his dogs attack a passing cat.
Anger, even in its low key form, is like gas. You don’t want gas spilled around your house, because irrespective of whether you have a small fire or a big explosion, the gas will catch fire and spread. Likewise, if I keep thinking that this small anger and that small anger are justified, it will be that much harder to control when a bigger anger starts to boil up. Instead, putting out the small angers, the seemingly helpful ones because they don’t seem that dangerous, goes a long way to being able able to manage and not get carried away when the bigger angers come.
Anger is like a hot blooded friend who is eager to fight to protect you. It is too extreme to unfriend him because he is overzealous in his desire to protect you. Nor is it wise to let him continue venting at others and causing you headaches in the name of protecting you. You don’t have to banish the friend or justify him. Instead be a kind and firm friend to him. Tell him you appreciate his desire to protect you, but that you don’t need protection. That you value his friendship but don’t need a guard. That he doesn’t need to protect you for him to have your affection and friendship. Then the anger will slowly dissipate on its own, leaving you with a good friend (the mind without the anger) who will walk with you in peace and serenity.
I get a lot out of reading The Bible and The Bhagavad Gita. Similarly, I get a lot out of praying to Christ and to Krishna. Sometimes I pray to one, and sometimes I pray to the other. I feel no tension in this, as both are to me different forms of the divine. I believe there is a common truth to Christianity and Hinduism, and that common truth is the essence of religion and spirituality. It is the same common truth I find in spiritual atheism such as in Buddhism, Stoicism and Taoism.
What is this common truth? In Christianity and Hinduism, it is: Surrender to God in all things.
Usually when discussing this kind of view, the focus runs to “God”, and what we mean by that. People who don’t believe the common truth view (be they religious or atheist) dismiss it on the grounds that “obviously” Christ and Krishna are different: where they were born, the miracles they did, the way they spoke. In the same light, it is said: “obviously” Christians and Hindus practices and beliefs are different: how they pray, what they attribute to God, the religious books they read, the buildings they pray in and so on.
In dismissing the common view, there is then an immediate reductive understanding of God. In Christianity, God is how Christians understand Him and how they worship Him. Similarly, in Hinduism, God is how Hindus understand him and how they worship Him.
Surely, this is putting the cart before the horse, as if the Christian God is determined by how Christians act. As if Christ and Krishna must be different because many Christians and Hindus insist on arguing with each other.
How Christian and Hindus understand God or the cultural practices of worship they use to communicate with God cannot define the religions, since in both religions – as in all religions – it is foundational that God is beyond human understanding.
Now, if no matter what you say, I say, “God is mysterious” and so you should listen to me and not question my understanding, that is surely cheating. So there are good and bad ways of recognizing that God is beyond human understanding.
The point isn’t to have a blanket “God is mysterious” response whenever you are challenged by anyone. Rather, it is to recognize God’s mystery as a way of surrendering one’s deepest anxieties, fears, anger, frustration to Him, as opposed to venting them towards other people, or even towards oneself.
There is no belief one can point to as the common truth of Christianity and Hinduism not because there is no common truth, but because the common truth isn’t a belief. It is a mode of practice. And the practice itself isn’t cultural or ritualistic. Nothing you can point to, nothing like praying this way as opposed to that way, and say, “That – doing that always is the essence of Christianity.”
The lack of common belief doesn’t mean Christianity and Hinduism are incommensurable. In fact, many Christians don’t have any common belief or even religious practice in common with each other. And same with Hindus. The illusion of an essential property of Christianity, which sets it apart from Hinduism, is created not because all Christians have some prior thing in common (belief, practice, dogma, history, causal chain, etc.), and the same with Hindus. The illusion of an essential property is created precisely because one sees Christianity in terms of a we over here versus a them over there.
Separating oneself from the Other gives rise to the feeling that there must be something which defines us differently than what defines them. Once this move is made, then all the umpteen differences in beliefs, practices, histories, skin colors, geography present themselves as just more and more confirmation that yes, the foundational move of separation was correct.
Usually in response, proponents of the common belief water down what is meant to be in common, such that it starts to seem less and less spiritual. So it is said what all religions have in common is that we should be good people, should love one another, should not steal, etc. But this renders the essence of religion so mundane that it raises the point of religion at all. Instead of seeming like Christianity and Hinduism are both saying something amazing, it seems as if both are saying the same good, but pedestrain thing.
The unity of religions is not a belief to be argued for. It is an experience to be cultivated.
I wouldn’t go around telling people, who are not wont to believe it, that all religions are the same. Because that mode of interaction constrains the message which can be communicated. You cannot beat someone down to prove to them that peace is the only way.
Once the experience is cultivated of the unity of religions, the same applies to between religions and atheism.
Are Christianity and Buddhism radically different? Again, certainly, if taken in some of their textual, cultural forms. But no so different at all, if one experiences the world as they suggest – to live beyond the finite mind into the infinite. What they have in common is the mode of living which their best practitioners instantiate, and the energy which is transmitted in the inspiration through which their texts were written and their lives were led.
Here we get a deep link between the issues of living a spiritual life and debate, both academic and everyday debate. For example, as with ancient skepticism or, in the 20th century with Wittgenstein, that moving beyond a particular debate is sometimes as important and essential as answering the debate from within the terms in which it is set.
We don’t always have to take debates as they are given to us. New, productive moves don’t have to be made only by accepting the framework of the ideas. Often, and in the deepest instances, the necessary move is to move beyond the debate – to grow into seeing the world in a new way such that the categories of the debate become transformed.
The unity of spirituality is like that. The unity is not something that can be shown through debate. It is, first and foremost, to be experienced. Which is not to say that one just sits around passively for the experience. Nor that it is something mystical and unsayable. But is unsayable if one accepts ordinary frameworks, which are set up presupposing there is no unity, and that different spiritual frameworks work in a zero sum environment.
Live the unity. Breath it in. Experience it. See God as Christ and Krishna. See reality as God and also as the Universe, the way an atheist sees it. Live without being wedded to one conceptual framework over the other. Live in the ecstacy and openness of not being hemmed in by concepts and frameworks which are passsed on without reflection. Live into the open, unknown possibility inherent in the present moment. Be like Christ. And Krishna. And Buddha. And in being like them, you will feel the unity of their being.
Couple of questions raised by newfie931 to the previous post:
As we go through this process, do we forsake the possibility of being in a loving romantic relationship?
Another question is, to what extent is this radical turning inward, this focus on personal transformation, sustainable without ever having to fight others?
These are very important questions, which I struggle with every day.
My response comes down to the concept of spiritual selfishness.
The questions get their grip by a contrast we often draw between spirituality and everyday life. This contrast then gets drawn as spirituality as selflessness and everyday life as selfishness. As if spirituality means giving up our interests, while ordinary life means holding onto our interests. And so it becomes an issue – an often pressing, confusing issue – how spirituality can be compatible with our interests such romantic love or fighting someone who is mugging us.
The way out of this tension is to see that spirituality is about letting go of our ego interests for the sake of our deepest, most personal interests. The tension only gets going when we identify the ego – understood as the self in competition with other selves – as the deepest source of our interests/needs/desires. On this identification with the ego, I want always get understood as a relational, comparative thing: as in, I want what he has, or I want what I deserve and others are keeping from me, or I want what will make me respectable in others’ eyes.
Call such comparative wanting ego selfishness. In contrast, spiritual selfishness is embracing one’s interests/needs/desires without making it comparative. In ego selfishness, the push for the wanting comes from a sense of where one feels one ought to be in a group hierarchy. In spiritual selfishness, the push for the wanting entirely from within oneself, altogether independent of a sense of where one ought to be in relation to others.
The irony is we normally think that ego selfishness consists of the (a) brute, (b) a-social and (b) deepest selfishness within us. As if the ego selfishness within is like a solitary animal roaming the savana. But all three assumptions are false.
Ego selfishness isn’t a brute part of us at all. It is a highly socially cultivated part of us. For example, I am walking on a spring day, and I see a beautiful girl. Hot, as we say. She looks like she walked out of a billboard. And I am drawn to her, to pay attention to her. How do we characterize this attention? We might say, “It’s the sex impulse. Biological.” But, simple phenomenology, some self-awareness to what I am feeling and thinking in the moment and to my own situation, shows this is incorrect.
If she was my girlfriend or wife, I feel drawn to her in one way. If I am single, I am drawn to her in another way. If I am in an unhappy marriage, I am drawn in another way. If I am in a happy marriage, yet a different way, or even maybe not much at all.
If I am single, and unhappy about it and resent it, I am drawn to her thinking about how she might be someone else’s girlfriend. How that guy gets to kiss her and hold her and talk to her. And why does he get to do that, while I don’t? Life is so unfair! How full his life must be to be with someone like her. And how full her life must be, to be like a model, and she seems rich. She lives in a world I don’t. Damn it all! I want that!
In the “I want that”, what is the that? It is not just sex, and not even mainly sex. The that is a whole social world and sphere, which one feels cut out of. Or not appropriately successful in. The sexual impulse itself becomes a marker for that insecurity, but the desire – the ego desire – is deeply socially mediated. The ego desire is, first and foremost, for recognition of the ego as a thriving self within a set social domain. That is what the ego wants.
Obviously, then, ego selfishness is also not a-social. It is extremely social. It is a mode of being social. A mode of wanting a certain place and recognition and status in society, be it one’s family or community or at work or the world at large. The ego impulse isn’t a bit of brute, individualistic force which comes just from within. It is fundamentally a force to be seen in certain ways in social groups one cares about.
The power of ego selfishness is that it seems like the deepest, personal desire we have. To the single person resentfully, or forlornly, looking at the happy couple, it feels like wanting to be like that – like them – is the deepest desire within him. I know this feeling, as I suspect everyone does in some way or other.
When I was in grad school, at a certain point my girlfriend (later my wife) broke up with me, and my thesis was going nowhere, and I wanted to drop out of grad school. Feeling alone without a relationship and without a career I was happy with, and feeling lost to both India and America, as if I was a nomad without a community, lost in the margins, I sat on a park bench, and watched happy, academic couples walk by, holding hands talking about balancing their work and their relationship, and where they would go to dinner with friends and the bars and concerts and vacations – and sitting on that park bench, I felt my deepest desires were being thwarted. Because it felt like my deepest desire was to be like them, to have what they have. And the pain of not having it – and why not, what was wrong with me, what is so misshapen and broken and ugly about me – made me despair, and I wanted to kill myself. Then I felt my deepest desire was what my ego wanted, and felt it needed. That the starvation of my ego – and my ego was starved, hungry, malnourished by not having what I felt I deserved – was the same as my starvation.
In my experience, this is how people normally walk around. Not as explicitly all the time as I felt on that park bench, but with that despair lurking in the background. As happened with me. Later, I got back together with my girlfriend, finished my thesis, got married, got an academic job. And yet the despair was lurking. Because the marriage and career I had seemed so … much less, so much more broken, so much more mediocre, than what They, the thriving, happy people, had. So much less than what I wanted and needed, and – yes, most of all – deserved. This ego impulse of frustration came through in the fights I would have with my wife and my colleagues, the isolation and depression and self-stigmatizing I was prone to.
And mostly I felt stuck. After all, if the ego desires are the deepest impulses within me, and those desires seem thwarted, then what can one do but despair?
The reality – which only dawned on me slowly, later on – is that the problem with the ego selfishness isn’t the selfishness part, but the ego part. Because by caring so much about how I looked in the world of others, and whether I had what others had or not, and why they got to have a happy academic careers, whereas I was torn between worlds in a way which made me dis-identify with my academic situation – what all that meant was that, really, I wasn’t living my own life.
The problem wasn’t that I was too selfish. It was that I wasn’t selfish enough. And not selfish in the right way. In a way that actually worked for me, and for my deepest needs/desires/goals.
I started to be happier when I realized that being truly, deeply, really happily selfish is a skill. That ego selfishness is actually a lower grade of selfishness. Ego selfishness is selfishness constantly seen through the gaze of the Other – a selfishness which gives all the power away to those who the ego wants to be recognized by, and then fights and screams and vents and complains that others have all the power, and constantly schemes and plans about how to take that power back in fits and starts, here and there, through this argument and that power struggle.
To see ego selfishness as a lower form of selfishness is to awaken to the spirit within oneself. To trust that spirit is to let It – whether in the form of God, or a Buddhist self-awareness – guide your desires/needs/goals. Knowing that being free of the constant comparison with others which is the foundation of ego selfishness, deeper parts of you and what you want and what you were always perhaps afraid to acknowledge and let grow within you can now grow freely and without obstacles.
The deepest desire of the self – the core of selfishness – isn’t for things. Cars. mansions. Nor even for recognition. Fame. prestige. Or even knowledge. Cure for cancer. Solution to the trolley problem in ethics. Or even doing good. Helping the homeless. Being kind to a neighbor.
The deepest desire is, as for any living creature, for growth. And in humans, unlike most other animals, there is growth beyond physical growth. One can be fully physically mature, at 30, and still crave growth. One can even be on a physical decline, at 90, and still crave growth. There is a kind of growth which humans care for, which is for growth without limit. For limitless growth. Or, as we might say, growth into the infinite within us.
This growth is impossible as long as one identifies with the ego, and assumes that selfishness of the ego defines the parameters of growth and desire within oneself. We are meant to grow beyond the ego to fulfill our deepest desires.
Ego selfishness is wanting ice cream for every meal, as the only meal, because it tastes so good and isn’t that what life is all about? Spiritual selfishness is like wanting a nourishing, complete meal so that beyond the immediate satisfaction of taste, there is a deeper satisfaction to the body and soul.
Ego selfishness is listening to teen pop music, and thinking how free and self-realized this sixteen year old is fighting against adults to wear what he wants. Spiritual selfishness is like listening to Beethoven’s 9th, as one appreciates the expansion of the self into the infinite.
Ice cream isn’t bad. Life without it would be duller, especially on hot summer days. And teen pop isn’t bad. It gives hope and joy to millions. But that is not the same as flourishing into the deeper potential within us as humans.
Ego selfishness isn’t all bad. But it is confused, because it is prone to think of itself as the essence of selfishness, and thereby, the essence of life. Move beyond it to embrace spiritual selfishness, and it will incorporate all that is good in ego selfishness and help discard all that is bad and painful.
How this looks can differ from context to context, person to person. Sometimes you might fight the mugger, sometimes you might give him the money peacefully. Sometimes you might fight for romantic love, sometimes you might be ok without it. Spiritual selfishness isn’t about which way things turn out, in this or that instance. It is about how you are. Your being. Your mode of existence. Your growth. It makes the growth into the infinite – rather than the recognition of others – the focal point around which all else turns. That makes all the difference.