Anthropology and Religion

Our current discourse of religion and science is mired in 19th century contrasts and framing of issues. In Darwins time, nature was seen as mainly a non human realm, as if to see humans as natural meant seeing us as just molecules.

This inspite of the fact that from early in the 19th century Hegel and others were underlining the importance of culture for human beings. We are natural not because we are simply material but because we are cultural. But 200 years ago this appeal to culture was hand wavy at best and mixed with racism at worst.

The growth of anthropology and archeology in the last 200 years, as well as the rise of history and comparative religion at a truly global scale in the last 100 years, has helped us flush out what culture means for humans. And what it looked like 50,000, 5,000 years ago and 1,000 years ago.

Usually talk of the origins of religion fall prey to two problems. The religious think of origins only in terms of their chosen religion. What kind of experiences did Moses have of God? The answer is given only in terms of what is said in the Bible. As if any perspective beyond the Bible is essentially atheistic. On the other hand, atheists speak of origins by generalizing from the most dogmatic, unspiritual religious people they have encountered. So they reduce the origins of religion to the question of the origins of religious bigotry or stupidity.

Neither side takes the actual historical, anthropological perspective seriously. This is for a simple reason: their interest isn’t really the origins of religious consciousness or concepts, but using the idea of such history to attack the other side.

Something amazing happens when we take the anthropological perspective seriously. It dissolves much of the conceptual puzzles that normally pass for debates on religion.

When we think of a hunter gatherer tribe’s religious activity of dancing, chanting and their stories of their dream ancestors and their exploits with power animal ancestors, what jumps out – at least to me – is how far removed much of this conceptualization is from our current modes of thought. Even from our current modes of religious thought.

What we think of as the ancient religions – Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Homeric Gods, etc – are all comparatively recent in human history. No more than two to four thousand years ago. And all in the context very far removed from the hunter gatherer life. In fact, the ancient religions that are part of our current life all arose within civilizations that were a far cry from the hunter gatherer life.

This means to understand the origins of religion requires understanding the changes in forms of social organization. And how that relates to the convulsions of individual consciousness which gripped Zoroaster, Abraham or Yagnavalka.

I am a Hindu, born and bred. It is easy enough to know what that means: I grew up in a certain way and identify with it. But that gives me no special knowledge of what modes of awareness the Upanishadic sages were channeling when they recited the Upanishads. In fact, most Hindus, like many people in my family, never read the Upanishads or even the Gita. For them Hinduism consists of practices and prayers which they know not where they came from and which they don’t care about. Or rather: where they assume to seek to understand the origins of the beliefs is somehow irreligious. The beliefs and practices just hover in a timeless realm. Hence easily used for political or other uses.

This is the reality: most religious people don’t understand religion. Nor seek to understand it. Not because the religious truths go beyond the rational mind, though that is the excuse given. But because they identify religion with practices which they assume must be eternal or beyond our understanding.

This of course makes for an easy target for atheists. “Look how stupid the religious people are.” True. But that doesn’t mean the atheist understands the origins of religion any better. Or the origins of rational thought for that matter.

The anthropological perspective can free one from this dual limitedness of the typical theist and atheist and open up a newer, broader perspective. Which can show how religion arose and also what can continue to inspire.

Shamans

What is the best way I can contribute to (a) my well being and (b) the well being of our society? It is not by following the news everyday.

There is a lot happening politically. There are many people handling it all, in politics, news, culture at large. Some of this is good. Some bad. Some useless venting. It is up to each person to decide how to navigate this.

But one thing is seriously wrong: the idea, assumed by some on the left and right, that if one doesn’t have an immediate opinion on the latest news, then one is being complicit in the injustices of the other side.

This attitude forces all reflection onto the latest, newest issue. It equates stepping back to look at the bigger picture as caving to the other side.

Ultimately it is this need for instant impact which derails conversation and critical thinking.

I feel the force of this. Sometimes I log onto newsites or twitter every hour or half hour, needing the next hit of the latest reaction. Whether this is good or not depends on what one wants and one’s position. If you are Jake Tapper or George Conway, perhaps it is necessary given the role you are playing and the effect you can have.

But if you are me, someone just absorbing the news but without any outlet for what to do about it, it is harmful to my well being. I am not Jake Tapper. Or George Conway. Or Ta-Nehasi Coates. Or a modern day Hannah Arendt.

I have to ask myself what is my role in society. How does my well being coincide with the well being of society?

I am an intellectual shaman.

There have been shamans since the beginning of human communities. Their task is to look at the biggest picture possible about the direction of society and to create the intellectual, emotional and spiritual energies required help the society move in the best direction.

Shamans do this by first overcoming their own limited consciousness and so by detaching their immediate, local, personal concerns from the concerns of the society as a society. This detachment is transcendence.

The nature of thought is such that any person thinking assumes that just in virtue of thinking they achieve transcendence. Hence most everyone, minus those lack confidence, assume that they see the big picture, they see where society is and where it should be going, who is right and who is wrong.

Shamans though are the people who work on themselves to get beyond this surface feeling of transcendence to a deeper reality of transcendence. Who are able to separate immediate, knee jerk reaction from thoughtful, measured response. Who therefore might seem to the world as if they are being complicit or thinking too much or unconcerned about the immediate pain others are in right now or as if they just don’t care. But who actually are none of this, but are only a stand for a deeper perspective.

The shaman’s greatest work is the transformation of mood.

People usually fight, argue and don’t see eye to eye not mainly because they have different values or ideas or desires. It’s because they have different moods.

Giuliani is outraged by what Obama is unmoved by. Warren is horrified by what Pence is ok with. The moods function as spheres of protection which tell us who is our own and who is not.

Most people, even great politicians like Obama or Reagan, struggle to transform the mood. Their greatness lies in capturing the mood. That is what Trump did. He captured a mood and became its personification. The democrats are struggling to respond because they haven’t yet been moved by a single mood which can be personified by their leader. That leader will emerge in due course.

But even when the leader emerges, be with Warren or Biden or whoever in the next year or the next four years after that, they are still not aiming to shift the mood at the deepest level of human consciousness.

That hasn’t been the task of politicians. That we expect politicians to lead on all human ills speaks actually to the leveling of our human awareness.

Christ wasn’t a politician. Nor was the Buddha. Nor Lao Tzu. Even those who were more in the realm of politics in their day, like Confucius, usually weren’t successful in their day.

Politics isn’t the cutting edge of human consciousness. It never is. The cutting edge is always within oneself. Political gains or losses depend on chance and the shifting winds. Tying yourself to politics is like tying yourself to mad horse and thinking that you can control it. It is in its nature uncontrollable.

The shaman sees this. And so gains control by focusing on where the deeper levers of control are – namely, within ones own awareness.

Famous people look like they are controlling what is happening out in the world. They seem to have power. Whereas I don’t. Others listen to them. Not to me. They can afford great doctors and maybe even in the next century live for 150 years. I might get cancer or get run over tomorrow.

Is the big tree that is falling in greater control of itself than the small plant growing next to it?

Bigness isn’t a sign of control. It creates an illusion of control.

I can’t spend $10,000 on dinner. Jeff Bezos can. So he controls that which I can’t. I can list a million things like this that Bezos controls that I can’t.

I can’t call up generals or talk to world leaders. Trump can. Obama can. I can list an indefinite number of things like this that they control that I don’t.

Can Bezos or Trump control their emotions? Can they control their mood? Or grasp the unfolding of the human consciousness down the millennia?

Why would we think they can? Because they have money? Fame? Because their days are filled with important meetings?

Or due to this seeming asymmetry: Because their choices affect my life whereas my choices don’t affect their life?

This is an illusion. Which majority of people fall for but which the shaman overcomes.

The ordinary person sees Bezos, Trump, Obama, Modi, Brad Pitt and Einstein and thinks: they are better than me. More a person than I am. More fully alive. Leading more meaningful lives.

The shaman sees them and thinks: they are no different from me. The things they have are good but not necessary for a full life. They don’t give necessarily a bigger picture on life. Or an entrance into the heightened awareness which is available to everyone.

The non shamans define people by their outer appearance. The poor non shaman thinks he is poor, that is who he is. The rich non shaman thinks he is rich, that is who he is. The capitalist non shaman thinks this difference between the rich and poor is justified. The Marxist non shaman thinks the difference is wrong and the poor need to overtake the rich.

Of course the poor need help. But the shaman sees that the deepest engine of the help begins not out there but within his own heart and mind and consciousness.

What creates lasting change isn’t pushing the rock of change up the mountain of an uncaring world. It’s the shaman’s energy spreading from person to person so that new, previously unimagined possibilities arise and become second nature.

What needs to change primarily isn’t just our material circumstances or social institutions. But deeper beyond that, our very way of looking at the world and our perceptions and modes of awareness. And at the core one’s own way of looking at oneself.

Embracing Change

One side of me longs for the free air of a wider consciousness.

Another side of me fears the losses inherent in that freedom.

Tremors of past turbulent transformations linger in my bones, making me clutch what I have now lest I lose my grounding again.

At 11 I nearly lost my father to a heart attack. The same year we moved from India to America. I lost my India self with his India habits with his India friends and family. A decade’s worth of grounding, roots in habits and happiness. Torn and displaced, unclear why to the child’s mind, fearful of losing father and fatherland at once, unmoored. The first earthquake.

Two decades later I lost my academic self. Years of habit and anticipations of decades in the future of debate and friendship suddenly broke off, fell off, cut off. Moreover, lost not from negligence or outside forces but chosen by my own mind and will and choice. Which casts doubt in my own mind at times about itself and its trustworthiness. The second earthquake.

Can I handle another earthquake? Will another come? When, how, in what form?

Vigilant for the slightest tremor, anxious when the next big one will hit.

And yet bored by the present, the limits of my current awareness. Can I be freed from the shackles of my mind and habits without embracing radical change, the passing episodes of nature in which I am only a speck?

Like a baby bird learning to fly, which has fallen twice in its early attempts and fears the third and the fourth and the fifth attempts while on the edge of the branch waiting to try flight again, I teeter and tooter in my attempts at spiritual flight, anxious about leaving the ground and yet anxious to let go so as to be carried by the wind.

When will the next earthquake come? Or were they in the past not earthquakes at all, but just the rumble of my feet leaving the ground and coming down, again and again, as I pick up speed for an epic flight?

The Three Paths

In each moment there are three paths in front of us.

The familiar path is what we are used to. We know its ups and downs, its reliefs and pitfalls, its openings and dead ends. We know we can walk down this path, that it is available to us.

The covetous path is what we day dream about. What we wish, hope, crave would happen. We are unsure if it will happen and most of the time even are certain it won’t happen. But we long for it as what we wish would happen, and what should happen if only the world were better. More just. More fair. More rational. If only the world were different.

The mindful path is what opens up in between the familiar and what we covet. In between the lull of what we know we can do and grasping for what we wish we could do, there is a force which pulls us up with a serene energy. In which there isn’t the resignation of the familiar nor the thirst for the unfamiliar. In which the familiar becomes mysterious and translucent.

The familiar feels boring. The covetous feels exciting. The mindful turns the boring into the exciting.

The familiar is content with what we can have. The covetous longs for what is out of reach. The mindful opens up what is overlooked in what we have.

We are resigned to the familiar. We long for the coveted. We are at peace in the mindful.

The familiar is here. The coveted is there. The mindful is everywhere.

The familiar feels safe and stagnant. The coveted feels powerful and in motion. The mindful feels inspiring without movement.

The familiar changes little. The coveted changes a lot. The mindful changes our vision of change.

The familiar says, “I wish there were more to life, but for me this is my lot.”

The coveted says, “There is so much more to life, if only I weren’t dragged down by the world.”

The mindful says, “I am the cutting edge of the world, the tip of the breaking wave, unhindered and unhinderable.”

Truth, Power and Love

Donald Trump’s way of relating to truth shows something important.

Trump seems to see truth as secondary to identity. What he likes, what reenforces his beliefs and worldview, what makes his supporters like him is the truth. Anything that is critical of him or which makes him look bad is false, spread by the fake media.

What is primary for Trump is his own will to power. His own affirmation of who he wants to be. Since he sees himself as the best, anything that suggests otherwise is put into the category of doubting oneself – of letting others determine what you can or can’t do.

Trump doesn’t relate to the world as a spectator. He doesn’t start with a neutral description of the world and then situate himself within that reality. He starts instead with the reality he wants to see of himself and sees the world through that prism.

Contrary to all the worries about how Trump is creating a post-truth society, the problem with Trump’s relation to the truth isn’t that he doesn’t acknowledge truth as a neutral arbiter.

That can’t be the problem because truth can’t play the arbiter role on its own.

If two people disagree about something, so much so that they can’t agree on a fact which will decide the issue, there can be no fact which can play the arbiter role. Truth is like an umpire who calls balls and strikes. The claim of the umpire only holds if both teams agree on the rules of the game. If one team says they are playing cricket and the other team says they are playing baseball, and yet they disagree and are on the verge of fighting about whether the batter is out (this is pretty much most political arguments currently), what the umpire says isn’t going to settle the issue. For there is always the added question: does the umpire know what game is being played? Can he determine what game is being played? Or is his ability to determine whether the batter is out dependent on the players themselves, and on whether they agree on what game is being played?

Very little in everyday human life has truth as an arbiter as such. Is it sunny or cloudy? Are the Lakers a good team? Were Ross and Rachel on a break when Ross slept with the other woman? We normally navigate these issues not by resorting to truth as an arbiter but by getting aligned on what kind of game we are playing. If two people are fighting and don’t trust each other, they can fight about why the other person is wrong about the weather or the Lakers, or about the facts of who cheated on whom, when, where and why.

But surely somethings are just true or false, like if there is milk in the fridge or if it is raining right now outside the house? Actually, no. Not in the sense that the truth of the matter is prior to the coherence of the human interaction at stake. How much milk does there need to be for there to be milk in the fridge? This depends on what the practical tasks are for that milk. If it is for one bowl of cereal, perhaps there is milk. If for baking a cake for 30 people, then no. And what counts as raining: drizzling, a downpour, for how long, with what intensity? Depending on the context and the tasks at issue, the answers vary. There is no “the truth” attached to the abstract question “is there milk in the fridge?” or “Is it raining?”

Does this mean that truth is just whatever the powerful or the stronger person says it is? That is the worry raised by Trump. If truth can’t be a neutral arbiter, then how can we hold him accountable? Or hold anyone accountable? If truth can’t be an arbiter, is there only power?

I suspect, insofar as Trump might think about this kind of question, he might say “yes”. Like Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, Trump might think that truth, justice and so on are just what the strong says they are. Therefore don’t ever give in and apologize. Don’t ever agree anything you said is false or that your opponent said is true. For that would be a weakness, which gives your opponents a win and increases their power.

But this doesn’t follow. Truth as a neutral arbiter and the strong man’s power aren’t the only options. There is a third option rooted in compassion and love.

If two people are disagreeing so deeply that neither can agree on what fact might resolve the dispute, the deeper problem isn’t one of truth but of trust.

Marriage therapists know this. The issue is never really about which spouse is right or has the true beliefs (“You never take out the trash!” “I do too!”). The inability to agree on a common way of getting at the truth is a sign of the lack of trust between the two sides. If there is trust, then there is a momentum to work together and then to heed common norms. If there isn’t trust, even if one is shown truth as an arbiter (“Here is a video tape of the last year in the house, and you never took out the trash”), that itself would evoke a new round of resentment and anger (“You video taped me?! How dare you!”).

When there is a lack of trust, it doesn’t take much courage to give up shared norms and resort to brute power. It doesn’t take courage because that is what we naturally want to do when there is a lack of trust. Nor does it take much courage to assert the importance of shared norms only to say that shows you are right and they are wrong. Because that is also what is natural to do when there is a lack of trust.

When trust breaks down, courage is related not to truth directly, but to being willing to heal the wounds and to build trust.

This in fact requires a deeper commitment to truth. Wanting truth as the arbiter is the easy affirmation of truth. It doesn’t require any work to change on one’s own part – the truth shows the other side is wrong, and I just have to repeat the truth over and over again, in ever louder or nuanced ways.

The greater commitment to truth is the commitment to compassion. Which requires me to change my own assumptions and to see the world from the perspective of the other person. To step out of my shoes and see the world differently so that a deeper truth that neither of us can see can come to the surface when we work together.

Trump is right that fundamentally truth seeking is secondary to, and must be seen in the context of, our relations as people, and of our ideals, aims and hopes. This is not a threat to civilization, a break down of truth, law and science.

For our relations as people need not be defined by our fears or our anger, or by the will to power to show the other people are weak and I am strong. The spiritual insight, be it of Christ or the Buddha, is that there is another way we can relate as people, rooted in self transformation and a commitment to healing wounds and building trust. Which acknowledges the priority of human interactions over an abstract, dehumanized truth as an arbiter, but which sees in humanity more than a desire a win or to put down the opponent. Which sees in humanity at root not a will to power but a will to love.

Four Dimensions

There is a cycle of pain people fall into.

Disharmony causes confusion. Which causes mental pain. Which causes bad habits. Which causes physical pain. Which causes disharmony. The cycle of pain repeats over and over.

In this cycle, physical pain and mental pain, discomfort and confusion all get blurred together to create a general torpor. A sense that one’s life is not going as it should, that the world is not right, that something needs to be done to “fix” things, but unclear what that is.

The search for the meaning of life, or for God, or for wisdom is just this: a way out of this cycle of pain.

At the root of the cycle of pain is disharmony. Of feeling out of whack.

What is out of whack?

Four aspects or dimensions of life: the personal, the communal, the intellectual and the spiritual.

In other words: autobiography, history, science and myth.

Every person partakes of these four realities. Like pieces in a puzzle, if the four realities don’t mesh harmoniously together within oneself, there is existential anxiety and pain. And emotions that flow out of that: anger, disappointment, disorientation and frustration. When they mesh together harmoniously, there is peace and strength. And emotions that flow out of that: serenity, compassion, equanimity and joy.

The personal is what we are most in touch with. It is the realm of our personal ups and downs. It is the main stories and battles in our lives as we think of them. For me it has to do with my immigrating to America from India when I was 11, my path into and out of academia, my philosophical relation with my father, and so on. The things I think about everyday, which structure how I view my life and its triumphs and challenges.

The communal is the stories and reality told in the broader community. Be it family, city, country or the world as a whole. It is the space of the broader causes and effects within which my personal realm has its place and meaning.

The intellectual or scientific is our attempt to understand the synthesis of the personal and the communal through analysis, discussion, debate, observation – through a focus on understanding.

The spiritual or the mythic is our attempt to understand the synthesis of the personal and the communal through stories, rituals, habits – through a focus on transformation.

Each of these four dimensions are initially in tension with each other. Well, the dimensions themselves aren’t in tension. Our awareness of them is in tension.

The personal takes the egocentric point of view that my life is the center of my life. What happens to others happens to them, but what matters most is what happens to me. That is what I will spend most of my time thinking about. Naturally, this pulls against the communal, which takes the group point of view that an individual’s life is but a part of the broader fabric of human life – a mere drop in the ocean of billions of other people.

The intellectual views the spiritual as a fantasy, as a pre-intellectual mode of cognition. Whereas the spiritual views the intellectual as a mere tool, as a pre-spiritual mode of cognition.

All the struggles and battles we see are but variations of the tensions between these four dimensions of life. Between oneself and others. Or between this group and that group. Or cultural battles between science and religion. Or between religions. Or between nationalists and globalists. Etc.

A person is not just defined by the personal. A person is the synthesis of these four dimensions – of how those four dimensions come together withing a particular body and space of consciousness.

If each person only cared about the personal dimension, we would be worse than many animals, which are also defined by the communal. We fight and argue with each other not because we are selfish as in care only about one’s personal dimension, but because we are making a claim on each other in virtue of our communal dimension.

Most fighting is not a reflection of our selfishness. It is a reflection rather of differing modes of communalness. We fight because we know we are bound up with the other, and yet because we don’t know how to coexist with that other. Coexistence is part of our blood. And it was more simple when it meant just bands of a dozen people in a hunter gatherer group. What it means when that coexistence and sense of community involves thousands, millions, billions of people, and ultimately all people – that is the story of human history.

Religion began as a way to tell that story (or stories) of human history in a way which harmonizes the personal and the communal. But the complexities of that history meant that religions, science and atheism, agnosticism and nihilism are themselves part of the very big picture story any of them want to tell.

No matter how much one wants to tell a matter of fact story of just what happened – “God created Adam and Eve”, “It’s all evolution”, etc. – the telling of that story and that vision itself becomes part of the disagreement and disharmony of our lives and interactions. No one can enter simple and prestine and just get the facts right. We are all sinners in that sense – all struggling with the same sense that, in a certain way, entering the communal conversations means we are but one part of the conversation and don’t see the whole picture.

Live one’s personal life while having the communal in view. Take the communal perspective while remembering that at root the communal is just made of individual persons. Take an intellectual view while realizing that it requires one’s own transformation to better understand. Live the spiritual view while having the humility to express it intellectually so that others with different views can understand.

Be oneself but also be a we. Be the mind while transcending it. Be a we in the midst of a personal life. Be with God while being open to those who don’t experience God as you do.

The four dimensions are aligned only through contradiction and paradox. This and That. Neither This Nor That.

Those who want harmony without paradox remain in disharmony. Those who embrace the tensions of paradox live in harmony.

Embrace the paradox and enter the fifth dimension where the four dimensions merge without being the same.

Philosophical Mysticism

I have started reading Robert Wallace’s forthcoming Philosophy and Mysticism in Plato, Hegel and the PresentThanks to Bob for giving me an advanced copy! The book, as the title makes clear, is about the overlap between philosophy and mysticism. This connects to my interest of connecting academic philosophy with new age philosophy. Needless to say, what follows is my understanding of Bob’s view and its relation to some of my thoughts. I could be getting parts of his view wrong, in which case I am happy to be corrected.

Later on, as I get further into the book, I will post more about the book and my thoughts. For now, I want to situate the book as I see it, why I think it is important, and also why it seems to me, in Nietzsche’s phrase, an untimely work. My sense is in affirming mysticism it goes against the grain of a good deal of academic philosophy, but in being focused on arch “rationalistic” philosophers like Plato and Hegel, it goes against the grain of much new age philosophy. In addition, in being focused mainly on European philosophers (though in Chapter 1, Wallace briefly draws some links to Eastern spirituality), from a distance it can draw the ire of the woke philosophers as being more of the “same old, same old”.

Given the syllabus and other culture wars happening in academic philosophy right now, worrying about whether Plato is a mystical philosopher might seem much less important than diversifying the curriculum or figuring out new professional norms. But in this post I want to suggest two things:

1) It is actually much harder for academic philosophy to integrate a work like this with a focus on mysticism than many works with a non-mystical focus by non-European authors. Often seeing “our own” thinkers from a very different perspective can be much more difficult than seeing new thinkers from different traditions.

2) In order to develop a global perspective on philosophy, seeing the mystical dimensions internal to Western philosophy is absolutely essential. This is not to deny that much of Western philosophy is not mystical. But it is to affirm that expanding our horizons requires getting out of the stale, false dichotomy of the materialistic West and the mystical East. As Wallace’s book show, there is plenty of mysticism in the greats of Western philosophy. And as much recent work in, say, Indian philosophy shows, there is plenty of non-mystical, good old fashioned logic chopping, argumentative and a narrowly naturalistic thinking in Indian philosophy.

If we put both of these points together, developing a global awareness in philosophy is not a matter of just adding “those” thinkers to “our” thinkers. The task is much more complex and also more exciting: to rethink who is “us” and who is “them”, and also, as in Wallace’s book, to rethink what “our” thinkers have thought. We can all think together when we are committed to rethinking ourselves – all of us – together.

Heidegger claimed that Western philosophy since Plato forgot Being and became focused on beings. Like the work of Pierre Hadot, who brought out the spiritual dimensions of ancient philosophy, Wallace’s book shows the narrowness of Heidegger’s history. Heidegger’s criticism of 2,500 years of Western philosophy ended up being just another version of “Most Western philosophy is materialist or narrowly rationalistic”, and so which ended up seeking the mystical opening of Being in a realm beyond rationality (disastrously so politically in Heidegger’s case).

Heidegger’s version of history would have surprised Plato, Sextus Empiricus, Marcus Aurelius, Aquinas, Spinoza and Hegel – all of whom saw the rational life as inseparable from what we nowadays might call “the spiritual life”. Contra Heidegger, and also contra neo-Heideggerians such as Dreyfus and Kelly, Plato’s and Hegel’s “Reason” was not an instrumental rationality which contrasts with – in Dreyfus and Kelly’s phrase – the “whooshness” of engaged, embodied, inspired action. Rather, for Plato and Hegel, as for many other Western philosophers, rational activity was itself a heightened mode of embodied whooshing.

As Wallace says in an interesting review of Dreyfus and Kelly’s book: “We do not need to replace the intellect with poietic know-how in order to make room for ‘whooshing up’.” Wallace’s book is as an elaboration of this insight. The greatest whooshing that can happen is the mystical union with God. Just as that can happen with tennis rackets and mountain climbing, so too it can happen with books and while exploring the peaks of thought.

Wallace begins the book this way:

Philosophical mysticism is the doctrine that we sometimes have direct knowledge of a higher reality or God. Although present-day reference works in philosophy seldom mention philosophical mysticism, Plato, who founded academic philosophy, was widely and uncontroversially known for millennia as (among other things) a ‘mystic.’…. Since it is philosophical, philosophical mysticism doesn’t neglect reason; nor is the direct knowledge that is its topic restricted to any small group of people.(4)

The crux of the issue is that according to philosophical mysticism one main point of philosophy is a certain kind of experience: a grasp of a “higher reality” than we are normally conscious of in our day to day life. I say “one main point” as opposed to “the” point of philosophy because philosophy, like most concepts, is a family resemblance term. If for some the aim is grasp of a higher reality, that doesn’t have to mean that is somehow also the aim of someone who wants to understand the logic of conditionals. Wallace’s point is that many of the greats of Western philosophy – even those like Plato who we nowadays tend to think of in terms of theses they defended – saw their work as part of an experiential project. The aim wasn’t just to have the right views or to represent reality accurately. Thinking clearly was the method for altering not only one’s beliefs but also, and thereby, one’s broader consciousness and mode of being. Put this way, contrary to seeing Wittgenstein’s therapeutic aims as an anomaly in Western philosophy, the similarity between Plato and Wittgenstein jumps out.

Later on Wallace writes:

Who are we, really? Most of us, I suggest, are in an ongoing identity crisis. A higher reality of inner freedom (which means making up our own minds) and truth and love and beauty is in this world and us, and we experience it directly when we remember it and try to live up to it. This higher reality of inner freedom, truth, love, and beauty inspires us, while lower goals merely attract us. But of course we also have a huge capacity for temporarily forgetting the higher reality, and pursuing lower goals without regard to inner freedom and the rest.

We usually assume that this familiar conflict of goals has nothing to do with who someone is. We suppose that someone is the same person regardless of whether the goals that she pursues are, in anyone’s opinion, “higher” or “lower.” But a contrasting view is in fact influential in the philosophical tradition beginning with Socrates and Plato. This tradition argues that pursuing inner freedom and truth makes a person more real, more herself, and more of a person, in a way that (say) simply pursuing money or fame does not.(15)

Is Wallace attributing to Plato here anything other than the normal humanities’ platitude that philosophical reflection is a way of questioning and changing oneself? After all, isn’t this what is normally taught in courses on Plato? Not quite.

Central to how Plato is currently standardly taught is that Plato is an other-wordly dualist while Aristotle is a this-wordly naturalist. This is an example of a foundational move in standard academic discourse: contrasting thinkers are presented, with the goal of figuring out which one is right. Thus one’s own philosophical growth is identified with choosing a side and defending that side against its opponents. Hence Plato vs Aristotle, or Descartes vs Locke, Russell vs Wittgenstein, etc. etc. etc.

On Wallace’s view, however, Plato is far from an other wordly dualist. Rather:

Within the framework of this higher reality, the issues of science versus religion, fact versus value, rationality versus ethics, intellect versus emotions, mind versus body, and knowers versus the “external world” all become tractable. It turns out that nature, freedom, science, ethics, the arts, and a rational religion-in-the-making constitute an intelligible whole. This is very different from the muddle in which these issues tend to be left by such familiar agnostic doctrines as empiricism, materialism, naturalism, existentialism, and postmodernism.

This is why such major figures in philosophy, religion, and literature as Aristotle, Plotinus, St Augustine, Dante Alighieri, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Ludwig Wittgenstein have all been strongly attracted to Plato’s idea that we can and do know a higher reality.(4)

On Wallace’s view, Plato’s talk of the realm of Forms isn’t meant to capture a world other than the natural world. Rather, it is a way of grasping more fine-grained, subtle features of the natural world through a change – evolution and growth – in our consciousness.

Some will probably see Wallace as reading Hegel back into Plato, and then reading this Hegelized Plato into Aristotle, Kant and Wittgenstein – and thereby blurring the usual contrasts between these thinkers (“Wittgenstein is not on Plato’s team!” “Kant isn’t on Aristotle’s team!”, etc.) I think this misses the insight of Wallace’s way of framing the issues. When we see the history of philosophy as Plato vs Aristotle, Descartes vs Kant, etc., it limits the way one can internalize the insights and struggles of these thinkers, and thereby it distorts the point of philosophy.

Wallace’s isn’t denying that of course Plato and Aristotle have differences. Rather, what he is affirming is that they share the view of seeing philosophy as part of a practical transformation of oneself. This doesn’t deny the social nature of philosophy, nor the importance of debate and argument. But it situates that social dimension within the fundamentally personal, first-person task of philosophy. According to Wallace on Plato, through philosophical reflection I aim to change my perception of the world and also thereby my perception and understanding of myself . Not just in the abstract sense that this or that is the right view of human beings. But to know this reality of human beings and the world through the internal sense that is my particular mode of consciousness. Therefore, as Wittgenstein or Cavell claimed, the aim of philosophical is always fundamentally auto-biographical. Or as Nietzsche said, what one wants to know in a philosopher is not just what he thought but who he is.

This auto-biographical dimension of philosophy sits ill at ease in the 20th century with the mass higher education of the modern research university. In the modern research university knowledge is first and foremost defined by the sciences – mainly because that is where the most obvious and least contentious utility of the university can be found. But the modern scientific revolution consisted precisely in removing any value-laden, auto-biographical elements from inquiry. The truths of Einsteinian physics don’t depend on who Einstein is: whether he was a nice guy, or a virtuous person, or religious, etc. There is no reason intrinsic to physics why the nuclear bomb was first discovered by the Allies rather than by the Nazis. Hence when we are taught Newtonian physics or Special Relativity or Quantum Mechanics, in the classes we are not taught about the lives of Newton, Einstein or Bohr. Or for that matter in biology about Darwin, and so on. What matter are simply the ideas.

One might think that this is a Platonistic view: what are seeking in modern science are simply the Forms of Water, Atom, etc. In a way, that’s right. But if Wallace is right about Plato (and I think he is – though I am no scholar of Plato), in another way it is quite wrong. For the Platonic forms are not separable from the kind of essences we grasp in our expanded mode of consciousness and heightened sense of reality. That is, the Platonic forms are what we grasp when we go from the cave into the light. Or as Wallace states it in terms of mysticism, when we have a “direct knowledge of higher reality”. The relevant sense of “direct” here is one which is auto-biographical – where one transforms not just one’s ideas, but looks through and sees a deeper reality of who oneself is.

The fundamental challenge to philosophy in the modern university is: Can auto-biographical philosophy be taught alongside the non-auto-biographical sense of knowledge of the sciences?

The difficulty here is most obvious in the role that dialogue and person to person interaction plays in philosophy. Plato of course founded one of the first academies in the West. But in Plato’s academy there were no mass lecture classes. Plato or Aristotle didn’t have to pass on their teaching to adjuncts who can teach classes of hundreds of students. This was because Plato’s academy was, in a straight-forward sense, elitist. It was taken for granted that only a few would have the temperament, and also the time and the material ability, to challenge their own thinking and expand their consciousness.

When we now try to implement the Socratic and Platonic conception of philosophy as dialogue in the modern university, there is an obvious problem. How can a professor have a dialogue with 200 students in his class? Even the latest fancy technology of MOOCs doesn’t solve this problem on its surface. What ended up happening by the late 20th century was that small discussion sections, office hours and comments on graded papers came to be the closest approximation to a dialogue between the professor and  most students.

Thus, beyond the scientific conception of knowledge, the mass-ness of mass education pulled against the autobiographical conception of philosophy. This created a mode of “modern academic philosophical discourse” which came to be seen as natural and common place – and which was then read back into the history of philosophy. Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Nietzsche were made amenable to being taught in the modern university by interpreting them as if they were implictly and really all along not that different from contemporary philosophy professors.

We might call this the tenurization of the great philosophers. The greats could be put on the pantheon and taught as long as they too – just like the professors who had to adjust to the shifting norms of the profession and the university to be tenured – were made to fit into and accommodate to the forms of life of modern academia. Just as if the Forms had to adjust to the sense perceptions, rather than the other way around, so too the Plato that was taught had to adjust to the Plato scholar’s realities of department life. The modern academic situation thus became the prism through which the history of philosophy was seen.

Thinkers like Emerson, Thoreau, Kierkegaard, Schopenhaur, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger in the last two centuries were just some of the recent greats in Western philosophy who resisted this straight-jacketing of philosophy by the academic structures – mainly by sticking to the fundamentally auto-biographical dimension of philosophy, and so staying open to its mystical dimension.

In this sense Wallace’s view of Plato is I think a greater challenge to contemporary philosophy than some of the current attempts at diversification. For often what diversification seems to mean is: “We should take for granted the non-mystical framework of contemporary academic philosophy, and make sure that the non-mystical philosophy of Asians and Africans, women and gays, disabled and the poor is studied alongside the non-mystical work of European men like Plato and Kant.”

If diversification in this sense becomes the norm, it would also cement in academia the contemporary, non-mystical readings of the great Western philosophers. The tenurization of the great philosophers would continue unabated, only now with a more colorful pantheon.

Connecting his mystical view of the Western tradition to the East, Wallace writes:

Much of Asian thought, likewise, speaks of something higher which we can experience in ourselves and in the world, whether it’s the “Tao that cannot be named,” or “Brahman” that’s identical to our soul, or the “Buddha nature” that’s in everything but at the same time is truer and thus higher than what it’s in. There is more overlap between Asian and western thought on these issues than we generally realize.

Both Asian teachers and the Plato/Hegel tradition tell us that the central issue is not, as we in the west often suppose, about a separate “supreme being” that a person may or may not “believe in.” Rather, the central issue is the nature of the world of which we’re a part. Is it, as we tend to assume, essentially “all on one level,” or does it have a “vertical” dimension by which some aspects of it really are “higher,” through inner freedom, truth, love, and beauty? (16-17)

This truism that a great deal of Asian philosophy – though certainly not all – is mystical in Wallace’s sense raises the fundamental question with regard to what it means to diversify the curriculum. And that is: is there a sense in which in bringing, say, Indian philosophy into contemporary academic philosophy, Indian philosophy is being misrepresented in order for it to fit into the current framework?

In their wonderful book Minds without Fear: Philosophy in the Indian RenaissanceNalini Bhushan and Jay Garfield discuss how in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, through their or their teachers’ education at British Universities like Oxford and Cambridge, many Indian philosophers (both academics like Radhakrishnan and K.C. Bhattacharya, and also non-academics like Vivekananda and Aurobindo) saw German and British Idealism as a natural link to Indian philosophy. This was obviously because of the idealist views in Indian philosophy such as Advaita Vedanta. But the link is more than just with idealism as such. Rather, I think Wallace’s sense of philosophical mysticism provides the key link.

Whether Buddhist or Hindu, Jain or materialist, a general assumption of a great deal of Indian philosophy (though certainly not all) is philosophical mysticism in the sense that Wallace attributes to Plato and Hegel. The general assumption was that the aim of philosophy was ultimately one of the expansion of consciousness and an awareness of a deeper reality beyond the everyday consciousness. Philosophical understanding was seen as a tool for such transformation. So, for instance, disagreement between Buddhist and Hindu philosophers on the nature of the self wasn’t only to determine the nature of our ordinary sense of self (“Who is Bharath?”). Rather, both sides often accepted that our ordinary sense of self (our normal sense of Bharath) is severely limited and the question was of the truer reality of the self, and what was the best way to access that reality.

Once we see how central mystical philosophy was to the Indian philosophical tradition, the question of how one can integrate that tradition into contemporary American academic philosophy becomes rather complicated. If Vivekananda isn’t taught, is that because he was brown, or because his philosophy is resolutely mystical?

Recent philosophers like Amartya Sen, B. K. Matilal and Jonardon Ganeri have emphasized the extent to which Indian philosophy – for example, in its Buddhist or its Nyaya traditions – is focused on argumentation, logic and the conceptual clarification of concepts of perception, memory, self and so on. The contrast here is usually drawn with earlier representations of Indian philosophy, such as in the works of Radhakrishnan and Aurobindo, where Indian philosophy was seen as fundamentally spiritual and mystical, and contrasted to, as they saw it, the materialistic and scientistic Western philosophy. The upshot of Matilal’s view is taken to be: “See, Indian philosophy can also be arcane, argumentative and analytical, not just spiritual, and so Indian philosophy is very much in keeping with the virtues of Western philosophy.”

The problem with this easy assimilation is that it gets both the East and the West wrong in important senses, and so under-appreciates the difficulty of philosophy’s place in contemporary academia. Yes, definitely much Indian philosophy is analytic and argumentative. I am not a scholar in the way Matilal is, and of course he knows much more than I do. But even Matilal’s student Ganeri grants that much of Indian philosophy was – in Wallace’s sense of the term – a form of philosophical mysticism (see, for example, Ganeri’s The Concealed Art of the Soul). In other words, the argumentation and analysis were not set against developing a mystical awareness of the deeper reality, but were seen – as in Wallace’s view of Plato and Hegel – as part of the process of developing such awareness. The project of self-transformation and the expansion of one’s consciousness towards modes of awareness that most people don’t have is foundational to much of Indian philosophy. The analysis and argumentation was in the service – like the Buddhist’s boat or Wittgenstein’s ladder – of this broader project of realizing one’s life purpose.

If the mystical dimension of even Western greats like Plato is ignored in academic philosophy, in what sense can Indian philosophy be integrated into the Western academic curriculum? How can we appreciate the similarities of Western and Indian philosophy if the mystical dimensions of both are set aside and ignored from the very outset? But on the other hand, if the mystical dimensions of both traditions are to be acknowledged and taken seriously, how can that be done in the context of mass education in universities dominated by the scientific conception of knowledge?

There are no easy answers to these questions. But they are important and exciting. Not least because addressing these questions requires rethinking many of our assumptions from the ground up. It requires not only changing the outer institutional structures, but also, and even more basically, delving deeper into our selves and transforming our modes of awareness. That is to say, it requires the perennial work of philosophy. In this way we are connected to Plato, the Buddha and all the philosophical traditions of our common humanity.

Academic and New Age Philosophy

I am reading Tony Schwartz’s What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America. A fascinating book.

Schwartz was the ghostwriter for Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. After the success of that book, Schwartz says he felt empty and longing for a greater purpose in his life. This led him to explore the human potential, new age and other movements that had arisen in America since the 60s. The book is a history of some of these movements.

Schwartz’s book was published in 1995. I just finished reading James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy from 1993. An excellent book, moving and expansive in its vision of spirituality and a world awakening. Redfield also was inspired by the human potential movement.

Thinking about these books from the 90s made me think of another one which has been very important for me: Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now from 1999.

1995 was when I started undergrad. 1999 I started grad school. As I was learning about Plato, Descartes and Wittgenstein, I hungered to connect my education not only with academic-ish Indian philosophy such as Nagarjuna and Shankara, but also with 19th and 20th century Indian spiritual philosophers such as Vivekananda and Aurobindo.

Certainly remnants of racist institutional habits were, and are, part of the reason why Eurocentrism is so prevalent in American philosophy departments. But the fact that Aurobindo would not be taught at Harvard was not because – or mainly because – he is brown. It is for the same reason Thomas Merton, Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie or Ken Wilber aren’t taught at Harvard, Berkeley, NYU or most American philosophy departments. It’s because the modern philosophy departments from the late 18th century on – effectively from Kant and Hegel on – separated philosophy from spirituality.

The relation of philosophy to spirituality (or what we might call, individual development or even self-help) was a big issue in 19th century Europe and America. Emerson wouldn’t have recognized a difference between the two. Nor would Kierkegaard or even the Nietzsche of Zarathustra. The tension between philosophy and spirituality, and where his own thinking falls, was a persistent issue for William James.

Two of the main philosophers in the 20th century – Wittgenstein and Heidegger – both were firmly set against this separation of philosophy from spirituality. Though they explored the idea differently (in Wittgenstein it became an ultra-personal quietism and in Heidegger it turned into a mythic-nationalistic mysticism), they were similar in being essentially estranged from the normal, a-spiritual academic philosophy of their time.

No wonder that for me, as a young philosophy student who wanted to bridge not only Eastern and Western philosophy, but also spiritual and rationalistic philosophy, I was so drawn in my studies to Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Not just to their ideas, which are fascinating and important, but, first and foremost, to their lives and their attempts to engage with Kant or Frege while merging that with the personal spiritual focus of a Saint Francis of Assisi or a Marcus Aurelius.

This is one reason I found most Wittgenstein or Heidegger scholars boring. Their efforts were to cleanse these thinkers of their spiritual fervor so as to sanitize them for acceptable academic thought. My energy, like that of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, went in the other direction entirely: to rationally engage with the ideas of Aristotle, Descartes and Russell while making them a part of my spiritual journey.

When I think about how much academic philosophy brackets itself from spirituality, I realize the question isn’t, “Why did I leave academia?” It is rather: “Why didn’t Wittgenstein leave academia more resolutely?” If it is so hard to bring philosophy and spirituality together while being a professor, why stay as a professor and give up outward expressions of spirituality rather than leave academia and merge philosophy and spirituality as one wants? This is the path I chose.

Which brings me back to Schwartz’s book.

When one looks to the general cultural situation in America since the 1960s, it is clear that there has been a great focus on merging Western and Eastern philosophy. Only this happened not in most American philosophy departments (other than departments like that of the University of Hawaii), but rather in the broader new age philosophy.

I often heard my colleagues in academia speak of new age philosophy as if it were the delinquent sibling of academic philosophy. As if new age philosophy was either trying to be like academic philosophy and failing miserably, or was aiming for this other thing (self-help) which appeals only to people who lack confidence in themselves. As if to say, “We already have confidence in ourselves, and so we don’t need that new age mumbo jumbo. That is for weak willed people who don’t know any better.” There is no greater embarrassment to most academic philosophers than to find their books in a bookstore next to books by Deepak Chopra or Ken Wilber.

I never quite felt that way, but from peer pressure I nodded along to such sentiments when I was an academic. I see now how wrong and deluded this way of thinking is.

To reduce Eckhart Tolle’s philosophy to self-help in the sense of gathering the courage to ask out a girl, getting a job or not feeling bad about oneself is as absurd as reducing Quine’s philosophy to logic chopping or Austin’s philosophy to playing with words. It is the kind of characterization we make when we don’t understand something, but also don’t want to engage with it – and so dismissing it provides us with justification for ignoring it.

The point of Tolle’s philosophy, like that of Thich Nhat Hahn or Sadhguru or Pema Chodron, is not normal self-confidence, but rather the expansion of one’s consciousness. The kind of expansion that arises when one actually, consistently, habitually steps back from one’s emotions, thoughts, feelings, actions and observes them with a cool detachment. It is what is meant by the Kantian idea of reflective distance: not being driven by one’s impulses but being able to reflect on one’s own mental states in a rational way.

The academic assumption is that such reflective distance is best exhibited when one is writing books or listening to talks or engaging in seminar discussions. And so the more one does that, and the better one does that, the more one is living a reflective life.

Wittgenstein and Heidegger, like Tolle and Thomas Merton, knew this was not true. Nothing against seminars and writing journal articles. They are fine activities, even enjoyable. I miss them to this day. Well, maybe I don’t miss writing journal articles, but I certainly miss the social intellectual dynamics of academic life. But still! That doesn’t mean that seminar discussion or academic writing is the paradigm of self-reflective consciousness.

There is a simple way to see this. How attentive are the philosophers in the seminar room to each others’ emotional states? How easily perturbed are they by their “opponent’s” views? How possessive do they feel of “their” ideas?

In my experience, most seminar rooms, even when they are filled with genuine politeness, take for granted our “ordinary” sense of possessiveness, or the everyday sense of oneself vs one’s opponents. The normal academic energy is exerted at the level of understanding the relations between thoughts or ideas, but not exerted at the level of distancing oneself from one’s thoughts. To the contrary, frequently academic discourse presupposes identification with one’s thoughts, and the work is that of elaborating, defending, clarifying “my thoughts”.

Most academics relate to their mind the way body builders relate to their body. Which is to say: with extreme identification.

The issue here isn’t that academic philosophy is all wrong. Or limited. And that new age philosophy is more enlightened and better. I don’t think that. The issue is rather: the fact that academic philosophy and new age philosophy are seen by most people, and even by the practitioners on both sides, as two separate, independent realms which have nothing to do with each other says a lot about the our modern society, and about its particular difficulties.

Progress in our society, and indeed in one’s own intellectual and spiritual path, requires a synthesis and harmony between the ideals of academic and new age philosophy. This is a vast realm that is deeply under-explored right now. I bet exploring this terrain of synthesis will yield seismic results in the coming decades.

The Ego

The ego is the insatiable craving within which chooses to live as if its fantasy is reality.

Right now I know there are billions of people worse off than me. Who have no food or shelter, no sight or hearing, no money or no loved ones. Who are living in war torn places or are in the grips of addiction.

I know all this. I know in comparison to them I am so lucky.

Yet a part of me chooses to ignore all that and focus instead on what I don’t have that some others have, or what I had but now don’t have. Others have better jobs. Or more money. Better looks. More recognition. Or: I myself had it so much better before and now I don’t. It was taken from me. Or I lost it myself and it made me into this much smaller person now. So the thinking goes.

The bite of the painful comparison (“He has it and I don’t”) requires that I put out of my mind that I am better off than many others. The bite gets its grip through feeling as if the world only have two kinds of people: those who have what I don’t and people like me. For this to get a grip, all who are worse off than me have to removed from my mind – or rendered into a general, vague, nameless and faceless masses who don’t need to thought about.

The ego is the part of me which fuels this forgetting. Which suggests the forgetting is entirely natural. That my sense of loss is uniquely important to me (the ego me), and to hell with people worse off than me. The ego only wants to think about those who are better off and that too to flame my resentment/sadness/anger/hurt at what I lack that they have.

The grip of the ego is intense. Right now there are people I know, who are my friends who are going through difficult times. When I think of it, I feel bad and concerned. But it fades soon enough. Until I don’t have the food I want to eat or I think about some issue at work. Then the ego dominates, subordinating all – even the concerns of my family, and even that of my wife and perhaps in the future, even my child – to what I don’t have and want and deserve.

This self importance or focus can seem natural. So much so that our ordinary notion of identity treats it as entirely fine. “Of course you care most about yourself. That is just self preservation and biology!”

Actually: it is us normally not distinguishing between ourselves and our ego. In that conflation is all the existential pain of our lives. Not the physical or material pain. But the pain of not having enough.

A deep peace arises when one disidentifies with their ego. When one doesn’t endorse the fantasy that one’s life and pains and status really matter; that somehow one’s life and situation is really unfair. That sense of unfairness only works in the ego perspective, where one can walk by (as I did today) a homeless person begging for change while lost in my thoughts that there are no good places to eat where I was walking. Seeing the homeless person didn’t make me stop my inner dialogue of “woe is me” because I can’t decide on a place to eat. Rather, the world of the homeless person and his luck compared to mine was swiftly set aside, so that instead I could focus my energy on my luck compared to those who live in fancier places. That is the ego’s work.

It is the world of illusion we normally live in. Which we choose to live in. Choosing the matrix over the reality.

This is the world of maya.

To be open to the world as it is requires giving up the lazy commitment to the maya. Not just in moments of meditation or mystical insight or when one feels inspired. But to give up the haze of the ego every moment, in every interaction and most of all, when one is alone with one’s thoughts and preoccupations. To see the preoccupations as the web which the ego weaves and as nothing more real than that.

To buy into the preoccupations – the nagging concerns, worries, even hopes and ego ideals – is to slip into the fantasy world the ego spins around us, making it seem like it is just who we are.

To be mindful of this drama and not buy into it is painful in the moment. For it means starving the ego. But beyond the ego’s narratives, there is the reality without comparisons and judgments waiting to be experienced in stillness and joy.

My maternal grandmother said to me when I was a boy and was complaining about something, “Think about the people who have less than you.” This is the kind of commonplace one says to kids. But in it is the core of wisdom.

The ego survives on comparing oneself upwards. Thinking of oneself in comparison to those who obviously have much less is the ego’s kryptonite. The ego can’t handle it. It cannot survive the reality of one’s good fortune, especially in relation to those who clearly have less. The ego requires bracketing that reality, pushing it out of consciousness, so that the mental energies can be expended only on its grievances.

My grandmother’s simple words can free the mind as powerfully as chanting Rama’s name. If I keep in mind the multitudes of people, and many of them just little children, who don’t have the mere basics which I take for granted, that takes the energy away from the ego and redirects it back to the more expansive consciousness within me which doesn’t require a fantasy to survive.

The point isn’t to become sad for those less well off. My sadness doesn’t help them in this moment anyway. The point is to help myself see the world more clearly and less clouded by my ego awareness. Whether I help others or not, first I can help myself by freeing myself from my ego.

Divine Self-Awareness

We live normally in a certain kind of unconsciousness. Not only live in it, but we cling to the unconsciousness.

This is most evident with painful emotions like anger, hurt, fear.

When I am normally angry, I am not unconscious as such. I am not a zombie. There is a feeling to the anger.

I am even self-conscious of the anger. Often very much so. “Damn right, I am angry! I have every right to be!”

In fact, this is the main delusion of everyday conscious: that I am fully aware of what I am consciously feeling. That my mind is self-luminous. The only issues are whether what I am feeling is right or wrong, good or bad, constructive or not – so I tell myself. For it seems obvious that what I am feeling is only all too evident to myself. After all, I can feel it. Oh can I feel it!

What is normally lost to me is that the way I feel the anger itself clouds my awareness of it. What I am normally aware of isn’t the anger as such, but rather my affirmation of the anger. Of the anger as something that I ought to act on, that I can’t not act on, that pulls me to action, or to annoyance at my inability to act on it and so on.

My normal awareness of the anger is indistinguishable to me from my response to the anger. Indeed, even from my awareness of the cause of the anger. In the normal experience of the anger, the cause, the experience and my desired response are all intertwined as one indivisible whole. As just the anger itself. And the more I experience the indivisibility of that whole, the more I experience the anger – now in terms of “How could he do that to me?”, and at other times as “I will show him! I will set things right!” And still other times with seemingly just a self awareness of the emotion as such: “I am just so angry!” These are actually not different elements as such, but only different shades of the same indivisible whole of cause-experience-reaction which captivates me.

It’s like if I am hungry. The feeling of hunger isn’t normally experienced as something separate from the cause (“I haven’t eaten all day”) and the desired actions (“I would love a sandwich right now”). The experienced hunger is the indivisible whole of the nexus or state of being which incorporates the cause and the effect, the past and the future, the lack and the fulfillment which will fill that lack.

And there is a crucial fourth element: my identification with that indivisible whole as what I am fact feeling. An identification which affirms that not merely is there the feeling of anger or hunger, and also their causes and desired actions in response, but that the nexus of this triumvirate is essential to who I am. That this nexus defines me. It defines my mental state. It captures what is most salient about me right now. This anger or this hunger – that is happening to me, it is a modification of me. And so it affects me. If left unattended, it will lead to my downfall, to my ruination – I will die physically or in terms of social prestige, or if not die, then atleast be severely hindered. It will overwhelm me. The only way to save myself is to embrace it. Accept it. Take it at face value and to do exactly what it demands – be it find food, or set things right by putting that person in their place, and so on.

This identification with the emotion – that it in fact defines me – fosters a form of unconsciousness. About myself. About the cause. About what actions will help. About what I am feeling over all. About what in the circumstances might actually reflect my over all, more measured response. The identification circumvents further reflection about all these issues by making it seem as if the present moment is decisive and conclusive. That it holds the key and is showing the key to me in its full awareness. That all I need to do is not turn away from it. I need to accept the present moment and embrace it.

Of course none of this is true. As we find out when we embrace the present moment and identify with the emotion and act on it, only to regret it later on. When actually yelling at that person didn’t settle everything – or really anything. When having the second helping of ice cream didn’t actually make me feel good. When I feel betrayed by my mind and morose at my own weakness to be unable to resist it.

This is the basic illusion inherent in everyday consciousness. No, your mind isn’t self illuminating. No, you don’t actually see exactly what you are feeling. Not just deep unconscious buried emotions. You don’t normally see even your ordinary emotions of hunger, thirst, fear, anger, hurt properly. Or even the positive emotions of happiness, contentment, joy, satisfaction. Normally all of these are experienced through the illusion that you are defined by them. That there is nothing more to your consciousness than these fleeting but powerful emotions as they present themselves to you. That they are the sum total and the essence of you. At least of you in this moment when you are having them and are overwhelmed by them.

A funny thing happens when one disconnects the identification with the emotions as one experiences them. When one is aware of the anger not as “my anger, as what I am feeling” but rather as “the anger which is trying to trick me into identifying with it.”

Normally it feels as if the identification with the anger is what makes me best self aware of the anger. That, after all, I am aware of it because it is my anger, it is how I am. But actually the opposite is true.

Where I disidentify with the anger, when I cut off the energy source of my identifying with the anger, I became aware of the anger in a broader, more expansive and more illuminating way. I start to see more shades to the anger. More of its contours and its limits. More of its causes and its consequences. I see more than just how it presents it. I see what it hides about itself.

And the more I am able to observe the anger this way, without identification but also without judgment and without putting it down, the more it becomes open to me. More of how actually it is not a self-contained emotion at all, but incorporates in it different shades of fear, hurt, confusion, grieving. And also, as Nietzsche and Foucault emphasized, shades of pleasure, the joy of retribution, getting a pound for a pound, the ecstasy of power, of affirming the others’ submissiveness. The anger starts to seem less like the basic, simple emotion it pretended to be and more like a kaleidoscopic, shifting, hurting, sadistic opening into the complexities of the mind overall.

Encountering this opening in one’s self-awareness is like Arjuna seeing the manifold dimensions of Krishna: as awe-inspiring but also frightening in its complexity and magnitude, dwarfing the ordinary self understanding which feels like home base. When the opening starts to happen, the habit of normal consciousness tries its utmost to close it. To lock it. To mark it as dangerous and forbidden. As something that it is best for me – yes, me as it defines me – to stay away from. As something that will destroy me and my normal self rationalizations and self narratives by shedding the cold, hard reality of how I am just a part of nature like any other being. That my own anger – calling out for its justification and its due justice – is itself a vapor which is created by the winds of the mind and of my ego consciousness. Less a reflection of reality as it is, and more a narrative spun by the mind the way a spider spins its web.

The anger or the hurt or the sweet taste of the ice cream or the joy of sex or the euphoria of a political movement – they all present themselves as mine, as my experiences which carry their nature on their sleeves. And yet to foster this identification they have to hide their own complexity. And hide as well my true nature, that they do not define me and I am not simply a combination of them.

When I disidentify with the emotions and the ordinary appearances of the mind, a greater self awareness starts to unfold. One which opens onto vast realms of consciousness and awareness which are right in front of our eyes normally but which we overlook and ignore. These vistas of consciousness are as beautiful, as expansive and as awe inspiring as the starry skies or the ocean depths or the forest ecosystems. So beautiful and so amazing. The ordinary anger, hunger and pleasure are just the most surface layers of these deeper vistas, and they beckon to us to open ourselves to them and explore their rich terrains.

Doing so requires not staying content with the usual, paltry descriptions of the mind in terms of surface experiences or anger, hunger or pleasure. It requires not falling for the self-contentment and self-presentation of the experiences, but disidentifying with them to see them in a broader perspective.

It is an amazing entry into a magical, beautiful reality. And the opening is right here, right in my own awareness.