Monthly Archives: July 2018

Varieties of Globalism

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.

* Knowledge

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.

* Culture

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.

My Dharma

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:

  1. Trump is operating with a framework of globalists versus nationalists, and
  2. 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.

Being Implies Only Being

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.

The Unity of Spirituality

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.

Spiritual Selfishness

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, hadSo 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.

Miracles and Faith

While He spoke these things to them, behold, a ruler came and worshiped Him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay Your hand on her and she will live.” When Jesus came into the ruler’s house, and saw the flute players and the noisy crowd wailing, He said to them, “Make room, for the girl is not dead, but sleeping.” And they ridiculed Him. But when the crowd was put outside, He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. And the report of this went out into all that land (Matthew 9:18, 23-26)

Did Christ really raise the girl from the dead?

Faith, it can seem, is to answer “yes” even though it seems unbelievable. As though even if we have no rational basis to believe Christ is the savior, we are compelled by Christ’s performance of the miracles to believe he is the savior. As if the miracles are proof of his grace and his power. The way clouds are proof of coming rain.

The difficulty with this view is apparent. The miracles cannot compel belief, since without belief the miracles don’t compel. Without prior belief and faith, statement of the miracles are just funny statements. Poetic at best. Confused at worst.

So what gives? If you already have faith, then you will believe the miracles. And if you don’t have faith, you won’t believe them. Faith seems to be prior to belief in the miracles, more fundamental.

And yet the miracles are the foundation of faith. Without them Christ is – as the humanists say – just a good person. Without the miracles, Christ’s message is basically morality. Which is fine, since moral living is good. But is spirituality the same as morality?


Morality concerns what we do, within the expectations of established and accepted norms. Spirituality goes beyond this. Morality is about being and doing good. Spirituality is about transformation.

The circle of belief and miracles is summed up by Jesus:

As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.“(Luke 11:29-30)

On the one hand, Christ says no sign – no miracles as proof of his Divinity – will be given to those asking for proof. But then, at the same time, he says that no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah. Which refers to His resurrection after three days, just as Jonah resurfaced after three days in the belly of the Whale.

So He will not give the proof that people want, except that His resurrection – His greatest miracle – shall the main proof? What if people don’t believe he did resurrect?

Here it can seem, as it does to many atheists, that Christ is engaging in the kind of double talk characteristic of religious talk. One wants to say: “Damn it! Just talk plainly. Back up your assertions with non-circular proof. That is just respecting your listener.”

This presupposes that the primary context of miracle talk must abide by the norms of proof. If the miracle is proved, then we can assert it. Otherwise not.

But the primary context of miracle talk, as of spiritual language generally, is not the context of proof. That is what Christ means by saying no proof will be given. Faith is a kind of balm, a soothing ointment for a wound. Of course it is rational for someone to say, “prove to me I have a wound, before i have to apply the ointment. Don’t force the ointment on me.” Christ himself agrees. Forcing faith on someone, even on oneself, is pointless and counter-productive.

The primary context of faith is affirmation of someone who (a) feels they are wounded, in pain, and (b) who feels Christ is the energy helping them through the pain. This is why Christ says no sign will be given except for the Sign of Jonah. Meaning: no sign will be given except as aid during each person’s spiritual transformation, which is symbolized by the resurrection.

Only one going through the transformation, and who realizes the futility of all else to help – money, prestige, thinking through the pain – and who then turns to Christ – by living in the present, surrendering all to Him – will know the reality of Christ’s miracles. That person, who has tried all else and is in despair and has given up hope and feels certain he is doomed to be broken, will know the miracle of rebirth when, in the midst of his pain, he sees the light and the hope of life on the other side of the pain. The miracle is to see that the pain is not just meaningless suffering and death, but part of a transformation into a fuller, greater and more real self.

“Well, why couldn’t Christ have just said that? Why do you have to interpret it this way?”

I am not interpreting what he said. Just making clear the context within which he spoke, and the context of those who converted and followed him. He wasn’t saying to random strangers, “I will be resurrected. Therefore you have to believe in me.”

He was speaking primarily to people who felt him helping them through the pains of their transformation. And secondarily, he was speaking to those who were trying to stop him because he was was a threat to their business of religion.

To the latter, he was saying that they won’t understand his signs until the process of transformation starts for them. Christ, unlike organized Christianity later on, was trying to convert others. He was simply minding his own business – of spiritual healing – and dealing with nonbelievers when they thrust themselves in his path.

The greatness of Christ – the essence of his message of faith in Him – consists exactly in this: “Focus on your personal transformation. Forget all else. Especially what others ought to do. Even what they ought to do regarding you. Whatever they do is for you just more material for your own transformation. Look not to them. But look within. Everything in you resists this change. But do it and you will see the miracle I am creating in your life right now. You don’t have to worry about miracles I did with others. Others are no matter to you. Look for me among them and you won’t find me. Look only to your needs – your deepest needs – and you will find me ever present with you.”

Are Matthew and Luke reporting the miracles like journalists? No. Or as giving proof? No. First and foremost, they are speaking from grace, from inspiration, from the joy and peace of finding Christ within their own lives.

Read the Bible in that spirit – and not in the spirit of the Christian trying to convert others or that of the atheist resisting conversion – and the miracles of Christs will speak personally to your unique path.

Or maybe it won’t. Which is fine. Maybe you are a Hindu or an atheist. Find that spirit in which ever way you do. Christ comes in all forms and languages, without any coercion. He is primarily what and and how you need Him. He is selfless that way. That is another of His miracles.