Shamans of the Soul

We have this articulated space we can all discuss, and outside of that we have something that is more akin to a dream that we are embedded in… And in that dream, that is where the mystics live, and the artists, and they are the meditators between the absolute unknown and the things we know for sure. And if those two things are out of sync, if our articulated knowledge is out of sync with our dreams, then we become dissociated internally….And that produces a kind of sickness of the spirit. And [in that sickness] people turn to ideologies, which I regard as parasites on an underlying religious substructure to try to organize their thinking, and then that is a catastrophe. That is what Nietzsche saw. He knew that when we knock the slats out of the base of Western civilization by destroying this representation, this God ideal, let’s say, we would destablize and move back and forth violently between nihilism and the extremes of ideology…. And we have been oscillating back and forth between left and right ever since, and with some nihilism and despair thrown in. That is the situation of the modern Western person.(8:30 mark)

The Bible … exists in that space that is half into dream and half into articulated knowledge. And going into it to find out what the stories are about can aid our self-understanding… If Nietzsche was correct and if Dostoevsky and Jung were correct, without the corner stone that understanding provides, we are lost. And that’s not good because then we are susceptible to psychic pathologies. People who are adamant anti-religious thinkers seem to believe that if we abandoned our immersement in the underlying dream, we would all instantly become rationalists like Descartes or Bacon, intelligent, clear thinking, rational, scientific people. I don’t believe that for a moment, because I don’t think there is any evidence for it. I think we would become so irrational so rapidly that the weirdest mysteries of Catholicism would seem rational by contrast, and that is already happening.(44:00 mark) – Jordan Peterson

These quotes are from Jordan Peterson’s first lecture in his course on the psychological significance of the Biblical stories. It is an amazing lecture, in which he puts his finger on why spirituality matters in society.

At root religious fundamentalists and ardent atheists make the same mistake: they assume that a rationally articulated understanding of the world is, or can be, the basis of human experience and society. The religious fundamentalist claims his favorite religion and culture for the role of that rational articulation. The ardent atheist claims a clear-headed scientific awareness for that role. But what both show thereby is a naive understanding of human psychology.

It also highlights the limits of philosophy as traditionally understood.

Human consciousness is rooted primarily in deep story telling. A sense of where one came from, and where one is going. Of who we are, and why we are going through this thing called life, and how best to go through it.

This story telling resonates with us when it comes from the depth of our being, from the space of, as Peterson put it, our dreams. From beyond the control and guidance of our conscious awareness.

This captures both what Rorty got right, and what he got wrong. He was right that a fundamental role of philosophy is to tell stories, intellectual stories. But he was wrong in that the stories can be told mainly from the level of the intellect. They need to come from deeper within us. They need to come from a space and point of being and consciousness in us where we have let go of our conscious crutches and fears and anxieties and ideas, and give ourselves to a deeper energy.

Ancient texts such as the Bible or the Vedas were many things. Science, philosophy, literature, culture. But at bottom, beyond all that, they were telling deep stories at the level of our deepest consciousness, so as to awaken within us to that deeper, higher form of consciousness.

Since the time of those texts, science, philosophy, literature and so on have gone on to be modes of activity on their own. They are not done in one text. And that’s great. That allows us to explore the different dimensions of life and world without running them together. Science doesn’t have to be beholden to literature or moral needs. Similarly, with literature and so on.

But there is still the need for deep stories which tap into the depth of being and have a kind of unifying and guiding structure.

Peterson is totally right that political ideologies on the right and the left have their appeal because they mimic these deep stories of spirituality, and for the people who get pulled into them, they feel like the deepest stories they know. Hence debate goes nowhere between proponents of different ideologies. The appeal of the ideology just is that it speaks to a realm of consciousness within us much deeper than that of debate. And so “debate” becomes rather just a way of fighting about which deeper realm is better. This is what happens on cable news, facebook, twitter, etc.

As was evident in the 19th century, nationalism in politics is a particularly powerful deep story. As are trans-national stories like communism, or the spread of capitalism and freedom, etc. Nowadays we can add these the deep stories of multi-culturalism, feminism and so on.

The fact that these deep stories get a grip on us means that they are deeply right about something. They speak to something deep in us. Trying to debate which of them is right never succeeds because the realm of debate cannot move by itself the deeper currents which make the deep story appealing in the first place.

Hence what is produced is what thinkers have long noticed, since the time of Socrates, Buddha and Lao Tzu, that there are forms of debate which are mainly unproductive. They have merely the form of understanding and engaging with the other side, but which are really just expressions of an already accepted and unshakable worldview, and which the debaters have no intention of changing or giving up.

If not through debate, how do we deal with the conflicting deep stories in our lives? If not debate, what can bring some structure and peace?

Deeper deep stories. Much, much deeper deep stories.

Nationalism, communism, post-colonialism, feminism, religious fundamentalism, combative atheism – these have the form of deep stories, and they evoke the passions and identifications which come from below our more ordinary, surface awareness. And one can identify the ups and downs of each view – and yet not really move the needle much.

There is only one way to engage with and move beyond a deep story: to tell a deeper story. To go even deeper into the human consciousness, to be more courageous, to forgo the surface ego and rational consciousness more, to be more fearless and less self-protective. To dive wholesale into the ocean which is the human psyche and to trust that the more you immerse yourself in that psyche without fear, the more our shared human psyche will speak out deeper deep stories which move us and open up new avenues of awareness and action.

In our world of science, philosophy, politics, literature and overall modernity and clear-sightedness, there is still a deep need for shamans of the soul. 

Not the kind who embrace an irrationality which is sub-rational. But ones who plumb the depths of the consciousness in a supra-rational way. Who embrace all the insights of modernity and rationality to such an extent that they self consciously recognize the limits of modern rationality itself, and who give themselves to the mysteries of the deep unconscious to lead the way.

Isn’t this a recipe for chaos? If we don’t hold on to the rational mind, how do we know which stories to follow and which to reject? How do we tell the stories of a Hitler apart from those of a Gandhi? Or stories of sensible people from those of lunatics?

There is a way. And it doesn’t require the policing of the rational mind. Nor guidelines of what constitutes good thought, and how to avoid bad thought. It doesn’t require guidelines at all.

It is: Peace. Stillness. Faith. Trust.

The deepest of the deep stories evoke the peace at the eye of the hurricane. The deep stories of people who have reached that space, or near there, move people without people debating whether it is good or not. The goodness of following those stories and of giving oneself to them will be evident in the very peace and harmony and love which they raise up in one’s consciousness. It is self-evident in the transformation not just of one’s ideas or hopes, but of one’s being from its very core.

Outer peace is only possible in human life when all humans are self-reflective enough to be able to be aware of that consciousness of peace within themselves, and so able to tell the deepest stories from within their own awareness. Lacking that ability to hear those deepest stories within their own consciousness, people look outside themselves for stories which will move them, and so they are susceptible to stories which have only a surface depth.

To really overcome shallow deep stories, there is only one way.

Dive deeper into your consciousness. Listen to the stories coming from the innermost depths of peace within yourself. And if from there you feel so moved, speak those stories and be their mouthpiece with love and compassion.

Meaning of Life

The meaning of life is obvious once you accept a simple fact: you are not yet fully grown. You have not reached the full potential of your life.

You might be 30 or 60 and fully physically grown. But still, there is more growth happening in you. Even as you read this. There is a part of you that is still in seed form, that has not yet broken through the ground and into the light.

What is the meaning of an acorn? Simple, right? It is to blossom into an oak tree. That is it’s purpose. It’s meaning. It’s inner form guiding it unfolding.

Doesn’t mean the acorn will become an oak tree. It might fall into the ocean. Or someone might crack it open. Or there is no rain. The meaning of the acorn guides its development when it is properly nourished. It’s meaning is it’s inner blue print, it’s form. But the form isn’t a guarantee of success. It structures how the acorn will develop when the circumstances are correct.

Hold on to this idea about the acorn. It solves the riddle of the meaning of life.

Ordinarily, discussions of the meaning of life fall into two extremes: the super-naturalists and the naturalists. Or in common parlance, the theists and the atheists. These discussions go nowhere and only confuse issues.

Super-naturalists claim that life has meaning because there is a super-natural world we are going to – heaven. And we get there through our soul, which leaves our body after we die. The meaning of life then is to get to heaven. The naturalists claim there is no such super-natural world, and there is no soul, and no heaven. Life is just as we see it in this world. This is all there is.

Super-naturalists and naturalists both forget about the acorn!

Meaning doesn’t require anything super-natural. In the acorn there isn’t a soul of the oak tree which leaves the acorn in order to become an oak tree. The soul of the acorn – if you want to talk like that – just is the form of acorn. It’s inner structure which guides its unfolding in its growth.

Any object which grows has a meaning to its life – the meaning being what it is growing into. That’s it. This doesn’t require any spooky non-natural souls.

The human analogue of the acorn is a baby. So, then, what is the meaning of life of that baby?

Well, it is to be a fully developed human being. What does that mean? No, it doesn’t mean something ableist, like that it means having two functioning legs, ears, eyes, etc. After all, the meaning of an acorn is to be an oak tree, but still there are many, many ways that an oak tree can be – some bigger, some smaller, some with more branches, some with fewer leaves, etc.

To get hooked on if a person has legs, or if they can hear or speak, is to be limited to only one dimension of human life – the body. Of course, people vary vastly in their bodily capacities: I am not Michael Jordan. But that doesn’t mean Jordan is more fully human than I am, as if I am a lower version of human compared to him.

That’s because humans have modes beyond the bodily. And no, not because of something super-natural. It’s because humans are fundamentally socio-technological beings. Humans tap into the social world of culture as part of their growth. This was the great transformation that made humans so dominant on Earth. They have collective learning. One generation makes some changes, and leaves those changes in the form of better artifacts (tools, technology), and the next generation hooks into the better artifacts and meets the world running faster than the previous generations.

Collective learning, and the pliable nature of the human brain which enables that, created modes of growth for humans which aren’t true for other forms of life. It created, beyond bodily growth, mental growth.

So the meaning of a human baby is not only to grow physically, but also mentally. But mentally how? We roughly know what a fully formed human body looks like. What does a fully formed human mind look like?

No, forget about Mozart and Einstein. That’s like Jordan all over again. Of course, Einstein is much smarter than me, just like Jordan is faster and can jump higher than me. I am now 40. I know what I know. And in some ways I can improve my mind and learn more. But this much is guaranteed – in my life I am not going to be composing symphonies like Mozart, or making new discoveries in physics.

Does that mean I am bound to be mentally limited in comparison to Einstein? That he is big, fully formed oak tree, but I am a small, less capable oak tree? No!

The kind of mental skills Einstein had are not intrinsic to all mental growth as such. They are a particular form of mental growth. A great, wonderful, beautiful form that is essential to our modern lives. But still, not essential to mental growth as such. Just as Jordan or Tom Brady’s skills are a great form of physical growth, but they are not intrinsic to physical growth as such. One is not less mature physically for not being a superior athlete.

Just as there is mental growth beyond physical growth, so too there is spiritual growth beyond mental growth.

Mental growth is not some spooky non-natural thing involves souls. It is the result of cultural learning becoming essential to humans.

Likewise, spiritual growth is not spooky, metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. It is a particular form of cultural learning.

Jordan can dunk beautifully, but he can’t compose jazz like Miles Davis. Davis can compose and play beautiful jazz – and so could greatly control sound – but he couldn’t control his emotions. Not like Christ or the Buddha could, or even as Martin Luther King or Gandhi could.

When one grows mentally, one doesn’t function on a different plane from the physical. Instead, one re-orients one’s physical being in a new way. Similarly, when one grows spiritually, one doesn’t leave the mental realm. Rather, one re-orients one’s mental being in a new way, such that one’s whole mode of being in and seeing the world changes.

That reorientation of the mental is called transcendence.

If society only had people with mental skills like Einstein and Darwin and Mozart and Davis, there would be great technological and artistic creations. But there would still be fighting and war, distrust and anger. To create a more peaceful world, there would have to be people who are able not just to excel at a particular mental activity (math, music, etc.), but who are able to root out the pain and angst within themselves so that they are walking beacons of peace and stillness. 

People who are able to transform not just cultural artifacts in society (physics books, sculptures, etc.), but who are able to treat their own mind as an artifact and so change it from the root up. And who are then able to pass on that transformed consciousness to the next generation so that they are able to build on that progress. This is the spiritual story of human kind.

It is the growth happening within each person. To reach that kind of self-awareness and self-transformation. This is the main difference between you and the acorn. The acorn’s meaning unfolds without its awareness. Your meaning unfolds essentially through your awareness, and so how you guide your awareness and nurture it and take care of it is essential to your own growth.

The spiritual dimension of your being is unfolding at this moment, and at every moment of your life. It is the next stage of your consciousness, just as a sexual awakening is the next stage of teenager’s growth. Your daily consciousness is but a fraction of your overall consciousness – a mere tip of the iceberg of awareness. The unfolding towards a greater awareness of the iceberg is the inner journey beyond the outer journey of the physical body’s growth.

You might resist it, or deny it. But the growth in you continues to happen. You might love it and want it to happen faster. But the growth in you continues at its pace. Find that growth in you, and the pace at which it is happening, and you will discover the unfolding of your meaning, and the purpose of your life.

It is right there, within you, waiting to be discovered. And when you see it, it is like seeing an old friend who you knew all along you would meet again.

Politics and Spirituality

Yoga demands a total dedication of the life to the aspiration for the discovery and embodiment of the Divine Truth and to nothing else whatsoever… You must go inside yourself and enter into a complete dedication to the spiritual life. All clinging to mental preferences must fall away from you, all insistence on vital aims and interests and attachments must be put away, all egoistic clinging to family, friends, country must disappear if you want to succeed in yoga.
– Sri Aurobindo, Internal Yoga

There are great upheavals happening our world – political, social, technological. Watching the news, things seems unpredictable, chaotic, transformative. But for good or for bad? Sides are being chosen. And people call out, “Don’t be silent. Don’t pretend to be neutral. Choose a side now, before it is too late!”

In this situation, Aurobindo’s quote is a great soothing balm.

There are always upheavals happening in the world. Old regimes topple, new regimes arrive promising heaven on Earth. Each side claims only it can lead the way, and claims you have to choose them now, before all is lost.

Currently, the big issue, if you are on the left, is whether Democracy will survive. The issue is raised with a pitch of frenzy and urgency. I can understand where they are coming from. But no – I will not embrace the frenzy and the anxiety.

I am here on Earth mainly to grow spiritually – to be with the Divine. That is my primary task. My primary task isn’t to ensure whether this form of government or that form, this form of economy or that form thrives. Christ was born in a time without democracy. So was the Buddha. It didn’t diminish their lives any less for that. By modern standards, they were “unfree”, subjugated (Buddha after he left his kingdom, anyway!), rendered voiceless. All true in a sense. In an important sense.

And yet! Oh, what a yet!

And yet, they lived a full life, as full a life as imaginable, because they lived primarily for their spiritual calling on Earth. They lived for spiritual awakening, for the Divine, for the Truth of a cosmic awareness.

This is the main task. My main task for myself. What Christ calls me to do – to be with Him!

Like with the left, I understand the concerns of the right. The world seems to be hurtling into a choatic free for all, where traditional ways of life and cultures and modes of interaction are being upended. Or so it seems very much. And I also want to say “Merry Christmas!” and mean it to speak of the Lord who died for my sins, rather than a mundane “Happy Holidays!” which speaks to an economic event.

And yet! Oh, thank god for that yet!

The purpose of my life is to be with Christ. To find that connection within me, every moment, every second. To nurture that relationship at all costs, prior to all needs. It is the most personal and immediate relationship. And no one can get between me and Christ. No one can inhibit my relation to Him. There is no threat to me, as long as I look to Christ and make him the center of my life. In that relation is a deep peace, a deep fulfillment. A deep awareness of the passing ups and downs of cultures, times, empires, traditions.

I was born to be with Christ. To realize that relation to Him. To nurture it, to grow in it, to feel it within me with a bond that cannot be broken. That is the purpose of life. That is the purposes of yoga, of the spiritual calling at the heart of every human being.

Raise to that calling! Embrace it! Live just for the Divine, and not for what the mental attachments of what your mind says, no matter how important or how big, or how much it concerns famous people living in famous buildings doing famous things.

Revolutions are happening out there, yes. True. But the deepest revolution is always happening not out there, but in you. Be revolutionary. Change the world. Embrace the Divine in you, and live as it seems impossible to do.

Likewise, traditions are in danger. Cultures are being lost. Yes. True. But the deepest and oldest and greatest tradition is not other there, but in you. Be a stand for tradition. Uphold the past. Do what the great humans of the past did: live for the Divine in you, without expecting the Divine to live for you in the way you imagine.

The whirlwinds in the world blow always. Sometimes they die down a little, sometimes they rise up into major storms. But either way, your life isn’t decided by the whirlwinds. It is decided by what you were born to do.