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?

No.

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.

It is Coming

It is coming. We know it the way animals know when a storm is coming. Deep in our bones. Through our bond with Mother Nature. Through our sense of the balance of life.

Call it “The Event.” A seismic natural disaster. The result of humans’ rapid expansion in a few millenia all over the planet. The result of vast technological and ecological changes.

The event that will change the general complicity in our lives. Dreaming of the house and the white picket fence, and the latest gizmos and the image – the fantasy – of the forever rising tide of the middle class.

The event which is the result of global warming. And maybe artificial intelligence. And maybe nuclear attack.

Maybe it won’t happen in 10 years or 20 years. Or in my life time. And maybe it won’t be one big event. Maybe it will be a series of events. But still, it is coming. Maybe it has already started.

The event which will force humans to confront the situation as a species. Something which will affect all humans, irrespective of race, religion, ideology and nationality.

What will we do? How we will deal with the event? How can we prepare for it?

There won’t be any magic consensus after the event. Differences between conservatives and liberals, atheists and theists, nationalists and globalists, capitalists and communists won’t magically disappear the day after. Or the month or the year or the decade after.

Intellectual battles won’t end. They never end. They go on, just like physical battles. And strongman leaders will come heralding the limits of reason and debate and the congress – heralding the need, the urgency of action. And the battle between the strongmen and their opponents will rage on.

As will the battles between the globalists and the nationalists. The globalists claiming that one government and one global state is needed to tackle global problems. And nationalists claiming the globalists are only elitists setting up a global plutocracy.

These are the coming issues of this century and the next.

The issues are too complex for easy predictions. And clear solutions. 10,000 years after humans settled down into an agricultural life, they have swarmed the planet and are on the verge of a cybernetic existence exerting mass impact on the planet.

Thinking is needed. Action is needed. Good intentions are needed.

But none will suffice. As it never suffices.

What more is needed to confront the issues – to face it head on – is a change in consciousness. A transformed mode of being. A lighter, freer, more compassionate awareness. An existence centered not on me and mine, but on ours. All of ours. On life itself.

An awareness and mode of being which can guide the thought. Give it the structure and direction which thought by itself never finds. An awareness which can guide action and the good intentions.

An awareness which doesn’t look to who is to blame – “the globalists!”, “the atheists!”, “The religious”, “Them!” – but which finds, lives and breathes our common humanity. Which binds us to each other while giving space for our differences. Which knows that we are all one, even as it knows that we can never all live or think the same way. That difference is as essential to identity and to love as sameness.

An awareness which embraces the grace of religious consciousness and the wisdom of skeptical philosophy.

An awareness which first arose from the communal mythical consciousness of hunter gatherers half a million years ago. Which transformed into the dances and visions of the shamans. And then into the rituals of the priests. And then into the faith of Christ on the cross, the stillness of the Buddha under the tree, and Socrates’ life affirming embrace of drinking hemlock.

These past guides show the way to the next stage of consciousness, the arrival of the new mode of humanity a hundred or two hundred years from now. After the event.

The event will bring great pain, loss and suffering. Millions will perish. Parts of the globe now flourishing might be inhabitable.

Those who give in to the fear and shock of the event will kick and scream, shout and fight, claiming to lead the way. But they will only make it worse, as fear only begets fear.

Those who can see the event with the gaze of nature, with a cosmic awareness, neither overwhelmed by it nor cold to the suffering in its wake – they will lead humanity onto its next phase.

What if the event destroys all of human life? Well, then, that is that.

But as long as humans live, they, as any life, can only live into a world where they survive. Where they adapt. Evolve.

The meaning of a seed is the plant. And the meaning of the plant is the tree.

The meaning of us now is who we will become. After the trials of fire. After the event. The meaning of us is those who will wake up from the ashes of the event, the way we woke up from the ice age, and since then from the rise and fall of civilizations.

Our consciousness now is the egg. We have to protect it, safe guard, yes. But an egg is meant to crack, under heat and pressure. So that the meaning of the egg can be born and thrive, long after the egg is no more. And in time the new being becomes the egg for the next being. And on and on it goes.

Explosions from Within

Some people once lived in a compound. They were often attacked by invaders who shot arrows of fire into the compound. When the arrows were shot, huge explosions went off in the compound. The people living in the compound were frightened and agitated by the explosions, and would focus all their energy on attacking the invaders and stopping their arrows of fire.

But no matter how much they stopped the invaders, inevitably some arrows would break through and there would be devastating explosions in the compound. In response, most people in the compound spent their time figuring out more and more elaborate attacks on the invaders. Yet each time they felt they would destroy or at least control the invaders, an arrow would pass through and the compound was rocked with explosions yet again.

Finally one person realized that there was dynamite all over the compound. And it was really the dynamite which was causing the huge explosions. He saw that when the arrows of fire fell on empty ground, they were relatively harmless. But when they fell on dynamite, there were huge explosions.

So he removed all the dynamite from the compound. Confident there wouldn’t be anymore explosions, he was unperturbed by the arrows of fire and was able to focus on how best to deal with the invaders.

A wise person is like the person removing the dynamite from his compound.

An unwise person is like the people ignoring the dynamite in their own compound and looking outward for the cause of the explosions.

Normally I try to not be angry or frustrated or upset when interacting with others. When I am feeling grounded and calm, it feels like I am ready and poised to thwart and not be overcome by any arrows others might shoot towards me.

And yet, no matter how poised and on guard I am, usually at some point, there is an explosion. The hull has been breached. There is an explosion from within. While I am looking out for attacks from outside, fire explodes from within me – destroying my equanimity and filling the air with dark clouds of negative, painful, frustrated emotions.

At that point, panicked for myself and confident that the bomb which exploded in me was thrown from someone on the outside, I focus all my energy in retaliating against that person.

But did the other person throw a bomb or was it the dynamite I carry within me which exploded?

An unwise person gets surprised every time he becomes angry or depressed or frustrated. He asks, “Where is this emotion coming from? Who is triggering it?” And he looks out at the world to find the cause. He keeps looking until he pins the cause on something out there. So he can focus his anger on that and release the anger in that direction.

A wise person is unsurprised every time he becomes angry or depressed or frustrated. He doesn’t ask where the emotion is coming from, or who is triggering it. He knows right away that the emotion is an explosion from within. That it is his dynamite which went off. And that the explosion will cloud his judgement and make him look outwards. But instead of falling for that illusion, he turns away from the outside. He looks towards himself and focuses on removing the dynamite he carries within.

The unwise person looks at the wise person and sees a fool and a coward: “Look how he is not attacking the enemy in righteous fury and is running away, navel gazing at himself! Not to worry: I will find the enemy out there and destroy him!”

The wise person looks at himself and sees a diligent worker. Methodically removing the dynamite from within himself so that he can be free of pain.

Social Media as a Spiritual Space

In the axial age (around 2 to 3 thousand years ago) some humans such as Buddha, Socrates and Christ achieved spiritual enlightenment. This means: they gained the ability to stand back from their emotions and thoughts and not be moved instinctively by them. They could look at their own mind with some distance and so disidentify with it.

In a religious context, as with Christ and Arjuna in the Gita, this skill was called faith. In a nonreligious context, as with Buddha and Socrates, this skill was called skepticism.

For most of the last 2,000 years human fighting took the form of physical fighting. You controlled your mind – through faith or skepticism – and so thereby controlled how you physically engaged with others.

Now our main interaction with our neighbors and most people is not physical but mental. In many parts of the society, getting into physical fights is not much of a concern.

Not that we have transcended our fighting instincts. Just that insitutionally and structurally, the fighting instincts don’t take the form of physical fighting.

They take the form of intellectual and emotional fighting.

Social media thus is the true indicator of where we are as a community and species. As our social interactions are mediated more and more through social media and computers, our general inability to control our mind will be evident in how we engage with each other on the internet, cell phones and social media.

This is perhaps the greatest change brought about by the computer revolution in the last 30 years, and especially as social media and cell phones have taken off in the last 15 years.

As evident in our politics and culture, our fights have taken on the form enabled by social media.

Is it better if we can go back in time? No. To overcome our mind as a species, our mental convulsions have to be evident to us. A hundred years ago, this was not as evident, as it was hard to seperate out physical instincts from mental instincts.

Now, on social media, physical instincts aren’t as relvant. So the mental nature of the instincts are more evident.

These mental instincts are grounded in taking themselves at face value as correct. So social media fighting looks like: my mental instinct is better/more true/more moral/more evolved than your mental instinct.

These are mental brawls. Mental mud slinging. Mental hair pulling.

It involves taking one’s mind at face value and going with it without skepticism or without a faith which questions the mind.

This new fighting in social media is a harbinger for our next coming spiritual evolution. The people who are able to control their own minds and engage in social media and so create new possibilities of social interaction in our social media age will lead the way to a brighter world.

Like John the Baptist, I look forward to the coming of such spiritual heroes.

History of Spirituality

In earliest human communities, spanning from 50,000 years ago to the present for some communities, spiritual experiences were a group phenomenon, achieved through group chanting, dancing and reenacting mythological events.

 

 

Then as communities started to become bigger, shamans arose. Shamans were the spiritual brain of the communal body, and they channeled the energies of the world and how best to thrive as human beings.

 

 

Then with the earliest human civilizations, about 6,000 years ago, societies became vast groups of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of people. It was no longer possible for all the engage in group rituals at once, or even to be guided by a single shaman in close proximity. This led to divine kings. The emperor as shaman for the whole civilization.

 

 

With the vast empire and the divine kings, there had to be a spiritual beauracracy, which led to the priestly classes. “Beauracracy” is not meant as a demeaning or triviliazing word. Rather, a shaman in a group of 150 people was at once the leader, the spiritual guru, the medicine man, the forecaster, and so on. With the rise of empires, all of these tasks couldn’t be done by one person. Most people still lived in small communities, and there had to be a link between the emperor God who ruled over 100,000 people, and the people who still lived for the most part in family or local groups. Priests were the local shamans in this vast infrastructure.

 

 

About 3,000 years ago, with the axial age, there arose spirituality without communal ritual. With vast empires including people with diverse communal ritual traditions, it was no longer possible for one physical divine king, or even one priestly institutional structure, for everyone.

In the broader historical context, what is striking about the axial age religious founders is their spiritual consciousness is not a group achievement. They are solitary figures finding divine inspiration through a psychological transformation. Through personal Divine revelation. Like with Moses and the Buddha.

 

 

Christ and Socrates are in a way the most striking here. Their ultimate spiritual revelation and achievement is depicted while they are being killed – not as in ritualistic sacrifice, but from not being understood. How far things have come from spirituality being a communal experience of ritualistic dancing of the whole group!

 

 

The axial age de-ritualizes spiritual experience. It still involves great personal effort and focus. But it is no longer one which is assumed to be shared with all or even most people around oneself. It is not completely solitary, as even the axial sages were parts of communities of similar minded people with whom they shared their spirituality. But that similar minded community is now usually just one group among others within the broader society.

The de-ritualization of spiritual experience also renders moot the sharp distinction between sacred and profane physical spaces. With communal activity no longer the primary or essential locus of spiritual activity, where one is when being spiritual no longer matters so much. What matters more is how one is no matter where one is.

One could be on the cross or in prison. Or on the battlefield against one’s own family like Arjuna. Or homeless, living in the streets, flaunting social conventions and talking down to emperors like Alexander, as with Diogenes. Or riding on a ox away from society like Lao Tzu.

 

 

Is this the end of our history? Some humans discover personal spirituality and that is the pinnacle of human life? Not quite. Life moves on, pushes on, in new ways.

The axial age sages are just a few people, with some hundreds of initial followers. The majority of the world is still wedded to ritualistic spirituality – with their awareness of the vastness of the world mediated through communal activity.

So many people, including into our present, interpret the non-ritualistic awareness of the axial sages themselves in ritualistic modes. In particular, in one or all of three modes.

First, institutions. Temples, churches and schools come to be the ritual space for spiritual awareness. People who didn’t found any institutions or write anything themselves – Buddha, Christ, Socrates – soon became the figure heads of institutions. And the institutions mark which spaces are more sacred or more enlightened than others.

 

 

Second, sacred texts. The sayings and the memories of the axial sages get transformed into written texts, which then become a locus of communal activity. And which then mark which words are more sacred or rational than others.

 

 

Third, gurus. At the heart of the ritualistic awareness is the sense that spirituality is to be found in activity directed towards something or someone outside oneself. Temples and bibles are the somethings. Gurus are the someones. They mark the sense that some people are more sacred or realized than others, and that aligning to their consciousness is the way to align one’s own consciousness to the Divine and the infinite.

 

 

To highlight institutions, texts and gurus is not to belittle them, or the people who see their own spiritual growth through them. It is only to state a fact of how the majority of the world are not like the axial sages. The majority of the world – theists and atheists alike – are more like earlier humans in seeking a communal or shared awareness of the higher ends of humanity.

Nor is it to say that the gurus are only seeking recognition and are not like Christ or the Buddha. For the gurus might be, if they are especially inspired, like Christ and the Buddha, seeking nothing other than their inner link to the Divine. And sensing this, others congregate around them. There is no point in outwardly criticizing the guru or the followers. To do that would be to focus one’s own consciousness on other people, as if one cannot align with the Divine until other people see the light. That is yet another mode of the ritualistic consciousness.

There is no one true mode of spirituality. Is the Buddha more correct than the early humans who experienced the Divine through communal ritualistic dances? Or is a  current Buddhist meditating by himself more enlightened than people who seek the Divine through communal chanting at a temple?

Is someone who walks or bikes by oneself better than someone who takes the train with thousands of other people?

There is no one time we live in. Our current world includes traditions and modes of activity and ways of human consciousness from thousands of years, layered one on top of another, and also alongside one another. Like a forest with different kinds of vegetation growing wild in many layers and directions.

How one aligns to the Divine is not important, as long as one aligns to the Divine. The relevant issue isn’t: are they – others – aligned to the Divine in the right way? It is: Am aligned to the Divine, whether through an institution or a guru or by myself?

Find your link to the Divine, and you will see the Divine in all, everywhere, in all modes of human activity. Just the way the early humans saw when they danced with the Gods, and the way Christ saw on the cross, and the way Buddha saw under the tree of Enlightenment.

Work of Consciousness

Is religion good?

Three things we might mean by religion:

1) The spiritual practice of the founder of the religion (say, Christ)

2) A community for people as they individually practice what Christ practised

3) A group identity of a we which is experienced as the most advanced and best mode of life because it has the right answers.

(1) is great. Contrary to deflationary views, which claim that someone like Christ was just a good person, (1) invovles the personal journey of each person to develop their cosmic awareness. This is not simply being nice. It is to expand and evolve one’s consciousness.

(2) is good. Humans are social beings and sharing the ups and downs of one’s life practices and goals is healthy and healing. This is church at its best.

(3) is bad. Nothing worthy about it. And is in fact just the kind of group awareness (1) is meant to grow beyond.

Most arguments about religion, between atheists and theists, focus on (3). Nothing is gained from participating in such debates. It only keeps one’s consciousness rooted at the level of group identity.

Focus entirely on (1). At times, if you feel the need, engage in (2) as an aid to (1). Forget about (3), and forget about getting into debates re (3).

Transcend the mode of a we set against another we. Starve that impulse within oneself. Dedicate your self entirely to (1).

Be with christ. That is more important than debating the value of this or that religion, or religion and atheism.

Abstract debate doesn’t mean one has transcended to a higher conscisousness. Usually it is a more refined form of a lower consciousness.

Move beyond debate. Do the personal work of consciousness.

Meaning of “God”

What is the meaning of “God”?

The main question about God isn’t whether He exists. A better, and prior question is: what do we mean by “God”?

I think of God this way: the energy of the world which guides me to live with the cosmic awareness of how small I and all humans are in the world.

Call this a pragmatic definition of God, because it defines God in terms of His practical influence on the world, and in particular on me.

Some points about this.

First, this definition of God is entirely compatible with scientific naturalism. There is nothing unnatural about it. Cosmic awareness is a mental state. I struggle with holding on to that mental state. God is the energy that helps me hold on to that state. Nothing here that conflicts with physics, biology or psychology.

Second, this definition is entirely compatible with atheism, understood as the view of a person who doesn’t believe in God. An atheist is someone who either doesn’t care to cultivate cosmic awareness (I doubt this), or someone who doesn’t seek or need any help involving the concept of God for him to cultivate cosmic awarness (which is entirely possible).

Third, this definition is entirely compatible with any religion. It doesn’t say what God’s name has to be, which building he resides in or doesn’t, how one has to pray to be in touch with Him, etc.

Fourth, the above three points are made possible by the essentially self-referential nature of the characterization of God. “Self-referential” as in, with essential reference to the believer who is speaking of God.

Here are some non self-referential statements in this sense:

  • 2 + 2 = 4
  • WWI began in 1914.
  • I am 5’9″.

These statements do not depend for their truth on the speaker’s belief or awareness. They can be true no matter what the speaker believes or doesn’t believe about them. And their truth doesn’t relate to the speaker’s mental situation.

Some self-referential statements in the sense I mean here:

  • My wife is the most beautiful woman in the world
  • I like the Beatles
  • 49ers are the greatest football team of all time.

In these statements, the meaning and so truth of the claim is mainly tracking the speaker’s mental states. If in response to the first statement, someone responded, “No, my wife is the most beautiful,” something has gone wrong. This kind of thing does go wrong often, and leads to mindless fighting.

This is also what debates between theists and atheists, and between people of different religions are like. The self-referential nature of God statements are forgotten, or not noticed, and people argue about God the way they might over what is the best color or the best tasting cereal or the best sports team.

Actually, the reason they debate with such passion isn’t because they forget the nature of the statements. It is because of a historical fact which covers over the nature of such statements.

In early human life, say 5,000 years ago, self-referential statements were first and foremost communal statements. They were self-referential not to an individual I, but to a communal We.

Priests following Vedic rituals 3,000 years ago said things like: “May we, the pious, win much food by prayer, may Agni with fair light pervade each act.”(Rig Veda, from which I randomly chose this sentence.)

A statement like this is self-referential in that it essentially concerns Agni the Fire God orienting the life of community. That is, Agni is the energy which aids the mental states of all the members of the community, which in turn will aid their physical and material needs. Ancient religion was in effect a way for people to align their mind appropriately: align towards their shared well being rather than towards individual, selfish well being.

Transcendence is the experience of cosmic awareness. And before the axial age, transcendence was first and foremost a communal experience. In earliest times it was experienced in group activities such as dancing, chanting and in general getting lost in the euphoria of group consciousness. These activities were not simply fun activities. They were essential for the people to get beyond their own natural selfish instincts and rise up in consciousness to a communal perspective. These communities experienced God or the Divine mainly and essentially as a communal achievement.

This changed with the axial age.

Compared to the hunter gatherer tribes or the rituals of the Vedas, what is striking about Moses, Christ or Arjuna in the Gita is that they don’t need ritual to have transcendent experience of the Divine. They relate to God individually, within themselves.

Why and how did this change occur?

Simple: because socio-economically people of diverse communal religious backgrounds and rituals started to live together. So not all of one’s neighbors were people with whom one could dance or chant together. You couldn’t ignore them nor experience transcendence communally with them.

This left only two options.

The path of war: kill the other groups or atleast subjugate them, so that one’s own rituals are supreme in the civilization.

Or the path of peace: kill not other groups but kill the habits of communal based ritual as essential for experience of transcendence. Kill the hate in one’s own heart, and that is the path to cosmic awareness.

The path of war is essentially contradictory. You cannot fight with people you are socially and economically entwined with so that you can gain transcendence just through your group ritual. The rituals which used to be for transcendence when communities were small became modes of group selfishness when communities started getting into the hundreds of thousands.

Like the move from reading out loud to reading internally, the axial age marked the move from experiencing transcendence as a group phenomenon to it being an individual phenomenon. With this move, being with God involved not mainly outward dance, song or action but, more essentially, inward cleansing of one’s own psyche, and seeking and trusting God’s help during that process.

This essentially inner dimension of the religious life is why now statements about God are self-referential.

We tend to forget it when seek an experience of transcendence through the communal act of having shared beliefs. When we imagine that prior to experiencing transcendence we need to first do the communal ritual of shared, group avowal of same beliefs. Which are either of this or that religion, or religion or atheism.

But the axial age revolution was meant precisely to move beyond such group avowal as a mode of transcendence. In this, Christ and Socrates are alike, as are Arjuna and the Buddha.

For all these figures, metaphysical debates about God’s existence are not as prerequisite to attaining cosmic awareness. Those debates have their place, just as group chanting, dancing and rituals have theirs. But they are not the foundation for experiencing transcendence. Rather, transcendence requires seeing the limits of such debates and doing the inner work of freeing oneself of deep seated and natural communalistic impulses. To do that while one is a creature of this world, with the particular, local bonds one outwardly inevitably has.

Surrendering to the Divine

What does it mean to surrender one’s life to the Divine?

It is to place the Divine between one’s perceptions/emotions/thoughts and one’s actions.

Perceptions/emotions/thoughts normally call out for action. An instinctual response.

For example, I might be getting invisalign to straighten my teeth. Thinking about this makes me feel anxious and self-conscious. There is no seperation between the thought and feeling self-conscious, or feeling bad and defensive and maybe a bit sad.

To surrender this issue to God is to insert God between the thought and the reaction of feeling self-conscious, such that God will guide my reaction to the thought.

To feel self-conscious in reaction to the thought means that I experience the thought as a problem, as something which diminishes me. The thought that I might get invisalign is in itself just a thought – in itself neither good nor bad. But normally I don’t experience the thought that way, so neutrally. I experience it fused with am emotional tremor, as something bad or unpleasant. Ultimately, it is not the thought as such but the emotional tremor which feels indistinguishable from it which has painful, negative consequences, draining me of peace of mind.

Surrendering the thought to God is to ask God to guide my reaction to the troublesome thought. To give over the reaction entirely to God, so that it is no longer my concern what my response to that thought should be. This doesn’t take away necessarily the emotional tremor associated with the thought. Not right away. But it gives it distance from the emotional tremor so that I can start to see that the thought might be conceptually seperable from the emotional tremor which has instinctively been associated with it.

To surrender to the divine is to live beyond brute instinct. To live more reflectively, infusing one’s deepest instincts with a sense of the overall awareness and perspective of life.

Surrendering to God is not passive. It is the opposite of that. It is to embrace living beyond socially cultivated, unreflective instinct.

Simplicity of Wisdom

Knowledge is complicated. It requires searching the world through the senses and using the mind to think things through. One might find what one is looking for. One might not. Knowledge is unsure, unpredictable, uncontrollable. It is searching for what is outside oneself, or outside one’s immediate consciousness.

Wisdom is simple. It doesn’t require searching. Looking is the wrong mode for wisdom. It is defined by remembering. Seeing what one already knows but is constantly liable to forget. It is what is inherent in every breath, every move, every thought. It requires simply being with it. Not finding it, or discovering it, or spreading it with others, like a treasure found in one place but not in another place.

Knowledge is like treasure. Wisdom is like air.

Wisdom is just one thing: being aware, not forgetting, that the universe is much bigger than me, much bigger than my family and friends and community, much bigger than my opponents, much bigger than humans in general and much bigger than life on earth.

This awareness is in us, made evident by our lack of control in the vastness of the world.

But we forget it, through the grips of desire. When I want something, it looms large in my world, as if me and it are the center of the world. Or when I am angry. Or upset. Or hurt. Or happy. Or excited. Basically, when I am moved in my ego world.

Wisdom is seeing past the ego world, mine and others.

It doesn’t require special insight or knowledge of scriptures or whether god exists, or nature of knowledge, or nature of humans or of science or of the world.

It doesn’t require knowledge.

It requires coming back to the obvious, the smallness of our lives in the vastness of the universe.

The wise person is able to come back to this in each moment, even in the midst of their pain, anger, disappointment or joy. The unwise person is unable to do that, caught in their pain, anger, disappointment or joy.

Wisdom is simple. It is clear, ever present.

But it feels hard and evasive and difficult when wisdom is seen as knowledge. As something to grasp, something new to acquire, somewhere far away from where I already am. This is the root illusion.

Wisdom is simple. It doesn’t require knowledge. It only requires not forgetting the obvious.

Embrace in each moment how vast the universe is in relation to you, and wisdom will be your constant companion.