Disenchanting Political Philosophy

A key issue in current political philosophy is that between ideal vs non-ideal theory. But I would suggest a more productive contrast is between enchanted vs disenchanted theory.

Ideal theory concerns the justification of a political state under idealized conditions. The most famous recent version is Rawls. His question was, “What makes a society just?” His answer was that a society is just if it meets certain conditions – which we can reflect on without thinking about our actual political conditions. Rawls isn’t concerned – at least in his philosophical work – with how to bring about such a just society. His concern is: what would it be for a society to be just, irrespective of whether we can get there or not? Of course, you can take the ideal theory and try to bring it to bear to particular actual problems. But the starting point is with the ideal theory.

Non-ideal theory eschews the notion of an ideal starting point, and begins instead with current, actual unjust conditions, and is interested in changing those. It can involve a great deal of intellectual, theoretical work to understand the nature and causes of the existing, unjust conditions. But it’s starting point isn’t the skeptical question such as “Can a society be just?” or a metaphysical question such as “What is a just society?”, but rather the practical question, “How can our society become more just?” In this sense non-ideal theory is seen to be intrinsically political – as in, it aims not only at understanding, but even more primarily at changing our society. The most famous version of this was Marx. But other versions can be found in feminism (say, recently, Kate Manne) or critical race theory (say, Charles Mills), or recent work on fascism (say, Jason Stanley), and so on.

For the non-ideal theorist, ideal theory seems like pie-in-the-sky abstractionism, which, by ignoring the actual lived conditions of injustice, end up reenforcing those injustices. For the ideal theorist, non-ideal theory reduces all questions about the nature of justice to questions of political activism – as if only questions raised in the midst of activism can be appropriately good. Here is a crude analogy, but perhaps not far off: ideal theorists are like metaphysicians, while non-ideal theorists are like logical positivists claiming that metaphysics is the bain of actual, rigorous scientific knowledge.

Much as the contrast between ideal and non-ideal theorists can seem exhaustive, there is an important assumption that often the two sides have in common. They share what I will call an enchanted conception of political solidarity.

I am using “enchanted” here to echo Weber’s sense in which the pre-modern world was seen to be enchanted – that is, with the world itself filled with meaning and purpose. In the enchanted world we didn’t have to create meaning in life, or morality – those truths were assumed to be as much a part of the world as the sun and the moon and the stars, out in the world which we simply experienced and could take for granted. On the Webberian story, modernity broke this spell, leaving us with a world in which at most we have to create our meaning and root morality in ourselves. We can do it in a rationalist, Kantian way, or maybe an existentialist way, or a communitarian way, etc. Or if we can’t do it, we are stuck facing the void, staring into the abyss of nihilism.

By an “enchanted conception of political solidarity”, I mean the idea that we are simply given – or can take for granted – political solidarity. That it is obvious who the “we” are in “we the people”.

Many people have an enchanted conception of their nuclear family. They know exactly who their parents and sibling are, and who aren’t. Many people, however, don’t have such a conception. If they are adopted or have absent parents, etc., it might not be entirely obvious or clear even to themselves what “my family” picks out. For a person with an enchanted conception of nuclear family, “my family” resonates with a clear sense of who is in and who is out – and so makes questions of “Is my family good or bad, or modern or traditional, etc?” seem kind of clear, even if hard to answer. But for a person with a disenchanted conception of nuclear family, “my family” doesn’t automatically seem clear at all – and so even before addressing the question, “Is my family good or bad, modern or traditional?”, they are left wondering “who am I talking about in the first place? Who are the people I have this relation with, and how can I experience that more?”

In ideal political theory, when one asks, “What makes a society just?”, it is assumed that we already know who is a part of that society. Usually it is the trivial answer, “the members of the society”. It’s as if societies are natural kinds, with clearly defined boundaries of who is in and who is out, and with a sense for each other as “members of the same society”. The question the ideal theorist is interested in then is, “How should those people relate to each other such that their society is just?” In ideal theory “those people” is not defined any more than that. It is just an abstract sense of the people as members of the society.

It’s a genuine question – raised by the non-ideal theorist- whether much sense can be given to a question when it is pitched at the searing abstraction of “a society” or “the people of that society”. Does such abstraction give us insight into contested notions of justice and inequality, or does it abstract so far away that it seems to talk about difficult topics without any of the pain? For the ideal theorist the abstraction is an insight. For the non-ideal theorist, it is a dodge.

To avoid the dodge, the non-ideal theorist claims to “keep it real”. No fluffy notions of a faceless we and complacent assumptions of a shared solidarity, as if men and women, whites and blacks, homosexuals and heterosexuals, etc. can take for granted a common bond. “No!”, the non-ideal theorist says. “There is no such common bond yet! For the institutions of the past failed to treat the people fairly. What we need to do is to rectify the injustices of the past before we can even raise questions of our shared society as such. Otherwise talk of “our” is just another way of reenforcing the power imbalances of the past.”

Thus the non-ideal theorist is critical of the ideal theorist’s enchanted sense of political solidarity. But the non-ideal theorist falls into his own form of enchantment when he tries to describe the lived political reality. For feminists, “women” becomes the enchanted term of political solidarity; as if just in virtue of identifying patriarchy, an invisible bond of solidarity had enveloped all women. Similarly, for marxists, “the workers” becomes the enchanted term of political solidarity. And so on.

The trouble here is obvious. If “the people” as used as an ideal theorist is too abstract and removed from lived reality, so too are words like “women”, “the workers”, “the immigrants”, “the African-Americans”, “the colonized”, etc.

We might ordinarily say something like “The British were cruel to their colonized subjects”. But that doesn’t mean that there is any obvious group such as “the colonized”. In fact, “the colonized” only makes sense in relation to, not a specific group such as “the British”, but in relation to “the colonizers” – where that includes the British, the French, the Portugese, etc. Now we are off on the path of abstraction. And it is a tricky, complex issue what kind of abstractions or general claims we can make about what “the colonizers” did or how “the colonized” suffered.

This is one reason why so much of non-ideal theory, though it aims to be resolutely grounded, is still so theoretical. Though it presents itself as engaged and concrete in contrast to the abstractions and vagueries of ideal theory, non-ideal theory ends up being something far less than promised . It is just slightly less abstract theory. But now with the added confusion that terms like “women”, “minorities”, “the oppressed”, etc. are treated as concrete terms. Which they are if they are contrasted to the works of Rawls, Kant or Hobbes. But by any normal understanding, these are not at all concrete terms, let alone terms which denote recognizable or established political solidarities.

In the face of the question, “Why don’t all women recognize their shared political solidarity?”, or the similar question for the disabled or the global south or the colonized, etc., the non-ideal theorist has to fall back onto a just so story, which is extremely abstract: that it is part of the work of the patriarchy, or the structures of the able bodied, or the colonizers, etc. to render the obvious solidarity unobvious. A metaphysical abstraction created an enchanted sense of solidarity, but then a political story gets told for why the solidarity isn’t more vividly felt. And the more the political story gets told (about patriarchy, colonizers, etc.), the more the sense of solidarity gets propped up.

I am not denying the reality that historically women were treated unjustly, or that the colonized were brutalized, and so on. But I think it is an open question whether accepting those realities and trying to change it requires the further, enchanted idea that there are obvious and special bonds of political solidarity among “the victims”.

Here some might fall back to ideal theory. For in rejecting the metaphysical abstractions of ideal theory, non-ideal theory seems to end up with a balkanized sense of political solidarity. “We the people” is diluted into “we the women”, “we the men”, “we the blacks” and “we the whites” and so on. Non-ideal theory was supposed to get us to be more concrete so as to focus more on the work of creating a just society. But instead of concreteness, we have gotten only a different kind of abstraction – which helps in some ways, but which fails to inspire an overall sense of “we the people”. At this point the ideal theorist steps back in, saying that the Rawlsian abstractions weren’t a dodge, but reflect our true, shared political solidarity.

We can avoid this see-saw between ideal and and non-ideal theory by giving up on their common assumption of the enchanted conception of political solidarity. Contra ideal theory, the best starting point for political philosophy is not the atemporal question, “What makes a society just?”, but rather the first-person plural perspective question, “How can we make our society more just?” But contra non-ideal theory, this first person, engaged, practical question is best addressed not just by asking how to rectify the injustices of particular groups, but by asking what holds us together at all. The more we face up to the fact that we live in a disenchanted political reality, the better we can work to change things.

Peace on Earth

If I was given the option, “Your life in exchange for peace on Earth?”, what would I choose?

Is there anything which could possibly justify choosing myself? Could I live with myself knowing my life is coming at the cost of the continued pain in the world? What would I do with a life I held onto at such cost?

A different, less extreme choice: peace on Earth not for my life, but for my fears? If I was promised there would be peace on Earth if I gave up being afraid, what would I do?

It would be silly for me to then hold onto my fears. The reward is great – peace on Earth. And what am I giving up: my life, my loved ones, my ideals, my hopes? No , just my fears. If I accept that I will not be afraid of anything or anyone, under any circumstances – if I make that the core of my being – what harm is coming to me? Why would I possibly choose holding onto my fears over peace in the world?

But I do everyday choose my fears over peace in the world. Is it because what I am imaging is a fantastical scenario? No one after all can promise me that there will be peace on Earth if I give up my fears. No one can even tell me what peace on Earth would mean. Is that why I normally feel ok to hold onto my fears?

Ok, let’s try this. What if I gave myself a choice: Peace within myself for giving up my fears? The more I resolve to be unmoved by any fear, the more I will be at peace. I will then be a person of peace.

Peace on Earth increases the more there are people of peace. People who choose to give up their fears in order to be at peace. So if I give up my fears, I contribute just through that to increasing Peace on Earth. It doesn’t create peace on Earth. But it enables me there to be more peace on Earth. Just by my acting on my choice for myself.

The normal delusion is that my fears help me survive, and a peaceful world is one in which I get to survive as I am. Hence peace on Earth requires not that I give up my fears but that I can rest assured that my fears will never come true.

Hence normally peace on Earth is not something I help create, but which has to be created for me. The world has to be made safe for me. By those with power like the politicians, the intellectuals, the priests, the rich, the celebrities, the Gurus, etc. Peace on Earth in this sense is the world’s promise to me that as long as I am basically a moral person (don’t kill, steal, etc), then I will be made safe in the world.

Of course peace on Earth in this sense is a total impossibility. There can be no peace on Earth if the people get to remain fundamentally mediocre, even if generally moral, beings. Human fighting results not necessarily from grand themes like evil, but from a resistance to transcend ourselves. Show me two people getting into a fight and I will show you two people embracing their emotional mediocrity.

Being moral is good. Better than killing and stealing. But it is also just an early stage of human potential. When the moral person asks himself, “Do I want to act beyond what morality requires?”, then new possibilities for human flourishing open up.

Peace on Earth isn’t a matter of everyone being moral. It is a matter of people undertaking the inner journey into their psyches and uprooting their long held fears and anxieties.

That is why we cannot imagine what peace on Earth would look like. Not because we can’t predict others’ behavior. But because we cannot see through – even in our own case – to the end of the tunnel of our own transformation.

Choose the self transformation. Choose the uncertainty of changing. Choose giving up fears. Then new visions of peace will blossom within you and from you.

No Fear & No Hate

It’s done. The knot which held together many of my conceptual confusions is loosened. I see clearly.

Reality is so simple. Like a sky clearing after a thunderstorm, awareness of truth shines after years of tormented reflection.

“Does God exist?” This is a confused question. Theists and atheists are caught in the confusion. Thinking answering “yes” or “no” is the way forward.

The way forward is to see beyond the question. To see the limits of the question. To see how much there is to experience and grow and do beyond the question.

What one believes about God is neither here nor there. It needn’t point to anything deeper. One can be a devout believer and miss the transcendent experience of feeling God’s love. One can be a serious unbeliever and be clueless about the rational nature of our lives.

Doesn’t matter what you believe or don’t believe. Or even what you do or don’t do. Thoughts and actions are only by products of a deeper way of being. Focusing on the by products can’t lead to the deeper reality.

You don’t get the by products right first and then get to the deeper reality. You leave the focus on the by products behind, and then through your being the right thoughts and actions arise on their own. And in a way you can’t predict.

It is not a limitation of the mind that you can’t predict the path. Just as it is not a limitation of the shell that it has to break for life to emerge.

The rootedness of life isn’t found in thought or in action. It is found in a way of being.

That way of being is characterized by two basic features: no fear & no hate. A total detachment from the fears and hates within yourself.

Be fearless. And be hateless. That is transcendence. That is most rational mode of being.

It’s that simple.

Keep an eye on the fears/anxieties/nervousness and the hate/annoyances/irritations without identifying with them.

Do that and you will understand more about God’s nature or about reason than any book or seminar can teach.

Awaken into the realm of your own being which is beyond your thoughts, identities and ideals. It is a vast ocean of consciousness waiting to be experienced and explored.

See you there.

Upheavals of Nature

A few years ago, while my wife and I were taking a walk at night, I was overcome with grief. I sat down at a nearby bench and was crying. When my wife asked me why I was crying, I said something to the effect of “It’s going to be so horrible. There will be so much pain, so much suffering. The catastrophes are coming and we as a society are not ready for them at all!” I had a sense of a coming apocalypse and it frightened me.

Was that an overreaction on my part? To the contrary. It was entirely rational. It was the first time it had really sunk into me that the nice middle class lifestyle which we take for granted is not sustainable. That the future won’t just an upward escalator of material progress for all. That behind the material achievements and even the scientific intellectual insights, we as a people still have a basically primitive consciousness, not far removed from the ancestors of thousands of years ago.

That in fact we as a species haven’t yet caught up to the great awakenings of consciousness of the sages of the past from two to three thousand years ago. We are surrounded by better technology and greater material well being than what the Buddha or the Upanishadic sages or Lao Tzu or Jesus Christ or Socrates had. But we haven’t yet tapped into the evolution of consciousness which they achieved. Our very material well being – which we haven’t earned individually but is something we have been gifted by our recent generations – covers over our emotional and spiritual stuntedness. It hides our inability to truly transcend our egoistic impulses. The ideals of an Ivy League degree or a BMW or a fancy salary or the good likes of a model give us the sense of sophistication – when all the while underneath the degrees and the material goods and the sophistication is the same limited and ego driven thinking of past ages.

Worries of apocalypses is nothing new. Every century has its share. Perhaps every generation at some point feels the world as they knew it is about to end. But this fact doesn’t render worries of apocalypses as mundane.

Rather, it is each generation’s chance to confront the limits of material well being and ego awareness, and to see that greater flourishing requires greater transformation of our modes of consciousness. That ultimately computers, medical care, high rise apartments with fancy gadgets – all these are still just tools. Or at most transformations of our basic cognitive modes of being. But they don’t on their own change our deepest fears or anxieties, distrusts or pathologies. Only we can change those through a heightened awareness.

The fear of the coronavirus, for example, is rooted first in fear of what will happen to me, my family, my life patterns, my society – basically, life as I know it. The anxiety is real. And rational.

But if I step back for a moment from my personal anxieties of what will happen to me, my family, my job, my city, my country, and even yes, my world – I am confronted with a stark reality which normally I ignore or forget or bury, and which the pandemic doesn’t allow me to ignore, forget or bury. And that is awareness of my own insignificance – of this limited being called Bharath with his wife and child and family and income, and tastes and desires and hopes and ideals – in the broader cosmos.

Is my life worth more than an ant’s? Or more firm and guaranteed? More important than the life of the chicken I had for dinner last night or the animals that are becoming extinct in the light of humanity’s “flourishing”?

The fantasy of normal life is that things are basically right and just. Even when thinking of racism or deep injustice, the thought is just around the corner that if only we changed some things, true justness and goodness in society is achievable. As if with some changes, deep though they are, our lives and the meaning of humanity would be etched into and merged with the meaning of nature as such. As if nature itself is calling out for our felt next step to be the next step of the cosmos as such.

Catastrophes obliterate this fantasy. Yes, there is racism. Yes, there is mass inequality. Yes, there are the hungry and the homeless. Yes, there is so much for us to do as a species. But catastrophies force us to confront the basic reality that the doing of these things – all good and important and essential – aren’t written into the very essence of nature. Rather, they are important because they are important to us. They matter because they matter to us.

That doesn’t make the mattering less important. It is mattering enough. We want to survive and thrive as a species because we want to. Not because nature will keep its hurricanes and heat waves and forest fires and diseases and cathastrophies at bay for us. That is the brute reality which catastrophies force us to confront.

This can be depressing if we assume that our lives mattering must somehow be affirmed by nature itself protecting us – as if we were its special children. So when nature seems to turn a blind eye to us, as if it were unmoved by our mass deaths the same way we are unmoved by the mass deaths of other species, it can provoke existential anxiety. As if we are abandoned. Uncared for. Where is God in all this?

God is on the other side of the fantasy. On the other side of seeing our own limitedness in the vastness of nature and being strong enough to pick up our courage and work to retain and create our world.

The truth and meaning of our lives isn’t determined by living or dying. By being in good health or bad. Hence the coronavirus can’t rid our lives of meaning. It can take my life, my family, change society, force radical transformations. Some changes will be unfortunate. Some for the better.

But what remains is the same basic choice we face, a choice which something like the coronavirus forces us to confront more consciously. And that is: do we live with the fantasy of our specialness in nature, a fantasy which resists seeing our place in the cosmos with a straight face, or do we live with a continual awareness of our limitedness and so with greater appreciation each moment for our fragile and yet beautiful lives in the cosmos?

This is not a silly philosophical issue which we can ignore. It is crucial for our lives. For the more we are able to live in harmony with nature and with our own place in it, and bring that awareness not just to “saving the planet” but to each and every human interaction and to using it to get beyond our own fantasies of daily life, the more we will survive.

Those changes in consciousness add up and a hundred years from now, our descendants – no matter what their economic or family or cultural situations, no matter if there are robots or aliens living among us – will be more rooted and secure because they will then be more conscious and mindful in their living. And in their dying. And in their confronting the pleasant times and the harsh times, the ups and downs of life.

Yes, future generations will need and have greater techonology to deal with the changing tides of nature. But they will also need a basic transformation in modes of consciousness to retain those techonologies and to try not to kill each other in the process. Techonologies will transform our consciousness. But there is a lot for us to do to transform ourselves in the process as well. To change outdated modes of habit and forms of consciousness, and to grow from within to a higher light of awareness.

Beyond Fear

If the elephant of my mind is firmly bound on all sides by the rope of mindfulness, all fears will cease to exist and all virtues will come into my mind. – Shanthideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva

I have so many fears.

Fears about what will happen. To me. To my loved ones. To the world.

But alsostrange as it seems – fears about the past. About things that happened which I regret, which I fear I can’t change, which I am still angry about.

Every day, every thought, every action – there is a fear, even a swarm of fears, hiding behind it.

The fear breeds restlessness. Anxiety. Exhaustion.

Within the ocean of fear, there are small islands of forgetting the fears. I call those islands “happiness”. But at any moment the islands can get flooded by the ocean and the forgetfulness can be eroded so that I am back facing the fears.

All this is unconscious of course most of the time. Or at least subconscious. Or in the background of consciousness. Ordinary consciousness is defined more by the forgetting of the fear and then the remembrance of it – the oscillation between the two. And hoping the forgetfulness wins out so I am not devoured by the fears. But the fears peak out in every interaction where there is the potential for the elephant of the mind to run amuck and stampede over my peace.

Normally I just accept all this as the reality. That the world is a fearful place. Filled with things, events, people, possibilities and eventualities which are frightening. Unnerving. Which rob me of my composure.

All these fearful things are like wild animals roaming in my world. If I can avoid them and survive the day without getting scratched or bitten or mawled by them, that is a good day. But if I do get attacked by them and they take a bite out of me, and I am caught in the grips of the fear, that is a bad day.

Shanthideva – as he states in the quote at the top of this post – suggests my ordinary way of thinking is a delusion.

He says the fears are not really out in the world. Rather, they are products of my mind. They are created by my perception of things.

That means I am not the passive experiencer of fear. Someone who is bombarded by fears from outside myself. Rather, I am the cultivater of the fears. They exist only in my mind, and only as long as I don’t realize that.

The mind creates the fear and the projects it onto things in the world. Then the things seem intrinsically fearful, as if it is the nature of the things in the world, independent of me. As if in fearing those things I am simply responding, reacting and am confronted by the nature of things as they really are. The possibility of losing the job or losing the marriage or my life being meaningless or my goals not being fulfilled or my house needing repairs – all those appear as just things to fear, and when I fear them I am just tracking the truth. That’s how it feels.

In this ordinary way of thinking, there can be no life without fear. The world is full of fearful things. So only a delusional person can live without fear. The normal person accepts there are fearful things and tries to avoid them. Even if it means constantly worrying about it.

Shanthideva flips this around. He says there can be a life without fears. Not because one has mastered all the fearful things in the world. But because he sees that his fears are actually caused by his mind. That they are projections of his mind to begin with.

So if he can be self aware of his mind when it does the projecting, then the illusion of the world being fearful can’t get a grip.

The normal person, in response to fear, tries to control the world. They assume their mind is helping them by making them afraid so that they can see what is really happening and can then act quickly to avoid it. The normal person (like me normally), even as he is fed up with the fear, deep down is grateful for it. He thinks his perception of the fear is helping him navigate the world better. To avoid the lions and the tigers waiting for him the world.

Shanthideva’s point is that the implicit gratitude for the fear is the root of not being mindful. It is to accept the mirage and the fantasy that the mind is playing over us. So that we fail to see that it is the mind itself which is creating the fear in the first place.

So the job goes. So the illness comes. So the house needs repairs. Yes. These are just events. Like it’s raining or snowing. Or a rock rolling down a hill. They are neither fearful nor wonderful in themselves. They just are.

The fear comes from what my mind adds to the events. Only the mind adds the fear so quicklyin a fraction of a fraction of a second – and so smoothly that, like an audience member seeing the magician pull a rabbit out of the hat, the ordinary person falls for the mind’s trick that the fear is actually in the events.

To be mindful is to keep the focus on the tricks of the mind rather than on the world where we are caught by the minds projections. To focus on the mind is to catch the mind in its act of doings it’s tricks, and so to not fall for the tricks.

Watch the mind as it tries to project the fears onto the world. Then the projection fails. The things in the world then just are, and not colored by the projection.

All along I am the one creating the fear. Unaware of this, I am also the one consumed by the fear. When I pay attention and am mindful of how the mind goes through the mechanics of creating the fear, I see fear for what it is: just my own projections onto the world. Knowing I am creating the fear, I am no longer consumed by it.

Who is Bharath?

Am I Bharath?

The question isn’t whether really I am John or Ram or someone else instead. It’s: am I a particular person designated with a name?

There is a voice in me which identifies itself with Bharath. As Bharath. This voice flares up when it is happy or sad or annoyed or bored. It says “This is great” or “This is awful”.

When I stand back and try to observe this voice, it says, “What are you standing back from me for? I am you. You are me. I am Bharath. That’s you! These good and bad things that are happening aren’t just happening to me. They are happening to you! Don’t feign detachment or as if you don’t care. As if you are different from me. You aren’t different. You are me. All these are your thoughts and concerns and issues. You might be growing bald. You need to pay the mortgage. Your daughter needs more things. Your pride and happiness is at stake. It’s not just me, some voice that cares about all this. I am you! You are Bharath! You need to care!”

Here is an existential reality: should I believe this voice or not?

Where does the voice come from? It acts as if it was always just there. But the voice is nothing but the internalization of other external voices. “Bharath is like this.” “Bharath is like that.” “Bharath is good.” “Bharath is loving.” “Bharath is serious.” “Bharath is judgmental.” These things others say coalesce into a single voice when those things are accepted.

So the voice that says “I am Bharath” is nothing but a product of others saying “You are Bharath and you are like this and this and this.”

And who are these others saying this about Bharath? Satyam, Subha, Gautam and other family and friends and neighbors and colleagues and strangers?

But then who is Satyam? Is he real? Well, there is a voice there too saying “I am Satyam. I am like this. I am like that. This is good for me. That is bad for me.” Is that who that person is, just that voice which identifies with being Satyam?

So there are all these voices which claim they are real selves, as real as can be, and they are all defined just in terms of each other. Every voice is just an internalization of what all the other voices say about it.

That’s all well and good. But what does that have to do with me? Is that who I am? Just a node in a matrix of social selves, defined with respect to all the other nodes?

Or am I the awareness of this dance of the nodes in the matrix? The awareness which doesn’t get its identity by what the voice says about itself. The awareness which observes the voice and its screaming and its laughter and its pain, and observes even the voice’s claim to be identical with the awareness, and still doesn’t identify with the voice.

The awareness is the cosmic awareness, which sees the voice as just the pebble on the beach that it is. And seeing the pebble as just a pebble, one among billions and billions of other pebbles, the awareness doesn’t – and can’t – identify with the pebble. How can the ocean be the same as a pebble?

Leap of Faith

I like to think that I want God awareness but somehow it is not happening. Why does God hide himself from me and put me through all the useless, painful experiences?

But it’s not that at all.

Really, I am scared of God awareness. Of giving myself to it. Of opening myself to it. Of letting it blossom in me.

I want the God awareness. And I want it to make sense and fit into my life before realizing God awareness.

I want God awareness on my terms. Like it is a prized car or a super special possession. I want to possess the God awareness.

I don’t want to be possessed by the God awareness. To be uplifted and changed and transformed by it. To made different – to have my consciousness change at a deep level.

So what happens when I both seek God awareness but also resist it?

I turn it into a metaphysical other. I want to know God and yet I don’t know because He hides from me. Or because I don’t have the right knowledge of Him. Or because I don’t know how God could exist in a natural world.

The practical gulf between my ordinary awareness and God awareness is turned into an epistemic gulf.

It’s like when a man, unable to commit to the woman he loves, is lost in thought of how he can know she is the right woman for him. He doesn’t want to let himself be changed. And yet he doesn’t want to break up. So he hovers in an in between realm of: is she really the one for me? How can I know? Let me weigh the evidence.

The weighing the evidence and the deliberating and the pros and cons – to which one can devote all of ones life – then becomes the limit of how far one is willing to travel. God awareness, which in its dormancy made itself known to me, is reified and turned into the God concept, to be analyzed and debated. Comfortable in its familiarity, in its keeping the scary transformation of God awareness at arms length.

Faith is making the leap beyond from the metaphysical conception of God into the lived practical, psychological openness to the transformation of ones consciousness. Not keeping the God awareness at bay, but letting it change one from the inside out.

But: Is that all that God is, a change in human consciousness? Where is the omniscience and omnipotence? Where are the miracles and the other world and the man in the sky?

Those are all just the metaphysical expressions of God awareness. To get stuck on them is like refusing to eat food until you can eat pictures of the food.

God is not just a change in human consciousness. He is the deepest change that can happen – a move from an ego awareness to non ego awareness.

There is a psychological shift from the adolescence of the ego consciousness (an adolescence which can last all of one’s life) into the adulthood of non ego consciousness. The ego consciousness has to die for the non ego consciousness to blossom.

Concepts like resurrection, reincarnation and freedom from karma are but mental constructs to make sense of this root psychological transformation.

There is no metaphysical mystery ultimately about God. There is only the psychological path of the unfolding consciousness.

Nothing to prove. Nothing to disprove. If you don’t like the word “God”, ditch it. If you like it, don’t be limited by the word. Above all, heed the energy within which calls you into newer realms of awareness. The depth of the surrender to the newer realms – the depth of the leap of faith – is the infinite potential of God.

God’s Voice

There is God’s voice within me. Listening to that voice is the best, most meaningful, most productive thing I can do.

I hear the voice all the time. But most of the time I ignore it. I overlook it. I take it for granted. I think, “yeah, yeah, that’s true, but….” Most of the time I fail to recognize it as God’s voice. I assume it is my own silly voice. Something obvious and not exciting.

I look for God’s voice in places which seem more exciting. In the news. On the web. In the form of the rich, the famous, the powerful, the beautiful, the educated, the elite. In the big events of the day: the political battles, the intellectual arguments, the word historical changes taking place.

I assume my life is small. That their life over there is big. And God is big. So he will speak from over there. In the form of the people who are most well known, most influential, who every one has heard of.

Peering out over there, craining my neck to grasp what they are saying and doing and thinking, I worry that I don’t hear God’s voice in them after all. That therefore I don’t hear His voice anywhere. That I am abandoned.

So I despair. I cry out in pain. I moan my sense of loss and feeling lost.

In that despair, I hear the voice I hear all the time, but which I took for granted. The voice that all along I assumed was nothing but my own silly, small voice.

But now when I forget about the voices of the world, of those “in the know” and what my family or culture or community thinks, of what the rich and the famous say and their battles emblazoned on tv – when I listen to the ever present voice within me without comparing it to the voice of others, then I realize the truth. That constant voice within me, which speaks to me in my particularity and which is so close to me as if it were nothing but my inner monologue – that voice is God’s voice.

It has been there all along. His voice is always there. With me. In my innermost mind and heart. So close to me that I assumed it is just me.

Then I see God smile and say, “You are beautiful just as you are. I don’t need to speak to you through anyone else. Not through the famous or the powerful. Not through those who you envy or who you are in awe of or who you look up to. I created you as you are, just as you are, with just all the things that happened to you and all the thoughts and impulses and desires and anxieties you have, just as you are so that I can speak to you like this. This is how I want to speak to you. You don’t have to become better to listen to me. Or become different. You don’t have blame yourself or chastise yourself to be different. You just have to accept yourself as you are, really, truly are and see that as how I made you so that you and I can connect this way, now.”

As I hear God’s voice, an amazing thing happens. I am no longer subordinate to anyone in the world. I don’t have to put myself down and listen to them so that I can hear God through them. No need, thank you very much. I can hear God just me as I am, and that is how God intends it.

This doesn’t make me better than others, since after all God is speaking to everyone else also in just the same way, in their voices to them personally, if only they will listen to it.

But it makes me as good as any person alive. Or dead. As good as Bezos and all his billions. As good as Trump or Obama or any president. As good as Einstein or Wittgenstein. As good as John Lennon or Michael Jordan. Not in singing or basketball, or in physics. But as good as any of them as just a person. If I meet them I don’t have to bow down to them or feel second to them.

I am God’s child. And they are God’s children. God loves us the same and equally. We each have the same, equal access to Him, for he opens himself to each of us as we are, in the depths of the unique voice we each have.

In God there is only love. Pure love. Disseminated to all equally.

That is what God’s voice in me tells me. As I hear it and know I have come home to that voice, I smile. I open my heart and ears to God’s voice and let the sweetness of his love and his words wash over me.

Descartes, Tolle and Merton

My worldview can be summed up as follows:

1) The personal, inter-personal, social, economic and political troubles we face cannot be solved by the fragmented domains of knowledge production that has developed in the last 200 years of the modern university. What more is needed is the holistic thinking of a philosophical awareness and modes of questioning. (Academic philosophers and new age philosophers would agree).

2) The necessary holistic thinking of philosophy requires a broadening and synthesis of out understanding of philosophy itself. In particular, it requires to bring into harmony the intellectual and logical thinking of academic philosophy with the spiritual and intuitive thinking of new age philosophy. (This many academic philosophers would deny for being too spiritual, and many spiritual philosophers would deny for being too intellectual.)

I am a man in between worlds. Between east and west. But also between academic philosophy and spiritual philosophy.

I love both academic philosophy and spiritual philosophy. I admire Kant, Russell, Cavell and Anscombe. And also Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Thomas Merton and Eckhart Tolle.

But, alas, the two sides I like rarely ever talk about each other. And even when they do, it is was suspicion and a crude sense that the other is a kind of limited philosophy. For academics, new age philosophy is woo-woo mysticism. For new age philosophers, academic philosophy is intellectual, logic chopping.

Both sides are right. And yet both are wrong. If philosophy cannot itself find harmony within its many dimensions, how can it bring harmony to the splintering of dimensions in the world? We need a broader consciousness which solves, dissolves, overcomes and transcends the intellectual-spiritual dichotomy which has paralyzed much of the public discourse.

As a step in this direction, in this post I will begin by critiquing a standard trope on the spiritualist’s critique of the intellectual philosophers.

Like Heidegger and Dreyfus, often spiritual philosophers find their target in Descartes:

The philosopher Descartes believed he had found the most fundamental truth when he made his famous statement: “I think, therefore I am.” He had, in fact, given expression to the most basic error: to equate thinking with Being and identity with thinking. The compulsive thinker, which means almost everyone, lives in a state of apparent separateness. (Eckhart Tolle)

Nothing could be more alien to contemplation than the cogito ergo sum of Descartes. “I think, therefore I am.” This is the declaration of an alienated being, in exile from his own spiritual depths, compelled to seek some comfort in a proof for his own existence (!) based on the observation that he “thinks.” If his thought is necessary as a medium through which he arrives at the concept of his existence, then he is in fact only moving further away from his true being. (Thomas Merton)

Tolle and Merton are of course right that identifying with our thoughts is a main obstacle to a broader awareness. Most basically, what they are criticizing is what the Buddha was gesturing at when he said:

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

Identifying with our mind, understood as identifying with the ego stream of consciousness of “I want …”, “I fear…”., “I hate…” and so on is the root grip of the ego on us. Tolle’s compulsive thinker and Merton’s alienated being are people who are unable to get out of the grip of the stream of consciousness of thinking which is often the majority of our thinking.

When Descartes said of himself that he is a thinking being, is this what he meant?

Of course not. Anyone who has felt the excitement of reading Descartes’ Meditations can tell that Descartes’ identification with the mind was not an affirmation of the ordinary consciousness, but rather a move towards self-reflection and radically questioning one’s whole view of life. When I obsess about how my neighbor took my parking spot or how he drives a better car, that is not what Descartes is talking about.

In fact, there are many different things going in with Descartes. He is creating a framework for critiquing the Church’s scientific views. He is trying to articulate a vision of the mind which can make sense in the modern, scientific worldview he wants to put in place of the scholastic views. He is channeling ancient skeptical methods to enable oneself to break down one’s own habits and to see things afresh.

In doing all this, does he make mistakes? Of course. I think Ryle, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Dreyfus are right that the Cartesian, dualistic view of the mind is basically mechanistic – that the dualism actually hides how much the view has in common with reductive materialism. Similarly, Descartes’ view of the mind makes no reference to the higher modes of consciousness that are not mathematical or scientific – no reference to poetry, literature and yes – this is Tolle’s and Merton’s point also – no reference to spiritual consciousness.

But these limits in Descartes’ view is no reason to make him the symbol of the egoistic thinking which is the mode of awareness which is Tolle’s and Merton’s real concern. It is as bad as when academic philosophers dismiss someone like Tolle as “just a self-help guru.”

In developing a more holistic consciousness, we have to be mindful of the easy dichotomies we draw and then pin the bad guy label onto one of the heroes of the perceived “other side”.

Tolle and Merton’s objection to Descartes is not historically grounded. But the real problem is deeper than that: the way they make the objection highlights the force of the egoistic thinking in their views.

Imagine if you are a scholar of Descartes, or someone who loves and admires Descartes’ philosophy and saw it as enabling you to explore new modes of questioning and thinking. What are the chances that you will see in Tolle’s objection to Descartes the Descartes that you love and admire? No chance at all.

Tolle and Merton speak as if it is just a fact of the world that Descartes made this gigantic mistake, which then had vast implications for European modernity. As if in making this point they are doing nothing but, in Rorty’s phrase, “mirroring the world.”

But, of course, that is not what they are doing. They are not just mirroring the world. They are meaning to point out that there is this whole way that modernity has gone wrong, and yes, that the mistake can traced to the father of modern philosophy. They are telling a historical narrative, with the good guys and the bad guys, the ones who got it right and those who messed up. And they assume that their listeners or readers will assent to this way of carving up the landscape of ideas and histories.

At bottom, this kind of throw away criticism of a major thinker in a different age and a different context than ours in a paragraph is the kind of crude, fragmentary thinking which spiritual consciousness is meant to move us beyond.

By saying that Tolle and Merton get Descartes wrong, I am not thereby just reaffirming Descartes scholarship in academic philosophy, as if the philosophy professors get it right. I don’t think the Decartes scholars get it right. I think they miss the spiritual dimension of Descartes’ thinking as much as Tolle and Merton miss it in Descartes.

But the crux of the point isn’t who gets Descartes right. It’s about how we can speak so that we don’t essentialize good and bad in a way which alienates those who see things differently than us.

In making their criticism of Descartes in the flat-footed way they do, Tolle and Merton are setting themselves against any reader who admires Descartes. And so they are creating a fork in the road moment, saying as it were, “If you want to engage with us, you need to follow our take on this issue.” But – and this is the main point – the unfolding of the non-egoistic, spiritual consciousness means not creating or not reenforcing these “you are with me or with them” kind of dichotomies.

But if Tolle is so spiritually advanced, why is he making this mistake?

As Tolle himself says, his skill, if we want to call it that, is that he doesn’t identify with his thoughts. It’s not in the fact that he has the right thoughts. The spiritual consciousness that Tolle is talking about and which I believe he possesses doesn’t require that his ideas about Descartes are right. He has ideas about Descartes just the way anybody does. And like anybody, those ideas can be wrong.

Nothing in Tolle’s philosophy requires the idea that Descartes set humanity on a wrong path. So that makes Tolle’s criticism of Descartes doubly off. It gets Descartes wrong, and that criticism of Descartes is not even needed for Tolle’s positive view.

This is symptomatic of the gulf between academic and spiritual philosophy. There is no gulf in reality. All there is are people trying to better understand themselves in a holistic way and to expand their consciousness. But all these little contrasts and digs on both sides which we normally look past create the illusion of the gulf. So overcoming the gulf requires simply giving up and rooting out of oneself all these little contrasts and digs which we use to prop up one side at the cost of the other.

Spiritual Compassion

Goal for self: cultivate spiritual compassion.

Ordinary compassion privileges others over oneself. It says we shouldn’t be selfish but should aim to help others.

Spiritual compassion looks on self and others equally. It doesn’t identify oneself with the self but looks to ones own self with the kind of compassion we normally reserve for others.

Ordinary compassion looks outward as an escape from egoism. As if the only way of relating to oneself is in a selfish way. In a grabby, id driven, impulsive and possessive way. As if the self can only be overcome by devoting oneself to the service of others. As if we are meant to subdue our selves while promoting other selves.

Spiritual compassion goes deeper. It seeks to bring the full force of compassion to ones own self, removing all traces of self blame, anxiety and self doubt.

In spiritual compassion we love ourselves. Truly love ourselves. Not the needy, clingly, immature, surface everyday love of the self of the ego awareness. But the rich, pure, bottomless, unjudgmental love of letting oneself just be. Giving oneself not this or that thing one wants, but the space to truly and unequivocally be – just be oneself without needing this or that thing to be more fully oneself.

Ordinary compassion seeks to overpower the self and chastise it to turn its attention to others.

Spiritual compassion is the natural outgrowth of ones love for oneself. But pruned of its egoistic manifestation and narratives.

Ordinary compassion is an ought we tell ourselves. Spiritual compassion is our very nature maturing into its full blossoming.

Because ordinary compassion is grafted onto the ego awareness, it is always in danger of falling away. Of us becoming selfish again. A threat we have to safe guard against by judging ourselves constantly.

Because spiritual compassion is nothing other than love of oneself in its purest form, there is no danger of it falling away. Once attained, we only want more and more of it. And as we get more and more of of it, we give more and more of it to others. Give them space to seek it in themselves.

Ordinary compassion has immediate results. Spiritual compassion produces lasting changes.

Ordinary compassion is a steeping stone to spiritual compassion. Initially growing beyond ego awareness first means turning outward. But truly growing beyond ego awareness means turning back towards oneself with complete compassion for oneself.

Ordinary compassion produces results we envision. Spiritual compassion creates results we can’t envision and which transforms our very nature.

Ordinary compassion reaffirms the difference between oneself and others. Spiritual compassion transcends the distinction and merges oneself with others.

Ordinary compassion is work. It takes effort to go against one’s own impulses.

Spiritual compassion is no work. It arises in giving up effort and going with one’s deepest impulses.

The problem with egoism isn’t the orientation to the self. It’s that it doesn’t go deep enough into the self.

Go deep. Be fully yourself. Leave egoism and ordinary compassion behind. Be spiritually compassionate.