Mind Parasites, Intellectual Doctators, and The Life Divine in a Monkey Body
What do you see as the most common and significant "mind parasites" afflicting people who are on an authentic spiritual path?
First we need to define "mind parasite." It is a term I use in my book to describe internalized, maladaptive patterns that become relatively hardwired into the brain during infancy and childhood. We are born neurologically incomplete, so that our brain is literally assembled during our first two or three years. In truth, I have just employed a more colorful term for what modern psychoanalysis refers to as "internal objects."
To make a long story very short, we come into the world completely dependent upon people who may or may not have the capacity to understand us and meet our needs. Because the relationship with parents must be preserved at all costs, traumatic, abusive, and frustrating aspects of the relationship are split off and sequestered in the unconscious (even just a "bad fit" between infant and caretakers becomes a mind parasite--the baby can't conceptualize what is missing, but instead experiences it as a bad present-absence). There, these internalized patterns are held "in escrow" until they are acted out later in life in relationships and cultural institutions. I call them parasites because, just like any other parasite, they take over the machinery of the host--your mind--and begin reproducing themselves in the form of toxic relationships, self-defeating behavior, compulsions, unpredictable moods, etc.
Back to the question, what are the most common and significant mind parasites afflicting people who are on an authentic spiritual path? I don't know that I can answer that, because I'm not sure there is any set pattern. However, I believe that when various Eastern schools--Buddhism, yoga, Zen--talk about eliminating the ego, they're really talking about getting rid of mind parasites. You can't actually eliminate the ego, any more than you can ditch your body. But you must rid the ego of its pathology, of its "foreign substances," so to speak, just as you must restore the body to health.
Spiritual seekers have always recognized the problems of unconscious mind parasites, but until Freud, they didn't know where they came from or what to do about them. Therefore, they just lumped them all together in this hopeless thing called "ego," and counseled people to abandon the whole enterprise. However, doing so will often backfire, as it can simply leave you more vulnerable to the unconscious, with no defenses at all.
This is why people who have supposedly obliterated the ego generally must live in monasteries or in caves, like Sri Ramana Maharshi. They can't actually function in society. I mean, the first time they saw a Victoria's Secret catalog they'd lose their minds. (This accounts for much of the bad behavior of so-called enlightened beings who actually don't have a strong enough ego to cope with reality, for example, the enticing reality of fawning female disciples. It also explains why Islamists want to eliminate the modern world, so they'll feel more comfotable with their troubling mind parasites--turn the world into a cave or monastery, so to speak.)
Having said that, I believe that the most pervasive mind parasite would fall under the heading of what Freud misleadingly called the "death instinct." In reality there is no death instinct, but the phenomena Freud attributed to it are nonetheless real. We come into the world so alive, so vital, so curious, so playful, so full of a sense of wonder, but something along the way shuts all of this down in most people. In Bion's term, it becomes "contained" or strangled by another part of our mind. In the most general sense, this would be called the "superego," which is where many, many mind parasites are lodged.
For example, there's a very annoying fundamentalist that Larry King often has on his program--can't think of his name--who appears to me to be a walking superego. Yes, he has conquered the ego, but by fully identifying with a tyrannical, constricted, and life-denying superego with an invincible sense of moral superiority. This is sort of the opposite problem of Ramana Maharshi, and may well reflect a pattern as to East/West differences in how they deal with mind parasites.
Bryan's second question is related to the first: Why are contemporary people on an authentic spiritual path almost unanimously leftist? There is, of course, the counterexample of Sri Aurobindo, but he appears a lone voice crying in the wilderness these days. As a Buddhist who also happens to be a Straussian neo-conservative, I've been feeling pretty lonely and in fact have had to suffer denunciations from spiritual teachers and friends, not for expressing my political views, which I generally don't, but merely for not agreeing vocally with theirs.... I've been wondering why the political views of modern spiritual seekers fall out so consistently this way. Ken Wilber, whom I revere, says that the Democratic party represents a sick version of a higher level of consciousness and that the Republican party represents a healthy version of a lower level of consciousness. This was persuasive to me until I saw the political aftermath of Sept. 11, but now it seems to me that some other explanation has to be found.
I've given this a lot of thought myself, but have come up dry. What's that, Petey? Petey says that's an excellent question. He wants to handle this one. Good thing, because I don't really have an answer.
Petey says it's a mistake to think of this as a problem afflicting only "spiritual" people. Rather, a moment's reflection reveals that it is a much more pervasive problem afflicting intellectuals in general. Also artists, psychologists, literary types, etc. So what is common to all these folks? Why it's the tyranny of the abstract. All of these bounders fall in love with their own ideas, and take their ideas to be more real than reality. In fact, for such an individual, reality becomes a defective form of heir sacred ought. Instead of "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth," the overly abstract thinker says, "In the beginning, reality ought to be the way I want it to be." Ultimately this type of thinking is rooted in deep recollections of infancy, the one time in our lives when the cosmos actually does magically do our bidding for us and jumps to our every whim.
Let's face it, if you have the luxury to pursue a spiritual practice, you already have it pretty easy. You must be living a rather sheltered existence, free from hunger, disease, pain, and want. Therefore, it's pretty easy to forget the violence that made such leisure and abundance possible, in the same way that it's easy to enjoy your health while forgetting that you're only healthy because you have a "primitive" but sophisticated immune system ready to do incredible violence to any foreign invaders who threaten your body's health. For these intellectuals and so-called spiritual types to have contempt for the military is as idiotic as having contempt for your body's immune system.
Nor can you tell your immune system to be reasonable, to sit down and talk it out with the viruses that want to invade you. You can't expect your white blood cells to hold conferences trying to understand the root causes of bacterial motivations.
The ideals of abstract thinkers are utopian and unworkable because they forget all about embodied human existence--about reality. It is no coincidence that the great totalitarian movements of the past century--communism, nazism, and now Islmism--were and are the products of intellectuals. On the other hand, Christianity takes seriously the idea that we are unavoidably embodied and imperfectible. As a matter of fact, Judeo-Christian metaphysics solves the otherwise insoluble philosophical stalemate between idealists and materialists, because a logoistic reality means that the Word is made flesh: that the ideal is located in the real, not in some abstract, utopian beyond. The world is neither ethereal nor earthly: it is earthereal.
Psychoanalysis too is the one science that takes seriously the idea that our minds are unavoidably situated in an evolved primate body, with all this implies.
Abstract ideas are designed to understand and describe reality. But intellectuals turn this around and begin using their abstractions to judge reality. And if reality falls short, they don't abandon their ideals but jettison reality. Intellectuals just can't stand the thought that a free market with no one in charge has much more embodied wisdom and rationality than their sacred abstractions and economic prescriptions.
Also, most intellectuals and spiritual types simply imitate one another rather than having a direct encounter with the Real and building up a world view based on personal experience. They are generally not original or creative thinkers, but simply take on predigested ideas that have been passed to them by other intellectuals or spiritual guides. But you are not free to discover what you are motivated or predisposed to believe. This relates to the mind parasite Bob discussed above, the idea that the answer is the disease that kills curiosity and shuts down the minds of so many people. The mind and spirit only evolve in a concrete way if they are open systems in a fluid, dynamic, and dialectical relationship to reality.
Bryan's third question is, in the light of the work of Allan Schore and others on the significance of attachment to human brain development, do you believe that there is any validity to the traditional Buddhist and Hindu yogic emphasis on the desirability of solitude and of severing human attachments in order to find enlightenment. I have in mind such things as the Buddha walking out on his family and encouraging his disciples to leave their wives, Ramakrishna exhorting his disciples to shun women, Sri Ramana Maharshi telling a devotee whose wife had died that he was better off without her, and so on.
Here again, this actually relates to what I said above about the problems of the ego. Buddhists and traditional Hindus tried to get around the problem of mind parasites by eliminating the ego with extreme prejudice, which is completely impractical and unworkable for most people, especially in the modern world. While there is much wisdom in Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna, there is much that is frankly primitive, not to mention pre-scientific and mythological.
I'm starting to run short on time here, so I'll make it quick. There are spiritual paths of "ascent" and paths of "descent." The ascending paths try to take you out of the world, into some conflict-free realm above it all. This is in direct contrast to Judaism, to Christianity, and to Sri Aurobindo's yoga, which are all primarily descending paths: they attempt to bring the higher, or divine realm, down into this plane. This is the meaning of "tikkun" in Judaism, or the holy spirit "descending like a dove" in Christianity. And in Aurobindo's yoga, the divine shakti descends down through the chakras, rather than being awakened below and trying to force it upward.
Evolution is actually only possible with the descending approaches. This is why the East stagnated for so long under the weight of the notion that the world is an illusion and the ego unreal.