Verticalisthenics and Other Youth-Defying Wonders
So a reader asked, “Bob, could you write more in your blog about this idea of the 'grind'? I have never read Aurobindo, and this is new to me. My higher self likes the silence and openness of meditation and prayer, BUT, I always find myself listening to the news, reading the cereal box ads at breakfast and on and on and on. The only true relief I get is by traveling to remote places away from radio and phones, like the SD Badlands, or last year, an island in Prince William Sound. Ah, peace and quiet, away from the endless chattering. But, how to break away from the grind in day to day life, ah, there's the rub!”
Very true, and yet, this separation of the higher mind from the lower mind forms the basis of any spiritual practice. People tend to think that it only applies to Eastern religions such as Buddhism and yoga, but each tradition emphasizes it in its own way. For example, a famous passage in the Psalms says, “be still and know that I am God.” And Jesus said a number of provocative things in this regard, such as “when you pray, enter into your inner chamber, and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret.”
In my own case, I practiced meditation for a number of years, but initially didn’t really get anywhere with it. Real progress didn't begin until I turned 40 and decided to practice meditation in the context of a particular path. Once I did that, then the meditation seemed to be "energized" by a grace that was clearly not bobocentric but seemed to come from another source. I meditated virtually every single day from 1995 to 2005, but have definitely slacked off in the last two years because of managing my diabetes and my now one year old. But in a certain sense, I feel as if I was "planting seeds" during that decade, and now, with the book and blog, it is a time of "harvest," so to speak. At some point I imagine that I will have to get back to more diligently tending the soil again.
Early on (from the mid-80’s to the mid 90’s), I was very influenced by Ken Wilber. His books are quite intellectual, but he always emphasized that books were not to be confused with God--that you cannot eat the menu and expect to be nourished. Instead, he said that you had to pick a particular path and stick with it. As the Zen saying goes, “chase two rabbits, catch none.” Furthermore, he was very opposed to new-age cafeteria-style spirituality, in which you take whatever flatters your ego and leave behind anything that actually makes demands on you. This is the approach of gurusome spiritual hacks such as Deepak Chopra.
I don’t know if this is true or not, but they say that in India one traditionally spends the first half of life “becoming somebody,” the second half “becoming nobody.” In other words, the first half of life is spent devoted to the external world, to education, career, family, worldly accomplishment, etc. Then, the second half of life is spent more focussed on the interior, in contemplation of the Divine, on the return to our eternal source. This is partly for practical considerations, as it can be difficult for someone in the first half of life to take religion all that seriously. Your life is entirely ahead of you. The younger one is, the more one’s life represents pure potential, and therefore, it gives one a spurious sense of the infinite.
I still remember this feeling quite distinctly, and am sometimes nostalgic for it. I was a mediocre student at best, with no interest in school, so my future never looked particularly bright or promising in any conventional sense. And yet, the future was nevertheless unwritten. I may have been nothing, but I was also “anything,” which brought with it a certain ecstasy. As a matter of fact, many narcissists have specific difficulty acknowledging the passage of time and moving out of this phase. In the narcissistic view, commitment is equivalent to death, because it constrains the omnipotence of the infinite, open-ended future. For example, getting married is not so much a matter of choosing one woman as unchoosing all the rest. As such, a wedding is a funeral, in the sense that it represents the death of many potential selves that will never come into being.
It is the same way with a career. Choosing one vocation means unchoosing all the others. On a deeper existential level, it means cashing in eternity for time, the infinite for the relative, the future for the present. And just like money, the “present value” of a fantasy is not nearly as high as the future value.
So we inevitably become disillusioned as we mature, as the open future becomes the limited present and then the fixed past, and more and more of our life simply becomes what it is and nothing more. Assuming that full awareness of this phenomenon occurs at around mid-life, one is left with two existential choices: either fight the process and try to resuscitate the false infinity of youth, or see through the system and try to pursue the true infinity of God.
This is where the two forms of snake-oil salesmen rush into the breach, and our culture is full of them. On the one hand there are the peddlers of physical youth whose real promise is that the youth so attained will bring with it the innocent but intoxicating illusions of the past. This is where Hollywood creates the age-defying monsters of its expensive laboratories--people who are not children and not adults, just spooky looking corpses whose expressions are frozen in a perpetual “no!” to life. Their adultolescent faces mirror their adultolescent political ideologies.
Hardly better are the false prophets of bogus spirituality, especially those who tap into the same market as the youth peddlers. For they also create narcissistic monsters whose souls are as blank, empty and “un-lived” on the inside as, say, Cher’s face is on the outside. If we could see underneath the superficial beauty, I imagine that we might see a soul that looks and smells more like Keith Richard.
The other day I came across an arresting passage. It was in a review of a biography of the philosopher Roger Scruton, written by Roger Kimball, publisher of The New Criterion:
“Scruton comes bearing news about permanent things, one part of which is the evanescence of human aspiration. Hence the governing word ‘loss.’ There is a sense in which conservatism is anti-Romantic, since it is constitutionally suspicious of the schemes of perfection Romanticism typically espouses.”
“But there is another sense in which conservatism is deeply Romantic: the sense in which it recognizes and embraces the ineradicable frailty, the ultimate futility, of things human. ‘And so,’ Scruton writes, ‘I acquired consciousness of death and dying, without which the world cannot be loved for what it is. That, in essence is what it means to be a conservative.’”
Scruton writes that, “without the consciousness of loss, there is nothing a conservative would find worth conserving. It is only by facing up to loss... that we can build on the dream of ultimate recuperation.” As such, “one of the most harrowing depredations of the modern world is to rob us of the religious sense, which is to say the sense of loss.” Too often, Scruton notes, “there is neither love nor happiness--only fun. For us, one might be tempted to suggest, the loss of religion is the loss of loss.”
So this is the real choice at the mid-life crossroads: the spiritually stultifying loss of loss or the acknowledgment of loss as “prelude to the possession of joy”--to "partcipate joyfully in the sorrows of the world," as somsone once said. This in turn is why a real religion such as Christianity or Judaism carries so much more existential heft than their hollow new age counterparts. In the latter case, the entire project is based on a denial of spirit and an attempt to absolutize what is plainly relative, i.e., the ego.
Hmm. That’s weird. How did I get here? I was going to talk about how to separate the two parts of the mind. I suppose it all comes down to crucifying what is lower in order to resurrect what is higher, or trying vainly to resurrect the incrementally dying ego by denying spirit. More on which tomorrow.