Saturday, November 25, 2006

K-k-kooky Talk!

Oh well, what’s credibility for if you can’t spend it on something extravagant? Nobody's going to read this anyway. There's no traffic on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

I’m still contending with this annoying “dead brain” phase that started exactly two weeks ago. It happens a few times a year and always involves other strange symptoms that can feel as if my entire nervous system is being unplugged and rewired, which I do not rule out. Hot, cold, muscle spasms, torrents of energy in different regions of the body, noises, fatigue alternating with energy, headaches, little “micro-moods” of various kinds that can last for seconds at a time. And sometimes there’s a sensation as if all the thoughts have been sucked out of my head, leaving just sort of a vibrating “absent presence.” I hate when that happens...

The energy is unstable and moves around from place to place -- now in my low back, now in my head, now in my neck, now in my hands or legs. Not only that, but -- I don’t mean to sound wacko here -- but so long as I can just sit quietly with it, the unpleasant sensations can become pleasant, even blissful. That happened last night as I lay down to sleep. Instead of falling asleep in under three minutes, as I usually do, there was a blissful, burning sensation in my low back, accompanied by a pleasantly alert and energized state of consciousness. Go figure.

This has been going on for, I don’t know, 30 years, although looking back on it, it’s possible that it was there during childhood as well. It often comes on like a switch, and then disappears just as mysteriously. Naturally I considered a medical explanation, but that has been a completely dry well -- don't even ask. I’ve also carefully considered a psychiatric one, but it just doesn’t correspond with anything found in the DSM, such as a somatization or bipolar disorder. For one thing, there’s nothing remotely close to loss of judgment or reality testing (at least until I published this post). It’s as if it’s an internal, parallel process that I am able to observe. In fact, if one thing has changed over the years, it is that I am more able to detach from it and not react to it -- just let it run its course, so to speak.

I know of at least one other reader who deals with the identical phenomena, and we both chanced upon a website that describes it to a “t.” As you know, I don’t normally go in for anything vaguely new-agey, and my psychological training makes me very skeptical of what are often attempts to normalize frank psychopathology. I mean, if a patient came to me with my symptoms, I’d first want to rule out a number of things before I began considering spiritual explanations.

I suppose one reason I’m writing about this against my better judgment is that I am sure there must be more than one of you out there who have had this experience. After all, if you have any familiarity with spiritual literature, these experiences are extremely common -- they're only described everywhere. I’ve read any number of them; for example, I remember in Krishnamurti’s biography (or possibly hagiography) there is a particularly vivid account of his struggles with these symptoms. (By the way, I do not want to imply that having the symptoms necessarily makes you “special” or enlightened, or that not having them implies the reverse.)

In an interesting synchroncity, the man who turned out to be my literary agent, John White, published a standard work in the field many years ago, entitled Kundalini, Evolution and Enlightenment. I must have purchased my copy in the early 1980’s, and I am now holding my dog-eared copy before me. It pretty much covers the weirderfront, with around forty chapters ranging from “Signs of Awakened Kundalini” to “Neurochemistry and the Awakening of Kundalini” to “Christian Mysticism and Kundalini.” There are personal accounts, medical theories, traditional explanations, and a chapter by no less an authority than the Big Kehuna Wilber, “Are the Chakras Real?”

Hmm, good question. I’ll just flip ahead to the last paragraph of the chapter. Ken says, “the chakras do appear to exist, and the chakras are knots.... Kundalini theory, with its penetrating understanding of these shadowy knots themselves, offers sound, wise, and powerful advice on how to see through them, so that one may finally awaken, as if from a dream, to discover that the cosmos is one’s body...” Hey, sounds good to me... Are we there yet?

As if my credibility were not damaged enough, the website I mentioned above is dedicated to the work of a person with the unlikely name of El Collie. It includes a list of typical Signs and Symptoms of Kundalini Awakening. Let’s keep an open mind and just peruse a few items on the list:

• Muscle twitches, cramps or spasms (check)
• Energy rushes or immense electricity circulating the body (check)
• Itching, vibrating, prickling, tingling, stinging or crawling sensations (check)
• Intense heat or cold (not exactly intense, but yes; a couple of episodes back, however, the cold sensations were intense -- I was freezing, when normally I am quite warm blooded)
• Alterations in eating and sleeping patterns (check)
• Episodes of extreme hyperactivity or, conversely, overwhelming fatigue (more of the latter -- no hyperactivity, but short episodes of depletion)
• Headaches, pressures within the skull (check, but generally mild and transient)
• Racing heartbeat, pains in the chest (check -- by the way, I’ve had a thorough cardiac work-up, including a CT scan and nuclear treadmill, not to mention very complete bloodwork, including thyroid)
• Digestive system problems (mild -- worse last time)
• Pains and blockages anywhere; often in the back and neck (check -- these blockages are quite fluid, changing from place to place, and can sometimes become pleasurable; I can actually move them in meditation)
• Emotional outbursts; rapid mood shifts; (no to the former but yes to the latter -- however, as I said, they’re rather short and mild, like a wind stirring up and blowing by; and it's as if they're sort of "parallel" to my predominant mood, which is actually rather cheerful)
• Hearing an inner sound or sounds, classically described as a flute, drum, waterfall, birds singing, bees buzzing but which may also sound like roaring, whooshing, or thunderous noises or like ringing in the ears (check -- occasional whooshing and ringing)
• Mental confusion; difficulty concentrating (just the latter)
• Altered states of consciousness: heightened awareness; spontaneous trance states; mystical experiences (not so much at present, but the last time, yes)
• Heat, strange activity, and/or blissful sensations in the head, particularly in the crown area (check)
• Ecstasy, bliss and intervals of tremendous joy, love, peace and compassion (again, more the last time)
• Exquisite awareness of one's environment (yes, there definitely seems to be a sensitivity to certain human environments)

Well, that’s it, I guess. Like I said, I am particularly interested in anyone else who would care to share their “K stories.” Feel free to post anonymously.

Hey, don’t make it look like I’m the only one!


Friday, November 24, 2006

Thoughtsgiven Laughedovers

Ever since I started blogging, out of necessity I’ve been very diligent, in a chaotic sort of way, about keeping track of any wisp of a hint of an idea for an idea that might eventually form the basis of the kernel of a post. In the past I would just catch and release these thoughtlets, but now I have to make sure I reel in at least one big browser trout a day, whatever that means.

I have notebooks and scraps of paper everywhere. In fact, I even have things written on the walls of my office at home, as Dilys knows. Today I’m going to rifle through them and empty out my “down box.”

I’ve got a big stack right here in front of me. I’ll just start at the top and go from there. (Why do I feel like Andy Rooney doing a piece on junk mail?)

Let’s see. A couple of possibly direct quotes from Schuon, “God does not give the gift of intelligence only to require you to admit what is contrary to it,” and “if everyone were capable of understanding metaphysics, there would be no atheists.”

Ah, here is a very subtle point by Schuon, which, if you can grasp it, does indeed prove the metaphysical necessity of God: “An indefinitely augmentable beauty is meaningless and empties the very idea of beauty of its content.” In short, if there is no hierarchy that is conditioned from the top down, there is no beauty, and if beauty exists, there is a hierarchy conditioned from the top down. We can discern relative degrees of perfection only in light of the Absolute. In this way, the relative world proves the Absolute, otherwise we would truly live in a meaningless, arbitrary, and indistinguishible mass of flatland nothingness, like the university.

Another good quote: “The man who is integrally mature always keeps in equilibrium with wisdom the qualities of simplicity and freshness, gratitude and trust, that he possessed in the springtime of his life.”

Questions for Petey: “How is it that we are not trapped within our own nervous system?,” and “How is it that the cosmos continually surpasses itself?” Nah, too obvious.

Here’s a note to myself: “In any field above the level of the hard sciences, there is a huge difference between received knowledge and realized knowledge, so much so that to treat realized knowledge as if it can be received knowledge is to convert it to a lie and render it sterile, as do both atheists and false teachers.... One cannot replace concrete experience with abstract, secondary theory, without inhabiting a false and reified version of reality.”

But “this is what intellectuals habitually do -- i.e., live in their abstractions, and there is no theory more abstract than atheism, for it entirely superimposes a sterile dogma over the mystery of being. While this ground is a mystery, it is not an absurdity because it is infused with the very same logos that illuminates the mind and allows us to comprehend it. We see beauty or know truth because both are logos calling out to logos.”

Likewise, we may know God because God, who is infinitely distant from us, at the same time radiates to the perimeter of creation, where the breath of Spirit whispers to the divine spark hidden in the depths of our heart. This divine spark is far too beautiful to be untrue.

As you age, you have more time, not less -- the fullness of time, the wealth of time, the dense interconnectedness of time that the young cannot see. They have only duration. Spiritual growth converts duration to time and time to eternity, and then pours eternity back into duration. You're again like a child, only knowing the place for the first time.

Here are some notes taken while reading Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences. Sort of sums up the book: “Without imagination the world is simply a brute fact -- there is nothing to spiritualize it. In the flight from the center to the periphery, one becomes lost in details which cannot be understood. Fragmentation leads to obsession with parts. Downward pull that puts an end to ideational life. Specialization leads to deformity. World shrinks. As compensation, modern man is puffed up with vanity of being able to describe some minute portion of the world. Modernism is provincialism.”

More notes on Weaver: “Truth is an antecedent reality perceived by the intellect and not the senses. Denying universals denies everything transcending experience, therefore denial of truth and acceptance of relativism. Immersion in matter makes man unfit to deal with the problems of matter. Facts are substituted for truth, but there is no knowledge at the level of sensation. Facts do not speak for themselves and experience cannot tell us what we are experiencing. The world is our primary datum, but we do not end our days with a wealth of sense impressions.”

“The problem with this generation is that it has not read the minutes of the last meeting” (Weaver, anticipating dailykos).

“How can men who disagree on what the world is for agree on the minutiae of daily conduct?” (Weaver).

Egalitarianism creates a tyrannical flatland in which the same law applies to the ox and the lion, and is therefore a disorganizing concept which assures injustice.

The separation of knowledge from religion is the separation of facts and knowledge from metaphysics.

An ontological reality called integration must precede the human personality, just as wholeness must be anterior to natural selection.

Man’s real freedom is in the dimension of height and depth.

Like a neurotic patient, history acts out what it cannot remember.

Ever since language began colonizing the brain, it has been an unending task to synthesize all those bits into a coherent self.

Liberals are always rushing to non-judgment.

Life is to matter as mind is to brain as God is to existence.

Getting paid for doing what you like is like finding a self-replicating dollar bill.

When language is unhinged from reality, evolution is as static as a dog’s bark. This explains Ted Kennedy.

Culture is personal error squared.

If you’re not eccentric, you’re probably not living your individuality, which is to say, living.

You can substantially increase your freedom if you only stop endowing things with the spurious attractiveness needed to make pursuing them worth the trouble. Few things are worth doing as well as they can be done.

Spiritual practice is arranging your own birth.

We must always have at least a few people to live at the edge of sanctioned reality and keep an eye on eternity. I wish my in-laws would understand this.

Science reduces the world to a coherent absurdity, psychosis to an incoherent absurdity, myth to an incoherent non-absurdity, metaphysics to a coherent non-absurdity.

Higher realties do not stand out except to those who stand in them.

Mystepistemology: the study of how one may obtain reliable unknowing.

Factsimian: a human who reduces truth to fact and therefore sinks beneath his humanness.

Absolute victimhood corrupts absolutely. The left creates gold-plated victims in order to make their unpalatable ideas immune from argument.

For thousands of years mankind was lost in the circle only to become lost in the line. Religion is here to show us the spiral.

Discovering the true self behind the ego is a de-mask-us experience.

Let's face it, if you don't awaken to your higher self, that old saying is true: life is a Nancy Pelosi and then you die.


That felt good. Nothing like an empty desk to feel unburdened. Or as Lao Tsu said to Andy Rooney,

Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind rest at peace....
In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Ego and the Substance of Nothingness

One of the challenges in discussing “the ego” is that everyone means something different by the word, which makes unambiguous communication difficult. And yet, precise definition is elusive, as is true of most things above the material plane. How does one exactly describe something which is by definition subjective anyway? As I mentioned last week, the philosopher of science Stanley Jaki said that words are like clouds, in that from a distance they look as though they have sharply defined edges. But the closer you get to them, the more they lose their edges and become indistinguishable from fog.

This is one of the reasons why intellectuals are more often than not confused people -- not just intellectually confused but morally confused. They are lost in the fog of speech. No place in America, for example, is more anti-Semitic and secular than the university. You might think that the two are separate issues, but they clearly aren’t. A religious person is much more likely to be able to recognize good and evil when they are staring him in the face.

Today Dr. Sanity links to a piece that touches on this obligatory anti-Semitism among the educated elites of Europe. The author writes that “At a dinner after my lecture, a professor remarked, as if it were a generally accepted platitude: ‘Of course, the only terrorist state in the Middle East is Israel.’ Nobody contradicted him. The delegitimization of Israel in the British academic world has become one aspect of a new and more powerful wave of outright anti-Semitism....”

Yesterday I heard a wonderful interview with the historian Niall Ferguson on the Dennis Prager show, regarding his new book The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. I haven’t read the book, but it sounds quite good. It seeks to answer the question, “why, if life was improving so rapidly for so many people at the dawn of the 20th century, were the next hundred years full of brutal conflict?” Why, for example, was Germany, of all places, at the vortex of this unprecedented storm of human evil? After all, by 1900, they were without a doubt the best educated and most culturally sophisticated people on earth.

Now, among other things, I am not historian. That’s just one of the many things I had to pretend to be -- others including physicist, biologist, anthropologist, and theologian -- in order to write my book. Many of my ideas would undoubtedly offend the rank and file historian, so it was extremely refreshing to hear an eminent historian agree with some of the broad historical outlines in my book.

For example, you will often hear professional historians such as Elton John make the demonstrably false assertion that religion is responsible for more death and destruction than any other force in history, when the opposite is true: in the twentieth century, some 200 million people died as a result of wholly secular, atheistic, and anti-religious ideologies. This figure dwarfs the number killed in religious wars, both in absolute and relative terms, as a percentage of the population. In fact, Ferguson agreed with another one of my conclusions -- that one must go all the way back to man in his pre-civilized state to see murder rates this high. (This was another controversial assertion in my book -- that human beings in their natural state were hardly innocent “noble savages,” but homicidal maniacs from the outset: Homo psychosus, as it were.)

It is no wonder that in Genesis 6:6, God expresses sorrow that he created human beings, to such an extent that he “grieved in his heart”: the world “was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.” Here is a fine example of how much more wisdom there is in a single line from the Bible than there is in entire anthropology departments of elite universities. God is not a multiculturalist. He despises almost almost all of them.

Amazingly, Ferguson -- who teaches at Harvard -- said that the taxi driver transporting him to the airport was likely to possess more wisdom than the entire Harvard history faculty. (He must have realized he was safe in making this assertion, as no elite leftist historian would ever stoop so low as to actually listen to talk radio.) Ferguson also highlighted the truism that -- then as now -- it was religiously committed people who were far more likely to recognize and fight the evil in the world. In the 20th century the great evils came from secular and atheistic ideologies, but this century the greatest threat comes from a “religious” source, Islamism. But even that’s not quite accurate, because Islamism is specifically a weird blend of Islam, Marxism and fascism. Furthermore, it is greatly enabled by secularists all over the world, from the sophisticated elites of Europe to the idiotorial pages of the New York Times (which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its helpful propaganda on behalf of Stalin; at some point along the line they will undoubtedly be awarded another for their invaluable assistance to the current enemies of civilization).

“Yes Bob, but what does this have to do with the ego?” I’m getting there. Every religion, properly understood, has precisely to do with the “extinction” of what we are calling the ego, and it’s replacement with another center of consciousness. In my book, in order to avoid the linguistic confusion alluded to above, I simply employed the “empty symbols” of (•••) for the ego and (¶) for this other being that is “behind” or “above” (•••). (By the way, the multiple dots stand for unintegrated mind parasites; the (¶) is inherently unified [relatively speaking], as it is the otherwise inexplicably unified part of us that mirrors the divine unity -- “as above, so below.”)

So, if I were your spiritual teacher -- which I am not, but that’s another one of those things I had to pretend to be in order to write the damn book -- I would tell you this: yes, the “ego” of which various traditions speak does exist, but it is for you to discover it and understand its nature. And yes, this other entity -- the (¶) -- most definitely exists, but in the latter case, it is even more critical that you discover and “become” it. A religious practice can provide you with the means to discover it, but it cannot simply give it to you. Or, to be perfectly accurate, there will probably come a time (or two or three) in your life that it will be spontaneously given to you by something called “grace,” another word that requires an empty pneumaticon so that we don’t pretend to know what it is. [In my book I used the downward arrow symbol for this gratuitous “cause,” and the symbol (?!) for its startling effect on (•••).]

Now, after the conclusion of the Ferguson interview, I began brooding on the mysteries of language. It was a long drive, and I had about another hour to kill or give birth to, so I opted for the latter. It occurred to me that it is not a Big Mystery that clever human primates are able to use mouth noises to stand for for things. To a certain extent, many animals can do this. For example, my nineteen month old can howl like a coyote and respond to his missing mates prowling the hills around my neighborhood.

But the much more mysterious property of human language is that it is not just able to convey symbols but to convey the substance of thought. No, even more, it is able to transmit the substance of being from one being to another.


Take, for example, a comedic genius, a Richard Pryor, a Groucho Marx, a Jackie Gleason -- even a Howard Stern (a pox on his merely profane imitators). Have you ever noticed that they don’t actually have to make an explicit joke in order to be funny? Rather, when they speak, their language somehow conveys the “substance” of comedy -- a very real and palpable substance that inferior comedians cannot transmit. For example, you will notice that Al Franken thinks he is one of the people who can do this, when he manifestly cannot. Which is why he evokes wincing, not laughter. Jack Benny he is not.

It is the same with music. Technical proficiency has nothing to do with the ability to convey the substance of music. Not only that, but perhaps you may have noticed that when a great musician speaks, they even convey music in their speech -- as if they cannot help being musical.

Naturally, the same holds true of intelligence. There are many people who, no matter how educated, cannot convey the substance of intelligence in their words. And there are other people who can speak very simply, and yet, their words make intelligence palpably present.

And of course, it is exactly so with spirituality. The key in writing about spirit is to convey its reality directly from being to being -- language must not just symbolize it, but partake of its rhythms and proportions.

Now, one of the most mysterious and inexplicable things Jesus ever said -- at the time, it would have been dismissed as “insane” -- was that some day his message would be known and taught throughout the world.

What? Why? An anonymous peasant who never wrote down a word of his teaching, ignominiously put to death as a common criminal? And yet, the bizarre prediction came true. Not only that, but these words will still be remembered and spoken long after the words of most any living academic.

What we call genuine scripture or “revelation” is language that conveys the substance of spirit. These words endure because they embody timeless truths that we are not only able to “understand,” but to “make present.” But not with the ego.

To be continued.


The Substance of Joy. Hey, it's the reason why we keep him around, because he can also be the Substance of Annoyance.

Yes, cows are known to break dance when they are particularly overjoyed.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Fool and His Ego are Soon Parted

Continuing with the musical question of Ego! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!, I need to correct a misapprehension right at the outset. In response to yesterday’s post, George wrote, “I suspect that I may have an ego dysfunction; in my music and writing I am constantly aware that a part of me is hoping that I achieve some renown and riches from my efforts. Another part of me looks at that hope with a bit of disdain, knowing that the song or story should be given as a gift. Even the disdainful part is wistfully aware that it wants at least a taste of glory. And, all parts of me crave an audience.”

None of these things are pathological per se, and certainly not as they pertain to the ego as such. There is nothing wrong with achieving success or renown, so long as one keeps perspective and puts everything in its proper place. And much depends on caste and temperament. There is a form of yoga proper to each person, yoga being the most generic and universal description of the various paths of ego transcendence.

In fact, where I part company with certain spiritual schools is precisely over this question of the ego. I am sure this results from my psychoanalytic training, which appreciates just how much of an accomplishment it is to develop a healthy ego. For Freud, the goal of psychoanalysis was quite modest; on one occasion he said words to the effect that it was to convert intense suffering to garden variety unhappiness. In a less cynical mood, he said that it was to develop the capacity to work, love and play -- which is to say, cultivate productivity, creativity, and deep and satisfying relationships. None of these things should be minimized. They aren’t chopped liver.

Speaking of chopped liver, one of the beautiful things about Judaism is that it systematically elevates all of these activities to the center of spiritual life. It is a very “worldly” religion, but at the same time, it specifically attempts to illuminate this world with the light of another -- to see the sanctity in everyday living. There is no monastic tradition in Judaism, no attempt to escape, even vertically. Rather, the task is to create a life in which vertical energies descend into the day-to-day activities of this world, regardless of whether one is engaging in a business transaction, eating a meal, or raising a child. Everything becomes an occasion to vertically “re-member” the divine and therefore “forget” the ego.

In this sense, Judaism is very much a form of karma yoga (which is not to say that it doesn’t have its bhakti, hatha, raja, or jnana aspects as well, as all religions have each but tend to emphasize one; in passing, let it also be said that each religion can also become a shadow of its dominant mode, which is why, for example, Judaism can veer into legalism, or “bhakti” Christianity into a mindless and sentimental fideism, or “raja” Buddhism into an impractical escapism that sees the world only as illusion).

Mere ego transcendence without discernment will inevitably lead to foolishness. Remember, all religions evolved within traditional cultures, so one must be very cautious in isolating a particular spiritual idea from its overall context -- not just its scriptural context, but its culturally embodied context.

Let’s take the wrongheaded idea that the ego is the source of all our difficulties, something we must jettison entirely. It is one thing to do that in a supportive community of fellow spiritual seekers who are all "on the same page,” another thing entirely to indiscriminately apply it to the wider world. Doing so will lead to moral idiocy.

We see this, for example, in recent statements by the Dalai Lama that "There is a perception among the Western media that Islam is militant but that is not true,” that “All religions have the same potential for peace," and even that “The concept of war is outdated. Violence is unpredictable and it can go out of hand. Conflict situations should be resolved through negotiations.” This is the same sort of dangerous moral lunacy that was promulgated by Gandhi, and it is manifestly false. Not only that, but believing it would clearly lead to more evil in the world, not less.

But as I said, if you believe the world is simply “maya,” or an empty illusion, it should not be surprising that your moral categories are going to be a bit muddled, since morality specifically applies to this relative world that we inhabit. The Dalai Lama is undoubtedly correct in affirming that the concept of war is outdated in the land of samadhi, but it takes a lot of nirvana to say that this world would be a better place if we would simply negotiate with Islamists, nazis, or other implacably evil monsters of depravity.

If the Dalai Lama were a manava his word, he would have stayed in Tibet and negotiated with Mao. Yes, Mao was the most evil man who ever lived, having been responsible for the murder of some 70 million human beings. But hey, conflict situations should be resolved through negotiations, not by safely jet-setting around in countries that believe evil is real and must be confronted.

Do you see the problem? Frithjof Schuon wrote that “The reduction of the devil to the ego amounts in practice to the devil’s abolition…. The door then stands open to a puerile optimism, which is all the more dangerous in that it is mingled unsuspectingly with progressivist optimism.… Moreover a too exclusive -- and in any case inconsistent -- ‘satanization’ of the ego entails a too simplistic ‘divinization’ of the ‘other,’ which means that replacing the devil by the ego goes hand in hand with replacing God by the ‘neighbor,’ whence an ‘altruism’ that appears as an end in itself and thus loses all contact with metaphysical truth, and so with genuine spirituality.”

Is this not self-evident, both in theory and in practice? It is not only a certain type of Buddhist who is susceptible to this kind of moral foolishness. Obviously it can also afflict Christians who take this or that statement by Jesus out of context in order to support the deeply immoral idea of pacifism. In reality, there is no right superior to truth. Therefore, if your morality is not grounded in truth, it will cease to be moral despite your good intentions.

This, of course, is precisely what is wrong with all forms of leftist “do-gooderism,” and why their ideas do not work in practice. To be perfectly accurate, like the Dalai Lama’s ideas, they will work, but only in paradise -- as will Mao’s ideas. But if you willfully confuse the herebelow with paradise, a lot of people are going to be hurt and killed. And you won’t get paradise anyway.

As Schuon explains, if brotherly love becomes the highest ideal, the distinction between truth and error is attenuted if not obliterated. Since the ego is considered “error” per se, “there is then nothing wrong with believing two and two make five, provided one ‘does good’ or ‘renders service.’” This amounts to an escape from ego “from below” instead of above, since it is not possible to simultaneously transcend the ego and “abide in error,” as it were.

“From here,” as Schuon explains, “it is but a step to acceptance of the Antichrist out of humility or charity, even for the sake of being ‘nice.’” While these lovers of mankind are technically correct in appreciating the dangers of intellectual pride, it is another thing altogether to try to transcend intelligence along with the ego.

Doing so merely replaces one kind of pride with another. The other day, ShrinkWrapped had an excellent post on what amounts to the “pride of pacifism” or the selfishness at the heart of selflessness. You should read the whole thing, but the gist, for our purposes, is the idea that there is no one so proud and narcissistic as the pacifist who demonizes the war or President Bush as a means to morally elevate himself, thus spuriously converting cowardice to courage.

You will notice how incoherent this becomes. The Vietnam war, for example, was supposedly a terrible, immoral thing. And yet, because of it, we have “great” war heroes like Jons Carry or Murtha who can instruct us on the ways of war. Somewhere in their hearts, these people must believe that great good came from great evil, since they believe that no one who hasn’t fought in an even immoral war is morally qualified to either lead or avoid war. This means that if we follow the pacifist and eliminate all war, we will eventually have no one qualified to either fight or capitulate. But we needn’t worry. As we speak, there is someone fighting in Iraq who, twenty or thirty years hence, will be morally qualified to make cowards feel courageous.

To be continued....

Monday, November 20, 2006

Whoops, Where'd Ego?

Reader Curious George, mischievous little primate that he is, asked an obvious -- which is to say good -- question yesterday about the ego: “I think it would benefit your readers to hear an explanation of why ego exists in the first place. (It seems absurd that it should exist for no particular reason.)

“What purpose does ego serve? How did it come about? Can it be transcended safely? It seems clear that ‘slipping the surly bonds of ego’ is a good thing in the creation of art. Is it so in all areas of life?”

To answer the last question first, I would respond with an urgent No! Please don’t! For the majority of people, the problem isn’t actually an excess but a deficit in ego. The ego is definitely here for a reason, even if it is ultimately a partial and contingent thing that is always in need of reform, or at least countervailing influences.

This latter point is something that Ken Wilber stresses (or at least used to -- his thinking constantly evolves, and I am not familiar with his current work). But he used to emphasize that a healthy ego was a prerequisite for any kind of spiritual practice, for if you ignore it, it will eventually come back to bite you, as we see in the accounts of so many “spiritual masters” or just rank-and-foul preachers who misbehave in all sorts of naughty ways. Wilber’s main point was that a robust and healthy ego is needed, because it is the “launching pad” for spiritual growth; which is to say, you have to be somebody before you can be nobody.

There are many different angles from which we can examine this problem of the ego. For example, just last week I discussed the traditional idea that the first half of life should be spent focussing on worldly attainment (the ego, so to speak), while the second half of life marks an inward turn toward spiritual growth (the Self).

As a psychologist, one is generally dealing with problems of the ego, although there are clearly cases when the impasse is more existential (universal to egoic existence per se) or spiritual (i.e., time to move beyond the ego) or biological (a chemical imbalance that causes dysregulation of the ego and its functions). But again, the problem is not generally a need to “transcend” the ego. Rather, it is a deficit in egoic functioning: a dysregulation in identity, in mood, in impulses, in relationships, etc. One of the evolutionary purposes of the ego is in fact to “regulate” and organize psychic life, so almost every form of mental illness involves some kind of dysregulation of the ego. Strong egos needs to be built brick by brick, not discarded prick by prick.

Which leads back to the question: what is the purpose of a healthy ego? I don’t mean to ramble, but that’s a tricky question, because it depends on the context. First of all, the ego is literally “two-faced,” in that it is both an individual and a social being. In the former sense it is a solitary entity enclosed upon itself, while in the latter sense it is defined by its social relations. In more traditional societies, there were and are all kinds of cultural mechanisms that prevented the ego from becoming inflated and detaching itself from the group. However, this also enforced a kind of conformity that prevented the fulfillment of one’s unique inner potential. In the modern world we have the opposite problem: few checks on the most pathological dreams of the ego, which soon leads to the glorification of frankly antisocial (“countercultural”) attitudes and behavior.

When I say “traditional society,” we don’t actually have to go back that far even in America. For example, how different would economic relations be if you and the owner of your company both worshipped at the same church or synagogue each week, both hearing the same messages about generosity, or charity, or brotherly love? Religion used to be a completely communal activity, which by definition countered the self-centered aims of the ego. As such, much modern spirituality, because it tends to be individualistic, can easily accommodate the needs of the ego, and therefore become a means of self-deception and ego-inflation.

This change has become quite dramatic in just my lifetime. For example, when I was a kid, when someone hit a home run, they would humbly circle the bases with their head down. The batter would never make a show of it by lingering at the plate, admiring the trajectory of the ball, or dawdling around the bases, much less jumping up and down and pointing at himself. If you did this -- except in extreme cases, such as hitting a walk off home run in the World Series -- you could be sure that in your next at bat, the opposing pitcher would knock you down, both literally and figuratively. This is a fine example of the “community” tempering the obnoxious narcissism of the ego.

Look at what happens today when someone scores a touchdown. The purpose of scoring used to be winning for the team. Now it is to draw attention to oneself, like a delighted infant. The last player I remember not doing this was Marcus Allen. He said that he was brought up to act as if he had seen the end zone before.

The identical thing has happened in the entertainment world. At some point in past 30 or 35 years, there was a definite shift in the attitude of most performers. Instead of being on stage in a respectful and subservient manner to please the audience, the audience was there to literally worship and glorify the artist.

Look at the Beatles. They ended each performance by literally bowing to the audience. One of the reasons they stopped performing in August of 1966 was that they could not deal with the bizarre idealization of the audience. For them, they were still innocent enough -- still the product of an earlier time -- to simply want to play their music to appreciative ears. All the other nonsense of “Beatlemania” was not just superfluous, but annoying and even disorienting, as it would be to any remotely emotionally healthy or even just minimally insightful person who realizes he is not worthy of such adulation, much less worship. It should be disturbing to the recipient, to say the least. (In Bob Dylan’s enjoyable autobiography, he devotes a chapter to the absolute nightmare of the idealization he received in the latter half of the 1960’s.)

But today, as I said, the situation is entirely reversed, and entertainment has literally become a form of substitute religion, in which sick celebrities comfortably take on the role of idealized demigod instead of shrugging it off with embarrassment. People now want to become ”artists” not for the joy and privilege of creativity in the service of transcendent beauty -- which is its own reward -- but simply for fame, which is nothing more than a collective pathology that glorifies narcissism (and is the death of art, needless to say).

Remember, the narcissist cannot be a narcissist without a community to mirror his grandiosity. In a culture that was not already deeply sick, we wouldn’t know the names “Paris Hilton” or “Britney Spears” or even “Katie Couric” (to pick a supposedly “respectable” name out of thin air; it could be most anyone with great celebrity but no talent). If I could ask them one question, I suppose it would be, “why are you not constantly embarrassed?” Either that, or, if they were slightly more self-aware, “how do you conceal your contempt for the idiots responsible for making a talentless person such as yourself so wealthy and powerful?” I mean, what kind of ignoramus watches CBS News to inform themselves about the world? Don’t people at CBS or Time magazine know that their success depends upon legions of dolts? I’m sure some of the more cynical executives must, but cynicism is just another variation on narcissism.

It seems that talk of the “ego” mostly comes to us through Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Yoga, since we in the West have discarded our own perfectly acceptable ways to conceptualize the spiritual pathology of the ego, which centers around pride. In Christianity the ego is not so much transcended as vigilantly monitored and reformed. The classical virtues -- temperance, prudence, courage and justice -- had to be developed in order to counter the “natural” trends of the fallen ego, i.e., pride, envy, sloth, greed, etc. Thus, traditional culture provided a built-in transcendent purpose to existence. No wise person mistook the ego for a finished product, much less something to be celebrated or worshiped.

Here again, the loss of our own wisdom tradition has led to deep pathologies that are enshrined in massive political movements. In the past, Dennis Prager has mentioned that one of the most beneficial lessons of his religious upbringing was in teaching him that his greatest struggles in life would always be with himself. All forms of leftist victimology turn this perennial, self-evident wisdom on its head, and teach that your greatest struggles are outside of yourself, with society.

I should add that this latter attitude is literally addictive, in that it easily becomes a primary ego defense mechanism that prevents growth, insight, and self-examination. Why examine the self when you know in advance that it’s someone else’s fault? Why engage in the hard work of becoming a better and more moral person when all you have to do is join a political movement and displace your personal responsibility to the collective? You may be a selfish creep, but at least you're against global warming!

Last night I caught a few moments -- it was all I could tolerate -- of the famous leftist Tom Hayden and some other aging hippie on C-SPAN, hawking (or doving, I suppose) a moronic book on pacifism. The reason why he has learned nothing in forty years is that his ideology guarantees that he will learn nothing. He believes the same foolish things at 66 that he did at 22 or 23, when he wrote that unreadable monument to “new left” pomposity, the Port Huron Statement.

That crockument begins, “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit...” It should more accurately read “we the grandiose, the entitled, the egomaniacal, lacking even a modicum of gratitude or historical perspective, the recipients of unprecedented wealth, prosperity and opportunity, looking for a way to screw up the world we inherit, will, in our adolescent hubris, undermine the very conditions that made the priceless largesse of Western civilization possible....”

To be continued.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

On Slipping the Surly Bonds of the Ego and Giving Birth to the Living God

Does anyone actually know where thoughts -- much less creative thoughts -- come from? Yes, leave it to that other clot of ontological tumescence, the ego, to think that it could produce even so much as single thought ex nihilo. Soon the ego will “understand” the human genome, as if this will solve the mystery of how the most complex text ever written can both compose and read itself and then follow its own instructions, but just badly enough to evolve from bacteria to Beethoven. Talk about knowledge as a defense against understanding.

But we do not give birth to ourselves, only to the God that gives birth to us.

Eh, what?

I have no idea. I didn’t say that, Petey did. As an aside, that happens fairly regularly. Sometimes I am able to “catch his drift,” while other times the meaning eludes me. Petey, like God, doesn’t generally stump me a with a problem I cannot solve, even if doing so will require me to rise on the stepping stones of my dead self to higher things, as my man Jeeves once put it.

I try not to fake it and pass along Petey’s mystagoguery to the reader. Usually I am able to trancelight it into the plane of english. However, there are other times that Petey seems to have more of a poetic intent, in which case I have to relay the thought in its more or less unrefined form. Words are normally used in such a way that they serve as a container with a fairly specific and unambiguous content. But there are occasions when Petey uses words as more of an ambiguous container designed to pull or attract "unborn" thoughts into it. And there are other times that he seems to use words as the contained, in order to smash through or transcend a blockage in my own understanding, which may have become saturated and therefore static.

In other words, one of the unavoidable problems in discussing spirituality is how to bypass or disenable the ego. This is much trickier than it sounds, because the ego understands reality in the same way a dog or a cat or a cow does. That is, it just creates a sort of rigid cognitive map that it superimposes on reality and then calls it reality. In fact, one of the reasons why humans enjoy drugs and alcohol is that they can temporarily allow one to slip the surly bonds of the ego and touch the face of God, like those astronauts vis-à-vis the earth.

That was a long aside. But I think you will find that scripture is generally written in the way I have indicated above, designed to bypass the ego by either attracting higher thoughts into its orbit or smashing through it. Of course, it doesn’t work with atheists or materialists due to the hypertrophied nature of their hardened and sclerotic egos (atheosclerosis). To be bobtized in the spirit, one must become “like water” and not be a concretin.

(What follows is an edited and revised version of some previous material.)

The psychoanalyst James Grotstein has attempted to rescue the concept of the unconscious from its unfortunate reduction to a mere cauldron of uncivilized desires and impulses, and restore it to its true place as a mysterious alter-ego, or “stranger within” that shadows our existence in a most intimate, creative, and mysterious way. Far from being merely “primitive and impersonal” (although it surely includes primitive “lower vertical” elements as well), it is “subjective and ultra-personal,” a “mystical, preternatural, numinous second self” characterized by “a loftiness, sophistication, versatility, profundity, virtuosity, and brilliance that utterly dwarf the conscious aspects of the ego.”

Like his teacher Bion, Grotstein appreciates the spiritual implications of the unconscious as it manifests in our moment-to-moment experience. Understanding this higher aspect of the unconscious enriches one’s spiritual life, if for no other reason than it represents such a comparatively larger aspect of consciousness itself. Otherwise, it’s a little like living your life in a tiny boat and never looking around to appreciate the immense ocean upon which your insignificant vessel is floating -- of which your vessel is actually composed, because in reality there is no “ego” and "unconscious.” Rather, there is more of a wave-particle complementarity between them, so it is a mistake to either deny one half of the complementarity or to blend them together. The wave belongs to the ocean, while the ocean does not belong to the wave (with at least one rare exception).

Grotstein conceptualizes the unconscious as a sort of “handicapped” god who needs a partner in order to accomplish its mission. The goal of psychotherapy is not merely knowledge of, or insight into, the unconscious, but to establish a sort of dynamic collaboration between the phenomenal ego -- our conscious self -- and the “ineffable subject of being” (O) upon which the ego floats and into which it infinitely extends.

Through a creative resonance between these two aspects of ourselves, we are much more spontaneously alive, creative, and “present.” It is like adding another dimension (or two or three) of depth to our being, through which we become something that has never actually been, but is somehow more real than what we presently are. In this ceaselessly trinitarian dynamic, a new entity emerges, a “transcendent subject” that lives harmoniously in the dialectical space between our foreground self and the mysterious background subject that surrounds and vivifies it.

This novel way of looking at the unconscious has much in common with another one of my favorite spiritual cartographers, Meister Eckhart. Eckhart, like Petey, often relies upon various rhetorical devices such as paradox, pun, and oxymoron in the effort to use language to transcend language. Language cannot ultimately capture God, and yet, it is all we have to try to mark out the torahtery and communicate the experience to others. As a result, Eckhart said many things that are easy to misunderstand and which landed him in some trouble during his lifetime.

For example, Eckhart wrote that “In my birth all things were born, and I was the cause of myself and of all things... And if I did not exist, God would also not exist.” Just what did he mean by this? (the Catholic authorities asked!). In fact, it was something very similar to Grotstein’s description of the unconscious. That is, the God that we can know cannot exist without our first “conceiving” and giving birth to him -- God needs our assistance, or cooperation, to manifest in the herebelow.

First, it goes with unsaying, since it cannot be said, that God in his essence so surpasses our conceptual categories that he is beyond being or knowing, beyond the very horizon of knowability. What he actually is in himself, we cannot say, and he certainly doesn't require us to not say it. Apophatic theology holds that the only true things we can say about God are what he is not. Therefore, only by achieving the “negative capability” of unknowing, can we paradoxically know him in his essence.

Perhaps this is why, as Grotstein writes, God is the only true atheist, “because only He knows for sure that He doesn’t exist.” Furthermore, we are His children.

But we can certainly know God in his energies and activities on this side of the manifestivus. That is, in Eckhart’s understanding of the incarnation, God is eternally taking on human nature, not just once, but for all time, in the ground of our being. Eckhart adheres to the ancient Christian idea that God became man so that man may become God -- not literally, but in Grotstein’s sense of transforming the ineffable, nonlocal God-beyond-being into a local manifestation of his presence. The reason we may know God is because he is perpetually being born in the depths of our soul, but only if we cooperate and act as “midwife” to the process. God gives birth by speaking the word, but we are only born (from above) by hearing it and conforming ourselves to it.

Our absecular friends have it backwards. It is not God that requires explanation, but us. God alone properly has real being. God does not understand us because he exists -- rather, he ex-ists by our understanding of him, which is ultimately his self-understanding. That is why Eckhart said that the eye with which we see God is the same eye by which he sees us. We are each of us an opportunity for God to exist. Or perhaps more accurately, without us, God is orphaned in the cosmos, with no earthly parents to (p)raise him, just atoms with no evolution.

In other words, we must actually negotiate a “cyclopean” or “double worldview” between imagination and reality, something that the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott emphasized as well, with his idea of the “transitional space” of consciousness. We can never actually be just one or the other. We are perpetually giving birth to God, while God is perpetually giving birth to us. Both statements are equally true. Otherwise, we live in the dry desert hell of egoic separation from our source, or the alternate "fluid" hell of engulfment in symmatriarchal being with no way to express or communicate it -- no way for anything to "evolve" out of the formless and infinite void.

Creation means "giving existence to," or bringing something out of nothing. God’s creativity gives existence to us, but we give existence to God in our creative response to his actively present absence. That is, in both Judaism and in Eckhart’s thought, God actually must withdraw from the world in order to create it -- otherwise, the world is simply identical to God, and there is no freedom. (Of course, he cannot completely withdraw, as he leaves an immanent trace in every “part,” which in turn is a metaphysically transparental theophany that proclaims his glory.)

We are a creation of the absent God-beyond-being, but in making present our potential and becoming who we are, we take part in God’s creation of us, which paradoxically gives birth to both God and to ourselves. In surrendering to, and cooperating with, our own mysterious ground of being, our self-knowing and God’s self-knowing become a single act of essential knowledge. We give birth to the living God.

Finally, no one who gets this new Marshall Crenshaw compilation will regret the purchase. What a crime that he's not a household name. They just don’t make music like this anymore, or if they do, I don’t know about it. Seems like the musical genealogy that descends through the early-to-mid Beatles pretty much ends in him.