Thursday, May 11, 2006

Verticalisthenics and Other Youth-Defying Wonders

A couple weeks ago I noted that “The best ideas are so deceptively simple that we can fail to properly appreciate them. As such, they must be repeatedly discovered, lest one continue mindlessly searching after Truth. The lower mind--I have problems with the word, but let’s just call it the ego--doesn’t really care about truth per se. Insofar as its cognition is concerned, its function, as Sri Aurobindo noted, is to grind. Put anything in front of it--a cereal box, a TV screen, classified ads--and it will simply grind away.”

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.


Rorschach said...

In that respect, the Japanese culture could be said to be heavily religious. One of the overarching theme of their literature and art throughout the millennia is mono no aware' - "the sadness of things," which is not really a sadness so much as a resignation to the fundamental truth that all things are impermanent. To them, the world is beautiful precisely because we cannot keep it as it is forever: trees drop their leaves and grow new ones, sand dunes shift endlessly, rivers cut into the rock, houses are built and must someday fall or be torn down. One moment is never like another; mono-no-aware is the memorialization of a particular moment, with the resignation to its being gone for good.

Hoarhey said...

Another deep one today Bob.
For most of my life I've struggled with trying to maintain the illusion of the "omnipotence of the infinite, open ended future" while at the same time realizing the fulfillment contained within the "freedom of responsibility and commitment". For me, following the former path eventually results in more emotionally risk averse behavior closing myself off from both the infinite and the benefits possible with risking commitment, thereby accomplishing neither goal. Then it's back to square one again, hunting up just one rabbit. Thanks for the reminder.

One thing about grinding, a mind with the propensity to grind will eventually find things to grind upon, even in the middle of now-here, believe me.

will said...

Rorsch -

Yes, like Japanese ice sculpture, which can be strikingly beautiful, then melts away within days.

As Carlos C. once wrote: Let Death be your advisor.

I think truly realizing the impermenence of that which is temporal compels the mind to seek out that which is eternal.

John P. said...

I finished a first reading of your book yesterday. Out on my bike ride today it came to me that the work is a stream of consciousness "sandwich". I don't know what I like better, the "bread" or the "meat". Prediction for you. It will be a thousand years before another intrepid author makes a gift to the world of a more comprehensive exegesis of the human condition. Your compilation certainly gives a full accounting for all that is and at the same time makes the knowledge and understanding of our benefactors of old accessible to today's readers.

I look forward to Gerard Van Der Leun's comments on your book.

John Hinds

will said...

Side note: Hmm, until he recently fell out of a tree in New Zealand, I sort of thought Keith Richard was a permament thing.

jwm said...

Notes on today's post:

I am reminded of being 11 or 12 years old when my friends and I first discovered "dirty jokes", most of which had to do with the anatomical differences between us and the girls. We would always erupt in forced laughter over stories that, in retrospect, made no sense, and punchlines we didn't get, couldn't get, in our pre-pubescent understanding. Now as I enter into my mid fifties I have noticed a similar gap in understanding emerge when I have had occasion to talk with twenty and thirty year olds.

Only now the gap is not in the understanding of sex, but of mortality. It's like entering a second puberty, the first being the puberty of life, the second being the puberty of death.

Paradoxically enough it is not until one gains the awareness of mortality that the preciousness of life, and the value of time come into focus. It's easy to laugh at death when you're seventeen, or even thirty seven. Funny- I remember the professor I had for Shakepeare telling us that we would not understand Lear for another thirty years. Nobody believed him. Of course he was right. And just as it was impossibe to understand sexual innuendo at 11 years I don't think anyone under fifty can possibly understand Faust.

Don't get me wrong here- I do not sit around yearning for my lost youth, but it's well nigh impossible to avoid saying to yourself, "If only I knew then what I know now". A young person always thinks that means, "I wish I had the great accumulation of facts and knowledge". What you wish you had was the awareness of the preciousness of life and the brevity of time.

Same with religion. As a kid I always figured old folks like religion because they're scared to die, and they want to believe there's a heaven to go to. I'm not scared to die, and I don't give a fart for heaven.

At this stage of the game what I realize is that there is much more to this mystery of existence than threescore and ten years, and then the grave. It's the gut sense that what we're able to see is only a few pixels of a much larger image on the screen. So I look to religion for the greater view. In the words of Janet Church, my first artistic and spiritual mentor "You have to learn to see whole picture."


Gagdad Bob said...

Beautifully put, JW. Just when you finally get used to the first puberty, a second one comes along...

Need to think of a new name for it....

And religion is hardly about escaping the facts of life. Real religion is about confronting them and deepening your relationship to the whole.

Lisa said...

I gotta say that I just love cyber-hanging with the Bobbleheads because I am the baby of the group! Officialy aproaching my mid-30s next week is a bit overwhelming knowing that each day I am nearer to 40 than 30. I have been told the 30s are the new 20s and the 40s are the new 30s etc. I will choose to view it in the positive and wear my age as a badge of honor. Physically, I feel better now than I ever did in my 20s, only with a few more wrinkles! I hope that I have mentally and spiritually matured but that is probably debatable! ;)

I am keenly aware that time is speeding up and I must appreciate every moment for what it is. Sometimes, I wish I could just dig my nails into the ground to slow the earth from spinning so fast! Death still seems far off in the future but ya never really know until it's too late! I am a hopeless optimist in some ways and still think I have a few new careers left in me to sort through. I suppose I will just have to take the word of my older and wiser Bobbleheads about mortality. I can't remember who said, Youth is wasted on the young, but it does seem to be true!

PS. I think Keith Richards is still around because his insides have pickled. We are now witnessing cracks in the outer shell!

Kahntheroad said...

It's funny, but it didn't occur to me until today's post that, at 29, I'm the baby of the group - sorry Lisa :).

So I guess it's kind of odd that I get all this stuff. For a while I thought this spiritual longing of mine was a product of my youth, something to resolve and outgrow.

JWM mentions the old "if only I knew then what I know now."

For me I feel like I'm stuck in that paradox, I have a conceptual understanding of time and mortality. I know that the days are passing and my youth will not last forever, but I still act as if it will. I suppose it's the worst of both worlds. Kind of like the time traveler who goes back to change an event, but learns the hard way that history can be stubborn.

At the same time, I'm very accepting of my past and the road I'm on. I am right where I need to be, and I couldn't have gotten there by any other route. But I still cling to the impatience of youth, without enough of its joy.

Seems like my impasse is more akin to the manager arriving early for the game; sitting and staring at his watch as he waits around for the team to show up.

It's frustrating to know what you want; have the blueprint in hand; all the tools; the conditions set; you've gone through all you excuses and distractions; and there you are - knowing full well that you have a clear choice between action and regret - heaven and hell...but you stand there on the corner, blinded by the blinking WALK sign.

Lisa said...

Crap! Now, it looks like I am going to have to find a new group of "seasoned flatulents" as JWM put it. Thanks, Kahn! ;0)

Kahntheroad said...

How about a nice little synchronicity? Just a few moments after posting the above I'm looking for something (completely unrelated) on Amazon, but find myself reading this

Anonymous said...

29 and YOU'RE the baby? Ha! Try twenty-six...

Michael A (Rorschach)

John P. said...


In line with your beautiful observation on mono no aware, this from James Clavell's "Shogun":

Omi's death Poem:

What are clouds
But an excuse for the sky?
What is life
but an escape from death?

dilys said...

To our Young Friend Kahn --

Loved the Cleese you found. Cleese as Petrucio in Jonathan Miller's production of The Taming of the Shrew is the best, most heartbreaking portrait of someone tutoring a soul that I have ever seen. He also co-wrote a book on psychology with bursts of brilliance.

Great find! I'll definitely track that one down.

And to tie Taming of the Shrew in with the whole death motif...did anyone else here have mortal anxiety just before getting married? A real, serious marriage, like having a child, seems to present itself to the lower mind as a kind of death.

Sal said...

Can't remember the exact phrase and no longer have the book, but someone once remarked that it took the optimism of Christianity to consider that it was reasonable for two young people to throw themselves into their deathbeds together.

I married very young - at 20- with the cocksure boundless optimism of youth. Hardly had the sense to be anxious at that age. But I also had a very strong sense of vocation, though I wouldn't have been able to describe it as such at the time. So, it was rather like choosing to be a doctor, or lawyer or such. More "now I get to do what I've always wanted", rather than other avenues being cut off.

I've always wondered if the perceived speeding up of time as we age doesn't have something to do with percentages. If you're 2, a year is 50% of your life. If you're 50, a year is 2%. So, though a year is still 365 days, its slice of the pie chart is smaller.

C.S Lewis pointed out to a young man investigating religion that the fact that we're not at home in time is very strong evidence for an existence out of time, or eternity.

I'm wondering if I might be the oldest person here. JWM, you show me your b-day and I'll show you mine...

Anonymous said...

don let hnm no im tipng this but thatjwm wuzs brnd in1952
bugrth cat

jwm said...

That animal is sooo busted.


Sal said...

Same here. What month, kitty?

jwm said...

Booger the Cat is currently busy studying remedial grammar, punctuation, and spelling. When I said busted I wasn't kidding around.


will said...


Lack of oppposable thumbs, you know.

Any cat that purrs to my music can drink with me anytime.

Sal said...

December. You win!

Rorschach said...

That ain't Cleese, it's Needleman. But it's close enough - Cleese wrote the foreword to that book.

ben USN (ret) said...

One way to get two rabbits:
wait until they are close together and shoot 'em with a shotgun. :^)

Wisdom isn't bound by age.
I've known foolish 80 yr. olds and wise children.
Spend some time around children with cancer, or any life-threatening disease, and you will gain wisdom.

Kahntheroad said...

Yeah, the John Cleese thing had me confused too. Someone at Amazon must have botched the listing.

Although, come to think of it, it doesn't make much more sense that Monty Python's John Cleese would write the forward to a San Francisco professor's book on the philosophy of time...well, perhaps in an absurdist Monty Python way it makes sense...

However, I must admit, it does make me even more curious to read the book.

Sal said...

Yes, Ben
one of the biggest disillusionments of my life was the realization that not all adults are grown-ups.

PSGInfinity said...

So I'm sitting at home, catching up on this blog. At 39, I'm on the lowish side of this blog's demo...

... And I find myself adrift. Unable to tolerate the shrieking distortion blaring through the base world's speakers, Ive sought refuge in Blogland. And when my cockleshell first alighted here, a few months back, I made some silly comment and shoved off.

Now I find myself reading every post, wondering where to go from here. I've hit a wall, and must change how I approach life. The more I read this Boblog, the less tolerable I find my previous passion, ordinary political blogs.


Thanks, Bob, Petey, Bobbleheads, and especially, your son.