Saturday, July 28, 2007

Desolation, Consolation and Depression

I identify myself as a Daoist, but I have learned a great deal from a variety of the world's religious traditions. For example, I spent several years meeting and talking with people from a local Jesuit retreat centre. They introduced me to a form of spiritual practice known as the Ignatian Exercises. These are a faily involved series of practices that are taught by the Jesuits and involve a process of detailed introspection. I never actually entered into the Ignatian exercises myself, either because of ego or because that is not my particular path, but I did gain a fair amount by entering into a conversation with people who teach using that tradition.

Primarily, I learned a great deal about the nature of depression, at least as it has manifested itself in my life. The way the Jesuits describe it, all of us are prey to "spirits", both good and bad, that constantly try to influence the choices we make in life. The best way to understand this is to think of the cartoons we often see of a little devil whispering in one ear and an angel in the other. The idea is that when we are depressed (or what the Jesuits would call "in a period of desolation"), the evil spirits predominate.

I certainly can say with certaintly that that is exactly what happens when I am depressed. It is as if a chorus of voices is constantly repeating in my ear "I wish I had a better job", "I wish I wasn't a fool", "I wish I wasn't single", "I wish I wasn't crazy", etc, etc. The thing I learned from talking to the spiritual advisors was that this is a very predictable syndrome that St. Ignatius has carefully analysed and spelled out in great detail. And the processes that we go through when we are in a period of desolation can be predicted and tactics can be mapped out for dealing with it. Some of these spiritual "rules of thumb" include things like not making any decisions, continuing or increasing one's meditational practices, and, reminding oneself that a time of desolation is usually followed by a deepening of one's wisdom. (For anyone who's interested, this link gives a Ignatian gameplan for surviving desolation.)

This last point is of greatest importance to me, as I have gotten to the point where I expect to gain some insight when I go through one of these periods of distress. Perhaps this will end up in retrospect as being some form of hubris, but it does seem to me that every time I have gone through one of these spiritual "troughs" I have found myself looking back on it and thinking that I have learned an important lesson. (The technical term for these gains in insight is "consolation".)

As I wrote this blog entry, I was going to make some sort of statement to the effect that what I am talking about is not clinical depression. But I'm not sure if that is correct. I have only gone through one period that would be described as such. It was awful. I felt miserable for weeks, lost a pile of weight, made all sorts of crazy statements, sought clinical help, and reached out to all my friends in wild desperation. But the end result was a real acceptance of a great many things that had niggled away at my soul for a very long time. Perhaps the problem with depression is not so much the desolation, but how individuals and society respond to it. Maybe some people get "stuck" in the middle of their desolation experience without finding some way through it to the wisdom it may give us.

I admit that I am not a psychologist, so I simply am not qualified to speak on clinical depression, but I wonder if I had been prescribed prosac if I would have made it through my period of extreme desolation to savour that little taste of serenity that came out the other side.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Just what exactly is religion?

As I mentioned before, I've been working through Joseph Campbell's mind-blowing, four volume magnum opus The Masks of God and have been recently reading about the transition in Egyptian society that ended the practice of human sacrifice. One of the citations he uses is that of an eye-witness account by a British officer who saw a 16 year old Indian woman voluntarily submit to being buried alive with the corpse of her husband. The account mentions that she not only agreed to the procedure, but that she sat with her back to her husband's seated corpse, put her hand above her head and continued to gesture for the burying to continue after her head had been covered and she was already slowly suffocating.

Campbell used this citation to point out that we should not project our modern ways of thinking into the minds of the ancients who were buried alive in the tombs of ancient Egypt. He did not see these archaeological sites as evidence of some ancient mass murder, but rather that of evidence of people bye-and-large voluntarily going to continue their service to their master after death. The point being that their consciousness was so in the grip of their mythic world-view that they did not feel that they were being murdered but rather that they were entering a new life.

Of course, people do not feel this way anymore. (Indeed, the British officer who observed the Indian woman's act of sati felt extreme revulsion and tried to talk her out of it.) And in the same way, we moderns feel extreme revulsion at many of the things that this officer would have taken for granted, such as slavery or sending young children into battle as drummer boys or "powder monkeys". The point is that contrary to the modern mythology that states that "all men are created equal", there is a significant difference in people's consciousness from one time in human history to another.

People often fail to understand this point, which is why we see dramas on television that portray ancient peoples as if they were exactly the same as you or I. (Think about those BBC shows like "I Claudius" or the "Brother Cadfael Mysteries.") In actual fact, I suspect that if we were able to speak to a Roman Emperor or a Medieval monk we would find that beyond the barrier of language, there would be a huge difference in the the way that they see the world from that of the average modern Westerner. (I noticed one example of this extreme difference when, as an undergrad, I was studying medieval philosophy and read that St. Augustine was the first historical figure who is described as being able to read silently. It appears that until his time the only way people read was out loud. Think about what that says about their interior lives!)

These differences also occur between modern cultures. I recently came across an account of the failed American mission to Somalia (think "Blackhawk Down") and was struck by the extreme difference between the American and Somali vision of warfare. The American soldiers were appalled at the way women and children were used as "human shields". One army ranger mentioned having to shoot a woman with a baby in her arms because she pulled a pistol on him once she got close enough to shoot. In contrast, a Somali leader is quoted by saying that the Americans are very brave but too unwilling to let people die. He knew that once a helicopter was shot down their comrades would fight foolishly in order to try and save its crew---no matter how badly that exposed their position and how many soldiers died in the attempt. (Of course, the current fiascoes in Iraq and Afghanistan could furnish similar examples.)

To get back to the point that Campbell was making, he believed that the role that religion plays in our society is directly connected to the form of human consciousness that is manifest in its adherents. Moreover, the form of individual human consciousness that is manifest has a huge impact on what form a society can take. So the evolution of human society is also the evolution of human consciousness is also the evolution of religious systems. Both individually and collectively, we are what we say that God is.

This position makes a lot of sense to me. People who believe in retribution believe in a God that supports the credo of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". And people who believe in mercy support a God that says "turn the other cheek". The point is that they are externalizing their values and projecting them into the metaphysical realm.

Where does Daoism fit into this? I suppose that folk Daoists who believe in the actual existence of a realm of Gods would also be in the same camp as the folks that Campbell is talking about above. But from the very beginning Daoism has also had a very strong tradition of calling all of that into question. Laozi warns that the Gods treat individuals like "straw dogs". Zhuangzi's radical skepticism about how much anyone can know about anything also draws into question the idea that we can know much about the ultimate "rules and regulations" of existence. So if we just talk about those Daoists who inhabit the stratospheric limits of the faith and have gotten beyond all the folk beliefs, it might be that they are beyond all of this need to believe in someone "out there" who reinforces all their beliefs.

But there is another level to this. When the scales fall from our eyes and we realize that we are players in a game we can get angry and try to toss over the board and scatter the pieces hither and yon. This is the way of the angry atheist like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But if we aren't willing to be perpetually angry, what then? We still have to live our lives and get along with the other people. I would suggest that because the Daoist believes that the best way to get on with life is to try and find the way things work and then "go with the flow", then she would recognize and accept the role that religion plays in the formation of human consciousness and society-as-a-whole, and "play the game" to the best of her ability---but all the while reminding himself that it is indeed a game.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

We are the stuff that dreams are made of---

I've been very busy doing construction on my "heavenly cave" over the last few weeks and have let this blog slide. This involved some pretty hard physical work of a sort that I used to do when I was younger, but which now I find quite hard to do. In particular, I had to shovel three tons of gravel, move and set 60, 50 lb slabs of cement, put in a retaining wall, dig a trench for a weeping tile, and, smash a hole in a 1 foot thick reinforced concrete retaining wall. (My whole body ended up aching by the end of the week!)

One thing did strike me, however. During my "coffee breaks" I was slowly reading through the A.C. Graham translation of Liezi and I found myself thinking about the fundamentally dream-like quality of life. The chapter that Graham titles "King Mu of Chu" contains several stories about people who found it hard to separate their dreams from reality---including the famous question of Zhuangzi about whether he was a man who dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly who is dreaming that he is a man.

Of course I've heard about these stories for years and I've also had the experience of having a vivid dream only to wake up to "reality". But in the middle of shoveling the gravel off the sidewalk in front of my house and wheeling it onto my patio, I had the sudden revelation of the purely episodic quality of existence. That is to say, that at that particular moment of my existence I could not only look back on the dreams that I had had the night before and question their reality; but I could also look back at the work I had done the day before in exactly the same way. When I did so I found that the notion was immensely liberating. It meant that when I shovelled the gravel I was just shovelling gravel----I was no longer digging a trench, carrying concrete, sawing wood, or anything else. Nothing else mattered, just the task at hand.

People who look at religion from the outside in usually assume that the mystical experience resides in altered states of consciousness, visions, miracles, and so on. But in actual fact, the really important stuff of spirituality comes down to gaining insight into how complex and mysterious the "mundane" is. The revelation that one only lives through the individual "task at hand" and not in the totality of what one calls their "life", is probably the most profound thing that a person can learn. If we meditate on it and integrate this insight into the way we see the world, then it cuts away our fear of death and allows us to identify with the entirety of life instead of our own petty theoretical existence.

Of course, however, this truth cannot be given to another through mere words on a page (or blog), all one can do is point the way and hope that others will make the effort. Then someday, and in his or her own individual way, another person will have the same insight. And then perhaps they will try to explain the experience to another----.