Thursday, July 29, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Thirteen

The Paradox at the Base of Freedom

Another way of understanding the problem with the ideals of self-actualization and spontaneity is the fact that both terms are intimately connected to the concept of “freedom”. And that idea is very complex and paradoxical in a way that popular followers of “self-actualization” don't, I believe, understand.

It is relatively easy to think about “freedom” when we contrast public life in a Liberal Democracy with that in a Totalitarian Dictatorship, such as Nazi Germany or Catholic Europe under the counter-reformation. People can point to the greater opportunities for expression, less oppressive police presence, etc. Where the problems begin, however, is when we contemplate exactly what freedom means when we already have freed ourselves from the Gestapo and Inquisition---which is exactly the position that many North American citizens found themselve in during the post-WWII era.

The complexity is that people can find their freedom limited by a lot more than nasty people in uniforms or cassocks.

They can, for example, find themselves addicted to recreational drugs. Walk down just about any street in the world and you will find people who are so addicted to alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, etc, that they are worse off than all but the most desperate of chattel slaves. Indeed, the popular parlance admits the fact when they are described as “slaves” to their addictions, or, that they have a “monkey on their back”. Walking by these people who are begging for the means to get high, are many others who have almost as dangerous addictions: smokers, people who eat too much, are in debt up to their eyeballs, who never exercise, etc. These “addicts” are able to live functional lives1, but they still pay a huge price in terms of longevity and/or diminished quality-of-life. The paradox of freedom is that it isn't just the “freedom to do as you please” because that would seem to imply that people can, and often do, “freely choose” to become crack whores or do nothing more than sit on a chesterfield watching television and eating potato chips until they have a heart attack.

It is often argued that these people's freedom is constrained by “private demons” that they aquired during traumatic childhoods. I have no doubt that this is often true. But it doesn't change the fact that these people exist without any significant outside physical contraints upon their freedom, yet it is perfectly reasonable for observers to question just how “free” these people truly were to choose the lives that they find themselves in. Once we accept that people can be “unfree” because of a “monkey on their back”, the realization isn't weakened because we find that in some sense the metaphorical simian was placed there many years ago by an abusive parent. Either way, the idea of “freedom” has been made dramatically hard to understand once this observation has been acknowledged.

Another equally complex wrinkle to consider is the term “discipline”. Who is the freest person: the man who follows whatever momentary idea pops into his head at any given moment? Or, he who is fixated on an idea that popped into his head a while back and which he has developed into a game plan that he follows day after day for a long period of time? A long-term task like writing this essay can often seem like an onerous obligation or a crazed obsession---either way, it seems to be a constraint on the writer's freedom in those given moments that he sets aside to write. Yet if a man is incapable of planning and executing this sort of long-term goal, it seems that he is like a leaf blowing in an autumn wind---totally at the mercy of the moment's fleeting fancies. That too hardly seems to be a life of “freedom”.

Even more to the point, it seems an inescapable fact of human existence that often the most exhilarating freedom can only come as the result of significant drudgery. Musicians---even people who play the wildest improvised jazz---are only able to freely express their fleeting emotions if they are willing to spend years and years grinding away at scales, arpeggios and etudes. Martial artists are in much the same boat: that momentary glimpse of “mushin awareness”2 will only come from years spent grinding away at forms practice. All the ways in which a person can “actualize the self” offer the same lesson: True spontenaity seems to be intrinsically linked to the drudgery of disciplined practice.

This raises the point why I have tried to emphasize that I am responding to the popular understanding of Maslow's theory, not the theory itself. I often meet people in positions of some prominence who espouse some version of it, but when you look at the way they live their lives you see that they too have put in the disciplined years necessary learning the “finger exercises” of their art. Professors, writers, psychologists, etc, who espouse the value of “sponaneity” and “following your bliss” have shown in one way or another that they have large reserves of discipline, or else they would never have been able to learn the skills and credentials needed to follow their avocation. Unfortuantely, they rarely will admit how important discipline has been in their careers, though, because that would force them to back down on the extreme position. 3

I would suggest that the reason why we have a hard time undersanding the paradoxical nature of freedom is because we assume that personal freedom is exactly that: “personal”. Our society bye-and-large assumes that human beings are atomic, isolated entities that find themselves confronted with having to choose between different, universally-understood, options. Our legal system, for example, is based on this assumption. That is why crimes are considered as being the result of a single individual and justice as being exclusively the result of what the state decides to do to the convicted criminal. Liberals believe that this criminal needs to be re-educated. Conservatives believe that he should be punished. But neither sees any role for either the victim or the community at large in the process.

In contrast, certain so-called “restorative justice” models might suggest that whenever a crime is committed it is both the result of complex social forces at work, and, it affects the entire of society. Under this model, when a crime is committed the “balance” of society has gone out of whack, and the entire society needs to come together and reconfigure people's relationships so it will work in the future.

I can remember reading a short book about the Lakota Indian legal system that gave an example of a restorative model in practice. A man had killed another man and had been found guilty by the elders. Under our system of governance, he would be punished and the story would end there. The Lakotas understood, however, that there were other issues at play. For example, without the dead man's work as a hunter, his widow and children would suffer from poverty. The tribal elders decided that the killer would have to marry the widow of the man he killed, which meant that he would be obligated to provide for her and her children.4

The emphasis in this situation was to rebalance the outcomes of the crime, namely the loss in livelihood for the dead man's family. But it is possible to consider a restorative model that would attempt to rebalance the initiating factors that led to the crime in the first place. For example, people who are arrested for certain property crimes sometimes are asked to engage socially with the people that they have stolen from in an attempt to force them to rethink their relationship to society at large. It is one thing to burgle a home with the assumption that no one is hurt because “insurance pays for everything”, another to meet an individual with modest means and a large deductable who suffers real problems as a result of a break and enter. The hope is that once the criminal puts a face on their victims, it becomes harder to justify the crime to one's self.

In a similar vein, people who follow a criminal lifestyle often do so in order to fuel an addiction. In a restorative model, instead of being punished they would be offered treatment for their addiction. A further expansion of the restorative model would include a rethink of our laws against recreational drugs, which dramatically increases their cost---which makes it necessary for addicts to become criminals in order to afford their habit. An even greater expansion of the restorative model would be to examine the informal social network that these criminals inhabit in order to try and foster new associations that would make it easier to re-integrate into mainstream society, which would make it less “normative” for the individual in question to take recreational drugs and pay for them with crime.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Logical Mysticism

One of the ideas that has absolutely obsessed me for decades is the idea of how to integrate science and religion. When I was doing my Master's degree I pretty much destroyed my academic career by trying to write an overly-ambitious thesis on what is called "state specific science" and how it could be used to do so.

State specific science is the attempt to study the laws that govern specific mental states. For example, one could analyse dreams by trying to see what rules govern it. One experiment, for example, would involve the state known as "lucid dreams". These are dreams where one is consciously aware of dreaming (or, as the Daoists would say "holding onto the One") and able to actively control the content of the dream.

Dreams are an easily discussed example for state specific science because they are a form of "altered state of consciousness" that almost everyone has experienced. But there are a great many other ways to experience this sort of thing: sensory deprivation, hallucinogenic drugs, and meditation. My belief at the time was that this would lead to a scientific study of meditation, which would lead to a scientific study of religious experiences, which lead to a science of mysticism.

My thesis imploded, primarily through catastrophic bad judgement in my selection of thesis advisor and reader. After a couple years of extreme frustration, I took a few years off to work and think. (This happened at the time of the 1980s recession, so the best work I could find was running a floor polisher. This was, however, the time I got involved with Daoism.) Eventually, I decided to give the degree one last crack before the deadline passed and I officially failed. I changed from a full thesis to an undefended one.

This time I changed the topic to the role of cultural conditioning in religious experiences". As I explained to my new advisor, I would do anything required to graduate. I remember literally saying "if you want me to roll a peanut up and down the University walkway with my nose, I will do it". Things went blindingly well after that. I'd come in with something written and the advisor and reader would tell me what they liked and what they didn't. Whatever wasn't instantly approved was ripped out and thrown away. When we finished, I had a "B", my piece of paper, and I was out of the academy for good. (I still work there, but in a menial role.)

I learned a great deal when I was researching my second topic, primarily that "recognized experts" in the field of philosophy of mysticism didn't know a lot about the subject. I focused my work on the writings of a fellow by the name of Steven T. Katz. What I found was that this fellow had developed his whole understanding of mysticism based on a very selective reading of literature. Primarily, he restricted himself to Jewish mysticism. Since Judaism is probably the strictest of the monotheist religions, it has very strong injunctions against the two most common types of religious experiences: the "unitive experience" (where one feels to be "one" with God or the universe) and "visionary experiences" (usually where one sees a heavenly being---such as a Daoist immortal, Hindu God or Buddhist Bodhisattva.) Jewish mystics would never report that they are "one with God" because that would be considered blasphemous. Similarly, while they do report visionary experiences sometimes, these usually involve non-personal entities---such as "thrones" or symbols.

If, instead, you look at the broad range of writings by mystics of all religions you can see that there are several different types of religious experience, but most of them can be classified as "visions" or "union" types. The visions tend to be of Gods and Saints. The "unions" are with God or something like "the Dao". By restricting the experiences he wished to study to those that fit into orthodox Judaism, Katz pretty much tossed out over 90% of the literature.

I found it hard to see this as anything but intellectually dishonest.

When I looked at the primary literature of other religions I found that a lot of the experiences people described seemed to be heavily mediated by the culture they inhabited. For example, St. Francis of Assisi is the first person to have ever been reported as exhibiting the stigmata. Yet after he was reported as having them, they started to show up in the historical record. Similarly, the literature of mysticism shows no evidence of women Christian mystics experiencing the "marriage of Christ" vision---until a famous Christian mystic (I think, Teresa of Avila, although it was a long time ago) wrote a manual for nuns that suggested that they use the Song of Songs---which is full of erotic imagery.

What this suggested to me is that the human mind uses the furniture of our culture to construct the imagery that comes to us in visionary religious experiences. Underlying it there seems to be some sort of trans-cultural archetypes, but they take form based on the symbolic representations that the individual has been exposed to. The archetype of the divine female, for example, takes the form of the Virgin Mary to a Roman Catholic, Guan Yin to a Chinese Buddhist, the Empress of the West to a Daoist, Tara to a Tibetan Buddhist, and Sophia to a Greek Pagan.

I think that this is a demonstrable fact because of the experiences I myself have had. I have had visions that fit very neatly into the category of visionary experiences and which take a hibred form between Daoism and Western secularism. For example, I had a gnomic dream that fits neatly into the Daoist category of the "Ghost King", but which was composed by elements from my own personal history.

Years later when I think about that experience in graduate school, it becomes clear to me how much my thinking on this subject has changed. I no longer believe that religious experiences---as I once understood them---are all that important. I've had religious visions and experiences where I felt "one with the universe", but ultimately I've come to the conclusion that none of them are terribly important when compared to the plodding "here and now" of day-to-day experience.

I understand that this is a common belief amongst mystics. For example, Zen Buddhists of the Soto school say that "sitting itself is enlightenment". I think, in the same vein, that "holding onto the One" is realization.

The "new atheists" Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins maintain that there is no way that one can be a rational, educated human being anymore and support religion. I disagree. I think that the sort of mysticism that I have found is amenable to science. But the gap needs to be met by both sides. I have worked very hard to come up with a version that I believe makes sense. I think that now it is time for rationalists to get rid of their "straw men" religions and look seriously at something that does make sense.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Different Type of Faith

One of the things that I've had a really hard time understanding over the years is the idea of "faith". I recently had a little insight, however, that finally gives me a plausible way of accepting the idea.

The Christians that I've met usually use "faith" as a way of evading the logical problems that come from any sort of sceptical analysis of their religion. If you raise the standard arguments about the existence of God, the answer isn't some sort of counter-argument---it is "faith". If you suggest on the basis of scriptural analysis that the Bible is a fallible document written by human beings instead of being a "holy book", the answer is "faith". If you suggest that some of the teachings of the church flow not from God but the internal politics of the organization, the response isn't an attempt to prove you wrong, it's to say that you simply don't have enough "faith".

It came to me pretty early on that "having faith" is what you do when you hold onto a belief even thought you have very good reason not to. Later on---after gaining a little wisdom---I came to other conclusions, ones that diminished the harshness of this judgement.

It is really important to understand that the vast majority of people lack the ability to clearly explain their thoughts and motivations. Most of the time this is the result of two reasons. First of all, most people don't spend a lot of time on introspection. Instead, they get caught up in work and family, and spend the rest of their life following one damn thing after another. Ask them why they believe in God and the truth is that it comes from the same place as the actions of a ten year old when he's ask why he tossed bubble gum in his sister's hair---but for an adult "I dunno" doesn't sound right. In the same way, if you put any of their other beliefs (politics, etc) to the same sort of scrutiny that I put religion under, you ultimately have the same sort of answer. Luckily, religion has developed a word that---at least for some people---sweeps away all the embarrassment.

Secondly, and probably for related reasons, the overwhelming majority of people have a dreadful time expressing their ideas. I learned this during my work life when various higher-ups tried to explain to me what tasks they wanted me to do. Time and time again with very different types of people I've learned that you can't simply say "yes sir, no sir, three bags full, sir". Instead, you have to interrogate them, ask them to explain things that they didn't mention, work through aspects of the job they hadn't considered, etc. (Luckily, most of my bosses over the years have understood the complexities after the fact and thanked me for being thorough instead of being upset with me for being "uppity".) In a similar vein, I now understand that at least some of the time people of faith do have some rationale behind their belief system---but they couldn't explain it to anyone else if their life depended on it. The world "faith" takes away some of the discomfort.

As I began to understand these two points, I also began to understand the wisdom of something that my first meditation teacher and a therapist who was treating my post traumatic stress disorder both said to me. Someone as smart as I am has to learn to be compassionate to the people around me who just aren't as educated, articulate and bright as I am. In effect, I found it really hard to believe that the "faithful" didn't see what I saw in a situation because it is so blindingly obvious to me. The only plausible way to understand it, therefore, was to think that they really did understand the truth, but they were being wilfully obtuse in order to pursue some other objective. In other words, I always secretly believed, for example, that Pat Robinson really knew that God didn't send an earthquake to Haiti because of a "pact with the devil"---but that he was just saying stuff like this to keep the money flowing.

(I remember my therapist getting agitated with my inability to understand this point when referring to our local government. He said to me "Bill, you have to realize that half the people on Council are so stupid that I wouldn't hire them to cut my grass! You can't blame them for the idiotic things they do.")

Now I don't get upset about people when then have this sort of conventional "faith". Most of them are too dumb to really figure out how lame the whole idea is. The others have some sort of good notion that they feel in their guts but can't really explain. And the two groups are so well mixed together that it is a mug's game to try and differentiate the two. The only reasonable thing to do, therefore, is to follow the advice of Matthew 7, verse 16: "You'll know who they are by what they produce" (Scholar's Version.)

This doesn't mean that this insight allowed me to accept any sort of faith, however. It just stopped me from being so angry at conventional believers. It also stopped me from arguing with them in the mistaken notion that I would be able to force them to see how wrong-headed they are. (Although put Pat Robinson in the room and have him spout about how Haitians are to blame for their earthquake and I'd be sorely tempted.)

Later on, it occurred to me that I do accept a very limited concept of "faith", the sort that comes from society's division of labour. I have to have faith in the skills of a tradesman, doctor or scientist. If I didn't, then I would have to accept the burden of having to figure out every last bit of the very complex world we inhabit. The difference with this sort of faith, however, is that it is at least potentially testable. I could, at least theoretically, do the research myself (you almost have to in order to not get ripped off when you hire a tradesman.) And with regard to practical things, like getting your car fixed, there is the old "proof in the pudding" test of seeing whether things worked the way they said it would.

Recently, however, it has occurred to me that I have had a certain degree of faith all along. This realization came to me while thinking about my understanding of the Zen Buddhist concept of "Buddha mind". As I understand the term, it is the idea that underlying one's day-to-day consciousness there exists a more placid mind that is a sort of "pure consciousness". The process of meditation is one of both stilling the consciousness in order to make this underlying psychological reality more obvious and introspection so one can observe the relationship between one's ordinary mind and this deeper level. As I understand it now, this is almost exactly the same notion as the Daoist practice of "holding onto the One".

Where "faith" comes in, is how I understand the importance of this "Buddha-mind" or "the One". I see it as being the wellspring of my being, the source of my creativity and inner strength. Keeping it pure and calm is the most important thing in my life. When I am calm and seeing with the eyes of "the One", I am in heaven. When I am disturbed and have totally lost any connection with it, I am in Hell.

This isn't totally a leap into the dark, like saying that there is a God up above. Instead it is based on lived human experience----first in the example of teachers and then on the basis of your own life. But it does seem to me to be something that is so personal that it must seem totally incomprehensible to many others. For example, were I to try and explain this experience to Pat Robertson no matter how skill-fully I tried to explain things, I don't think he would understand.

I also personally think that it makes a lot more sense to talk about a direct personal experience than to try and bring in all this extraneous stuff about God in his heaven and so forth. But I think that at this point I occurs to me that maybe the real point is that the Christian idea of "faith" is simply a tremendously inarticulate way of talking about the same sort of thing. After all, there were Saints who spoke of the "Christ within". My arguments with Christians don't end, however, because I believe that the "powers that be" exert such control over Christianity that they will not allow it to get beyond this archaic language that holds the religion prisoner. I'm just glad that Daoism never developed a centralized ecclesiastical structure that would force it to still use the same language and imagery for 2,000 years. If so, then perhaps I would be pursuing some other path.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness

Yesterday I was going through a pretty severe sense of "desolation" (to use the language of St. Ignatius.) Most people would describe it as being "depressed" or "blue", but I like to use the Jesuit language because it is rooted in a psychological system that suggests that a great deal of our "blue states" are spiritually significant.

More to the point, the Ignatian system gives people a set of suggestions or "rules of thumb" to help you get over the blues. What I've gotten from this is the idea that I should look into myself whenever I have the blues (or, am in a period of "desolation") and try to figure out if my subconscious is working itself through some sort of issue or problem. To be specific, I think last night I was trying to come to terms with the idea that I may have to sell my house and move on in a few years because the woman who owns the other half isn't terribly happy living in this neighbourhood. When I realized this and thought about it, it eventually came to me that I am too attached to my home. As a result of some of the comments that Jim added to my last post, I realized that I haven't really learned very well to "renounce" my attachment to household stability.

I once read a zen story about a teacher who was sitting in meditation all by himself after the other monks had fled because of the Mongol invasion of China. A Mongol high officer burst into the Zendo and confronted the monk who was seated in meditation. When the monk didn't get up or even acknowledge his presence, the officer bellowed "Don't you understand that the man before you could kill you without blinking an eye!". The response by the monk was classic Zen: "And don't you understand that you could kill the man before you and he would not blink an eye?" Since the officer valued bravery, he laughed and left the monk unmolested.

Here was a model worth emulation, yet I cower in fear because of the uncertainty that comes from thinking about having to sell my home and move on---something that most people nowadays do several times in their lives.

We are such funny creatures!

I've also been thinking about a statement in the Nei-Yeh that has stuck in my mind and won't seem to leave. Chapter Three states:

All the forms of the mind
Are naturally infused and filled with it [the vital essence],
Are naturally generated and developed [because of] it.
It is lost
Inevitably because of sorrow, happiness, joy, anger, desire, and profit-seeking.
If you are able to cast off sorrow, happiness, joy, anger, desire and profit-seeking,
Your mind will just revert to equanimity.
The true condition of the mind
Is that it finds calmness beneficial and, by it, attains repose.
Do not disturb it, do not disrupt it
And harmony will naturally develop.

Many people would be happy to toss out their "anger, desire and profit-seeking" because they can see how these things lead us astray. But how many are willing to get rid of their "happiness" and "joy" too? I hadn't really thought about how truly alien this Daoist spiritual practice must be to most people.

Indeed, the American Declaration of Independence itself states that people "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." On July 4th the most powerful nation on Earth celebrates the founding of a nation that states that God himself has given everyone the right to pursue their own happiness---and I just quoted a religious text that suggests that happiness is a bad thing because it sucks the life energy out of you!

The only way that I can make sense of this is that the author of the Nei-Yeh didn't value "joy" or "happiness" the way we do. What he thought was more important was the state of calmness or equanimity. Indeed, I think that this state was valued by almost all ancient societies in ways that people nowadays cannot fathom.

Perhaps this comes about because we are so much richer, healthier and secure than the wildest dreams for our ancestors. Travel used to be incredibly dangerous even up until the 19th century. For example, when I read Henry David Thoreau's Cape Cod, which describes a walking tour of the area, I was struck by his description of seeing the locals with hay wagons going down the beach to pick up the drowned sailors and passengers from ships that had foundered in a recent storm. This was not some sort of terrible catastrophe so much as a normal part of living on the sea shore.

Another example came to me when I read Harriet Beacher Stowe's classic Uncle Tom's Cabin. There is a scene in it where a mother is helping an escaping slave mother and child, and she gathers up some clothing for the youngster that once belonged to a child of her own who has recently died. In an aside Stowe says something to the effect that it is a rarely fortune mother who has not similarly had to face the death of one of her little ones. (She lost a son to cholera when he was 18 months old, another drowned at age twenty and yet another was lost at sea as an adult.)

As I think about it, though, it strikes me that people may have just as much reason to be unhappy now as at any time in human history. It certainly seems to me that many of the people I know seem to be pretty unhappy a lot of the time. I've known a few with very significant mental health issues. I know others who have had to really struggle with internal demons that keep them from thriving in relationships and at work. Others simply to have had bad luck. Just about everyone I know has concerns about how they are going to get along in life----will they have enough savings when they retire? will they eventually end up in agony tied to machines keeping them artificially alive?

Maybe we do spend too much time trying to be happy and not enough seeking equanimity.

How does one do it? The Nei-Yeh (as well as other Daoist texts, like the Taiping Jing---or "Classic of Great Peace") suggests that the best way of gaining calmness is through "Holding onto the One". This is a somewhat vague term, but I think that it is a process of finding the centre of your consciousness and not letting momentary experiences divert you from it. Another way of saying this is to constantly remember that you exist so you never get "lost in the moment" or "get caught up in the voices that storm inside your head".

Someone who is able to "Hold onto the One" wouldn't find themselves talking to themselves out loud---or even within their own head. I don't think that they would end up losing their cool because someone else is being emotional with them.

I don't think that this state is something that someone achieves and then never has to worry about. Instead, I think it is an ideal that you have to work at as much as you can for the entirety of your life. The most one can hope for is to being to Hold onto the One when you remember to do so and embrace the moments of clarity that result. Maybe these momentary glimpses of realization will prove more and more frequent as you become more used to doing so---.

And I think that if you are able to Hold onto the One when you are tempted to be very happy, you just might find it much easier to do so when you are tempted to be very unhappy, or scared, or sad. So maybe the reason why we have so many really unhappy people is because they are trying so hard to be happy. Maybe if they sought equanimity instead they might be a little better off.