Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Infantile Spirituality

In my last post I gave voice to some concerns that have been rumbling in my heart for several years.  As I thought about what I'd written and about the comments that readers sent to me, something deeper struck me that I thought I'd share as well.

I've been a "Leftie" most of my life.  More to the point, I'm really a "bleeding heart" or what Maggie Thatcher would call a "wet".   I get emotionally-engaged with people who suffer.  This needn't be someone right in front of me, I get very upset when I consider the plight of people I've never even met.  Indeed, I get upset when I contemplate hypothetical situations---starving, poor, oppressed people, injustice of any sort.

This has led me down some interesting rabbit holes in my life.  At one time I actually tried to live the life that Jesus suggests we should----I gave a lot of money to the poor, I would invite homeless people in to live with me, etc.  I learned after a while that if people do choose to live like Jesus said they should they will end up being "eaten alive" by the poor and needy---just like he was.  (Remember all the crowd scenes from the Gospels?)   Not wanting to end up on a literal cross, I decided to do what everyone else does, and set my boundaries a lot wider.

When I analyze my feelings when confronted by injustice I notice two things.  First, I feel a lot of empathy in that I always end up imagining myself in the situation I see the other person.  Secondly, I feel a great deal of anger and outrage.  Sometimes I move to a third stage, which is fear that the world is a nasty, cruel, place that is indifferent to the suffering of individuals.  

The more I think about it, the more I think that the first two reactions are attempts to divert my attention from the last one.  It's better to feel sorrow for others and anger against whomever is harming them than contemplate that it is just happenstance---perhaps temporary---that I am not in the same boat.  I notice this fact time and time again when I find out that the world is just not a "warm and fuzzy place".  It was this outrage that fueled just about everything that I have ever done in politics.  And that outrage ultimately kept me from facing up to the idea that life is inherently tough and I am going to die, probably after a lot of pain.

The path we walk as individuals is ultimately like a mine field.  We never really know if the next time we put our foot down it may end in an explosion that may injure, maim or kill us.  Our job can disappear, we can get sick, an accident may befall us, or the people we love can suffer similar problems, etc, etc.

Paradoxically, people involved in progressive politics tend to spend a great deal of their life successfully ignoring this fact.  Of course, it is true that collectively people can do a great deal to make life less precarious if they work together.  We can have universal healthcare, pensions, unemployment insurance, etc, but this never seems to be be enough to totally eradicate suffering from the world.  No matter how much we try to make the world a better place, others are constantly trying to undo that work;  and ultimately we, and everyone we love, are going to die.  Even the Jesus of Gospels admits this fact, "The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me" (Matthew 26:11).

This grim reality surrounds us like a bad smell.   But we aren't conscious of the stink all the time.  Sometimes we forget about it and get "caught up" in some experience that allows us to forget all about the "fallen" nature of the world and our own mortality.  This is where the other side of religion kicks in, the spiritual path of mysticism.

As one Buddhist monk once explained it to me, activism is like trying to deal with the problems of walking on a stony road by covering it with carpet.  As he explained it, learning to tame the passions through meditation was like putting on a pair of shoes.   Obviously, it is a lot easier to wear shoes than to cover the entire earth with deep pile shag.

When we forget about the precarious nature of human existence it is possible to feel a sense of "oneness" with the world.  We walk through a forest on a sunny, nice day and all seems well.  We embrace our lover and life seems good.  When I think about it, just about every good experience that I have had in my life involved feeling "at one" with what I was doing.  In contrast, the quickest way to remove that feeling is for me to remember that I am an individual human being who is at best a participant in life, but more often a mere observer.  The trick, therefore, is to find some way to control the mind in order to maximize the time you spend in "oneness" and minimize the time you spend in alienated contemplation.

When I was a young man I spent a decade of my life trying to understand religious experiences.  I did a master's degree in philosophy on the subject and spent a lot of time trying out various flavours of religious practice.  I had a great many different experiences that could be described as "mystical", but ultimately found myself on the "outside" of all of these traditions.  What I believe I learned from this period of experimentation was that all the people I met in these groups ultimately lacked the sense of critical rigor that I was bringing to the subject.

Recently, it has occurred to me that this sense of "connection" that people seek in mystical practice and which I sought through my experimentation comes from our earliest experience in our mothers' arms.  Certainly some psychologists maintain that the first important part of human maturation comes when the child begins to differentiate his or herself from her mother.   And the more I think about it, I wonder how much of my religious and political sensibility comes down to not much more than trying to recreate that early sense of comfort.

And the more I think about it, the more I wonder if the cultural matrix that supports the religious life is overtly aimed at trying to recreate that childhood experience.  Certainly Christianity is rife with examples that seem to support this idea.   Priests are called "father".  I understand that the Aramaic word that Jesus is shown using to refer to "God", abba, translates rather literally as "daddy".  Consider the veneration of "Mother" Teresa.  Other religions encourage a similar sort of infantile veneration.  In my case the teacher in my school of religious Daoism was similarly treated with parent-like veneration and in response he treated all his students like wayward children.  (To cite one example, I can remember him sleeping on the floor of the lobby connecting the male and female dorms at our retreat centre so he could keep tabs of the adults so they didn't sneak off for illicit sexual trysts.)

If I accept that the ritual forms and hierarchical organization of religious institutions are designed to create an infantile sense of "oneness", I should also consider whether spiritual practice is also designed to create a similar state.  Consider the following Wikipedia synopsis of the spiritual teachings of a Carmelite Nun, Bernadette Roberts:

The ego, matured through life experience and spiritual practice, falls away to reveal the unitive state, the oneness or wholeness of the self in unity with God, a state characterized by the feelings of love and subtle ecstasy. This was the end of the Christian journey — or so Roberts initially believed — and from this point we can see where Roberts travels beyond the limits of doctrinal Christianity. The Self, the mature human in a state of union with God, also falls away. This is the import of Roberts' work. So what does this mean and what is left when there is no-self? Fundamentally the unitive state is still a form of dualism — Self and God — it means that an idea or archetype of God is still captured by the psyche. Fundamentally this unitive state is nondualistic - in which the self and God are One, not two - "I and my Father are One," one without a second, without even the concept of one. Roberts experiences the falling away of the idea of God simultaneously with the experience of the falling away of self — when there is no self, there is no God. For someone wholly devoted to the spiritual life and to God, to discover that there is no God, not one iota of subtle conception of God left to grasp at or attach to, was a particularly horrendous and terrible experience and is described in detail in "the experience of no-self". The experience is of a raw, pure and unadulterated reality without the imposition of concepts and ideas. Gradually this state, this initial loss, cleared to become a profound understanding of reality itself. In place of "unity" with God comes identity with God — a state she calls seeing with God's own eyes. But neither the ego-based sense nor the spiritualized self is "God". Instead, God is Reality itself, of which the human person is a single cell
After all, what could the experience of a newborn child be, but one of a total lack of "self" and total "unity" with your mother?

The spiritual practices followed by these religious groups seem to be pretty good at helping people feel better about themselves.  Buddhists, Daoists, Christians, etc, who do regular spiritual practice look to the eye as being calmer, happier people.  But the price, in my personal experience, is a sort of "flattening" of their critical faculties.  Those calmer, happier people seem to very often prone to being taken advantage of by their spiritual teachers---financially, sexually, etc.  The sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church and Buddhist sangha both reveal that followers of both faiths are so dis-empowered that they are willing to allow their religious authority figures to do things to them that they would never allow anyone else to do.

Nor do deeply spiritual people seem to be terribly good citizens.  They rarely seem to be on the "right side" of history.  It is Marxists, trade unionists, secular humanist types who fight for human rights---bye-and-large---not the deeply spiritual.  (I first noticed this when I was involved in a battle to save a Jesuit retreat centre.  It wasn't the Catholics who did all the heavy lifting, but rather people outside of the tradition.  Indeed, the woman who ran the retreat centre was opposed to the lawsuit and the Catholic school board forbade its employees from getting involved in any way shape or form.)

This doesn't really make any sense if the goal of religious practice is to become a better human being.  But if, instead, the real goal of spirituality is to recreate the experience of a baby in its mother's arms, then it fits perfectly.

What then do I suggest we should be seeking instead?

I'm not sure I know.  But I can take a stab at making some suggestions.

First of all, I think that a more "mature" sort of life should be based on attempting to deepen our ethical grounding.  Consider the following "thought experiment":  Would you do the "right thing" if it meant that you would end up going to Hell?  If not, then are you living an ethical life?  Or are you just trying to be a "good boy" in order to get a lollipop?  This isn't a hypothetical question.  How many people in ages past had doubts about the value of burning "witches" and heretics, yet "went along" because they were afraid of being damned as a heretic himself?  How many people in the Evangelical or Roman Catholic churches today have doubts about discriminating against gays but don't speak up for the same reason?

In other words, is virtue your own reward?  If it isn't, why not?

Secondly, instead of having "oneness" as an ideal is it possible to develop another?   What about clarity?  Or dignity?  Or wisdom?  I admit that I find it hard to fill the gap left by wanting to feel like the world is a warm, comforting place that looks out for my best interests.  But ultimately my conscious mind has to accept that this is simply not true.  And at that point I find that I can have flashes of something that is like a sense of calm acceptance based on a gimlet-eyed appreciation of the true nature of existence.  What is more important?  Seeing the truth, or having a warm and pleasant lie?  Again, this sounds a lot like "virtue is its own reward".

Finally (at least for this blog post), instead of trying to find some ultimate "Truth" that sets us free, perhaps it would be a better ideal to try and live a life that adds a grain's worth of truth to our society's collective store.   The great value of scientific research is that it is cumulative.  Why can't we have as our ultimate ideal the idea that we are participants in a great cultural enterprise aimed at trying to become collectively more wise rather than seeking some sort of personal salvation or enlightenment?

If we accept a different set of ideals, like the ones above, then it might be possible to construct a different sort of personal practice.   This could be a practice that people can pursue in order to give meaning and stability to their lives, but which will not damage their critical faculties by encouraging infantile consciousness.   The more I think about this sort of---for want of a better term---"spiritual practice", I cannot help thinking that this is like the Chinese ideal of "kung fu", which is key to the teaching of philosophical Daoism and which is best expressed in Zhuangi's description of craftsmanship.    


Anonymous said...

I found your blog while chasing down references to 'Sitting and forgetting". I had done Toaist practices in my early 20's, my first formal introduction to serious spirituality with a real teacher. I liked what you have to say about meditation.

You may be interested in reading Ed Muzika's blog. The meditation he discusses is interesting and fundamental (I feel), and he also has an external focus, on cats though and not on political justice per se.

Anonymous said...

Too much time looking for precious pearls

Trey Smith said...

I have nothing substantive to add. I just want to say that you write some of the most thought-provoking posts around.

Anonymous said...

You make an intersting observation about the unfortunate. There is one question about them. Is their plight caused by being the victims of some kind of injustice, or is it the result of their own bad choices?