Sunday, August 19, 2007

The plan

I got into a spirited discussion recently about the whole notion of a cosmic “purpose” or “plan” behind what happens, or as I put it, behind “history.” Of course I was adamantly against this notion, and although the talk was friendly, I came away with a familiar feeling, a sort of guilty conscience for challenging beliefs that seem to provide meaning and comfort to those holding them.

Part of the problem in such discussions is that the boundaries between the principled and the personal are inevitably blurred. When I drew inferences from the notion of purpose that resulted in justifying the unjustifiable, I was assured that the other had no such intent.

But you see, someone’s intent is not the issue at all. Ideas need to be evaluated on their own merits without regard to the character of the person advancing them. This is a point that is very difficult for many people to grasp in the middle of conversation, because we are involved personally in the interaction. We are afraid not to hurt someone’s feelings, or offend their cherished convictions, or somehow damage our friendship by engaging in contention. In fact, all this is beside the point.

One argument that I did not make, but which is actually foremost in my estimation, is that self-importance lends a sense of significance to human activity that we then project onto the cosmos. To seriously believe that the Divine (however you may conceive of it) would need to bother about a purpose or a plan behind the Thirty Years’ War and the Peace of Westphalia, is to betray a very pedestrian idea of divinity. Uncountable life forms are born and pass away in the space of a moment, and the number of galaxies exceeds the mind’s ability to calculate—surely there’s no need for a creator or cosmic demiurge to arrange the pathetic drama of human history like a puppet show.

Furthermore, if there is a plan, it’s a damn lousy one for sure. No plan that requires the cruelty, barbarism and savagery that we have witnessed, even only in the last hundred years, is worth my reverence or consideration. Earthquakes, disease, and other pains that are part and parcel of conditioned existence I accept as the natural order. Torturing people, throwing them in gas chambers, wiping them out en masse with bombs, etc., I don’t see as part of a plan, nor would any supposed higher purpose make them worthwhile.

I think that reality is too great to have a meaning. But this truth has a disturbing effect on many of us. Human beings require meaning, and I think this need is based on an intuition of absolute truth. However, we don’t see that spirit (the divine metaphor) is identical with subjectivity. Instead we are hypnotized by the so-called outside world, not realizing that this is an abstraction. Not an illusion, as the traditions of the East seem to say, but a conception of reality. This conception serves us, but our bondage begins when we serve it. That’s when we become objects in the game of an historical spirit. That’s when we start frantically looking for meaning behind things instead of in ourselves.

Regular readers may know that I posit a link between this abandonment of spirit to an objective concept of reality and the fear of death. I’m not sure that this can be demonstrated logically, however. I only sense that the intuition of spirit as identical with the unconditioned (reality itself) clashes with our conscious identification with this soul (the ancient metaphor), this particular mind-body complex that I call myself and associate with traits of personality. This identification is, in my view, what the Buddhists mean by “clinging” or “attachment.” It is not a mere mental operation or belief, but a kind of primordial act, based on the simple need for survival.

The secret of the sages and mystics, then—an open secret, really—is that the intuition of spirit as identical with the unconditioned (reality itself) needs to become conscious, and simultaneously the conscious identification with the individual self needs to be seen through. What is seen through doesn’t vanish. It’s just that its transparent (conditioned) nature is perceived. We survive, but without enslavement to the fear of death.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The plan

Commentary from the other side of the dinner table..

CHRIS:
I got into a spirited discussion recently about the whole notion of a cosmic “purpose” or “plan” behind what happens, or as I put it, behind “history.” Of course I was adamantly against this notion, and although the talk was friendly, I came away with a familiar feeling, a sort of guilty conscience for challenging beliefs that seem to provide meaning and comfort to those holding them.

KARL:
We felt the same, minus the guilt.

CHRIS:
Part of the problem in such discussions is that the boundaries between the principled and the personal are inevitably blurred. When I drew inferences from the notion of purpose that resulted in justifying the unjustifiable, I was assured that the other had no such intent. But you see, someone’s intent is not the issue at all.

KARL:
"..justifying the unjustifiable". This is your misconstruance of an earnest attempt to convey information we have learned with much effort, from the highest and best source we know of. It's an explanation, not a justification or excuse. You're pretty quick to impute cultural filters to others, possibly ignoring your own.

Mother Teresa: "It is simple to know God's will. It is what happens."

CHRIS:
Ideas need to be evaluated on their own merits without regard to the character of the person advancing them.

KARL:
That sounds good, but it has a logic hole. Words are a problem. We think we're communicating, but we're often just moving air and the meanings are lost on both sides. Words are only metaphors. We can probably fairly closely agree on what a 'small ceramic jar' might be. But the larger the scope of the concept, the less true communication occurs. Large concepts are slippery things.

To me and my wife, our concept of 'history' is a combination of our reading, personal experience, stories told to us, and perhaps especially the information given to us by Meher Baba. You definitely had an issue with the use of the term/explanation 'Kali Yuga', or period of destruction. Many, many sages considered wise have used that term in referring to the current world age. Are they misled?

I believe a valid question right here would be, who, if anyone, do you consider to be wise, to have answers to the hard questions?

'History' is usually written by the winners, the axiom tells us. 'History' is humanity's effort to explain and understand humanity's movements, great and small, from the remove of Time. However, we're right back to words as metaphors, and my understanding of 'The Depression' is quite different from that of my parents, who came of age in the Thirties. The experience of the 'Depression' would also be very different between an American of that era, and a German, for whom the 'Depression' began in the early 1920's.

So you believe there is an unresolved gulf of understanding between us around the term 'history'. There certainly is, and it's based on our individual understandings, and without a lot of discussion and reading in common, that gulf will remain. At least we identified the different interpretations before fisticuffs ensued. ;-)

CHRIS:
This is a point that is very difficult for many people to grasp in the middle of conversation, because we are involved personally in the interaction. We are afraid not to hurt someone’s feelings, or offend their cherished convictions, or somehow damage our friendship by engaging in contention.

KARL:
You misjudged the company if you felt you had to pull your punches. It's clear to me your convictions are just as cherished – and defended - by you as ours are to us.

CHRIS:
In fact, all this is beside the point. One argument that I did not make, but which is actually foremost in my estimation, is that self-importance lends a sense of significance to human activity that we then project onto the cosmos.

KARL:
Well, 'cosmos' is pushing it, I'd settle for 'life on earth', where 'human activity' does have quite a bit of significance, at least in this World Age. Each soul has a journey to take, I believe it takes many, many lifetimes to learn the lessons necessary to graduate. What 'graduation' entails is beyond the scope of this essay. However, most of the lessons involve slowly breaking the accretions around the human heart, grinding the ego away, positing that it is the ego/false self that separates us from becoming Insani Kamil, the Complete Man.

Meher Baba, for example, said that mass sufferings such as the killings by the Mongol Hordes, or the Holocaust, came about because of each individual's need to balance their karma, or sanskaras, from that or previous lifetimes. If one accepts that death is also illusory, because we're coming right back again for another round in another body, it robs death and even the act of killing from the connotation of evil.

In defining or conceptualizing 'history', we back away, first from the horror, then the overwhelming detail and number of individuals, and end up with an understanding of, and attitude toward, 'the Holocaust', for example. Yes, it was horrible. Yes, it had a purpose. But not if you don't accept that souls pass through many bodies on their way to rejoin the Creator, and not if you decry suffering as something which should be eradicated, as something 'unjustifiable' to humankind. Only when souls are perfected will suffering/polishing cease. Wars seem to be occasion for mass polishing.

Another instance of the valuation of suffering.. one of the Companions and Caliphs of the Prophet Muhammad, Uthman, said, " He who is not put to any distress or trouble for a year at a stretch let him realize that God is displeased with him."

CHRIS:
To seriously believe that the Divine (however you may conceive of it) would need to bother about a purpose or a plan behind the Thirty Years’ War and the Peace of Westphalia, is to betray a very pedestrian idea of divinity.

KARL:
You would prefer to see them as evidence of the cold indifference of the Robot Time? Or if God exists, then He's a mean, uncaring prick? I'm completely familiar with your arguments and positions, I used to live there.. right down to pitying those of faith, deluding themselves because they needed comfort in an uncaring Cosmos.

CHRIS:
Uncountable life forms are born and pass away in the space of a moment, and the number of galaxies exceeds the mind’s ability to calculate— surely there’s no need for a creator or cosmic demiurge to arrange the pathetic drama of human history like a puppet show.

KARL:
You seem to believe that any explanations offered by any human about the purpose behind Creation must be a lie and a sop to those unready to confront the cold hard nihilistic truth. You also seem to believe (as I recall the conversation last evening) that the spiritual long-view lacks compassion for the real-world suffering of those participants. Not at all. We, or at least I, continue to remember their lives, as well as mine, are in a continual grinding process, like stones being tumbled in a jewel-polisher. Spiritual evolution isn't easy, nor simple. So the lack of compassion for suffering that you impute to the spiritual view is simply not true for me or my wife. Another misconstruance.

CHRIS:
Furthermore, if there is a plan, it’s a damn lousy one for sure. No plan that requires the cruelty, barbarism and savagery that we have witnessed, even only in the last hundred years, is worth my reverence or consideration.

KARL:
There I tend to agree. Is the human heart so hard, en masse, that the suffering of WWII wasn't enough to cause the masses to turn to God and profoundly mend their ways? Unfortunately that appears to be the case. Humanity needs to get much, much smarter, and then move south, from the mind to the heart, get the heart as loving as the mind is intelligent. A balance between the head and the heart.

CHRIS:
Earthquakes, disease, and other pains that are part and parcel of conditioned existence I accept as the natural order. Torturing people, throwing them in gas chambers, wiping them out en masse with bombs, etc., I don’t see as part of a plan, nor would any supposed higher purpose make them worthwhile.

KARL:
Yet the first of Buddha's 'Noble Truths', which we also discussed, is "Life is suffering." Is he wrong? And he didn't just stop there, he laid out a Way to understanding, and, dare I say it, bliss. Eternal conscious bliss – Sat Chit Ananda. ALL the great sages (not religions) say the same thing.. a soul's journey is long, long, and when we reach the end of that journey, perfected, they all say that this reality – and all the suffering – is an illusion. A damned convincing one, I grant you. A tactile moving four dimensional hologram created in real time by God for our spiritual education.

CHRIS:
(two paragraphs omitted)
The secret of the sages and mystics, then—an open secret, really—is that the intuition of spirit as identical with the unconditioned (reality itself) needs to become conscious, and simultaneously the conscious identification with the individual self needs to be seen through. What is seen through doesn’t vanish. It’s just that its transparent (conditioned) nature is perceived. We survive, but without enslavement to the fear of death.

KARL:
A few paragraphs earlier you were railing about the apparent injustice of an oblivious and uncaring steamroller Time. The 'unjustifiable'. Yet here I see a very different understanding. Yes, moving past the complete identification of the individual self with its ego and its attendant fear of death is indeed the goal – and the method is that grinding of the ego and polishing process which takes "84 lakhs of lifetimes" according to Meher Baba.

In one life I might have to deal with the loss of my servants, slaves, and my plantation, and have to work as a manual laborer until I die a pauper's death, drunk in a ditch in Missouri in 1879. In another life I might have been born into a prosperous family of scholars, work as a playwright and composer of musicals, lose the use of my legs after being thrown from my horse, and end my days as a renowned, yet crippled, tunesmith. In another life I might have been born into an unfeeling family of shopkeepers, but, given a wild talent, gain renown as a performer and composer, marrying the daughter of my greatest teacher, only to die in an insane asylum. ..or any of billions of life stories. Whatever is required by God for our spiritual growth.

Suffering varies in direct proportions to the karma we must balance, and the lessons we must learn. Exposure to the Avatar speeds up the process, and thus the suffering of those who know of Him and even of those who do not. We're all bozos on this bus, and we can't get off.

Karl

fairlane said...

Since I'm new, I'll just paraphrase J. Krishnamurti, and be on my way.

Any attempts to convert or convince others is the mind (ego) trying to find anchors for itself.

There are no "gurus or teachers or wisemen to follow" there is only you, and you either are or you are not.

Chris Dashiell said...

'"..justifying the unjustifiable". This is your misconstruance of an earnest attempt to convey information we have learned with much effort, from the highest and best source we know of.'

I'm sorry, but I'm afraid that it's you who misunderstood. If you read what I wrote carefully, it says that "When I drew inferences from the notion of purpose that resulted in justifying the unjustifiable..." It was I drawing the inferences, not you. And I never said that you did. In fact, I made a point of saying that you didn't.
But this is precisely the point I'm trying to make. Instead of exploring the implications of the idea, we're talking about personal intent. And whenever we go there, nothing meaningful can be communicated.
I don't think there is any gulf between us, certainly no more between me and anyone else, probably a great deal less. I used our conversation as a springboard to talk about my ideas on the subject, not intending anything more than that. Maybe that was wrong, and if so, I'm sorry.

Anonymous said...

>> fairlane said...

Since I'm new, I'll just paraphrase J. Krishnamurti, and be on my way.

Any attempts to convert or convince others is the mind (ego) trying to find anchors for itself.

So no one can discuss spirituality or man's purpose, or respond to a friend's interesting essay, without being accused of 'trying to convert others' OR having a big ego? This kind of statement is designed to stop all discussion, and isn't very interesting. Is that what you want?

There are no "gurus or teachers or wisemen to follow" there is only you, and you either are or you are not.

Yes, well, there's precious few evolved souls around as far as I can see, and I'm not so gone as to assume I have nothing to learn from someone farther along the path. How about you?

Besides, Krishnamurti renounced all claims to spiritual status, and I believe that is true. Therefore he's not really worthy of quoting, because he has no special knowledge.


CHRIS:
I'm sorry, but I'm afraid that it's you who misunderstood. If you read what I wrote carefully, it says that "When I drew inferences from the notion of purpose that resulted in justifying the unjustifiable..." It was I drawing the inferences, not you. And I never said that you did. In fact, I made a point of saying that you didn't.

Yes, I know that now and I knew it then. My point is that you seemed unable to simply hear us, and put your own spin on it, and I was simply pointing out that it IS your spin. So I didn't misunderstand. And I took this opportunity to clarify and expand the discussion from last night.

But this is precisely the point I'm trying to make. Instead of exploring the implications of the idea, we're talking about personal intent. And whenever we go there, nothing meaningful can be communicated.

It's true nothing meaningful can be communicated without vast effort. But it's for a different reason. YOU are talking about the problem being personal intent. My contention is that true communication depends completely upon similar understandings, and those understandings come from personal experiences. We ARE discussing the implication of the idea. Your interpretation of the word 'history', for example, is filtered through your experiences, and mine is, well, through mine. So as soon as we attempt to discuss intangibles, especially the large ideas, some error inevitably creeps in. It has nothing to do with intent (because you'll always be guessing, probably incorrectly, about mine, and I, probably incorrectly, about yours), and everything to do with the lack of common understanding. Which, unless we have the same training and background, is going to prove impossible, as you say.

best
Karl