Sunday, August 16, 2009

Spirituality: an Inquiry (Part 2)

The wonder of life is not just the wonder of existence—that there is a world—but also that there is experience of the world. Consciousness, in other words, is both the cause of wonder, and a cause for wonder. Human thought has the power of reflection, so that the human being can not only know that there is the world, but that something within the world experiences the world. I give this the rather dry and analytical title of subjectivity, but abstraction frames all knowledge in terms of things, i.e. objects. So, to continue our practice of describing the development of human consciousness as if it were a deliberate process of thought, we come to this archetypal formulation: There has to be something that experiences all this, and this something is the “I.” Thus we have the idea of the soul, or the self. Another word for this is “spirit,” although the development of culture has caused this notion to vary sometimes from the self.

Everything is experienced by the self, in the context of the self. There is simply no experience outside of this context. The world itself cannot exist for me outside of this context. Contained in this “for me” is the wonder of life, and the apparent contradiction. For we know that the world exists after I die, but for me it cannot be experienced outside of my life.

We come then, to another ancient archetypal thought. If our lives can only manifest by and for our “selves,” then the world as a whole can only manifest by and for its “selves.” These “selves” are the spirits or gods that have created this manifestation and control it, and are in a sense the world itself as experienced by itself.

Why are the spirits plural? Because human beings are plural, and the objective conditions of human life are experienced and dealt with as a community. The manifestations of the world are various—water, earth, ocean, mountains, plants, animals, and so forth. The selves of the world are likewise various. Two factors eventually result in the notion of one “God” instead of many “gods”: first, the gradual development of individual ego-consciousness, which allows greater awareness of the single subjective being within the community; and second, the gradual narrowing of political authority in the community into hierarchies that require greater unity in order to maintain power. This line of thought is a subject for further essays. Suffice it to say that in essence a “god,” whether single or plural, constitutes the “self” of the world.

Although the self experiences everything, we cannot experience the self in the same way that we experience objects, precisely because the self is the subject or context of experience. We only experience its effects, both in terms of our thoughts, desires, and emotions, and in terms of the actions we take in the world. Human beings remain essentially unaware of the metaphorical nature of “soul” and “spirit” as long as they assume that subjectivity is an object like any other. Thus every aspect of human nature becomes reflected in the stories concerning gods and spirits.

The subject-object split finds a perfect analogy in the opposition between life and death. The outside world towers over the individual like a tremendous mountain of fact, while the self is only perceived by a kind of reflective intuition. The self dies, and the world remains. But how could the self really die, since it is the one and only context of all experience, all known life? It must not die, therefore (goes our archetypal conversation) it must survive death. It must be separate from the body—don’t I perceive the body the same way I perceive objects outside of it? So, this “I” that perceives is a separate entity. It travels somewhere else after death, perhaps to a special place, or to a new body. The key to this “as if” progression of thought is that the end of experience is literally unthinkable. We cannot imagine “nothing.” Instead, we imagine the entrapment of an endless darkness, an experience of eternal nullity. The natural urge to survival is transformed by the human capacity for reflection into a fear beyond all other fears. The intuition of eternity is channeled through this fear into a belief in the immortality of the individual self.

The consciousness of death has had the historical effect of a wound on the psyche of humanity. But preceding this wound is the error of separation. The contradiction between subjectivity as context and objectivity as content is a false one. Yet to call it an error is really to use a small word for a much bigger one, one that doesn’t seem to yet exist. An intellectual error can be solved by a mental readjustment—one absorbs the truth of the situation intellectually, and one’s thought adjusts accordingly into a correct path. The contradiction I speak of, however, seems to be inherent in the very act of individuation. If consciousness were just one unified subjectivity, there would be no manifestation, no world. But of course creation, the manifest world with its many forms and living beings, can only exist in plurality. Philosophically, this is one of those “given” truths that Aristotle spoke of, beyond which we cannot go. A plurality of experiencing subjects, then, a plurality of living beings, necessarily involves duality. Duality isn’t just thought up--it is felt, perceived, experienced necessarily as part and parcel of the very individuation which is the manifest world. Logic can only describe. Metaphor, the poetic capacity, is the mental form that seeks to span the divide between life and death, subject and object, pain and pleasure, good and evil, and all the other dualities which make up the content of our experience.

Prior, then, to the fear of death, and in a certain sense the cause of it, is the experience of the self as separate, as a separate entity, as perceived content perpetually unable to directly experience its context. Spirituality is the desire for wholeness. The goal of desire is felt as an end of striving, a cutting off of restless seeking for wholeness, a final satisfaction of the urge to unity. For the individual, this part of religious history emerges later than any other, because its cause lies in the deepest stratum of the mind. It is prefigured in the rituals of communion with nature instituted by human societies and reflected in the ritual and sacramental regulation of everyday activities such as the hunting or cultivation of food, sex and procreation, and so forth. The tribe or community simulates wholeness through ritual. But simulation is ultimately not enough—the self seeks direct unity. The rise of the world religions, and their practices centering on devotion, power, and transcendence, culminates in the mystical quest, or in terms of Eastern religion, enlightenment or awakening.

Separation is replicated in mythical form in the separation of man from the gods, and later of man from God. In the theistic traditions, this is where the “inner” path begins to diverge from the path of tribal religion, even though it must of necessity remain within it to survive in the social realm. The seeker of God seeks to be united with God. The tribal religion, on the other hand, insists that we must remain separate while worshipping and obeying God from afar. The tribal path, what we now call organized religion, became a form of social organization with its own political interests, thus tragically embedding the contradiction of the separate self in the body of culture, and refusing to budge. In the context of the discussion on atheism with which I began, this is where we remain stuck today, the rise of science having exposed mythology as metaphor and not as literal fact, while organized religion refuses to surrender its position as the arbiter of manifest and objective truth. Here we part ways with the direct analysis of organized religion, at least for the purposes of this essay. Religion has turned against spirituality, its own child, and will continue to struggle in painful throes of illusion as it long as it fails to acknowledge metaphor as its proper (and powerful) realm.

Interestingly, there is a strong and valid strain within spirituality that retains the idea of “God” as a centerpiece of its practice. For the urge to wholeness, we learn, is identical with the urge to love. The love that is experienced in the relationship of selves to one another, the deep connection and caring that unites people together while transcending the limited drives for personal survival and “self-interest,” finds an overarching metaphor in the love of the self for the Self of the World. A theist’s feeling of love for his “creator” is of course analogous to his worldly love for a parent. We are very familiar with this one, since “parent” and “authority” have become fused in the authoritarian version of religion. Present also, yet less often remarked, is the parent’s deep love for the child, the sibling’s love for a sibling, the friend’s love for a friend, and, most significantly, the lover’s love for a beloved. That which transcends the ordinary separations of life is experienced as a source of universal transcendence. Consider this quote from St. Theresa of Avila:

I gave myself to Love Divine,
And lo! My lot so changed is
That my Beloved One is mine
And I at last am surely His.

Devotion to God is an all-consuming practice that aims at complete transformation of the self. Whether the unity is expressed openly, or in more traditional language, the effect is far different from conventional sentiments expressing devotion from afar. Furthermore, there is something inevitable about the expression of spiritual desire in personal terms. Martin Buber, in his classic book I and Thou, makes the case for this relationship as a fundamental aspect of spiritual metaphor. The formulation of “I and Thou” is one of direct relationship, from self to Self, without intermediary. Its significance is not historical, but purely in the context of the soul and its intuition of the Absolute as source and as love. Even when the third person is used, as in the quote from St. Theresa above, the meaning is only understood in the context of this direct relationship. Observe, on the other hand, how the third person dominates in the following quote from John Calvin:

God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.

God is now completely “He” (a separate denizen of the objective world) and not a “Thou.” We are out of the realm of spirituality and wholly in the realm of historical authority. I chose the quote for its obviousness, but even if the God described were more benign, the distance would remain. The door to unity has been barred.

In the practice of such “I and Thou” spirituality, the conscious awareness of metaphor becomes practically irrelevant. Insofar as the seeker’s experience is direct, or desires to be, philosophy is beside the point. Nor is this just a phenomenon of the West, although it could be argued that it has found a greater foothold here. Here is an excerpt from the Buddhist text called The Lotus Sutra, addressing the Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara:

O you, whose eyes are clear, whose eyes are friendly,
Whose eyes betray distinguished wisdom-knowledge;
Whose eyes are pitiful, whose eyes are pure,
O you, so lovable, with beautiful face, with beautiful eyes!

In a religion with no gods, that moreover denies the reality of the separate self, the urge to direct relationship still finds a way, with all its attendant feelings of love and adoration, in this case directed towards an awakened person. Similar notes are struck in the Theraveda tradition of Buddhism, and indeed in all the religions of India, China, and the rest of Asia.

I maintain, therefore, that the metaphor of the gods, and God, and all other variations of the “spirit” idea are valid metaphors for our intuition of the eternal and its expressions in wisdom, love, and wholeness. They will survive all attempts to argue them away. I choose not to use them myself because they don’t adequately reflect my understanding, but I don’t dare deny their usefulness for others. My arguments against the “literal” truth of religious and mythic language are pertinent to the social and political struggles centering on the place of organized religion in the world. But in terms of the self’s desire for wholeness, and all the expressions that it engenders, they serve only as a reminder of the need for humility, a need that no one would recognize more clearly than the seeker himself.

In the third part of this essay I plan to examine how it is possible to practice spirituality without the idea of God or gods, and what kind of challenges that may present to the seeker.


Mike Goldman said...

I expect your present path leads to Vajrayana.

DED said...

Intriguing essay.

The 9th paragraph spoke volumes.

Looking forward to Part 3.