Sunday, June 28, 2009

The End of the Map

“The knowledge of Truth as gained through the established creeds is like the knowledge of a town which one gets by studying it on a map. To see and know the town one has to take the trouble of actually going there.” –Meher Baba.

Meher Baba’s formulation is about as close to a perfect metaphor for the difference between literalism and actual spirituality as one could expect. Religious groups and individuals who cling to their sacred texts and proclaim them as literally true and binding are very much like a travel agent selling you a tour guide instead of getting you an actual ticket to where you want to go. Yet like all metaphors, and especially those pertaining to spiritual truths, this one is limited.

To extend the idea further, then, let us admit that there are many maps of the same town, and that each map is significantly different in key respects than the others. Each one also includes a bunch of material that may not be specifically relevant to finding one’s way around in this town, such as advice on sex, food, children, politics, family, and war; advice that is not only different in each map but often contradicts itself within the same map. On the margins of the map are written stories and legends concerning inhabitants of the town, of widely varying credibility and value. Finally, notwithstanding the confusing nature of the map in terms of the actual layout of the streets and buildings within it, there are practically no indications of where the town is located within the larger map of the world, which begs the legitimate question of whether the town exists at all or is merely an illusory destination invented in order to benefit the manufacturers of the map.

Even this amusing and complex metaphor, however, is ultimately too simple to encompass the real conflict between religious tradition and spiritual experience. The knowledge of Truth, with a capital T as indicated in the quote from Meher Baba, is not really like a town because a town exists in space and time and is therefore subject to all the conditions that characterize the phenomenal world. Truth with a capital T can be nothing else than reality itself, which is unconditioned since it constitutes the only absolute condition by which all relative phenomena can be. The human mind, and consequently religion, abstracts even this Truth into something separately immutable, when in fact if there were a separate Absolute over and above the conditioned world, this Absolute would be only another conditioned thing. The correspondence of language with the description of phenomena is practically effective, but as a description of reality itself, it becomes metaphorical in the most radical sense, a pointing or an indication that falls away as it is being uttered.

The main difficulty, I continue to maintain, is that Truth can only be intuited in the context of self, or to be more accurate, subjectivity. Humanity’s struggle with this intuitive awareness, which involves a struggle against it, is in my view the central story of organized religion. It is a political struggle in the sense that society became organized around the figure of dominant authority—the supposed separate Absolute known as the gods and later as God. The personal nature of this metaphor is significant precisely because the intuition of reality is always in the context of all experience, i.e. subjectivity, which is ineffable in its aspect of absolute context. The self as context for all experience corresponds to reality or Truth as context for all phenomena. Abstracting this into an authority separate from self is an unconscious process of alienation from ourselves and the psychological elevation of an all-powerful force existing in an “external” world. I believe that this alienation springs from the survival instinct and the fear of death unique to humanity.

The undoing of this alienation is the real goal of all spirituality. This fact is largely a secret because it runs counter to the basic organizing principles of the established creeds, which affirm the original alienation as necessary. To wake up to this Truth, then, as Meher Baba might put it, is to go beyond religion into actual experience. To return to the map metaphor, this is a peculiar case where once you actually reach the town, you don’t need the map anymore. You can throw it away, or you can draw on it as a source of metaphor in order to help others. Some things in the map may actually be detrimental to the goal, other aspects may be metaphorically potent. But the map has no ultimate significance—it crumbles and disappears like all things. Only reality itself is eternal.

Throughout history, teachers have stressed the continuity between religious tradition and spiritual experience as being to their advantage. I think that this policy has in many respects proven to be a failure. I’m aware of the risk that this statement is presumptuous, disrespectful, arrogant, perhaps even dangerously foolish. I still feel the need to make this statement on the evidence of history. Literalism, the use of the map as a way to organize a society through domination, has always constituted a threat to spirituality, and I think more so today than ever, when the wisdom traditions are increasingly scattered and powerless in the world. The proclamation of the Bible, for instance, as the so-called “Word of God,” is an excuse for every kind of cruelty and vice under the sun. Without requiring any spiritual experience, the mainstream Christian churches, and particularly the fundamentalists, simply rely on a book to allay their unconscious fears of death and limitation, while wildly projecting them onto the “enemies,” the people outside their clans. The same destructive idolatry occurs with followers of the Koran, the Torah, or any other book, even including books by secular ideologists who share with religious literalists the view of human beings as mere means towards some ideal end.

It has become necessary to proclaim openly that there is no scripture that is literally true, that all such scriptures are metaphorical, and are therefore only useful in a religious sense as metaphors for spiritual experience. As long as we ascribe supernatural origin to human writings, we succumb to an unbridled sense of pride and entitlement. It is a kind of blindness that we cannot afford as a species. Furthermore, the metaphorical nature of scriptures is not uniform—the metaphors are widely various and often conflicting, and it is impossible for one person to agree with all of their meanings at the same time. Far less is it possible for everyone to agree. Neither is it necessary—we need only recognize their nature as symbols of meaning.

The scriptures also contain material concerning the range of human action, history, and culture; ordinary metaphors, if you will, as distinct from spiritual ones. You may take them or leave them, but to insist that everyone take them is madness, and unattainable in any case. The Zulus say that Unkulunkulu was the the first human. The Israelites say it was Adam. Outside of mythology’s cultural resonance, by which a people weaves its identity through story, this matter has no importance for me spiritually. There is no stake involved in believing one or the other unless someone is trying to force my obedience to a central authority through an organizing myth. We must see through mythology if we are to be nurtured by it and not destroyed.

As long as humanity exists, there will be spiritual literature. There is no danger of that going away. But those who maintain the absolute authority of such literature are in fact doing a disservice to their own traditions, because such practices, such beliefs, sap the power from religious traditions and turn them into dead relics, monuments only to the human need to rule through fear.

Friday, June 19, 2009

There is a life.

Cold thoughts in the morning, when my shaky hand lights a cigarette, and the sounds of traffic are already swallowing my heart. There is a life where stale verities sustain their hum and drone in the skull of a woman in dressing gown and curlers, and the old man in the back room slurping his soup. The local rapist is moonlighting as a cop. He patrols the neighborhood dreaming of crime, cursing the privileged and ungrateful homeowners who assemble around the TV before emerging into the open air, where any number of insults are possible and some inevitable. A barking dog refutes all my attempts at argument. I shrink inside, divesting the casual talk around the clothesline of its meaning, only hearing the sounds spitting and gurgling. This routine is desolate when most we do not notice the overpowering forces of sun and wind, when we say good morning and goodbye and don’t forget your lunch. On the way to work I pass the wall again where obscure messages are spray painted, hostile to my comfort, speaking of blind realms that I prefer to forget. The Messiah is sure taking his sweet fucking time. There is a life where the same story continues without pause, no hint of doubt or crack in the faultless fa├žade, the mud-streaked glass of the window behind which we watch the world, murmuring in our coffee about great men and wars and kingdoms below the ocean. Members of the local amnesia society are going door to door, offering blank pamphlets, prophecies of the return of memory, when sore bones will shudder and shake and be forced to turn out of bed and show ID. I won’t open the shutters today. Most terrible is the clock with its ticking. The hands point aimlessly at the hour, a radio crackles next door, a stranger lies amidst discarded plastic at the bus station, and someone’s coarse rasping laugh echoes back. I flick the cigarette, please self, please whoever I am, save me from this my self. There is a life raw and blinking in the winter light.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Tyranny in Iran

As I write this, Iranian cities are exploding with protests against their fundamentalist right-wing government’s fraudulent elections. Fox has been fairly silent so far—they haven’t figured out how to frame this in anti-Obama terms yet (but they eventually will).

It’s important to remind ourselves that the Bush-Cheney regime did everything they could to turn Iran against us. Neocons seek to foster and create threats against the U.S., rather than work towards peace. As a result, we have an entrenched theocracy in Iran that sees a fair democratic process as the enemy.

My thoughts also turn to the two fraudulent elections we recently had in this country, in 2000 and 2004. The American people chose to stay asleep and apathetic, for the most part, and the fact that we were ruled by an illegitimate executive branch for eight years is still suppressed in the corporate media.

When a government rigs an election, it makes manifest the powerlessness of its own people in the face of authoritarian rule. Ultimately, however, it is a symptom of weakness in government, not strength. A country is fundamentally weak when there is a fundamental divide between those holding power and the masses of people who constitute the majority of the population. This is as true of our country as it is of Iran. Countries like North Korea or Egypt have thrown off all pretense of representing the consent of the governed. Currently, the U.S. government supports whatever state it considers advantageous to its economic hegemony, regardless of whether it is democratic or not. As long as this hypocrisy continues as sanctioned foreign policy wisdom, any protests by our government on democratic grounds (such as Bush’s absurd claims of promoting democracy in the Middle East) are empty and will have no effect.

Pro-democracy Iranians, on the other hand, are demonstrating political courage in protesting against their political enslavement. Freedom-loving people everywhere should support them in whatever way is possible.

The Iranian embassy in Washington can be contacted at the following numbers: (202) 965-4991, 965-4992, 965-4993, 965-4994 and 965-4999. Address: Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2209 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20007. Email: requests@daftar.org

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The belief delusion

Consider how much death and suffering has been inspired by the notion of belief—religious belief in particular. One group says that God is such-and-such and so-and-so. Another denies that, and affirms something different. And this becomes a reason for bloodshed. The absolutism of religious doctrine and belief ends up manifesting itself in secular beliefs as well: one group says that the correct political system is such-and-such, and another affirms something different. The stakes in the latter case may seem more evident to modern eyes, but my concern here is with belief itself as a motive for behavior. My point may become clearer if one considers that medieval Christians professed to believe in forgiveness, yet practiced great cruelty, and that Communist states professed freedom and equality yet practiced greater repression than the capitalist and feudal systems on which they supposedly improved. Statements of belief, then, have consistently failed to match real practices and actions, or rather the beliefs have provided cover for practices and actions that have been consistent throughout history regardless of varying belief systems.

A basic error underlying all this, in my view, is the notion that if I believe something fervently, it is true. The tension between human desires and whatever conditions and circumstances set limits on these desires produces the wish that my thinking can turn my desires into facts. This is supported by the undeniable truth that we can produce desired effects through planned and purposeful action. And in order to plan actions, we must think them through. But that the wish itself creates the effect is an error prompted, I would say, by the frustration of a subject felt as free yet limited by conditions. One might even say prompted by desperation, like the fundamental desperation of an infant who feels a need that isn’t met, and therefore cries. The baby cries, and if she has an attentive parent, the need is met by the parent. Nature, however, is not always attentive in this way. The whole, so to speak, does not take orders from the part. But the human self, the conscious subject, experiences an inherent freedom that manifests as a seeking of power over conditions. Thought is the expression of that search. This phenomenon known as thought is so remarkable that we become dazzled by it. Magical thinking, as it has been called, is really just thinking in its beginning stages, when the child identifies thought with truth, and truth, above all, with that which is desired.

What, then, is belief? It is a kind of way station on the path of knowledge. Once we actually know something, belief is redundant. What we really know comes from experience. In addition, there is knowledge as the fruit of reason, but the process of reasoning has its own structure (we call it logic), experience must enter into this process in some way, and the results are open to further reasoning. Knowledge is therefore open to change, and this, paradoxically, is part of its security. It cannot depend solely on thinking, but must correspond to experience. I can say that I believe that day will follow night, but this belief is so firmly founded on experience that unbelief is not an option. Knowledge, then, is when thought is in accordance, to some degree, with experience. Belief by itself, without knowledge, is either the possibility of knowledge conceived without yet being confirmed by experience, or—and this is where we founder on the rocks of religious belief—a conviction concerning something of which we have no experience, and of which it may not even be possible to have experience.

Religion deals with absolutes. Religion is about reality itself, especially including consciousness as the absolute condition of experience. Belief, however, is nothing more than a thought or series of thoughts expressing a wish or a desire concerning reality. All thinking is limited. It can only indicate the absolute. Thought itself is not absolute. Attributing magical power to thought in the form of belief is the primary manifestation of what I call the error of misplaced absoluteness.

I may believe that God is so-and-so or such-and-such. I may believe any number of stories handed down about God, or people that were God, or spoke for God, or in the case of Eastern traditions, perfect masters and gurus and so forth. No matter what I believe, my limited nature as a human being has not changed. Furthermore, the power of my beliefs to cause beneficial or good actions, actions desirable for humanity or even just for myself, is limited by time and place. They are merely motivating thoughts, that compete with all the other components of my character—habit, desire, unconscious tendencies, inherited or acquired capacities—in determining my actions and the psychic modes of my experience. History has shown time and again that beliefs are ineffective in causing the kinds of changes in the human personality that are claimed for them. Believers in a humble savior of love and forgiveness still went ahead and practiced slavery, torture, and war, and justified it on religious grounds. Believers in the righteousness of the one God (Islam) still perpetrated the same crimes on their fellow man as those who believed in multiple gods without righteousness. Buddhism and the other eastern religions stood by while the social order violated every tenet of the faith that it supposedly supported.

Why? I think that people instinctively realize that the notion of belief making something true is an error. But they refuse to admit it to themselves because of a second primal error: Common belief is necessary for society to survive. Belief became a tool for the maintenance of power and authority. The state and its religion, originally identical, was founded on the perceived necessity of enforced common belief. Physical force ultimately fails unless society also coheres through belief.

The power principle failed, and continues to fail. War, injustice, cruelty, and greed continue to hold sway despite the patina of religious belief. Since the 17th century, society has been battling over what to do about it. Believing something is merely a mental operation—it is not transformative. Forcing people to believe something is even less successful. What kind of inward belief can be compelled by a sword or a gun? The slave will of course bow down because he has to, but to call this religion is nothing more than massive self-deception. And this lie, this compounded falsehood of the centuries, is what we now commonly call religion.

There is a secret that is concealed in religious history. It is only a secret as long as one focuses on beliefs and all the particulars of belief. This is the truth of the mystics, the truth of union. In the eastern traditions, it is the truth of enlightenment, non-duality, realization. As soon as you turn it into a belief, it becomes limited like every other thought. One must see through all beliefs, see them as essentially limited human constructs, without lasting force or significance, in order to understand reality. It takes some bravery to do this, because it essentially places one outside the accepted religious structure, outside the political structure, outside the social order. That is why it has continually been forced to hide, prevaricate, and compromise itself throughout history—because it threatens the basic illusion that we need common belief in order to survive. The power principle is driving us to the abyss, and like lemmings we are encouraged to go off the cliff by absolutist thinking, i.e., deluded thinking, whether it is through religious fundamentalism, sociopolitical ideology, or combinations thereof.

All religious beliefs are misguided metaphors for the self. The self seeks liberation from its ignorance and delusion. Beliefs are sold to us as a way of release, but they only chain us more securely in bondage. The transformation we need comes from experience itself, qua experience. Spirituality is not the acquisition of beliefs, but the shedding of them, the penetration of them all as conditioned. Then the source of all thought, all experience, may become evident. That is what humility really is. At that source, there is no religion, no doctrine, nothing to fight over, nothing to separate me from you. There is no more belief, only knowledge.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Official Resolution Concerning Our Predicament

For the first time, the dead are outnumbered by the living. If they could reflect, Charlemagne, Columbus, General Custer, and the rest of them, might understand what a mess they’ve made. The dead at least have learned humility, albeit too late for amendment.

Learned scholars mourn the end of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, lost forever and too early. Yes, these classics would eventually disappear with the implosion of our star, five billion years from now. But damn it, this is too soon.

Probability experts say that life on other worlds is a certainty. Small consolation to us that the Zoozongs are enjoying Glickgluck on the planet Klang. Who knows if they even have poetry or if all they read are cheap Kag VaWamach stories. It could be very boring there.

Time was, we could tend our little garden with Candide, and let the maniacs have at it. Out of sight, out of mind. But then they muscled into the gardening business and we got frozen food. Then came frozen sex. Before long, Walt Disney was frozen solid, for our own protection, and in the hopes of resurrection, when Walt would wake to the shattered pestilent landscape and horrified, seek means of ending it, this time for good. A scream is a wish your heart makes.

Most of us just wanted to be left alone, to enjoy what there was. Most of us cared not for structured asset-backed securities, nor did we fondly dream of multi-mission mobile processors. What little ambition we had, for home and hearth, children playing on the lawn, was usurped by ravenous, conniving, global grab-ass grandiosity-mongers who had had a few too many drinks at the club.

No, I’m not in the mood for fireworks. No, I will not sign the cooperative spectatorship agreement. No, I don’t think it was all worth it. I do not accept coupons.

The Nietzschean Uberman, I am sorry to report, got lost on the Cross-Bronx Expressway. He ain’t comin’. The meek have inherited the earth, and being meek, we don’t know what to do. It’s just us left here alone, the faint-hearted, the knock-kneed, barely able to raise our arms in salute—hail shepherd, lead us back to the pen! We’ve had all the history we can stand.

The dead do not laugh any more. They do not look upon us. We outnumber them now, and there’s no telling what could happen. Here is what I say. Mr. Chairman, my proposal is as follows. We must settle. All hostages must be released immediately, and the weather report submitted for arbitration. There is no shame in surrender. You may return home with your swords, uniforms, and the remainder of whatever pay is owed you. Put your little medals on the mantle and brag all you want to your grandchildren, if you still have any. Just go. Stop everything. Let silence be our treaty.