Monday, September 15, 2014

The Great Mystery

In Vol. 19 of The North American Indians, Edward Curtis writes: “there is a tendency, both by observers and the Indians themselves, to translate Wakónda (Wákan-tanka) as ‘Great Spirit.’ Such a translation is not borne out by the primitive use of the word nor by Siouan thought. The translation should be ‘Great Mys­tery.’ Without putting it in words, Siouan philosophy says, ‘We know not what it is, but we do know that it is.’”

I would suggest that the world would be a far better place if people everywhere, when speaking of “God,” “The Great Spirit,” “Tao” (or whatever other word they might use to refer to that which is the ultimate source of the world, of life, and of our selves) were to recognize and admit that “We know not what it is, but we do know that it is.”

The poet W. B. Yeats wrote in the Second Coming, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”  The Siouan philosophy forms a wonderful middle ground between these extremes.  It has great conviction that this ultimate source exists -- it is not agnostic in the least -- but it also recognizes that IT is a mystery, IT’s what we don’t know.  What could be more absurd that being passionately dogmatic about a mystery?

I have to wonder if the reason people get so passionate about their religious beliefs, is that it gives them the right to feel exclusive, that “I have the truth and you don’t.”  Such spiritual egotism is the opposite of a genuine spirituality.  If the Dakota tribes really adhered to an approach to God as Curtis suggests, they were spiritually superior to the average Christian (or Jew or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Credo of an Organization to Which I'd Like to Belong

We seek knowledge, but know that we don’t know.

We seek wisdom, but recognize our foolishness.

We seek to be generous and loving, but recognize we are often selfish and resentful.

Knowing all this should make us forgiving, but we fail at that too.

We try to do our best and try to find beauty and joy in our brief sojourn on this remarkable earth, and sometime we succeed wonderfully.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Marriage of Spirit and Soul

In his book Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, Titus Burkhardt writes of the chemical marriage: the marriage of gold and silver, which is symbolic of the integration and harmonization of one’s spirit and soul.  In the mythic language of alchemy, the spirit is characterized as male and associated with the sun and gold, while the soul is characterized as female and associated with the moon and silver.   In this alchemical ideal of the marriage of spirit and soul, the spirit descends to the soul and the soul rises to the spirit. 

Exactly what the alchemists meant by “spirit” and “soul” is not completely clear; a defensible interpretation is that by “spirit” the alchemist refers to that aspect of our being that articulates with words, plans and sets goals, makes judgments – the part of our being that we call upon for self-governance, that we deem as the seat of reason and rationality.  By soul, the alchemist refers to all the other aspects of our being including appetites, emotions, and the place of dreams and imagination.  In modern neurological terms, the spirit would be associated with the neo-cortex and the frontal lobes in particular, while the soul would be situated in the much older, in evolutionary terms, limbic system and brain stem.

The notion that the spirit should descend to the soul is quite foreign to Western spirituality.  Generally, in the Western tradition, the role of spirit is to ascend.  The spiritual realm is upward, celestial.  The spirit governs the being, not through cultivating the ascent (and assent) of the soul, but by the repression of body and soul.  Self-control and control of one’s appetites, emotions, and thoughts are the spiritual goal, and complete control the spiritual ideal, in much of Western spirituality (and also in the so-called Aryan influenced aspects of the spirituality of India).  Spiritual asceticism becomes a method of attaining this ideal.  There are writings in these traditions that speak of the tremendous embarrassment felt by males in having a spontaneous erection – the ideal of complete control demanded the control of even that.

The notion of the chemical marriage is quite similar to the integration of yang and yin in Taoism.  Taoism, which has many similarities to alchemy, poses as a spiritual ideal not the peaks, but rather the valley.  Lao Tse writes of the “Valley Spirit,” and posits a spiritual ideal not of upward rising tongues of fire, but the downward flowing of water.  For the Taoist, that which rises will inevitably descend.  In the ascent of the mountain, spirit seeks to leave the mess and chaos (that is so characteristic of the soul) behind.  The Valley, on the other hands, collects everything into itself.  The waters from the turbulent mountain cascades are roiled and muddied.  Taoist contemplation does not seek to wrest spiritual clarity from out these turbid waters, but simply to come to a quietness wherein the waters of themselves become calm and clear.  Then the clear waters will mirror the peaks.

A prominent Western myth is that of St. George and the dragon.  In alchemy, the soul is often associated with reptiles, and such reptiles as the snakes that wind in the Caduceus of Hermes and the dragon in China are favorable creatures.  Whereas in much Western spirituality the spiritual goal is to kill the dragon, in the alchemical and Taoist systems, the ideal is cultivate the dragon, which is to say, to cultivate the soul.*
The soul is the realm of Eros, to bring yet another mythic system into the discussion.  Eros brings great pleasure, but also great turmoil to our life.  For one who seeks self-control above all else, Eros is a bit of a snake in the grass.  For one obsessed by such self-control, Eros is a dragon.  For one who seeks to cultivate the soul, Eros is much as the myths portrayed him/her, a lovely but troublesome part of our being -- a bringer of pleasure and depth, but also of turmoil and obsession. 

It is in relation to sexuality that Western spirituality, and particularly Christian spirituality, seems rather badly to fail.  That a significant portion or the Catholic priesthood, who have vowed themselves to chastity, are found guilty of rather perverse sexuality, may well be viewed by that priesthood as just further evidence of what a horrid and powerful dragon they are fighting, but from the alchemical point of view (and the Freudian), it is simply a mistake.  While Eros, and the soul as a whole, is complex and troublesome, nothing in the soul is intrinsically bad – there is no weed in the garden of the soul that does not have a proper place and role within that garden.  And a weed in its proper place is not a weed at all, it is a flower.

And here we return to a metaphor suggested earlier -- the soul as garden and the spirit as gardener.  The spirit descends to the soul and cultivates it -- finds the proper place for each aspect of the soul to flourish.  A flourishing soul is a fulfilled soul, a deeply content soul.  A content soul fills the spirit with joy.  And this is the reward and value of this form of spirituality – soulful contentment and spiritual joy.

*  Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, is the title of a book by Thomas More.  More’s writing is deeply influenced by the psychologist James Hillman.  Hillman has waged something of a one-man crusade to bring our restless spirits back to the soul, gaining allies like More, the poet Robert Bly, and Phil Cousineau along the way.  Cousineau’s book Soul: Readings from Socrates to Ray Charles is a particularly informative and enjoyable exploration of the soul’s realm.  Hillman was influenced by Jung, who was highly influenced by alchemy.  Paganism, nature religions, and religions of the Goddess also in their various ways work for the re-integration of spirit and soul.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Re-imagining Naturalism

(The piece below is a response to an article on the Spirtual Naturalism site.  The article can be found at

My undergraduate degree is in anthropology, which perhaps gives me just enough knowledge to be dangerous.  From that limited understanding, I would suggest that people have always been primarily naturalistic, at least in the most general sense of that term: that there is an orderly progression of cause and effect.  At the same time, people have always perceived the world through a filter of imagination, in the most general sense of that term – mythological, ideological, or metaphysics world views. 

Modern naturalism has included a somewhat systematic attempt to decoct what it considers to be the real world from the elements that the imagination brings to that world.  It has tried to present a picture of the world cleansed of the mythological, ideological and metaphysical, and this would be alien to most earlier people.

To some extent the scientific enterprise (the main methodology of naturalism) has succeeded in this decocting (though I personally believe science is much more fraught with myth, ideology and metaphysics than is generally supposed).  And I think in doing so it has also succeeded in devaluing the imagination.  This, I think, is unfortunate.

The human imagination provides us a tool for looking at the world and seeing what is not there.  Long ago some human or group of humans looked out on the Saharan Desert in Egypt and imagined a pyramid where in reality there was only the blowing desert sand.  They then initiated the effort of making the imaginative vision into a reality.  These Egyptian pyramid makers understood only a tiny fraction of modern science and mathematics, but this did not prevent them from making the physical world dance to their imaginations.  This story can be repeated across the globe and the ages – Angkor Wat, the Parthenon, Chartres, the Empire State Building.  The human imagination, for better or worse, has transformed the surface of the earth.  

The other side of seeing what is not there is that we imagine unreal causes of real effects, like imagining an angry god as the cause of a drought or a deluge; and project unreal effects on real causes, such as certain behavior deemed impious causing gods to become angry and inflicting drought or deluge.  We also come to fear things that are not there – such abstract fear, anxiety, is practically epidemic in the modern age.  (Perhaps one of the reasons there is still such a large number of faith healers of various sorts is that imaginary methods can be effective against the large array of imaginary fears and illnesses.)

In devaluing imagination, naturalism perhaps has paid too little attention to the creative side of the imagination.  Naturalistic reality is a rather bare, meaningless phenomenon.  Why wouldn’t we want to dress it in myths?  Why wouldn’t we want to organize it with a meaningful metaphysics?  The challenge for a healthy naturalism should not be diminishing imagination and its products, but learning to appreciate it for what it is.  This includes not mistaking the imaginative and the real – taking metaphors as metaphors, myths as myths, but not taking either literally.  

In seeking a “spiritual naturalism” I suspect that one of the things we are seeking is a re-integration of imagination and reason.  Reason has proven to be a very powerful tool in manipulating the external world.  Note that whether we are talking about building a pyramid or putting a person on the moon, we start with imaging these possibilities and then call in reason to help us actualize the imaginative vision.  This, I believe is the proper relationship of imagination and reason – imagination should lead and reason be the servant.  Unimaginative reasoning leads to barrenness of soul.

Imagination is also the tool, and the only tool, that can navigate our inner experience.  This is the key to the poetic function of any art -- to explore experience and then pull from that exploration deeper meanings and articulate those meanings in extended metaphors.  Such productive contemplation of experience is one of the highest elements of any spirituality.  Unfortunately, it seems that people are increasingly alienated from their inner experience, and thus unable to make blossom the meanings of the great spiritual metaphors that have been handed down to us.

I suspect that those early hunter/gatherers who created the great cave paintings that still impress us today were not alienated from their inner experience.  Compared to those primitives we may be giants in the exploitation of the earth’s resources, but we may be but pygmies in the creative marshaling of our inner resources.  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Random Walk?

In his book Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould presented the idea that the appearance of progress in evolution can be explained as “a random walk.”  According to Gould, in evolution there is a left bound, a minimum at zero complexity, but no right bound on complexity.  Evolution thus has only one direction to move in, and that is toward greater complexity over time.  There is no need to posit an direction of increased complexity or progress, only a random process, which leads to increased complexity because it can’t really lead to anything else. 

While the idea that evolution is a random walk certainly is reasonable, I find at least one reason to question it.  Here is the reason.  If we accept some form of the big bang theory, then our universe starts off in a highly disorganized state.  Yet several billion years later, when the first life appears on earth, the universe has become organized into stable galaxies and planetary systems.  Just how to account for this increase in cosmic organization is a rather contentious issue, but I don’t see any way that “a random walk” describes this process.

Further, at a certain point in the history of evolution, we find one species, the human, who starts to organize his world.  Over a few hundred thousand years, we find this creature going from organizing simple shelters to creating such highly organized entities as the Library of Congress, the I-Pod, and the space program.  Again, how to account for this massive increase in organized complexity is rather contentious, yet again, it cannot be accounted for by a random walk.

So the question arises, if what happens between the big bang and the rise of life on earth seems to have a direction of progress, and the development of human learning and technology clearly has a direction of progress, should we feel so confident that evolution, which lies between these two, lacks a direction of progress? 

There is a lot of talk about a theory of everything in physics, but one thing seems clear to me – such a theory of everything won’t actually explain much of anything outside the realm of physics.  I would like to predict here that somewhere in the future there will be another kind of theory of everything that will actually explain a good deal more.  This theory will be a theory of organization – a theory that comprehensively accounts for how the universe self organizes and in the process of self organizing generates new forms of organization, such as the algorithmic organization by which genes produce organisms and ideas create buildings and machines.  Darwinian Evolution will be a part of this larger theory, rather than a theory somewhat isolated from the other forms of development and organization occurring in the universe.

Friday, March 28, 2014

We Are Stardust?

As much as I like the music of Joni Mitchell, the fact that I am made of stardust makes no emotional impact on me.  But in the spirit of that oh-so reasonable one, Mr. Spock, I do find certain things about that fact interesting. First, the fact that the universe has stars at all strikes me as very curious.  Amongst the many things required for a star to exists, one is that the ratio of the strength of gravity to the strength of the electromagnetic force has to be roughly in the proportion that it is -- the electromagnetic force is roughly 38 magnitudes stronger than gravity.  Thirty-eight magnitudes is a huge number – something in the order of the number of atoms in the planet earth.  Of all the proportions available to nature, that it should have that particular one is certainly interesting.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is what happens after you gather enough gravity together to overwhelm the electromagnetic force.  New elements are forged, and huge quantities of energy are released via E=MC2.  But for new elements to be forged, there must be available another force strong enough to overcome the relatively powerful repulsion that protons feel for one another. The strong nuclear force, which is roughly 137 times more powerful than the electromagnetic force, allows this, and allows nature to develop about 90 stable elements. 

What use the universe has for so many elements is any body’s guess, but without a rich diversity of elements, we wouldn’t be here.  Being so powerfully attractive, you would think the strong nuclear force would pull everything together in one big lump.  But despite its great strength, the range of that strength drops off steeply, so steeply that it is not felt beyond the atomic nucleus.  Could a force be designed with more perfect specifications for the task of creating a multitude of different kinds of elements?  That, of course, is a terribly unscientific way to frame the question.  Nonetheless, I think it is just the kind of question that a curious person might be inclined to ask.

Our universe seems to have been born (if one can be permitted poetic language here) with the proportions of its forces already set – we might even think these forces are something of an analog to the genes that guide the development of an embryo into a fully realized creature.  Why these proportions?  There are many theories (though I don’t believe any of them are either falsifiable or provable). 

One such theory that currently is popular is the idea of infinite inflation.  To give the briefest sketch of the theory, it posits that the so-called big bang and ensuing period of inflation that created our universe is just one of countless such periods of universe creation.  Most such periods result in a sterile univerese, but by the sheer force of numbers, some of them have what it takes to create interesting universes and even beings that find such universes interesting.

Note that this theory (and I believe all such theories that involve a multiverse) requires an infinitely potent entity, the multiverse, to create an infinite quantity of universes.  Consequently, the multiverse must not be subject to entropy, indeed must be dis-entropic.  But if it is, than we simply cannot assume it is naturalistic in any sense we understand that term, for entropy is absolutely core to our own understanding of nature.  How the multiverse operates is beyond anything we currently can understand.  It is pure mystery.

Now I find all this very interesting, and I do not draw any conclusions from it.  But it does strike me that an omni-potent multiverse has something of the characteristic of a God.    I might even say that when it comes to the great mystery of the source of it all, theism and atheism have about equal status, which is to say they both purport to say more than a reasonable person ought to say. 

So I'll leave the rest to silence...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Desire and the Contemplative Life (or the Marketer’s Worst Nightmare)

It is natural to desire and civilized to repress desire, at least some of the time.  The question is, and it is a central question of morality and ethics, which desires to express or repress and how much so?  A culture provides a provisional answer to this question in the form of laws.  We may desire to do bodily harm or take possessions from another, but the law may dictate serious consequence for any who give in to these desires.  

Religions and quasi-religious systems have proposed moral codes that are often quite different from the law, generally more restrictive concerning which desires we are encouraged to give into and which we are encouraged to repress.   At the most extreme, we find a religious philosophy like Buddhism that sets as its ideal the cessation of all desire.

Religions, often but not always, posit consequences of our actions here on earth in some form of afterlife or reincarnation.  Their moral codes, the system of “oughts” and “ought-nots,” generally do not make complete sense without reference to that specific notion of an afterlife.  Thus the moral clarity that a religion can provide requires faith, and many of us can see no clear reason for such faith.  For a person who does not believe in an afterlife, there really is no clear or authoritative directive as to which desires ought and out-not be pursued.  For such a person, how our desires affect the quality of our life in this life or the life of those we care about, is much more central. 

There is a general idea, derived from the philosopher David Hume, that you cannot go from an “is” to and “ought.”  This is not really correct.  Within a goal directed context, it makes perfect sense to go from “is” to “ought.”  Thus, if your goal is X and Y is necessary to achieve X, then it follows that you ought to do Y.  But to the question, “What ought to be the ultimate goal of my life?” there are no facts that lead to a clear answer. 

Most people probably give little thought to the question of the ultimate goal of their life.  A society provides a set of standard aims and ambitions, and most people simply grow into one of those normal roles.  Wealth, status, love and friendship, raising a family, pleasure and security are among the accepted aims of most secular societies, and most people aim to maximize some or all of these.  Each of these aims defines a certain set of oughts and ought-nots.  For instance, the pursuit of wealth requires a certain kind of prudence: the repression of the desire to have and enjoy now for the expectation of having more and being able to enjoy more in the future.  Even the exclusive pursuit of pleasure requires some consideration about the consequences of giving in too completely, such as the negative consequences of having too much to drink.

While the normal goods, and the societal forms through which we channel our desires to attain these goods, are enough for most people in most societies, we may raise the question whether any of these goals, individually or in combination, provide the best or highest quality of life? There is no clear answer to this question, but there is the testimony of various thinkers, artists, mystics through the ages that suggest that they are not.

The philosopher Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, suggests that eudaimonia is the goal of most people.  (Eudaimonia is often translated as “happiness,” but I would suggest that the term is closer to well-being.)  He also states that intellectual contemplation is the highest form of happiness.  This idea is rather alien to modern Western society, but it was a highly respected ideal in the West for nearly 2,000 years.  A contemplative ideal has had an even greater standing and longevity in India and other parts of the Orient.

Contemplation is a focusing of one’s awareness and attention on some object, idea or experience.  Such a focusing requires the quieting of natural desires (deepening contemplation requires the virtual cessation of such desires).  Desire makes us aware of something we lack and points us toward objects that we believe at some level will fill that lack.  In a state of desire, we are not content with where we are and we are impelled to move (mentally, physically or both) elsewhere.  In contemplation we can feel deeply content with where we are and what we are doing.  We are content – not in the sense that someone who has just satisfied a desire (say eating a bowl of ice cream), but content with the very nature of our being.  During contemplation the contemplative needs nothing but contemplation to be perfectly content.  The seated Buddha is the image of such contentment.

It is not my intention to conclude that Aristotle or Buddha is correct about what leads to happiness or contentment.  If I have anything to conclude it is that each person has to figure out his or her own goals and ways to achieve those goals.  Further, I would not wish to conclude that because some way is good, more and more of that way is better and better.  Life is a dynamic affair; why not have multiple goals?  I do wish to suggest, though, that though the contemplative life is no longer one of the standard norms of our society, those old masters where not incorrect about it.  Its rewards are wonderful, and you really do not have to pay a penny for them – contemplation provides joy for free. 

Back in the sixties, people would speak of “an alternative lifestyle,” which meant an alternative to the market based lifestyle.  Now the term is used by marketers to sell an array of products that help define one of the many so-called lifestyles.  The market needs consumers, people who desire.  Contemplation offers an alternative to being a consumer.  A person who has learned to find deep inner happiness without having to pay a penny for it is the marketer’s worst nightmare.