Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Dysfunctional Human Ego

"The ego is not personal," writes Eckhart Tolle. It has both an individual and a collective identity. And, as dangerous and all pervasive as it is on the individual level, it is on the collective level where it is most insidious. It is collective because it affects us all, and it is insidious because it continually slips under the radar of our consciousness. Unconsciously we go about our day-to-day activity, identified with our internalized thinking, yet tuned out to the madness around us.

"Greed, selfishness, exploitation, cruelty, and violence are still all-pervasive on our planet," Tolle observes. "When you don't recognize them as individual and collective manifestations of an underlying dysfunction or mental illness, you fall into the error of personalizing them."

Watching film footage of the Nuremburg rallies and of the resultant death camps of the Holocaust can we not say that this was an example of a world gone literally mad? Yet what about the greed and corruption that nearly brought down the world financial system in 2008? Was that not also an acute attack of madness? What about the daily traffic jams that clog cities around the globe as our carbon emissions melt the polar icecaps? Yet who amongst us is not sucked into the workaday madness that surrounds us? Is our identification as employees, as townsmen, as citizens, as "haves" or "have-nots" not an extremely potent motivator of our perspectives and behaviour? Are we not all too easily enabled to block out and disregard the harms we are causing to the planet as a whole, simply by the seeming drama of our day-to-day existence?

"You construct a conceptual identity for an individual or group," Tolle points out, "and you say: "This is who he is. This is who they are." When you confuse the ego that you perceive in others with their identity, it is the work of your own ego that uses this misperception to strengthen itself through being right and therefore superior, and through reacting with condemnation indignation, and often anger against the perceived perceived enemy."

"All this is enormously satisfying to the (personal) ego," he notes. "It strengthens the sense of separation between yourself and the other whose "otherness" has become magnified to such an extent that you can no longer feel your common humanity, nor the rootedness in the one Life that you share with each being, your common divinity."

[Eckhart Tolle, "A New Earth," pp. 73-74]

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Will to Percieve a New World

Wisdom is to know that all we perceive and conceive is not necessarily wholly true, that to a large extent our perceptions and conceptions are a result of what we wish to see and think about. It is clear, then, as Aldous Huxley points out below, that what we concentrate our intelligence upon is critical to our well-being, for our thoughts and perceptions shape our world.
"Some thoughts are practically unthinkable," Huxley notes, "except in terms of an appropriate language and within the framework of an appropriate system of classification. Where these necessary instruments do not exist, the thoughts in question are not expressed and not even conceived. Nor is this all: the incentive to develop the instruments of certain kinds of thinking is not always present."

"For long periods of history and prehistory," he points out, "it would seem that men and women, though perfectly capable of doing so, did not wish to pay attention to problems which their descendants found absorbingly interesting. For example," he points out, "there is no reason to suppose that between the thirteenth century and the twentieth, the human mind underwent any kind of evolutionary change, comparable to the change, let us say, in the physical structure of the horse's foot during an incomparably longer span of geological time. What happened," he observes, "was that men turned their attention from certain aspects of reality to certain other aspects. The result, among other things, was the development of the natural sciences."

"Our perceptions and understandings are directed, in large measure, by our will," Huxley notes. "We are aware of and we think about the things which, for one reason or another, we want to see and understand. Where there's a will there is always an intellectual way. The capacities of the human mind are almost indefinitely great. Whatever we will to do, whether it be to come to the unitive knowledge of the Godhead, or to manufacture self-propelled flamethrowers - that we are able to do, provided always that the willing be sufficiently intense and sustained"
[Aldous Huxley, "The Perennial Philosophy," p. 17]
Given the atrocities of war, famine and increasing environmental crises we have witnessed in the past hundred-odd years, one can only question why our perceptions and conceptions of the world we have created remain so static. While our scientific understanding of our world has increased a thousandfold and more, our understanding of the inner man, our motivations and collective consciousness seem to have changed but little. What one asks, will it take for us to reorient our collective perceptions and conceptions? We cannot, after all, as Einstein so plainly understood, solve our current existential challenges with the same level of thinking that created them.

What, therefore, do we will? A greater understanding of ourselves and our place in the evolutionary process of the universe, or the proliferation of ever greater consumption and domination over nature? Do we wish to come to "the unitive knowledge of the Godhead" or produce ever more efficient weapons to maintain the status quo bequeathed us by the horrors of the twentieth century? One knows where Huxley, Einstein and other great thinkers would weigh in on these questions. It seems clear that they would evince a will to an ever greater understanding of man and his place in both a new world and a newfound evolving cosmos.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Allah: An Omnipresent God

"Those who adore God in the sun behold the sun, and those who adore Him in living things see a living thing, and those who adore Him in lifeless things see a lifeless thing, and those who adore Him as a Being unique and unparalleled see that which has no like. Do not attach yourself to a particular creed exclusively so that you disbelieve in all the rest; otherwise you will lose much good; nay, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, is not limited by any one creed. Wheresoever you turn, there is the face of Allah."
-- Ibn 'Arabi --
("Essential Sufism," pp. 228-229)
The beauty of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, and of which Ibn 'Arabi is an undisputed master, is its inclusiveness. Indeed, there are those Sufis who do not recognize Sufism as being, strictly speaking, a Muslim school. (In the attached video Sufi teacher, Irena Tweedie, for example, notes that Sufism predates Islam.)

There is, thus, a wide, almost-pantheistic inclusiveness within Sufism's rich multi-cultural tradition, an inclusiveness which no doubt arises from the all embracing notion of what Allah is. Ibn 'Arabi's observation, above ("Wheresoever you turn, there is the face of Allah.") is, in fact, itself a direct quote from the Koran.

Certainly the great Sufi teachers of the past have recognized the omnipresent, inneffable nature of the Divine, an omnipresence that is inherent irrespective of one's faith. As the great Sufi poet, Rumi observed:
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu,
Buddhist, sufi or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of any elements at all. I do not exist,

am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one, and that one call to and know,

first last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.


There is a way between voice and presence
where information flows.

In disciplined silence it opens.
With wandering talk it closes.

[Coleman Barks, "The Essential Rumi," p. 32.]

Monday, October 10, 2011

Emerson and Kipling: On Conformity and Self-Reliance

"What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion: it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of the solitude."

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson --
 "A man must consider what a blind-man's bluff is this game of conformity," Emerson wrote in his great essay on Self-Reliance. And if this was so in Emerson's nineteenth century New England, circumscribed as it was by local conditions and custom, by distance and distinctiveness, how much greater the challenge today when we live in a mass society assailed on all sides by messages of conformity?

Today, unlike in Emerson's age, we are met each day with a barrage of advertising on just how we should live, on just what we should consume, and just what we should aspire to. Today, perhaps more so than in any time past, we rely not on ourselves but on others to define just who and what we are. But is this not its own form of madness? Is this not an injurious game of bluff and folly as Emerson observed?

"For non-conformity," he pointed out, "the world whips you with its displeasure." Yet, is it not the person who refuses to conform - a Ghandhi, a Churchill, a Mandela, an MLK Jr. - who ultimately shapes both our ideals and our destinies? In the end, are we not all forced to be self-reliant or perish under the weight of our circumstances, seemingly misunderstood by all?

Perhaps this message is best captured by another Victorian,  Rudyard Kipling, in his immortal poem on self-reliance:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream---and not make dreams your master;
If you can think---and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings---nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son!
 "A foolish consistency is the hobgobblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines," Emerson observed. "With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words," he urged, "and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day."

"Is it so bad then," he asks, "to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood."

Friday, October 7, 2011

Viktor Frankl: Finding Meaning in Life

"When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden."
-- Viktor Frankl --
("Man's Search for Meaning")

 To the unenlightened being, the Buddha observed, life is suffering. The existential question this raises, then, is how do we find meaning in a life full of suffering?

While the Buddha found that suffering can be overcome through the spiritual awakening of enlightenment, Dr. Viktor Frankl, a psychotherapist who survived Auschwitz, found conversely that it is in embracing and overcoming suffering that one may find purpose in life.

In Frankl's view, desperation arises only when there is suffering absent meaning. So long as there is meaning in suffering - so long as man can offer something back to the world, even if it consists merely in overcoming the circumstances from which suffering arises - there need be no despair. Despair, he notes in the video interview below, arises only from suffering without meaning.

"As long as an individual cannot find any meaning in his suffering, he or she will certainly be prone to despair and, under certain conditions, suicide," Frankl points out. "But at the moment they can see a meaning in their suffering they can mould ther predicament into an accomplishment on a human level, They can turn their tragedies into a personal triumph."

"But if these people, like so many segments of present day society's population, cannot find any meaning whatoever in their suffering, (so long as they) cannot see anything meaningful," Frankl notes, "more often than not . . . they cannot find anything to live for."

"What we have to accept is the incapacity of our humanity," says Frankl, "our incapacity to understand our ultimate meaning in intellectual terms."

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Do Not Judge "Others"

"Abbot Joseph asked Abbot Pastor: Tell me how I can become a monk? The elder replied: If you want to have rest here in this life and also in the next, in every conflict with another say: Who am I? And judge no one."
 -- Thomas Merton --
("The Wisdom of the Desert")

"Judge not, lest ye be judged," we are advised (Matthew 7:1). In the spiritual life, to judge is to separate ourselves from everyone and everything, to invite the perception of duality and separation into our lives. Once we sit in judgment on another, we become our own judge. And not just our own judge, but also our own jury, jailer and hangman. Thus the wisdom of the desert father to "judge no one," lest we judge ourselves into a spiritual corner from which we cannot escape.

If we ask just who we are, irrespective of the situation we find ourselves in, we are forced to confront the question of whether we are again identified with the narrow self of the individual ego, or whether we are identified with the broader depth of our authentic Being. If we are inspired, we shall see that there really is no clear differentiation between our self and others, that we are all part of "the Kingdom of God" which is within us, and that there is no "other" to judge. Thus ask, "Who am I? And do not judge others."