Optimism & Hope: A Few Thoughts

My article on the myth of progress in spirituality which ran yesterday on People of Shambhala was, happily, met with mostly positive reception. A friendly acquaintance of mine did take me to task, however, on one point which he sees as a critical oversight: hope.

To summarize, the article itself is intended to briefly debunk the notion of a “new golden age” and its attendant assumptions of a global awakening or collective enlightenment. My friend took this to be a pessimistic position, and asked where hope comes into the picture. I will take my departure here, for this is an important topic.

The Buddha taught that hope is just a pleasant delusion. As with many of the Buddha’s teachings, its simplicity needs to be unpacked. Merriam-Webster defines hope thus: “to want something to happen or be true and think that it could happen or be true”. There are two clauses here, if either one of which is reduced we have lost hope. We must not only want a thing to be, we must also believe that it could be. Hope is a marriage of desire and belief. Those of us with much experience in mysticism or magic of any genuine sort must take both elements quite seriously and be on our guard about them.

Desire is powerful. There is nothing inherently wrong with desire, of course. Without it, we would not even have the basic impulse toward life, let alone spiritual life. If we had no desire at all, we could at best be automatons which continue to exist merely as a matter of course. But we live because we desire. We feel impelled to thus and so, whether it be food and drink to keep our bodies in working order, or the deepest states of experiential knowledge, desire is that impulse. Some may prefer to call it “will”, and that word certainly applies, but only once we have achieved a degree of conscious awareness and control over our desires. In whatever form, desire is there.

This very power to press us on toward liberation is what makes desire dangerous. In certain phases of development, often referred to as “involutionary”, our desires are entirely outside of our conscious control. They compel rather than impel. But once we have achieved a degree of self-awareness, which some identify as the point of taking human birth, we are on the upward swing of our parabola which is the “evolutionary” side of life. If we fail, however, to make the transition from involution to evolution, usually by a lack of the self-awareness from which self-control grows, our desires remain sub- or semi-conscious and will subvert our budding will at every turn.

The second variable in our definition of hope is belief. Belief, at base, is thinking and feeling that a thing is so. It is less basic than perception, but more basic than knowledge. Belief, we could say, is the mental lense through which perceptions must pass the reach the conscious mind. Like desire, belief is an essential tool for living life. We cannot go without expectations or presumptions of any sort. The trick is, again, to have the self-awareness to develop more accurate and robust belief systems which permit the freer flow of perceived or experienced data and, so, the more reliable formation of knowledge. (For simplicity, we can define knowledge as “justified belief”, or a belief (a) which one holds, (b) which one is justified by evidence or experience in holding, and (c) which corresponds more or less with reality.) From this brief exploration alone, it is plain to see how belief can be necessary, but also how it can go awry. When you thus put belief and desire together, the combination can be likened to an explosive strapped to one’s chest—and may well result in strapping explosives to one’s chest in a tragically more literal sense.

On a prosaic level, there is nothing at all wrong with hope. I have both the desire for, and belief in the strong possibility of, a visit with my family on Christmas day. My desire may be frustrated if the plan is short-circuited by unavoidable difficulties, or my beliefs may be disappointed if I believe Christmas to be on a Friday rather than a Thursday, but there’s certainly little enough harm in harboring that particular hope. Even if we outsized one or the other of these two elements, the whole structure might remain more or less harmless on its own. Perhaps I believe that extraterrestrials are waiting, cloaked of course, just outside of our atmosphere in order to save us from ourselves once things on Earth become too bad; I’m almost certainly wrong, of course, and not justified in this belief in any case, but it’s really not so big a problem if I am only lukewarm on the prospect (say, because I think we could still well save ourselves, so things may never need to get bad enough for my alien friends to intervene). Or, to reverse the equation, maybe I’m quite passionate about my love for the idea of extraterrestrials, but I’m not at all convinced that they exist or that we would ever come into contact with them if they did. This desire-without-belief could be as simple as Star Trek enthusiasm. Again, relatively harmless.

But if the scale of both the desire and the belief increase significantly, we have another story entirely. The Heaven’s Gate cult, famous for their mass suicide in 1997, is a good example of what might happen with an overabundance of hope in extraterrestrials, where human desire and belief came together with a punishing strength.

This all ties in very directly with notion of a “global consciousness shift”, “mass awakening”, or what have you. A desire that this should occur is fine; it just means that I’ve got human sympathy and would be quite happy to see everything suddenly improve across the globe. A belief that this is impending, however, is not justified. So it is a nice thought, and that is all. If I allow my belief in such a possibility to get beyond its own limitations, the whole structure becomes an obstacle for me. I may begin to focus more upon “the shift” than upon the dirty grind of increasing my self-awareness, improving my self-discipline, and generally using them to become a better, more illuminated individual.

If I feel any firm hope in anything at all, then, it is in the basic capacity of the individual: that one may learn and grow and become better, whether or not the whole mass of other individuals follow suit or not. My belief is justified, as I have experienced it happening in myself and seen it in some of those around me. And my desire is strong, because the whole world needs each one of us to take responsibility for it, for one another, and for ourselves.

An Open Letter to People

Dear Everybody,

For a lot of people I know, today’s shootings in a Connecticut elementary school are, cumulatively, one more reason not to trust humanity or see the good in people. Believe me, I understand. Just last night, a friend and I were watching a documentary on Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, and it was not easy to stay calm about an event nearly twenty years past. And if one follows the news, there are numerous stories which can make us sad, angry, and confused. How do people do these things? How does society — that is to say, us — allow them to happen?

I will not, however, allow my faith to be shaken. We cannot forget the countless acts of good and compassionate people, large and small of scale, going on all the time. We cannot allow our hearts to harden at the sight of blood, but instead let our hearts be softened by the hurt of others.

Of course, for the moment, maybe it is enough to remember those who have lost from this event, and remember those in our lives whom we love. But when you go back out into the world tomorrow, or after your weekend of holding your loved ones tightly, do so with all of the caring you can. Violence is not fought by violence, but increased by it; violence is only defeated by peace and trust in what is good in us. So, I’ll see you out there. Say hello. We’re all in this together.

Aum Peace Peace Peace

Solipsism & Its Remedy

Those with only an outsider’s interpretation of Hinduism often assert — or, depending on one’s own worldview, accuse — Hindu metaphysics of being purely solipsistic in the Western sense. Both academic theologians and New Age followers make this case, though for different purposes.

Solipsism, to be clear, is the idea that nothing exists (or, at least, nothing can be proven to exist) other than or outside of the self. The barrier to interpretation is on that last term: the self. In our common parlance, as well as in most American and European philosophical, religious, and psychological schools, “self” refers exclusively to the ego — that ersatz entity which claims independent existence and ownership in the face of all evidence. Hindu philosophy, however, has separate words for these things allowing for greater precision in discussion. What we translate as “self” (slightly more adequately as “Self”, or by Paul Brunton’s “Overself”) is the Sanskrit term ātman. (For those who are curious, the term for ego is ahaṁkāra, or “I-am act”.) Ātman is not the personal self, nor even the impersonal intellect, but is the transpersonal Consciousness at the root of all phenomena, at once the individual Spiritual Monad and the unitary Oversoul. It is not at all proper, therefore, to compare ātman and ego, let alone to equate them.

And, yet, because of this basic misapprehension, most Western philosophy students and seminarians are given the impression that Hinduism claims the godhood (or even godhead) of the individual person. (See, for instance, the idiocy concerning Buddhism and Hinduism perpetuated in Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ, a trivial little text which insults Christianity no less than any other religion.)  Worse than this are those spiritual seekers who misunderstand these teachings (usually by way of equally misinformed popular writers and teachers) and conclude potentially dangerous and often immoral interpretations of them.

An example of the problem involved is the extremely common belief among relatively comfortable Americans that we each create our own individual reality by our thoughts and beliefs, an implication of the idea that the universe is a construct of individual minds. This is used to justify everything from conspicuous consumption to failure to give to those in need, citing a misapplied “karmic” reason for the fortune or misfortune of others. I have even heard it said that Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, remarked that if copies of her book were given to starving African villagers (presuming, I suppose, that they could read it), all of their worldly problems could be solved! I do not know the source of this story, and it may be inaccurate, but it is hardly outside the realm of this mode of thinking. One individual involved with an obviously fraudulent world-wide pseudo-Hindu New Age cult (with a membership roster boasting none other than feel-good motivational hukster Tony Robbins), once told me personally that Hitler did the world a good turn by intentionally taking on the whole planet’s bad karma by way of his actions. In other words, his killing of millions of people in cold blood — let alone the millions more who died because of him in war — was a sacrificial act of himself to help the rest of us, including the people he murdered! So much for divine grace, I suppose, when we’re all spiritually dependent on Hitler! Distance from atrocity in either time or space makes these interpretations of events extremely convenient in denying that any of us is — or could be — responsible for the well being of anybody else.

Just as awful as the moral implications of this sort of egotistical solipsism are the intellectual ramifications. If the outside world may as well not exist at all, if all things are the result of one’s own beliefs and fancies, or if (more charitably) reality is so malleable to the human mind as to have no meaningful attributes at all, there is really nothing to be learned from or about anyone or anything outside one’s own sentimental inner ramblings and errant whims. Not only do science and engineering go out the window — despite the luxury they provide to the spiritual hedonists under discussion — but so goes all philosophical and spiritual speculation; after all, what need is there for metaphysics if physics is denied its place already?

The remedy to this dangerous nonsense is twofold. First, we have the common philosophical gambit of pointing out that any belief not given expression in behavior is no belief at all, but empty rhetorical fumbling. If these hedonic solipsists were fully convinced of their ideas, they would be required by gravity to belief that Hitler’s and Stalin’s pogroms were unimportant, just dramatic but trivial phantasmagoria.

Second is the true perspective of Tradition: Nondual Realism. Far from the meaningless illusion of Western monist-idealism, the Hindu Ṛishis — in solidarity with the Buddha, Jewish kabbalists, Lao-tze, and others — recognize the reality of the material world, and of our place within it. What distinguishes them from monist-materialists is their understanding that, from an earthly perspective, there are degrees of reality (or, more precisely, degrees of our awareness of Reality), and, consequently, the material universe is real only in relativity to what we may tentatively call Divine Attention. In this connection, it is interesting that some kabbalists teach that if God were to look away for even an instant, the universe would dissolve into nonexistence. And, yet, so long as God’s gaze remains, this whole vast cosmic system is quite real enough. To be blunt, no matter how hard we think that solid matter is illusory, we still cross the street with caution!

Yoga is sometimes called dualistic because it seeks to transcend physical existence. This is a misunderstanding. If there were not a pre-existing and eternal unity of the individual soul with the Oversoul of Paraśiva, no artificial unity would be possible regardless of our efforts. In reverse, there could be no being or consciousness in the individual soul if it were not rooted in the Being and Consciousness of the Absolute. The same holds true for the material world: it exists insofar as God imparts it with His attribute (to use unfortunately necessary imprecise language) of Being. From a certain angle, we could then see the world as a grand illusion or play, but with the same interpretation and a different angle, we can see the same world as solid and important; both are true. Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi “said that [the world] is unreal if viewed as apart from the Self and real if viewed as the Self.” (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 516) In Saivite terms, “‘Recognition’ says that Śakti (power) is coeval with Śiva. The one does not exist without the other. Śiva is unmanifest, whereas Śakti is manifest on account of Her independent will, swatantra. Her manifestation is the display of the cosmos on pure consciousness, like images in a mirror.” (Talks, 288) In short, the world is real if viewed as one with the Whole, but utterly unreal is taken as independent. Such is Hindu Nondual Realism.

Karma is a reality, but it is neither unbreakable destiny — as the philosophers and theologians see it — nor is it an excuse to smugly enjoy success while ignoring the suffering of others. Similarly, for as much as our beliefs and attitudes can and do influence our individual experience of life, this is not the effortless influence of some all-powerful personal magnetism. Reality is what it is, and the universe has a great deal to teach us. We can only learn the greatest lessons, though, if we first acknowledge that there are lessons to learn in the first place, and that it is only our unselfish engaged interdependence which makes wisdom accessible. Worship the ego and live in the darkness of self-sustaining ignorance. Worship the Reality and watch as the Universe opens up to you like a morning glory at first light.

Aum Namaḥ Śivaya


Israel, Palestine, and Violence

In my former blog, I kept politics largely to myself, the only exceptions rarely involving declarations of my own positions on particularly controversial issues (homosexuality notwithstanding). I have changed my policy for Peace Profound. I have concluded that society and politics cannot be separated from religion and spirituality, at least within the individual. That is to say, most political and social issues are, in fact, moral issues and require the same profound level of thought and attention which we owe to our spiritual lives. So, I will be occasionally presenting my own remarks on somewhat controversial issues here on Peace Profound. I welcome civil comments and responses, though be warned that shaming, name-calling, and the like, will absolutely not be tolerated in the comments of this blog.

I see many people trying to defend Israel’s assault in Gaza, shaming anybody who dares to criticize Israeli brutality as “hypocrisy” for not having spoken out against Palestinian violence against Israel. Let it be known that most of us who criticize Israel do so not because we want Palestinians to have carte blanche for terrorism. No, many of us are as upset by violence stemming from one “side” as from another.

I do not apologize for failing to recognize the value of brutal torture. I do not apologize for becoming angry each time I see a photo of a civilian “casualty”. And I do not apologize for the heartbreak I feel each time a parent loses a child needlessly. These are the fruits of war, and it ought not to require a person to be “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestine” to see the situation for what it is.

If some of us say more about Israel’s violence than about that of Palestinians, it is not because we approve of violence coming from one direction and not the other, but because we recognize bullying when we see it. It feels almost cheap to call it bullying, as “bullying” is too trivial a term, but insofar as a bully is a person in power who uses that power to assert damaging superiority over another, that is what it is. So do not think that I feel any shame for turning Israel’s actions about in my head and finding them wanting.

My words will surely have no effect at all upon this sadly ongoing conflict, but let us take what lessons we can. Do not doubt for a moment that peace is possible, but it cannot begin with governments. It must begin with each person who wishes to see the Kingdom of Heaven spread out over the Earth. Find the Peace Profound which is your nature; bring it into your homes; let it radiate into your community, your congregation, your school, your workplace; let it dictate all of your actions in the world. This world will never be “perfect”; that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to impel us to perfection. We are sentient agents; we are capable of choosing peace, or choosing violence. Our socio-political responsibilities no more end with voting than our spiritual lives do with passively attending a weekly service. And if either our politics or our religions lead us to supporting violence — physical or psychological — we are morally responsible for the outcome.

Aum Shantiḥ Shantiḥ Shantiḥ