The Return of the Spirit
The Return of the Spirit
COPYRIGHT © 2020 by Will Groenewegen
All rights reserved.
Printed by Asquith Press, Toronto
This’s and that’s
fragment the mind
We’re caught in this Way
for the Name
to the very last day.
In the face of the uncertain, who among us has the will? Who dares question the assumptions we make about life, and how to best live it? How many of us set sail from safe lands of custom and forge ahead into the unknown?
Out of its depths, the unfamiliar washes at the shores of our beliefs, its mystery felt with each approaching wave. If we venture in, where will it take us, other than away from what we have come to know? But what is the alternative? With how much resolve can we believe our convictions without first putting them aside and testing uncharted water?
We’ve all examined the explanations and stories of our mothers and fathers with a skeptical eye, haven’t we? Surely we’ve at least considered speeding from their truths and gods on that untamed wind, with all its vigour and courage.
But it is a fierce force, of course, the wind that drives our desire to understand - the ‘why’ that leaves our certainties ungrounded, whipping them about in the air. It plays havoc with the things we think we know. It topples our structures and discards our so-called truths. Long before we disappear into its horizon, it tears at the core of our beliefs, ripping their fabric. Our tattered ships force a decision: rebuild or retreat.
Neighbours and friends call from the departed shore, their voices still recognizable across the water: ‘You’ll go insane in the shadows of those giant waves! Look at the state of your sails! Can you not be satisfied with the water you already know? How can it not suffice? Come back to safety!’
But the boat-folk are resolute: ‘How safe is this safety when it rests on such unthoughtful and stormy ground? Are we really to find our solace there?’ Too many do, and go back to familiar life, their sails (as of yet) too thin for the wind of ‘why’, their ships no match for its force. They about-face and hastily throw their ropes upon the docks and tie them securely there, returning to their ways.
Despite this lack of muster, there remains a part unsatisfied, buried but not forgotten, ignored but not unfelt, that continues its quest in dark corners of the mind. Locked away and far from free it’s haunted by doubts, troubled by questions, and burdened by ‘why.’
And meanwhile, the brave sail off, out of sight, riding the chaos and order of the winds, eager to explore the uncertain, the unconscious, and the unknown, their faces leaning into its spray. ‘Damned fools,’ say the people of the land. Their jealousy covered by righteousness and judgment, they mutter with wild egos, ‘the gods will be angry.’
And yet there is always hope, even for the land-walkers, for in between the shadows of their unimaginative beings the children stare with longing at the departing adventurers on the sea, for they too are obsessed with ‘why,’ and have not yet learned to fear and detest it. They look with confusion and pity at the olden people that tower above them, and vow to never become one; to never be jaded by age or ill-conceived custom, and to one day themselves sail into matters unknown.
According to the books, there was a time before the one we live in now, an age before science and the empirical mind. In that place, they say, much of human experience was animated by myth and ritual. Life was given motion by metaphor, it wasn’t simply understood formally and rationally. It knew that some aspects of the Way could not be accurately talked about. Two worlds, physical anddivine, made up the lens and fueled the movements of the people, and for this, the minds of the people allowed for the idea of an unexplainable unknown. For them, truth was revealed through stories, not laboratories, purpose revealed through action, not fact.
That way of understanding life is all but gone here in our secular scientific modern world, at least on the surface; the mythological view has been replaced by a newer one, grounded on matter and fact, not morals and meaning. In many respects this newer Way does indeed offer clarity, and we are grateful for it. Without doubt, the method is a supreme one, and one we should never let go.
But in the shadows of our categories and classifications, this new material worldview has stunted our sense of what life means, and we struggle to find purpose. We laugh at people who believe in gods, though ours have just changed form. We think of myth as stories for infants, and forget that our reality is still informed by interpretation, by ancient meaning-making apparatus that whisper to us from the deepest parts of our beings.
Granted, for most of what we think about and experience, reason and science are our go-to systems of interpretation, and for good reason: they hold great insight, and improve our lives profoundly. But are there not matters of interest and necessity that lie beyond reason’s grasp? Are we not more than a rationalist’s account of existence?
For insights into the idea of ‘the eternal,’ the material worldview comes up short. When confronting our mortality, or thinking about ‘how to act in the world,’ it doesn’t have much to say. By and large, this worldview sees the human as a being influenced solely by deterministic forces, and in doing so it can’t help but leave us feeling helpless and alienated, like we have no will of our own, no act that offers us catharsis.
The mythological worldview, on the other hand, affords the space to consider and embody those parts of human experience and understanding, a space outside the realm of language, financial markets, and even rational comprehension. It makes use of other powerful tools, like ritual, symbols and ceremony, using them to penetrate the depths of human experience and understanding in ways the material worldview alone cannot.
In this place, nature is animated and mysterious. In this place, metaphysical ideas, paradoxical problems, and unconscious elements of our beings are not stifled, repressed, or shunned as irrational and infantile. In fact they are revered, for they hold clues to the transcendent potential of our lives. The truth, meaning and reality of such a situation is poorly accounted for in the scientific material worldview - when pressed, it is forced to admit that it can’t go it alone.
That ancient lens, rusting away within us, is needed again, not to replace our current rational one, but to join it. So far, some argue, we have lived in only one or the other of these two Ways of being. And admittedly, we were once superstitious to a fault, but now we’re empirical to a dangerous degree. These two pillars of understanding and experience, mistakenly pitted against each other for the last hundreds of years, have left our equilibrium off, and our potential unmet. But as the great pendulum of human history swings between them, now we know, for we have been to both.
It has, to us, become apparent, that ‘truth,’ ‘reality,’ and where we make meaning come from both sources, equally vital. We understand truth not just as physical matter, but also as moral spirit. We understand that reality comes to us from physical andmetaphysical realms, from consciousness and unconsciousness, from fact and action, from thought and experience. The best path forward makes use of both modes of seeing and both Ways of being.
John Returns to the Sea
All the signs pointed in the same direction. All the voices spoke in harmony. The timing was perfect. It was destined to be.
Or at least, this was a reading of the situation. It was an interpretation of the events. Could it be he was meant to do it? Was he intended to arrive? He came here at the last minute and on a whim, as if it wasn’t his decision at all, as if other and greater forces had it planned from the start. Or at least, this was how one could see it, this is how it might seem to be.
Having been here last year, John Ryder already knew about the little stone house sitting on the warm coast of the Pacific. It was the kind of place he had always favoured: out of the way and out of doors, with sand instead of pavement and fishing boats instead of cars. He thought about it constantly throughout the previous year – about taking time off the daily grind to write and surf in the waves of the early morning sea. Thinking about it helped get him through irritating commutes in the exhaust-thickened streets where he was from. It brought relief at the grocery store, waiting with the other annoyed and unhappy looking people buying processed products under the buzzing of fluorescent lights. ‘Why don’t we at least speak to each other in these god-forsaken line-ups?,’ John would ask himself as they all shuffled quietly to the front of the queue. But he was one of them too, standing there, silently staring at other people’s purchases.
In those moments, John could sometimes make himself remember - he’d close his eyes and see the house, resting slightly crooked next to the moving sea beside the quiet village. It was a coping strategy, undoubtedly, and it helped; his breathing slowed and his jaw would unclench. He conjured up the image whenever he got caught in wind tunnels downtown, making a kite out of his clothes, the angry sour polluting air pushing him back to work. Or when he missed the bus, or when he locked himself out of his truck, or when he dropped his phone and cracked the screen into a thousand pieces on the sidewalk; there it would be, easily accessible in that file in his mind, under ‘how life makes more sense.’
The place can’t be found online. There isn’t even a phone number to call. All you can do is get on a plane, get yourself to the village, and hope to find the old lady who owns it (Sophia is her name). For this fact alone John kept his hopes down, but he crossed his fingers and made his way there anyway. And, as luck or fate or meaningless randomness would have it, an Australian surfer just so happened to be reluctantly packing up after a six-month stay. John quickly found Sophia, and paid her on the spot. It was a very good beginning indeed.
His new home stands alone, anywhere from three to ten metres back from the ocean (depending on the tide), resting about half way between the small village and a massive cliff made of sun-bleached rock. Next to it the little house is tiny and easy to miss. In fact, if you were to walk by it there’s a good chance you wouldn’t see it at all; sun-drenched into its surroundings, the hideaway somehow disappears into the rock and sand that cover the coastline.
Inside is all that is needed for a good writing stint: a bed, a shelf, a plug, a chair, and a desk under a little open-air window that looks out to the water. Beside is a half-outdoor kitchen with a warm sand-packed floor. Next to that a simple shower-room with the sky for a roof and a hole in the wall, so you can see the sea when you’re getting clean.
And what a sea! Warm and endless, rising and falling, coming and going, day after day. For all its motion, it pencils in a horizon so straight, like an iron bar - so wide, you can see the sun rise out of it and drop back into it later in the day - so vast, it can't be fully absorbed with an unmoving eye. The majesty of the nature, the power of the ocean, it made John’s body feelincredible, somehow. And his mind too, in awe at the general wonders of life.
‘It’s so diverse in all of its manifestations, but it’s so whole and united in how it all acts together - like it has a mind of its own...’ It blew John’s mind, to consider this force of life, to consider that great Will that wills its parts into action, that unfragmented sum that transcends its parts, that condition for the possibility of life to occur.
As delightful and annoying as this way of considering was, the ocean was always like this for John - it compelled him to think and experience his life in this way. It connected him to something greater than just himself. It made him feel as if he was a part of something bigger than his subjectivity allowed for on its own. In doing so, it made him feel less alone.
And yet, ironically, and at the same time, the vastness of the sea reminded him of his limitations and finitude, of his little place in the great expanding universe, and how alone he really was. It was quite the catch-22.
On the night in question he sat in the shallows of the surf, appreciating that the ocean and the air were the same warm inviting temperature. There was no one else around, just he, the breeze, the water, and the stars. ‘It’s amazing that self-consciousness has somehow emerged from the darkness of the universe and the force of the sea,’ he said out loud to the water. 'Even just to consider it; it's such a remarkable activity, thinking is… it’s astounding that we can do it at all!’
How unlikely the odds, we think; chances so infinitesimally small - it could not have been by chance at all: there of course must be a creator and a plan. Or at least, this is how it could be perceived; indeed, this is what many choose to believe.
John grew up in a northern land. He’s tall, in his late thirties, with a thin strong build. He wears light-brown hair, a relatively unkempt beard, and a simple and classic choice of cloth - usually without any visible brands. He’s one of these people who is occupied with the human condition, drawn to the philosophical – and in this age of existential crisis, there was a lot to consider.
Compared to his urban steel home where the sun struggles to shine its light through the tightly planted skyscrapers, the pace and style of life here at the stone house runs on a different sort of clock: it’s slower, and rises and falls with the sun and the tide. Since it's a tiny village, everyone knows each other. John was happy to be a part of it, but it also saddened him. This way of life was too unfamiliar, and he hated that it was. But at the very same time, he somehow felt more at home in this place, as if the trials and tribulations of a life made a little more sense. Romanticizing aside, the whole experience just felt more ‘right.’
Here, miles from the maddening crowds, time passes largely hidden from the world, and days go by with a natural consistency: in the early hours, the sun quietly pulls itself out of the ocean, the surfers and pelicans wake up and share morning waves as they sport and hunt in the early light. Locals perform the outdoor duties that only the morning sun will allow. As the day progresses they take to the shade and trade the stories and strategies of the day while the surfers and pelicans nap in their nests.
Usually some other small event happens too, like a passing vegetable truck getting stuck in the sand on its way through town. Towns-folk rush to aid the truck driver and soon the vegetables are off to the next village. Then low tide comes around, and the local boys perform their chores as they (usually very successfully) hunt crabs and clams in the now-exposed sun-drying rock. They give their findings to their mothers to cook up for dinner. Soon after all this, the sea begins to rise and the sun begins to set, the sky erupts in colour once again, and the surfers and pelicans return to the water. And just as the sun and its light slide up the trunks of the palms and the sides of the stone houses dotted along the beach, the smell of seafood cooking on the fire takes over and satiates the sandy streets, still warm from the day's rays.
John came to learn that such a style and story of life, necessarily set by the sun and the water, renders “what time is it?” a completely different sort of question. Back at home in the city, if you were to ask someone what time it was, often they’ll tell you down to the minute. ‘It’s 9:27.’ The urban experience demands it: if you miss the bus to work too many times you’ll lose your job. In a place like this, if you were to ask someone 'what time is it?' the answer would often not involve numbers at all. Instead, a reply that has something to do with the state of affairs in nature, or a derivative thereof: ‘It’s high tide’ or ‘it’s time to catch tuna.’
‘How nice it would be,’ thought John, ‘if in my life, meaning and value were overtly made in this nature-based way. If the position of the sun and the sea mattered amidst the towers and high-rises in that manufactured forest I call home. It’s hard to conceive in the shadows of the towering bank-castles of our current corporatocracy, yet so obvious its crucial nature in this place. Here, it’s far more often far more important to know where the tide is then where the time is. '9:27' is just not as meaningful and pertinent to daily life as is a shifting sea or a current of tuna.’
Case in point: it is only when the tide is low that John can walk east on the beach and access a set of rock stairs cut into the side of the cliff (there is another way there but it takes forever). You climb up about a hundred steps that are carved into the stone, and at the top lives a man named Gara.
Gara waters his Garden
Gara was born in the country but raised in France. He’s an old, very tall (if not a little stooped), mustached man who returned to his homeland about ten years prior, to retire, and enjoy the rest of his days at the edge of his cliff. His mother was from the village below; his father was a Frenchman.
Gara's accent is thick like the air where he lives, his English is superb, his mind sharp. His half-foreign genes make him stand out in a local crowd, skin more olive than brown, his height and large nose arousing suspicion from the locals as to the origins and trust-worthiness of this potential outsider.
John had met him when he was out exploring one day the year before, and took such a strong liking to him that he visited almost every day thereafter. Over their morning coffees and stiff afternoon coconut vodkas, the two men quickly developed a relationship ‘existencial’ in nature, as Gara would say.
This day was like all the others: after the hugs and handshakes subsided, they found themselves deep in their familiar banter. John told Gara that he had returned to write a book.
Gara was preparing to water his garden, something he did every morning when the sun was at this angle. ‘What’s the book about, my friend?’ he asked.
‘What's it about?’, considered John. Surprisingly, it kind of took him off guard. It was an obvious question, but one, he realized, that wasn’t easy to answer. He thought about it for a second: humans, as he understood it, are meaning-making machines. Sure, objectively speaking, perhaps there’s no meaning to life – that is, the universe might not care one way or another - but subjectively, we can’t help but do it, make it, see value - even if it’s declaring that there isn’t any: the irony of nihilism is that proclaiming that there’s no meaning is a profoundly meaningful thing to do.
It was thus not so much if, but howwe make meaning that was most interesting to John. For him, the current secular story and guide on how to live isn’t great at helping us find and make sense of meaning. He was convinced that it was too materialistic, rational, and economic to offer a sound road map of the hero’s journey. Our traditional spaces, our religious places, that we have always used to develop and experience this epic - are disintegrating, and hard to find. And so the practice of reflecting on the metaphysical, of thinking about our place in the world, and of acting it out through ritual, well, it has all but disappeared. It was no wonder to him that we have found ourselves in such a deep existential crisis. When it comes to understanding meaning, when it comes to experiencing life for ourselves and with each other, we’re rusty, without mentorship, and charged to figure it out on our own.
John felt confident enough to start, although he spoke slowly at first: ‘Well, essentially, it’s about how the ideas we have, and the behaviours we act out, shape our reality… so we should be thoughtful about them.’
Gara nodded and looked over. ‘Good, yes; we can’t just go around believing what we’re told to believe, that’s dangerous. Dangerous indeed. One needs to be an active agent, yes? in the stories they take to be true.’
He pulled his garden hose out from the side of his house, started unraveling it, and pointed it towards John. ‘After all, the way that governments, priests, and capitalists tell us to live our lives is loco.’
John agreed. ‘Yah you’re right, like: ‘it’s okay to treat our planet like garbage.’
Gara shook his head and muttered ‘out of sight, out of mind’. John let out a short sad sigh and added, ‘or how capitalist society rewards us for taking advantage of others, reinforcing the idea that we should only be concerned with ourselves.’
John looked around while he spoke, reacquainting himself with Gara’s outdoor space, noticing the small changes in the set-up since his visit the year before – a new painting on the outside wall over there, a new television by Gara’s little pool on the cliff. In that moment, even while considering the dismal subject matter they were unfolding, he found himself content, mesmerized by the beauty, and the weather, and the words of an interesting friend.
Gara had much to say on the subject at hand. He closed his eyes and focused on giving John book-worthy words: ‘we’re lonely, purpose is hard to find, yet we’re told this modern way of living is better, and more advanced, than all the others. We think that our scientific mind is the only correct way to understand life. That it’s the evolved and civilized way, not like the ‘primitive’ (Gara air quoting) that existed before…’ Gara shook his head, ‘how righteous! How stupid! How short-sighted!’ Gara opened his eyes and looked at his friend expectantly. John smiled and nodded approvingly, enjoying the rant and agreeing with the sentiment.
Gara breathed a few long breaths of warm tropical air, filtered by miles of ocean. Then he dragged the garden hose over to his aloe vera plants and mango trees. He looked over at John: ‘Social norms are sneaky like that, wouldn’t you say?’
John nodded, ‘That’s exactly it, they’re insidious. That’s why we must approach with skepticism and think carefully about what we believe, or unhelpful ideas will take root...’ He looked at Gara watering his herb garden ‘…then they become automatic, right? Our brains wire to believe them, and the crazy becomes the normal. Before you know it, we’re brainwashed, controlled, repressed, mentally beaten down, emotionally fraught.’
It seemed too dangerous to John, the consequences too great. Especially since our current narrative strips the mythological view away, and in doing so does away with our rituals, deadens our spirits, and leaves us with anxious psychologies. But before he worried himself more about it, he glanced towards the gardening Gara, and smiled as the mist from his hose caught a rainbow in the sun. He really appreciated friends like this, that don’t simply believe the way their parents, priests and presidents tell them to. He wanted to meet as many of these kinds of people as he possibly could.
Why didn’t they stress it when we were young? Why weren’t we told when we were kids? Why weren’t they shouting it to us from the rooftops, urging us to step back and question our ideas? Why didn’t they say: ‘don’t just listen to us – think for yourself!’
Far too often it’s the opposite that happens: we’re shunned for being rebels, punished for questioning authority, banned for pointing out the mythological nature of our belief systems, coerced into taking on the script of our time. The slyness of these cultural norms brings with it real challenges: for even if we do resist, it can be a full-time job just to be sure we don’t get duped again.
What didn’t sit well with John was how many people seem to prefer it in that unthoughtful land of mindless living, unwilling to risk the uncertainty and upheaval that dismantling their belief system would surely bring. It is better, they convince themselves, to do as you’re told. It’s safer, they argue, to believe in stories that attempt to resolve the anxieties of life, that promise us certainty, and even ‘everlasting happiness’. But these are just avoidant strategies that keep us from being fully human, are they not? John thought so: ‘Weshouldbe rebels. We shouldthink twice about following the herd, as lonely as it might be on the path.’
At this point in the gardening Gara spoke up, with more ideas for the book: ‘How about this,’ he said and paused for a moment before: ‘…the powers that be can tryto put their spells on us, but in the end, they can’t force us to believe’, you know? We the people have the final say!’ Gara looked inspired by his own words.
John responded, ‘it’s true. But it’s up to us to use our power…’ John trailed off and gazed across the water. Gara was moving the hose over to the vegetable section of his garden. John turned and watched him for a moment. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a flock of pelicans flying across the waves in the distance, looking for unsuspecting fish surfing in the crest. ‘…let’s say a bird craps on your head,’ he began.
‘I’d prefer for that not to happen,’ Gara said.
‘And yet for some it’s considered good luck,’ said John. ‘So they wouldn’t be upset about it. Others, say, a super religious person, might get the post-head-crap idea that their God is punishing them for some transgression or another, and the bird-crap event could lead them to terrible thoughts and feelings of guilt and shame. So in the end, it’s not necessarily a negative orpositive experience; it could be interpreted as a sign of good things to come, the harsh judgment brought down by an omnipotent presence, it could mean countless other things, or maybe not much at all. How we think about it, how we perceive it, will determine how we feel about it, and how we act on it.’
Gara was examining the leaves of his avocado trees. ‘Ideas become the pathways in our brains, and the chemistry in our bodies.’ John agreed: it’s not so much that external reality itselfholds power, giving us value and meaning and emotion, but instead the way we interpret it. Deep in our neural pathways, ideas hard wire themselves into existence. It was somehow both a ridiculously obvious and wonderfully profound idea. They glanced at each other for a moment, happy to be in each other’s company again.
Gara had turned off the hose. He was sitting down across from John, rolling a cigarette with some tobacco he had gotten from the market in town. John watched and said: ‘the counter-argument, of course, is a deterministic one: reality is not so much based on our ideas, but instead by our genes. It’s nature, not nurture. That we are essentially material beings, driven by a genetic code, not by unknown creative forces, not by free-will.’ Gara nodded and John continued. ‘In that kind of genetic-based deterministic view, something like ‘violence’ is explained through biology: since we’re programmed, there’s nothing we can do about it; we’re predisposed. And if that’s the case, it’s not really up to us, and with that idea, the urgency to consider our values wanes.’
Gara took a long drag of his smoke and looked at John. ‘Right, right,’ he said, exhaling. ‘And there’s probably some truth to it. But if you ask the experts, they say that’s not the way genes work, or at least it’s not that black and white.’ He raised his index finger and closed his eyes for effect: ‘having a genetic predisposition doesn’t an alcoholic make… it’s the environment, it’s experience, it’s behaviour, it’s self-determination - those are, at least in part, the deciding factors for how and why we do the things we do.’
Today, the task of reviewing our beliefs is as paramount as ever. We’re encouraged to obsess over certainty, and to detest anything that can’t be known for sure. As a consequence, existential concerns are hard to fit into the story of our lives. We’re persuaded to search for someone, or some group, to think on our behalf, and give us the assurances we have learned to crave. We gladly pay for it, we even pray for it. We’re (at the least implicitly) told to repress sadness and pathologize stress, even though they’re natural experiences we are sure to face. Our current script has us running towards antidotes and distractions, and we’re offered little guidance when life inevitably gives us uncertainty and despair.
Before we know it, we find ourselves on the bandwagon of belief. ‘How did we get here?’ one might ask the others, as they bounce along the road of life. ‘Well, what else are we to do?’ the others respond, and suspiciously label the questioner an undesirable.
Upon even a cursory reflection, our current Way of living does not show itself to be as developed and advanced as we may have first thought. Whereas we once saw the physical world and the divine or mythological world as cohabitating, we have at present been reduced to beings that are understood primarily in terms of the material and the economy. Now we look around, more and more in danger of forgetting what it is to be fully alive, and think, ‘what the hell is the point of it all?’
Ours has become an oversimplified and unsustainable story, and one need not look far to see it: we prioritize making weapons over feeding the hungry, we don’t share power with those in need, we’d often rather kill someone for their idea of God then question our own. We murder each other over differing ideas, over profits, over greed. We drive species to extinction, we clear cut forests, we pollute land, water and air to disgusting excess. We focus on what we can know and control in the external environment, and dismiss all that we can’t as less important, even irrelevant. We have all kinds of knowledge, sure, but is this what we’re supposed to do with it? The current narrative doesn’t ask the question, in fact it actively kicks the can down the road, leaving the mess for the next fiscal quarter.
What infuriated John the most is that this state of affairs, based simply on bad ideas, doesn’t have to be. And yet even with all the signs laid out before us, we still tell ourselves that our ‘evolved’ lens is the best way to understand and experience life, and that because of this, our aforementioned priorities are justified.
John said so to Gara, as he watched him cut some aloe from a plant in the garden, squeeze out the juice, and rub it into his hair. (He swore that it was helping it grow back fuller than ever.) ‘There’s so much vested interest in keeping things the way they are - the economy has to keep churning, right? The pill-makers have to keep making their profits. Sure, the icecaps melt because of our selfish warped perspective, but that is of little concern.’ Garalookedpained to say it. They sat in silence for a minute, both lamenting the state of affairs.
John finally broke the silence. ‘It’s like you have to be crazy to fit in and believe it all…. It’s like you have to be insane to be sane.’
The modern age isolates: more and more, people feel a deep sense of emptiness and pointlessness envelop their lives. Where are our bonds? Where is our necessity? What is a meaningful life? We try to avoid these issues, but we just make it worse: repressed anxiety is forced to come out in weird, neurotic, indirect, and hard to manage ways. We are left unprepared, without incentive to deal with it in any satisfactory style. So we medicate ourselves in horror, and convince ourselves that it’s all just fine, or that it’s a lost cause.
But it isn’t fine, and it can’t be lost. The story of the nation is, in the end, just lines drawn on a map. Money, rights, God, the nation – if what we are is ideas put to action, can we not change our ways, and if not society’s, at least our own? With the Armageddon clock at a few minutes to midnight, is there even time?
John and Gara Consider the Book
It was a few hours later. The hot afternoon sun was moving quickly across the sky, and was beginning its dip into the sea. John had gone for a swim down below while Gara napped. They were sitting at Gara’s table once again. John was setting up the chessboard. They got back into their talks as if they hadn’t paused.
‘So...’ John hid a black pawn in his left hand, a white one in his right, and presented his fists to Gara. ‘…part of the book is about how ideas shape our world,’ Gara moved his head in acknowledgement and pointed at his friend’s left hand. John made the first move. ‘Another is that there are some ideas that we just can’t know about for certain, regardless of how much we consider them for ourselves.’
‘Like God?’ Gara offered. He moved a pawn, then poured John and himself glasses of water from a jug on the table.
‘Exactly,’ said John. ‘Making claims about the infinite, the divine, the eternal, objective reality - however you want to say it - is ridiculous.’
Gara nodded again without looking up. ‘Si, we can’t grasp that stuff…’ He trailed off quickly as his eyes focused even more intently on the board.
John finished the sentiment: ‘…They’re too great for our limited minds to comprehend.’
Gara looked up this time. ‘But that’s not what we think these days, right? We proclaim that our religious beliefs are factually true, and act as such.’ He moved a knight.
John frowned and studied the board. What a mistake, he thought to himself. Not Gara’s move, but humanity’s: religious metaphysical assumptions aren’t meant to be taken literally, are they? Their truths are different, deeper somehow. They speak through symbol, myth and metaphor to what lies beyond our methods of comprehension. And science makes the same mistake: convinced that it alone has the proper and objective lens in which to view all things. John moved a pawn.
Gara sighed and considered it for a second. ‘In our effort to eliminate doubt, in our fear of the great void, we cling to certainty where none can be found.’
John added, ‘And we’ll never find it...’ he paused for a moment, and then: ‘…Lacan would say that we are forced to interpret reality indirectly, in the symbolic realm. Kant would say we can’t know reality in itself, we’re bound by filters of time and space.'
Gara was making good work of the game, having just ousted one of John’s rooks from the table. John didn’t seem too concerned, though, his mind was full: ‘Jung puts it nicely too. Something like: as for the universal things we know nothing, only when we admit this will we return to equilibrium, or something like that.’
Gara made another move and then got up. He searched around for a tin box in one of his outdoor kitchen cupboards a few feet away. ‘That’s like Taoist philosophy as well: ‘the name that can be named is not the eternal name’. He opened the tin and poured some coffee beans into his grinder and pressed the button. ‘It’s a good philosophy to build on,’ he said over the noise. Gara stopped grinding and gazed somewhere over John’s shoulder. ‘The problem is, that way of believing doesn’t provide the ground that some are convinced they need - it leaves too many unanswered questions, they argue – it’s not the way they want to travel through life.'
John moved his queen into the fray, hoping to turn the course of the game. Sitting back, he looked over at his friend preparing the coffee. Gara was right: it indeed sounds appealing to believe in something so sure of itself, and understandable that in the face of the disturbing unknown we opt for stories that quiet the psyche's fear of it.
In this dogmatic act, we convince ourselves that we are spared from uncertainty, even spared from our fear of it. But it’s avoidant thinking - we’re too afraid to admit that we interpret reality through limited and finite lenses.
Gara was speaking to this matter: ‘Who can blame us for such safeguards? Life is scary and full of suffering!'
‘Life isscary, and totally absurd, really.’ John said, 'but I’d rather suffer with consideration than live in delusion. If I don’t, I’ve lost the wonder and humility that fuels a good spirit…. it’s the easy way out, don’t you think, not confronting mortality and morality on your own? Would life really be too chaotic and barbaric without the ‘certainty’ (air quotes) that these ideologies promise?’ John shook his head no.
'So what you're really saying is, don't be religious.' Gara was walking over to John with the fresh coffee. He stood over the chessboard and glanced at it for a few seconds before moving a piece. ‘Check,’ he said. John frowned again and assessed the damage, but only half-heartedly - his thoughts were still at the conversation at hand.
Over and over, in discussions he had had throughout the years, it would inevitably come to this, the assumption that if you don't take religion as fact, if you don’t believe in its truth literally, then you aren’t religious, and there’s no point in trying to be. But his feeling was that the opposite is true: religions are not supposed to be understood as facts, but as moral guides to life, and spaces to consider that which our faculties fail to fully grasp: religious truth and scientific truth are different things. It is only within the empirical spell of reason that this realization is so easily obscured from view.
John turned to Gara to answer. ‘If being religious means literal belief in scripture, if it means being convinced that you know the secrets and mysteries of the universe and what happens after you die, that your scripture is the right one and that all the others are not - then I'd say yah, don't be religious.’
Gara was looking intently at the game. ‘It’s like what you were saying before: today’s religious folk have forgotten that ‘God’ (air quotes) is truly un-nameable, and that language and intellect will always fall short in comprehending it.’ He reached in front of him and moved a piece.
‘Right,’ said John. ‘In a way, the trulyreligious are agnostic – they understand that God and oneness are incomprehensible. They understand that we can only explore such matters metaphorically and symbolically - and even thencan’t adequately share these experiences and understandings. This agnostic type of religiosity - one founded on the insight that we know that we can’t know, that we realize that we can’t talk about it clearly or without metaphor, but we consider it none the less - is little found in our age. But if this is what is meant by ‘religious’ then yes! Be religious, bask in the unknown, be wary of explanations put forth by the methods of religions and science.’
Both views pander that the universe makes sense. ‘Its essential nature can be known!’, they yell from both sides. But come on, who are we to make such claims? Gara looked at John while moving his rook across the board.
‘Check-mate,’ he said, and smiled.
How did we get to this place? How did we end up with this lens? Firstly, it is imperative to understand that until about 500 years ago, before the scientific revolution and the rationalism of the Enlightenment period, our interpretation and understanding of reality was very different. In that other place and space, it is said, the many narratives and experiences that made up cultural norms explicitlyhelped forge our morals and guide our actions, and provided a frame that helped people understand and experience their place as individuals andas members of a group. These myths and stories were comprised of metaphors and symbols and lived experiences based on a matrix not scientific and objective in nature: these truths served our lives in a meaningful yet not literal way.
Within the mythological worldview, symbols and rituals manifest themselves in the everyday, and speak to those things that are impossible to adequately talk about. They describe processes of transformation, focusing on the ‘how’ more than the ‘what’. This lens therefore allows the user to explore qualities of life that have little to do with facts and information.
Let’s of course not be too romantic about it - back in the Middle Ages we were arguably too irrational and too superstitious for our own good. Women accused of being witches were tied up and thrown into bodies of water - if they floated, they were witches (since a witch was believed to have spurned the sacrament of baptism, it was thought that water would reject their bodies and keep them from drowning). Brutal. So yes, indeed, the uncritical, unhelpful beliefs that arose from solely living within that mythological worldview proved problematic, and needed to be changed.
Our answer was the material lens. Over a short amount of time in the grand scheme of things, science, reason, and rationality became the methods and systems that framed our lens on life. And yes, these tools, they are amazing. They provide much clarity! We can knowthings and verify them and build upon our knowledge. The problem is, for it to work (at least the way it presents now), one is forced to think about truth, and what reality is and means, onlyas matter and information in the world, as things we touch and see and count and order. Within this framework, the material worldview does not negotiate with the spirit, and does not like acknowledging things that it can’t verify, and therefore know. Thus, in order to participate in our newer material ethos, one must, in a very real way, discard the spiritand the unknownas what is real and meaningful, instead replacing it with the physicaland the knownas the legitimate Way to understand life.
This switching of worldviews has proved successful; we have almost completely diverted our gaze from the older mythological lens and towards this newer one. And yet for all its benefits, this switch (or at least the way that we did it) has turned out to be devastating for humanity: we lost the capacity to navigate the unknown. We can’t help but try to ‘know it’, or claim that we can.
On the surface we pretend we don’t care, that we’re over all that unknowable stuff. But deep inside we yearn for that other Way. Deep down we all know that seeing this material view of the world as the be-all–and-end-all of what reality is, has cheapened our humanity. By convincing us to dismiss other ways of understanding and experiencing life, it teaches us to detest the irrational, to repress the unconscious, and revere reason above all else. The material worldview is indeed incredible, but we are trapped in its gaze and dazzled by its lights. Reason and scientific knowledge are amazing tools, but we are seduced by their formulas, and, for the time being, have succumbed to their spells.
John and Gara were putting the chess pieces away and sipping their coffees. John brought the topic up. ‘It’s a real shame that we don’t think we need any lens outside of the scientific one...’ he said, ‘…we think: what’s the point of providing space to attend to the mysteries of life, and explore truth, with a lens other than science? What’s the point of finding meaning, or figuring out how to act as a human in the world, outside of the rational framework?
‘A lot of us are confused about that, it’s true.’ Gara admitted. ‘I hear it a lot, people who say they feel spiritually empty….’ They gazed out across the sea and thought about it for a while.
How do we engage with the ‘spirit’? The modern story has us laughing at those questions, magazines and TV shows don’t discuss them, we learn to scoff at their value. We feel superior to our ancestors, but are left stunted in the darkness of their shadows, and find it hard to live with a deep sense of ‘why’.
Our new worldview strips life of ritual, so we’re confused as to how to attend to mysterious and metaphysical matters. We’ve forgotten how to tap into the deeper parts of our being, we can’t remember how to use symbol and metaphor. We’re estranged from our bodies and find it hard to be in the present moment. So we dwell on the past, and are more anxious about the future. All this leaves us unsure about what exactly life is supposed to mean, and how to best deal with the uncertainties and discomforts of life.
John and Gara both sat there for a bit longer, looking out onto the ocean and sipping their coffees. They were both silently thinking the same thing: if we were to dislodge ourselves from the material deterministic worldview as our sole guide for ‘how to be alive’, what would our lives look like?
John Makes his Way Home
The person who thinks he has found the ultimate truth is wrong. There is an often-quoted verse in Sanskrit, which appears in the Chinese Tao-te Ching as well: “He who thinks he knows, doesn't know. He who knows that he doesn't know, knows. For in this context, to know is not to know. And not to know is to know”. Joseph Campbell[i]
On his walk back to his little stone house, John's thoughts remained on the problem at hand. He rolled his up pants and walked the surf in the warm thick evening air. How did people believe thousands of years ago? He thought of what the inner world of people's psyches must have looked like when the mythological view reigned supreme. Before science and reductionism overshadowed all, making fact synonymous with truth. He had no clue - not really. Sure, he could read how First Nations peoples had spirits or gods for almost everything, he could look at hieroglyphs and totems and cave art and try to get a sense of what it meant to them and how it shaped their lens.
But it was all a guess really, an educated one or not. He'd read Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell. He’d lived in far-off lands and studied Eastern philosophies. He’d visited ancient Mayan cities and Buddhist temples on his travels. From his knowledge and experience he understood, in theory at least, that there was this other way of being. But in a scientific age where philosophy is not stressed and metaphysical reflection is not part of our sidewalk banter, it seemed all but lost.
‘For all their superstitious and dogmatic thought, at least organized religions are pondering these things, ‘I'll give 'em that’, he said out loud to the ocean moving at his feet.
Nietzsche was right: our switch in worldviews led not only to the death of God, but so too the metaphysical assumptions that were part of the package. How now do we contend with mystery and wonder? Have we killed our greatest insights? Is the voice of our spirit but a muffled whisper in our new mode of living?
John breathed deeply and walked up to the house. How and where are we moderns supposed to think about these matters of belief and truth and reality? With both reason and religion so certain in their ways, where does the spirit find solace? Where are our elders now? Who will show us the rituals, who will lead us through the rites of passage in our present world? How do we commune with the ineffable under the intoxicating knowledge systems of the smug?
In that moment, John wished he had been a friend with Nietzsche, that brilliant mind so concerned with the death of God. He wanted to talk it out with him. When he got to his place he went inside and did the next best thing: open his copy of The Gay Science:
How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all that world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? [ii]
The question was as relevant as ever, what with so many people these days admitting that they don’t really believe in anything. In the margins of Nietzsche’s passage, John wrote notes to his would-be friend:
You’re right to ask, dear man: are we glad to see God go? Yes, Christopher Hitchens, we know, it is ridiculous that there would be an omnipotent father and super-ego in the sky personally invested in our lives. ‘That is for superstitious fools’, says Richard Dawkins and the like. ‘It’s the unresolved Oedipus complex of our kind’, says Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic friends. But these are now obvious, not radical points. Do we have to proceed with a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude? Do we have to throw the baby out with the bath water?
John looked up for a moment and gazed out his open-air window at the sea. He breathed in the warm misty evening air and kept jotting down words:
The human experience is not one we can explain in boxes with well-defined boundaries. So much of what it is to be us is murky and impossible to properly comprehend. Despite any claims to the contrary, neither reason nor religion have the answers. Until we are agnostic in our approach, armed with both the material and mythological worldviews, we won’t best approach this thing called life.
He put his pen down and looked out intently through the window to the sea. He could taste the salt and feel the misty spray in the air. He finally was clear about what to write in his book: how can we understanding meaning, and see life as sacred, in the modern world?
With this question floating around in his head, he flung himself into bed and was asleep within seconds.
The First Dream
John found himself in a great hall. Beams of dusty light from small windows focused here and there on the cobble-stoned ground around him. He was older, maybe twice his age, shorter by quite a bit and his skin was much darker. He was wearing some sort of coarse off-white robe, and leaned against a knotted cane that looked to have come from a very old tree. He didn't know exactly what he was doing there - maybe he was vaguely aware. He looked down and noticed a pouch tied to the rope around his waist. There was a small hole in the bottom of it, and, looking behind him, saw a trail of some sort of dried plant coming from the direction he had just walked.
‘Shit,’ he thought, ‘how am I supposed to do whatever it is I'm supposed to do?’ Suddenly a great wooden door, bigger than any he had ever seen, opened in front of him. He couldn't make out what was in the darkness beyond it. Then he remembered, 'Oh ya the King is sick. I'm supposed to heal him.'
He looked back at the trail of fallen herbs and realized it was medicine that had been leaking out of his pouch for quite some time. ‘Dammit’, John thought. But there was no time to curse any longer; he was quickly escorted by hooded faceless figures through the huge door. It swung with great force behind him, kicking up dust in the beams of light that cut across the room.
The King was a beloved leader, his people worshipped him. He was thought to be perfect, a genius, immortal, a direct line to the heavens; indeed, his leadership and action had improved the kingdom in countless ways. No one knew that he was sick. John had been visited in the middle of the night a few hours before by a silent rider who had delivered the message personally to John that he was required in the King's chambers.
He was taken to the Kings bedside, and the shadowy hooded figures disappeared through a side door. There he was, the great King, lying down, a long thick well-oiled white beard curling about his handsome brown perfectly symmetrical face. His eyes were piercing; he stared right at John. He looked fine, and John said as much: 'Your worship, you don't look sick. What is the trouble?’
The King cut to the chase. 'I have fallen in love for the very first time, with a woman from my dreams. She's not real, I know, but I dream of her every night,’ the King paused and looked at John with a horrible desperation, ‘I know she doesn’t exist, but I feel her so much. How can it be? It’s driving me mad.’ He raised his hands above his head and then threw them upon it. ‘She has cast a spell on me. I can't control it, I don't where she comes from, who she is, what she wants.' The King flopped his hands down beside him on the bed with emphatic frustration.
Right then John realized this was a first for the King - something he was uncomfortable with, unsure about, something he didn't understand and, for all his power, couldn’t control. It was indeed a tough predicament. Imagine. Being in the throes of ambivalence with someone from your dream. John could see it now, the ailment, the panic in the Kings eye, the wild flitter of the pupil. But what was he to do? Looking down, he realized his pouch had turned into a scroll. He unfolded the top of it and noticed there was a passage written on it, but as soon as he took a closer look at it, the writing disappeared from the page. He shook his head. ‘Shit,’ he thought.
'I am afraid,’ said the King.
John woke abruptly and sat up in the last bits of the night’s darkness. After a moment, he got out of bed and walked over to the window to check out the pre-dawn waves, the moon shining down on the white caps of the break. Remembering his dream, he felt bad for the King. He wished he could have helped him out, or said something wise, but had no idea what it would have been.
As he got ready to take a dip in the warm dark shallows, he remembered that Carl Jung had somewhere wrote about the kind of anxiety that the King was feeling - a fear of the unknown, the strong desire to avoid what makes us most uncomfortable, the hesitation to question our Ways. He flipped through the copy of Man and his Symbolsthat he had brought. There it was, on page 6: 'misoneism' - the fear of the new and unknown, our psychic resistance to the idea of an unknown part of the human psyche.
John thought about what he had read in Greek philosophy class about Socrates, how the great philosopher would walk around the city of Athens asking people if they were sure that what they believed really made sense and was worth believing. It annoyed people, having to stop and think twice about their convictions. They named him the 'the gadfly’ and would go to great lengths to avoid him and his pesky irritating queries.
John brought it up the next time he saw his friend. The sun was at that angle again, so Gara was watering his garden. ‘If there’s things we can’t know, should we even waste our time thinking about them?’ he asked, after explaining his dream, and his reading of Jung.
Gara had finished up with the hosing, and was searching the brush for a couple of coconuts on his way over to sit with John. ‘People say: ‘if we can’t know, what’s the point?’' He walked back to John, hacked through the top of two coconuts, and liberally poured some vodka that John had brought over inside of them. 'But maybe they’re missing the point – because in the asking, our perspective changes, our lens is more polished.’ He put his hand over the opening he had cut into the coconut and shook the vodka and coconut juice inside.
There is a strong empirical reason why we should cultivate thoughts that can never by proved. It is that they are known to be useful. Man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give a meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe. Jung[iii]
Gara handed over one of the now potent coconuts, a ‘coco-loco’ as he called it. He lifted it up: ‘Here’s to embracing the unknowns of life, to confronting our shadows, to the fuelling of our creativity, and the forging of our purpose!’ They thudded their coconuts together. John took a sip and shivered at its strength. It seems like it’s our craft to have such considerations, he thought, and our fate to not know. It was becoming clear to him: science and spirit, reason and religion, material andmyth, both are vital to the story, both needed to interpret and experience reality in the most optimum way. Serving different purposes, sure, but necessary ones. John hoped that the naïve and adolescent age of believing ‘one or the other’ was nearing an end, and that instead, a new merger, a new myth, a new story, would be born.
After the coco-loco's and a jump in the sea, John said goodbye to Gara and made his way down the steps of the cliff to the sea below; the tide was coming in and soon the path back to the village would be submerged. He walked along the rocks that were slowly filling over by warm salt water, hopped onto the sand, and went straight to the house. The sea had pushed him home, and his thoughts wanted pen and paper. It was time to get writing. It was time to begin.
The Fantasy of Reality
Part 1: A Reason to Be?
The Impossible Task of Oneness
Nothing rips us out of the moment like our ability to abstract. What takes us out of the present more than thinking about thinking? The same applies for considering death; we know about things that don’t exist in the now.
Some argue that this way of considering existence is a uniquely human phenomenon, but others aren’t so sure. Elephants, say the experts, mourn the deaths of their friends and family. Whales communicate in highly intelligent ways. Prey hide from their predators, and in those moments seem to be aware that death is at stake.
But on a regular day, when a dear is roaming in the woods, without danger in sight or a death in the family, do they consider their existences the way humans do? Or say when a squirrel collects nuts for winter, does it ponder over the fact that it’s doing it? It’s highly doubtful. As far as we can tell, most animals don’t spend much time thinking about their own thoughts, or second-guessing their actions in any moral kind of way. ‘Squirrel-ness’ is less abstract and more instinct, and, driven by nature’s will, enjoys a kind of ‘present-moment-ness’ that is near-impossible for the past and future, cause and effect, and time and space beings we have turned out to be.
Compared to the squirrel, life for us is another matter entirely; our style of self-consciousness understands time, at least for us, as limited. We might not be thinking about it consciously most of the time, but there it is, just beneath the surface, influencing our whole trip. Knowing this makes us anxious, but no matter how hard we may try to avoid it, we can’t escape its inevitable grasp. Regardless of how oblivious we might convince ourselves to be, it is largely out of our hands: considering such matters is our charge, abstract thinking our nature.
Whether it’s thoughts about ourselves as individuals (quite often the case in our self-obsessed age), about the universe, about infinity, or about nothingness, these curiosities are in us. We can turn out the lights, but the stars will just remind us. We can bury our heads deep in the sand, but the grains tell a story, and lead us right back. It’s always been like this. If we look as far back as we go into history, there it is, on the walls of the caves. And if we had a way of looking into the future, there it would be too: considering this whole affair; ‘why’ing, ‘what’ing, and ‘how’ing our way through life.
These are the essential questions, and bring us together as a species (although, and quite fairly, we’d often rather not think about them and just get on with the day). Some embrace this type of inquiry, but for all of us, at least now and then, it’s a terrific burden.
It doesn’t matter what era we were thrown into, or the family and culture to which we were born. Regardless of our plot, be we destitute or ridiculously rich, a cardinal in the Catholic church or a scientist in a lab, all of us tell ourselves, and live by, stories that interpret our experiences and work to answer our practical and moral questions about being alive.
These are the narratives that will us to life and attempt to justify our person, that explain our lives and compel us to action. These are our views on how to place value, witness the world, and even, perhaps, be at peace with our behaviour on this road of life.
It could be that for the most part we think of our ideas about what life is (and how to live it) on our own. More likely, we adopt our values and assumptions from family and culture. In many cases, it's a mix of both – integrating our society’s version of reality with our own critical thinking and unique creative take on it all. At least that’s the hope.
It’s easy to argue that having too much of one or the other is fickle and counterproductive: a life lived without attempting to relate to society at all turns out to be too lonely for most. It doesn’t resonate with our social instincts and personal urges. Conversely, a life unconsidered leaves us ignorant and in danger: if all we do is unknowingly follow the masses, and unquestioningly take on the values of the day, we leave ourselves susceptible to manipulation and enslavement by the tyrants that roam the lands.
Isn’t it unwise to take on the ideas of a culture simply because we have happened to be born at that certain time and place? Sure, some of the ideas that are proposed to us are good ones (like ‘treat others with respect’), others not so much (like ‘it’s ok that our garbage ends up in the ocean’), but how will we know unless we attempt to think of them critically for ourselves? To what end do we unquestioningly accept?
Taken together, the societies of our collective history hold a mixed bag when it comes to the quality of the ideas on how to live a good life. These days, (at least where I’ve been informed, in the 21stcentury West) what is real and true and of value has become increasingly and uncommonly suspicious: economy before spirit, money before nature, the known before the unknown, the physical before the metaphysical, private gains before social good, profits now before a healthy world later. The list of warped priorities goes on…
It’s so normalized behind all we see: the ads on the subways, the words and topics that we see in the news feeds of our smart phones that we end up discussing and holding in high regard. Often it’s even subtler than that, the way we quietly take on the popular ideas that surrounds us. It can be hard to remember that it doesn’t have to be so.
Some of the explanations people tell us about life (and what might happen after) sound especially attractive to the more insecure parts of our selves, the warm blanket of their certainty a relief as we spin on this rock in the cold of outer space. But deep down, these ideologies leave us unsatisfied; we’re skeptical of their assuredness, we feel that there’s more to it, that maybe it’s ultimately out of our grasp. All of us: theists, atheists, agnostics, and every other sort of person yearn for insights that will shape our ideas about existence and also the metaphysical. We join religions, we meditate, we read self-help books, we do drugs – regardless of the medium the desire is the same: to understand ourselves and the world better - even transcend! After all, we are not only a creature that considers our origins, our present, and our future. We are a creature that ultimately comes up against that which is greater than itself.
Contemplating that which is greater than itself is harder than feeling a part of it. As they say, sacred and divine experiences are impossible to put into words, so our personal and even group experiences of it remain elusive. The psychologist Carl Jung believed that truly exploring these matters can only happen within a mythological and symbolic framework, since we can never adequately explain it logically or rationally to any lasting satisfaction. Of course, even our symbols fall short - as myth expert Joseph Campbell writes:
…the person who has had a mystical experience knows that all the symbolic expressions of it are faulty. [iv]
Regardless, poets, artists, philosophers, and just about everyone else has been wondering and sharing their ideas not just about the nature of life and how we might see ourselves in it, but of a wholeness or oneness that might be behind it all. This type of metaphysical inquiry wonders into the nature of our being, and considers ideas like time and space, universal truth, the infinite, objective reality, and even wanders into the moral realm. This type of thinking concerns itself with what to do, and how to act, in the world we find ourselves. Moreover, it’s interested in the idea of an inexpressible essence that exists, in some mysterious capacity, beyond our realm of fragmented comprehension.
Creation stories include, at their heart, the concept of a wholeness that is greater than its parts: a God, a Big Bang, a will to life. We are mystified, but consider it none-the-less: ‘what is this condition for the possibility of life to occur, at the core of our universe? What is this force of oneness hidden behind the veil of difference?’
But hold on. Right away, before we begin, we are riddled with a problem and troubled by a paradox. How can there be just one? One what? Experience shows us difference, not oneness. There's me the writer, and you the reader - right there there's two. Duality and difference, such as the relationship between you and me right now, presents itself at each turn of our waking and even dreaming life. As particular and limited beings in a sea of otherness and distinction, we are constantly reminded of the inaccessibility of the unity and oneness for which we might quest.
After all, answers to our deepest questions about meaning, purpose, the infinite and the divine are not obvious or even apparent. We are cut off somehow, our best faculties unable to raise us out of our limitations, instead forcing us to understand the world not as oneness, but its opposite: duality, diversity, particularity, and fragmentation.
…real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites – day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battleground. It always has been, and always will be, and if it were not so, existence would come to an end. Jung [v]
In the end, any reality of oneness is lost as soon as we act as agents in the world, if there were no distinction, there would be no subjectivity, there would be no person. With consciousness engaged, our egos aware, otherness appears. I see not me and so I see me.
Duality grounds us: badness is needed for goodness. We conceive of right because we conceive of wrong. If there is a something,then it implies that there is something else. In this sense we need the other, it is the source of ourselves, it’s the condition and prerequisite for our particular lives to exist. Try as we may, we are not built with the ability to comprehend such infinite matters unbound by difference, subjectivity, time, space, language and symbols. I am I, for I am distinct.
So as subjects cut off from all but some vague idea of wholeness, we are left musing: ‘Why do I have this feeling and idea of oneness when all I see is the opposite? Is there anything we can know about it for certain? Are we stuck in this uncertainty and caught in this Way?
The Unresolvable Paradox
It’s a Catch 22: a mind that tries to make a claim about unlimited infinite matters has to use its limited finite mind to make the claim. We’re stuck in subjectivity and limitation, and must contend with fragmentation and finitude.
This applies to our relationships with each other: we don’t know each other directly, since our experiences and interpretations of existence are never exactly the same. I do not know you immediately or, perhaps, the way you intend me to, but modified by my particular blend of belief.
We can use shared symbols and language to communicate our unique experiences and ideas as best we can, but even within the agreed upon parameters, we can’t help but imbue others with our individual brand of meaning and bias. In our attempt to be understood, we can do our best, but we’re always shy of our goal. Me-ness gets in the way.
When, in conversation, I use any such terms as ‘state’ ‘money’ ‘wealth’ or ‘society’, I assume that my listeners understand more or less the same thing I do. But the phrase ‘more or less’ makes my point. Each word means something slightly different to each person, even among those who share the same cultural background.[vi]The fact that [these differences] exist shows that even the most matter-of-fact contents of consciousness have a penumbra of uncertainty around them. Jung[vii]
Here we live, within the confines of this kind of consciousness, unable to know about an ultimate reality of things with any lasting satisfaction. To know is to capture and remove, to separate and name, to anthropomorphize and imbue categories with meaning and symbol. It is to take apart and examine. To identify and make sense, we must pull a thing out of any prior uncategorized, unfiltered state in order to experience it through the filters of the mind: ‘that is an ocean, the sand is not ocean’. ‘The ocean is magnificent’, ‘the ocean is mean’, ‘the ocean is Godly’, ‘the ocean is a perfect place for my garbage’. The very existence of consciousness, of separating and being separated, is where the paradox resides.
In short, for these profound matters of the spirit, for that universal thing, we have no idea what we’re talking about.
This realization both frustrates and inspires. Burdened and delighted, the paradox persists. Time and space are ours to believe. Good and bad are presented, up and down never to be resolved. We are stuck in duality; we are caught in this Way. So if a Buddhist tells me he has reached the bliss of enlightenment, I narrow my eyes in suspicion. If you are still alive, good monk, how then can you have ridden yourself of ego, broken free of the yin-yang, and joined that ‘higher order’? And when the Christian fundamentalist tells me the Bible is to be taken literally, and all of the answers to our deepest questions are to be found within, I can't help but be skeptical. And when reasoned scientists tells me they have the real template, the correct interpretation on what life is all about, I question mark their statements and take a couple steps backwards.
The Oceanic Feeling
If all we know is separation and duality, where did the idea and experience of oneness come from? In the face of the evidence, why does this feeling and idea persist? One theory that works to explain its origins comes from the field of psychology and psychoanalysis, referred to as the oceanic feeling. Coined by Romain Rolland and popularized by Sigmund Freud, an oceanic feeling of unity and limitlessness stems from our earliest experiences as an infant, a time prior to our understanding of ourselves as subjects, before our egos began understanding themselves as different from an ‘other’.
During this stage of life, so the theory goes, the infant does not have a clear concept of self: it cries, and automatically and immediately the breast is there. In a very real way, it does not consider the breast as different than itself. It’s only when mothers stop breastfeeding infants that they begin to see themselves as different than their environment. They cry, but the breast fails to appear. The child starts to see itself as distinct from its mother, and begins to comprehend otherness. From this, subject/object tension is born. In this moment of self-awareness, the oceanic feeling of oneness, though not forgotten, ceases. In its place, subjectivity emerges.
…originally the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world from itself. Our present ego feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive — indeed, an all-embracing — feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world around it. Freud[viii]
Perhaps, Freud thought, ideas of spirituality and the search for unfragmented unity stem from these memories. We hold faint recollections of an experience of shared egos and hazy borders between the self and the world. We sort of remember a time of unity and pre-distinction, and long to return to its innocent safety. But alas, it is no more. Self-awareness gets in the way.
Despite these limitations, despite our separation from the universal things, the material worldview assumes that reason and rationality are somehow not interpretations, but direct lines to the objective Truth of reality. At this point real damage and danger emerge:
The dark side of the Self is the most dangerous thing of all, precisely because the Self is the greatest power in the psyche. It can cause people to 'spin' megalomaniac or other delusory fantasies that catch them up and 'possess' them. A person in this state thinks with mounting excitement that he has grasped and solved the great cosmic riddles; he therefore loses all touch with human reality. M-L. von Franz[ix]
It is here, lost in that ungrounded certainty, where the soul collapses, where any sort of spiritual life becomes impossible to live, where awe fades away, replaced by delusions of Truth. If we’re not careful, we might end up in this palace, stunting our spirit’s development, and leading ourselves astray.
The Benefit and Limit of Science and Reason
How magnificent a tool, a lens, to see the world, and make the sense. But oh! For those that call it God, and revel in their reasons, is spiritual treason.
Uncertainty makes us uneasy. Just ask any person that ever lived. Think about living in the wilderness without the comforts we are accustomed to. Not knowing what's lurking in the darkness, or if and when an unfriendly tribe might show up, naturally puts us on high alert. Justifiably, we’re nervous. We question our safety and build up our defenses. It’s understandable for us to react to uncertain and potentially harmful stimuli with worry, and to cope by creating as many safeguards against it as possible. The same, it seems, goes for existential questions and unknowns; as a species, we don't like to not know what the greater purpose, if any, lies at the root of our lives. As Jung pointed out:
Consciousness naturally resists anything unconscious and unknown. [x]
Indeed, eliminating uncertainty in favour of knowing things is certainly beneficial for many and most tasks we might find ourselves engaged in while we live. And for this, reason, rationality and the scientific method are necessary. These central tenants of our current view of reality have obviously improved the quality of our lives in countless ways, and to an unimaginable degree. Their accurate and precise tools help us comprehend the world: deductive and inductive reasoning, critical thinking - these are arguably the most fundamental tools we have to understand the physical and even the psychological world. Without them, human life would be much bleaker, sicker, shorter and in many ways, way more confusing. Technologies, healthcare, increased life expectancy, standards of living, common sense; all have reason and science to thank.
Further, unlike blind faith and superstition, science, when practiced correctly, looks for cracks and faults in its hypotheses in an effort to better understand and grow. When it attempts to falsify, contrary to other systems of belief, it’s glad when information contradicts its theories, since truth and certainty are its greatest goal.
It’s a potent tool that allows us to expose and deconstruct irrational thinking, and reset our perspective and way of interpreting events. Without doubt, reason, rationality, and the scientific method are all necessary and indispensable methods of understanding and navigating reality.
However, proclaiming their benefits is, as you might have guessed, not why this subject is before us now. The central question is: where, if anywhere, does reason’s usefulness end? Sure, its method is excellent for building bridges, going to outer space, and cooking a complicated meal; but how effective is it for considering chaos, for talking about love, or explaining how to act in the world? Is it of any use for understanding and experiencing meaning in our lives?
It’s easy to understand how one could be a faithful follower of reason and science, and hope that through them understand, not only matters of the physical world, but also that of the metaphysical. It’s not difficult to see how we would be tempted to use it to find some sort of 'objective truth' or 'ultimate reality' that we could grasp with our conscious minds. Mathematics and logic, these tools we use - do they not show us what is true and false? Isn't 2+2=4 a true statement always and forever? How can we dispute such a simple equation? Same with ‘cause and effect’ - we see it in nature, A+B=C – who could say otherwise? The seductive quality of reasoned systems like mathematics is plain to see: in its seemingly perfect and flawless (if not self-referencing) symmetry, why wouldn't we use it to grapple with the metaphysical questions that our souls and spirits cannot resist but ask?
To answer that question, it’s best to figure out what we mean when we say 'truth'; is it subjective or objective, is it relative or absolute? Does it change with time or across cultures? Can something be true for someone and untrue for someone else? Is a fact a truth, is a feeling a truth, is an action a truth?
Two Types of Truth
One couldthink about the two types of truth as: scientific truth and religious truth. Indeed, those truths are two very different things. Scientific truth is concerned with what a thing is, whereas religious truth (the way it was believed hundreds of years ago anyway) was more interested in truth as it pertained to ‘how to act’ and ‘what is the moral of the story?’ These days, however, we don’t tend to think of religious ideas as true in that original and ‘lived experience’ kind of Way. People often announce that their religious ideas aretrue, but they are usually referring to the scientific way of thinking about truth, usually arguing that they believe their religion is literally and factually true. In doing so it becomes easy to confuse scientific truth with the religious kind.
A slightly different way of understanding these two kinds of truth is to refer to them as lower case truth andupper case Truth: lower case truth refers to the type of truth that reason, rationality and logic, can handle. This is the truth that, for example, mathematics can find with certain satisfaction within the parameters of its system. 2+2=4 is an example of such truth. 2+2 and 4 are two ways of saying the same thing: so long as we are within the confines of this truth table, 2+2 will always be 4. Dualistic interpreting is much the same - and we are, for the most part, drawn to this way of thinking, for example, that the opposite of up is down, or that black is the farthest shade from white. Cause and effect work much the same way and should be considered as a lower-case truth: although we don't knowthat the sun will rise tomorrow, it most likely will - we can confidently infer it, we can say that it’s true. This type of interpretation is great for understanding science, natural law, the movements of the planets and tides, and countless other things that make life easier, sensible and understandable.
Upper case Truth is an altogether different idea. This is the Truth that theologists, philosophers, and artists concern themselves with, and refers to a Truth un-interfered by our lenses of understanding. It speaks to an idea and feeling of a sublime arrangement to life. It refers to an unfragmented whole, an infinite oneness, something all encompassing, an alternative to duality.
Appropriately, the capital ‘T’ type of Truth has been (for the most part) thought to be outside of our grasp, beyond language, incomprehensible to the ego and the limitations of our beings. Now, we too often use the same word to describe these two very different ideas. It seems we have forgotten the distinction, though truth and Truth couldn't be further in definition.
This forgetting has been devastating to us as a species, and as individuals. We must remember that what is real and meaningful and true about life is not necessarily what is real or meaningful and true according to reason.
With this distinction between truth and Truth in mind, we can better return to our assessment of science and reason. The question is, are they equipped to deal with Truth?
Part 2: Europe's Search for Truth
The Material View of the World
As to the ultimate things we can know nothing, and only when we admit this do we return to equilibrium. Jung[xi]
One of the greatest attempts to comprehend what was until then assumed incomprehensible, to ‘know’ all that is contained within the universe, came to be in what is commonly called the Enlightenment Era. The French say it started in the early 1700's, when Louis XIV died and people began rejecting the monarchy and the Church. Others put its beginnings in the early 1600's, with the start of the scientific revolution. Many historians point out that it owes its roots to the ideas of the ancient Greeks well before that. Still others say its ideas were borrowed from the ancient Chinese philosophies that had made their way to Europe over the sea and through the Silk Roads.
Regardless of its origins, until the 18th century, it was a quiet whisper in the European psyche, one that most people did not hear, or contemplate, to any great degree. Soon enough though, the ideas of the Enlightenment, the scientific method, spread with vigour and rigour. As the century unfolded, the empirical whisper grew louder. Before long its volume rose to a thundering cry, clear as a bell and plainly heard in the classrooms and coffee shops across the land: ‘Truth is ours! Objective reality can be known!’ This would be the lens to interpret reality and find our place within it.
For those that spirited this movement, it would be a system that freed people from incomplete knowledge. It promised to rid our minds of delusional ideas, and instead provide a method of understanding that would pull humanity out of the dark ages. No longer would we fumble through life with our superstitious primitive symbols and stories. No longer would we be at the whim of our infantile, and even repulsive, unconscious drives.
From that lowly place, we would be led into the light of day, discarding our fables and replacing them with facts. Using the tools of rationality and science, the Enlightenment would offer a light in an otherwise dark and murky world of superstition, feudalism and black magic.
Updated lenses to interpret and understand life and the world were crafted in the newest scientific laboratories. We were primed to question, and compelled to ‘know’. They promised to unveil a reality that we could control, predict and comprehend - even, it hoped, the ultimate Truth of the universe.
In other words, this material worldview, through the prism of the Enlightenment, was not simply a way to interpretreality, but a clear way to see reality itself. The effects of this age went far and wide and deep in space and time. Without a doubt, much of the foundation of our current view of reality was formalized and normalized by the Enlightenment project - and here we are, still, somehow, in the Age of Reason.
Europeans were desperate for a new method of interpreting and experiencing life, and many curious minds welcomed these new ways of thinking. From them, ‘radical’ ideas emerged that undermined the millennia old iron fist of royal and religious authority, and planted the seeds of 18thand 19thcentury revolution. These new ideas were liberal and humanistic, and gave a sense of power, freedom and rights to the individual that had never been reality before.
During this welcomed ideological upheaval, long established traditions were broken, and ideas like democracy, as well as racial and sexual equality, were debated more freely. The average citizen was now, in a very real way, able to think and talk about life on his or her own terms. Imagine the thrill – to question whatever it was that one wanted to question! It might be tough for us moderns to understand the weight of this, but not long before, it was too taboo, the consequences too great, to question the establishment and think outside the box. Anyway, most of us didn't have the skills. The education system had been too bleak, and existed for the rich, and for the Church. Before the Enlightenment, the story folks got about life was the story those in power wanted them to get (most often a story that perpetuated that power).
Eventually though, people turned their thoughts away from God-fearing piety to liberty and progress. Education spread, ideas abounded. Destiny was in the eye of the beholder. (It should be noted here that even during the Enlightenment, it was still risky to question the tenants of the church. Interpreting the holy books ‘incorrectly’ could get you excommunicated or worse: many people have been hanged for having the wrong interpretation of scripture).
From the Middle Ages to the ancient Greeks, and all the years leading up it, thinkers like Aristotle, Aquinas, Newton, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Kant - all influenced this modern Western material lens. So ubiquitous became the views of these people that it is, nowadays, hard to think of any other way of understanding. How could we possibly think of reality and truth as anything but what we do through the reasoned lens? What was this superstitious, ‘primitive’ view of the world that supposedly occurred before? What is this talk of a time where stories, mythologies, and religious thought were the central players in how we lived our lives, how we found meaning, and how we understood what was real and true about the world?
Whatever it was, the thinkers of the Enlightenment weren’t interested. Myth and story, compared to this new clear knowledge-based system of science, was no longer seen as a mature, legitimate method to interpret reality, share experience, and find truth and meaning.
It’s easy to see where everyone was coming from - who wouldn’t want to join the Enlightenment’s quest for knowledge and understanding? (Of course, in retrospect it might seem obvious that an essential part of what it is to be a human is not well explained solely through its lens.)
But there it is, the pendulum had swung with empirical force, away from mythology and ritual, and into this new age we find ourselves. Over a relatively short amount of time in the grand scheme of things, reason and the scientific method have become the new standard. In the classroom and on the streets, it has replaced religion and mythology as the only necessary and productive lens to understand all aspects of life.
Religion and the Enlightenment Part 1
Deism and a True Reality
In and around the 1600’s, religious conflict, like the Thirty Years War, was causing havoc in Europe. When examined through the new ‘enlightened’ lens, it seemed obvious: it was time to rethink religion and return it to its less confrontational roots. How could there be so much war between religious ideologies that essentially shared the same God? What is the point of this senseless killing in the name of faith? It was time for fresh eyes and new ideas to lift religion out of the murky, superstitious, bloody and hate-filled swamp it had fallen into.
With the new filter on reality and truth at our disposal, crafted in the labs of Newton, Galileo and the like, the timing seemed perfect. And why not? The Enlightenment was answering so many questions, shedding light on so many ideas. It was a time of great hope and faith in the new saviour of Reason. It seemed only natural to apply this to theological and philosophical matters that had until then been shrouded in mystery and metaphor.
And so, focusing this lens at the heavens, a new image emerged: that the universe was a vast machine - created and set in motion by a creator-being using natural law. It was coined 'necessitarianism' (or today, determinism), the view that the universe (and as a consequence, humanity) behaves in a way that is causally determined by natural law (like cause and effect).
Within this view of reality and the heavens, while there was still considered to be a deity or God, ‘He’ was one who, after creating the universe, drifts into the background without ever again intervening, letting the natural laws and governing forces of his creation work out within the beautiful and perfect system of rationality and science. It’s an idea referred to as deism: the belief in a creator God, without reference to holy books or any other miraculous source (this according to Thomas Paine). All a deist needs is their own personal relationship with reason to inform their belief.
At first, deism was received as an extreme idea, blasphemous to the most, but an exciting and welcomed change to the more radical (though it probably didn’t go far enough for the few atheists of the time). Until this moment, a personal and active God was the assumed idea on virtually every city street and country farm in Europe, one that heard your prayers and judged your actions. It was deeply embedded in the centre of most people’s belief system; any other way of conceiving of God was considered absurd or heresy. For many, it still is. But that is a matter for later.
Generally speaking, atheism, at this point, was thought of as a completely preposterous proposition; laymen and scholar alike were deeply imbedded in a culture and society that was so religious, faith so central to the ethos, that fitting God within a reasoned system, like what deism was proposing, made far more sense to them than to do away with it altogether. John Locke, a philosopher of the age, agreed, writing that in a Godless world, people:
could have no law but his own will, no end but himself. He would be a God to himself, and the satisfaction of his own will be the sole measure and end of all his actions' [xii]
As this seemed too absurd for most, deism was to be the brave new explanation: God, now, is like a divine watchmaker, not a magical intervener; the universe acts in accordance to natural law and does not include miracles. But that’s OK, because the deists don’t need them: reason and observation of the natural world are enough to determine the existence of a single creator of the universe. For the rationally grounded deist:
Reason put you in touch with God... because the mind of man cleared of its fallibilities is sufficiently capable of the knowledge of God. [xiii]
This change in ideology was a big deal, and brazen, for it was the first time that we took something that had otherwise been assumed to be unthinkable, incomprehensible and unknowable (and only relatable through myth and faith and symbols) and attempted to make it comprehensible, knowable, and relatable through fact. Through the deist’s eyes, the divine realm was removed from its superstition and mystery, its unknowingness overcome, allowing people to understand, to comprehend and to know what was until then unknowable.
Making the Unknown Known
The deist’s view grew in popularity as more and more people grew disenchanted with organized religion. As the empirical method grew, so too did skepticism of religion’s belief in miracles and magic. And fair enough - supernatural interpretations of reality often lead to unhelpful, irrational thought and uncritical ends. Deism’s offer was enticing: reason and the scientific method would reveal objective universal Truth, and our childish interpretations of reality could finally be put to bed.
Like other ideas of the Enlightenment, the roots of deism preceded it by many years. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Europeans were out 'discovering' the world and 'contacting' other cultures (read: colonizing), they were exposed to some of these views. But even on the continent, the seeds of deism were planted long before the Enlightenment. It was the ancient Greek Heraclitus (he lived around 500 B.C.) who conceived of the idea of a 'logos' - a supreme rational principle. And of course there’s the Greek triple-threat: Socrates (450 BCish), Plato (400 BCish) and Aristotle (350 BCish), who together laid the groundwork to the dialectical method. (Essentially, this was a way of figuring out what was true by having a reasoned logical discourse between two or more people with the aim of establishing truth. In modern philosophy this idea is often called the 'correspondence theory of truth.’)
As we consider these early heavy hitters, we should most definitely give a nod to Thomas Aquinas, born about eight hundred years ago (1225-1274), who was convinced that humans were able to knowthe mind of God. According to him, humans acquire knowledge of truth first empirically through experience and the senses, then rationally through understanding and judgment done by reason. For Aquinas, the truth of the human intellect (logical truth) is based on the truth ‘in things’ (ontological truth). Because of this direct understanding, he believed we had a direct line to the Truth of reality. To this end, he wrote a kind of re-statement of Aristotle's view in his Summa 1.16.1:
Veritas est adaequatio intellectus et rei (truth is the conformity of the intellect to the things)
This theory might sound appealing in its cut and dry conception of Truth, but problems quickly emerged. Physics, for example, points out that external reality usually isn’t as it seems: as science advanced, and our microscopes and telescopes got bigger, we realized that what we thought of as certain and static was not the case at all. What lookedsolid through the naked eye ended up having space and emptiness within, when seen through a microscope. All over the place, the stuff of the physical world broke down the closer in and further out we looked. In this wake, our certainties were left ungrounded. Unfortunately for Aquinas, this proved problematic for his argument: trusting the faculties of our mind and body to give us objective representations of what reality is, did not work out the way he wanted.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was another influential guy who spent considerable amounts of time trying to find Truth, or, ‘an unshakeable ground on which to understand reality.’ Obsessed with certainty, and an advocate of rationalism and science, his idea, methodic doubt, sounds good enough: doubt everything in order to get to the undoubtable.
And that’s what he did, he put everything up for revision, he made everything doubtable, down to the things that seem most obvious in life. He would sit at home and ask: ‘am I really here, sitting by my fireplace? Perhaps I'm having a dream. Perhaps I'm being fooled by an evil genius designed with this very trick in mind. Perhaps my body is an illusion!’
In the midst of all of this doubt and uncertainty, Descartes claimed that he happened upon the thing he was convinced couldn’t be doubted - the thing doing the doubting: his mind. His reasoning was simple enough: if someone is being deceived, then there is something that must exist in order to be deceived in the first place: the mind! After all, thinking is needed for doubting, he undoubtedly thought. It was his eureka moment, and from it he came up with his famous words:
I think therefore I am: cogito ergo sum[xiv]
For his idea to hold water, Descartes needed to bring in a new conception of reality - a separation between the body and the mind. He needed this separation so he could ‘prove’ that the mind was an entirely different entity from the fallible body. So Descartes came up with what he said were two fundamental substances, that of space (not outer-space but space in a physical sense, like our bodies) and that of the mind.
Out of this hard-core dualism came the certainty that Descartes was looking for (or so he thought): our bodies might be able to deceive us, but our God-given minds cannot; we can’t doubt the mind that’s doing the doubting. This idea informed the Enlightenment project by placing the mind and its reasoning powers as the centre of reality, for the most part unaffected by forces outside of the known self.
The act of doubting is a noble one, and Descartes can certainly be admired for this starting position. But the criticisms to his conclusions soon rained down. For some, it was arguing that our thoughts are much more closely linked to our bodies than Descartes believed. (For example if you damage your brain, you damage your mind as well.)
Other objections of note come from the logical positivists: they point out that the meaning of any proposition depends on its method of verification - and since one can’t verify the mind empirically, Descartes’ argument about the mind is empty and meaningless and only metaphysical in nature. Indeed, locating the mind, or consciousness, turns out to be more problematic than Descartes was hoping. As Joseph Campbell, the great master of myth points out:
It is part of the Cartesian mode to think of consciousness as being something peculiar to the head, that the head is the organ origination consciousness. It isn't. The head is an organ that inflects consciousness in a certain direction, or to a certain set of purposes. But there is a consciousness here in the body. The whole living world is informed by consciousness. [xv]
But perhaps the biggest error in Descartes big idea is this: to prove that the mind is reliable in the first place, one has to prove the existence of an absolutely honest God. To do this one has to presuppose the existence of God from the start as the ground for the reliability of the mind. This self-referencing logic he actually admits to throughout the Mediations:
I see that the certainty of all other things depends on this knowledge of God, so that without it nothing can ever by perfectly known… for if I did not possess knowledge of God...I should thus never have true and certain knowledge about anything, but only shifting and changeable opinions. [xvi]
Thus I see plainly that the certainty and truth of all knowledge depends uniquely on my awareness of the true God, to such an extent that I was incapable of perfect knowledge about anything else until I became aware of him. [xvii]
Descartes was convinced that he had found Truth and God, but only because he was looking for them in the first place.
Next up: Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Proclaimed by many to be one of the most important scientists of all time, he played a central role in the development of the scientific revolution. So deep, in fact, was his impact at the time, that the Enlightenment is often referred to as the Newtonian view. His view is the scientific empirical one, of course, and strives to differentiate and categorize the stuff of reality to produce knowledge, a knowledge that can tell us exactly what the world and reality is.
Newton shared the deist idea that the universe is like a well-made clock: determined, predictable, and controllable. By using the scientific method to understand life and reality, Newton argued that a philosophy was possible that merged truth and Truth into one great scientific system through which we could know all that was worthwhile to know.
No more did reality include the stuff of spirit and mystery. Reality was now the stuff of matter (seemingly easier to predict and control). For Newton and the growing enlightened masses, ‘reality’ came to be synonymous with ‘objects in the world’. This very specific way of defining truth - and understanding reality - became the pivot point on which we could now shift our claims of knowledge and Way of interpreting life.
Until this time, subjective experience had had more of a say in what humans considered real, meaningful and true in their lives. But for Newton, by defining reality solely through the objective and the material, truth and meaning became calculable and impersonal. Suddenly, we were taught that there was no room for personal experience (outside the realm of scientific knowledge) to have a say in crafting a lens on which to experience reality. Newton and his buddies were only concerned with what they could know, and assumed that all that was worthwhile to take as real was contained within that knowable objective materialism. And so it came to be that nothing of concern was unknowable anymore. As a result of this reductionist approach to truth and reality, we claimed to find the objectivity we so desperately wanted to find.
The Newtonian view put the mythological and religious one in an awkward position: nothing had really challenged its account of reality before. Evidence and fact were, up to then, not a real concern for theology, since religious truths lived less in the literal and more in the metaphoric and symbolic realm. Religious thought was concerned less with fact, and more about the best ways to act. The religious assumption had until then held to the notion that some things are meaningful without being quantified and reduced to fact, and therefore can’t really be explored using those tools. It had instead always offered a different way of life – one where stories and ceremonies were the doors to experiencing, understanding, and attending to the questions and tendencies that lie at the core of our beings. These were ‘true’ but not 'fact' – fact was irrelevant to the meaning and life of its truth. Unknowability was implied as the symbol was used.
Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend. Jung[xviii]
But with reason the new darling of Europe, even religion could not evade its influence into matters of reality. Religion began to feel that it toohad to use reason to explain itself, if it was ever to keep up with the times. Pressured by the ‘divine’ tools of Newtonian science, religion felt that it was forced to rationally justify its dogmas and doctrines.
For this, taking the bible literally became a trendier position, and a prerequisite for the usefulness of religion to endure. Usurped by reason, it was suddenly on everyone's mind to provethat God existed, for empirical proof was now needed for truth. This infiltration of reason into religion is still felt today - fundamentalism is on the rise, and the need to justify religion using the material worldview remains strong.
Although it may have snuck up on us over the past 500 years, our ethos shifted: matter and information have become the ground of reality. Steadily throughout these years, even philosophers and poets turned away from the Bible and towards science and logic as a way of understanding the world. The age saw reason not as a tool born of our limited minds and subject to its limitations, but as a clear and innate empirical method in which to understand and comprehend the mandates of the ineffable.Reason was saviour, and within it the way to know God.
This left man’s greatest instrument, his psyche, full of deep unconscious drives and vast capacity for meaning, without a space to express itself. In fact it became mistrusted, despised, and for some, even rendered irrelevant. As Jung points out, these days ‘it's only psychological' too often means: it is nothing. [xix]
Religion and the Enlightenment Part 2
The Harsh Reality
So did it work? Are reason and science all encompassing, fit to resolve the great metaphysical puzzles of our lives? Are our philosophical questions, existential dilemmas, and religious quandaries now neatly wrapped up for all to understand and comprehend, like a math problem with no remainders? Are all our spiritual and sacred experiences, all our questions of life after death, morality, love, meaning, and purpose, finally explained and resolved? Obviously not, for these questions and paradoxes of life remain. As quantum physics continually reminds us, the universe doesn’t behave the way science predicts:
...in microphysics the observer interferes with the experiment in a way that can't be measured and that therefore can't be eliminated. No natural laws can be formulated, saying 'such and such will happen in every case'…. this naturally presents a tremendous problem for our classical physical thinking….it could thus be said that scientists can no longer hope to describe any aspects or qualities of outer objects in a completely independent 'objective' manner. M-L. Franz[xx]
It’s true that even before the Enlightenment got into full swing, critics were already considering its limits, and weary to fully endorse the Newtonian material lens as the Way to understand all things. Amidst the intoxicating fervour of the promise of reason, there was an unease brewing - a hunch that even science’s methods could not view reality directly and without bias.
John Locke, a 17thcentury British thinker, was on the case. In 1689, he wrote An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, where he set out to 'enquire into the Original, Certainty and Extant of human knowledge'. In it he argued that when we are born, our minds are like blank slates - in Latin, tabula rasa:until experience (in the form of sensations and reflections) provides the basic stuff of knowledge, nothing innately exists in the mind.
This idea was at odds with the Rationalist assumption that we have a God-given gift of reason in us at birth. For the rationalists then, a person’s essence precedes existence. But Locke wasn’t convinced. He wasn’t at all certain that we have innate ideas in our minds from birth, like morality, or God. As far as he was concerned, knowledge was: ‘the perception of the connection and agreement or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our ideas.’[xxi]
For Locke it was clear - knowledge and ideas come from experience, and not before: in other words, existence precedes essence. For this view he was considered an empiricist (that is, to get knowledge you must experience the world), not a rationalist (that knowledge and thus reality comes from the mind, not the external world). Although Locke loved reason, and thought that morals and math could be known with certainty, he was convinced that knowledge of material things is probabilistic and only opinion, not objective knowledge. The real essence of reality, he contended, was hidden from us. Because of insights like these, reason turned in upon itself, and philosophy had begun to scrutinize the instrument which it so long had trusted. Durant[xxii]
About 50 years later, in 1737, a Scottish philosopher by the name of David Hume wrote a book named Treatise on Human Nature. Similar to Locke, he was interested in the question: 'what is the starting point for knowledge?' Also like Locke, he disagreed with the rationalists starting points. For Hume, like Locke, knowledge is evidence-based and comes through our perceptions, gathered from the external world, it’s not already in us.
Hume argued that humans never seecauses or natural laws, instead we perceive events and then infer its cause and necessity. An example: we can assume that the sun will rise tomorrow but there remains no proof that it actually will; law and causality are inferred but not known. (Math, of course, is different; as it is contained within its self-referencing system, its formulas are guaranteed and necessary)
In his essay Skeptical Doubts Concerning the Operations of the Understanding,Hume explains that reason should be divided into two types – ‘relations of ideas’ and ‘matters of fact’. Relations of ideas are: the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic, and, in short, every affirmation which is either intuitively or demonstratively certain.[xxiii]So 3x3 is always 9 because 3x3 and 9 is exactly the same thing expressed differently. They are unchangeably true, yes, but only because the predicate is already contained in the subject. [xxiv]
For matters of fact we come to reason differently. For these, operations of thought are not enough: you need observable truth. For matters of fact, the contradictory notion of the fact is still possible (however remote): that the sun will rise tomorrow is not absolute; it could be the case that it doesn’t. Of course, since the sun has risen every day of our lives so far, we can of course be quite certain that it will rise again tomorrow, and plan our days accordingly.
Matters of fact, then, are founded on notions of cause and effect. ‘If I drop this stone, it will surely fall to the sand’. Gravity is the cause, falling to the sand is the effect. This knowledge, Hume says, comes to us through experience, not reason. We have to see it to believe it: imagine if we had never dropped a stone or had any concept of gravity, and then were about to do so for the first time. There is nothing in the stone itself that would help us to reason out the cause and effect relationship that was about to happen, there is nothing a prioriin the cause that will lead us to its effect. Only experience gives us this.
The mind can never possibly find the effect in the supposed cause. Hume[xxv]
With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that we have to get by in the world and therefore live by our assumptions and beliefs about matters of fact, but it’s helpful to remember they’re not guaranteed. Even the most basic matters of fact break down when put to inquiry, and are not absolute in their claims. They may be truths, but they can never be Truths. As Hume writes in section 1 of The infinite divisibility of our ideas of space and time:
It is universally allowed, that the capacity of the mind is limited, and can never attain a full and adequate conception of infinity.
And so there it was, Europe's search for Truth now in question, faith and reason in the hands of the skeptic.
Our minds are but our ideas in procession and association, our certainties but probabilities always threatening to be violated, broken. Hume[xxvi]
Hume and Locke’s contributions to the matter of truth and Truth are exceptional and extraordinary, but perhaps none more than the ideas of the 18th century Prussian genius, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Let’s jump in: for Kant, ‘objective reality’ can never be known through reason (or any other way) since we are forced to understand and experience the world with inherent lenses (like time and space) that keep us from knowing what, as he called it, the ‘neumenal’ or ‘the world in itself,’ really is.
Kant had issue with both the rationalists andempiricists, and came up with some weird terms to demonstrate his points: a posteriori knowledgedescribes the particular pieces of knowledge we gain from experience, whereas a priori knowledgemeans a necessary and universal knowledge that we can have independent of experience.
Essentially, Kant did not believe that pure reason had a priori knowledge, and therefore did not have the power to grasp the mysteries of the universe. And while Kant sided with the empiricists in believing that experience is indeed important for gaining knowledge, he didn’t think that experience could account for all the concepts that we have. An example: time and space. For Kant, these are not ideas we acquire from experience, they are already hard-wired into us (or synthetic a priori concepts, as he puts it).
Awkward terminology aside, Kant’s ideas help us understand that we are compelled to use these hardwired biases and lenses to experience reality. In other words, we can't experience anything except through these filters. We live in the phenomenalworld, the world of things and experience, according to Kant, not in this neumenalworld, the world as it reallyis, independent of our filters. For a Kantian then, all experience necessarily takes place in time, and obeys the laws of causation: we are caught in time and space, they are pure and inescapable intuitions of the mind.
Kant was convinced that his predecessors had not given any clear grounding for their metaphysical speculation, because they had assumed that ideas and experiences like time, space, and causation are the content of an external reality that the mind must reach out and grasp. In turning this assumption around, what arises is the insight that these concepts are not found in experience but are instead the form that the mind givesexperience.
All thought must, directly or indirectly, by way of certain characters, relate ultimately to intuitions, and therefore, with us, to sensibility, because in no other way can an object be given to us. Kant[xxvii]
The Kantian conclusion is the Taoist and Buddhist one: we have no certain knowledge of things in themselves. We can’t conceive of any kind of objective direct reality, or any kind of eternity or infinity outside of time and space. We cannot truly comprehend of a starting point without a point before that. For better or worse, we are stuck, causally, in this mode of interpretation.
The ultimate mystery of being is beyond all categories of thought. As Kant said, the thing in itself is no thing. It transcends thingness, it goes past anything that could be thought. The best things can't be told because they transcend thought. Campbell[xxviii]
The Edge of Reason and Return of the Spirit
Kant’s ideas about the way humans experience reality were a big blow to the Enlightenment’s dream. From it, the Newtonian age was forced to admit that scientific knowledge, while essential, could not show us the divine. Its methods and formulations could not satisfy the yearnings of our spirits, or sufficiently explore the idea of what ‘sacred’ is. It could not find the certainty it wanted to, or the Truth of reality for which it was looking.
By using scientific instruments [man] can partly compensate for the deficiencies of his senses. For example, he can extend the range of his vision by binoculars or of his hearing by electrical amplification. But the most elaborate apparatus cannot do more than bring distant or small objects within range of his eyes, or make faint sounds more audible. No matter what instruments he uses, at some point he reaches the edge of certainty beyond which conscious knowledge cannot pass. Jung[xxix]
The search for Truth may have not ended the way the Enlightenment thinkers hoped, but with the limits and boundaries of reason now apparent, another door opens: when we see that materialism is, by itself, an incomplete and oversimplified method of understanding reality, we are freed from the expectation that it could be otherwise.
Unburdened by impossible ideals, reason now re-positions itself, allowing space for that other and more ancient lens to emerge again, that had been, until now, hiding in the shadows of Enlightenment ideology. From here, it is easier to imagine how both the material andperhaps the mythological worldview could together influence and determine the way we interpret reality, look at truth, and finding meaning. With these two modes of being as allies, it seems we’re in a much better position to proceed.
But is this how we experience life? Do we live as if reason and science don’t give us everything we need to interpret our lives and act in the world? Do we actively and intentionally add the mythological perspective to the mix as we go about our days? Not really, it doesn’t seem so, not according to the surveys. In this reductionist and fact-driven world we have found ourselves thrown, science and reason are still thought of as the exclusive lens for finding out what is real, true and meaningful about life. Even with the limits of reason exposed, its shortcomings well pointed out for hundreds of years now, we are prone to think of it as the way, the truth, and the light.
It’s a sad truth: the value of myth is lost on the streets of the modern world. Rituals and myths are still seen as unproductive, infantile and weird – they are now only strange terms, no longer a lived experience. The question that arises: can we course-correct? It’s a pivotal time in human history, and as our modern secular souls suffer, unable to explore the spirit, we can’t begin our paradigm shift soon enough.
The general undervaluation of the human soul is so great that neither great religions nor the philosophies nor scientific rationalism have been willing to look twice at it. Jung[xxx]
At this juncture let’s remember that it’s not science itselfthat is so damaging to the spirit, rather, as Joseph Campbell pointed out, it's the way we believe it [xxxi], a way that excludes all other forms of knowing and being. It’s obvious that the material worldview is incredible at understanding and organizing reality, and we are profoundly grateful for the near-certainties it provides. But interpretations they remain, products of our limited and fragmented minds. Reason itself knows this, but if you ask it, it is not quick to admit it.
Science wishes to resolve the whole into parts, the organism into organs, the obscure into the known… it is not interested in totality but with particularity. The scientist aims to be impartial and objective. Philosophy aims to question these facts and test their limits... a fact is nothing except in relation to desire; it is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom. Durant[xxxii]
What a mission! - to use the reasoned methods to help us make sense of the world, while at the same time keeping them from clouding our overall perspective and experience. What a challenge! - to go about our lives with belief in our symbolic machinery, while remembering that it is just that.
Part 3: Caught in the Way
The Wisdom of Ancient Eastern Thought
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The name is the mother of the myriad of things. Lao Tzu [xxxiii]
Whether through the Bible or a biology textbook, modern ideology argues that the Truth of reality is ours to discover. ‘Read the Bible - it will tell you all the answers to the mysteries of life!’ shout the fundamentally religious. ‘Science will show you what is real and objectively True!’ proclaim the scientists. The absurd war rages on.
The counter-argument has roots that stretch far beyond the Age of Enlightenment, back into our earliest of histories. Eastern philosophies like Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism are all privy to the same common foundational philosophy: as temporal beings forced into subjectivity, direct experience with ‘objective reality’ is impossible. For these belief systems, claiming knowledge of ultimate reality or God has always been considered a ridiculous notion. For those matters, we can’t pretend to understand.
The way is ever nameless. Though the uncarved block is small. No one in the world dare claim its allegiance.Lao Tzu[xxxiv]
Within these thought systems, unknowability is implied. Mohammed is to never be drawn. The word Yahwehadmits it can’t describe God in any satisfactory way. Only through these concessions, reflected through metaphor and symbol, acted through rites and rituals, can humans explore such matters, and thus bring that kind of understanding and meaning to their lives.
In Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language at least 3500 years old, there is a word: maya. It can be taken to mean both ‘reality’ and‘illusion’. Referring to the illusory nature of the physical, phenomenological world, mayacontends that things that exist in the physical world are constantly changing - and thus spiritually unreal. For the serious Hindu, it’s what lies outside of the physical, conscious, egoic world that is True. Instead it is what we cannot see or know that is the ultimate Truth of reality, or Brahman.
Brahman has no opposite, is not distinct from anything else and, unlike humans, is not bound up in the duality and limitations of the mundane world. Since maya takes this into account, it helps shape deep core beliefs about reality. In the Western materialist world, the opposite has been decreed: reality is only what we can see, sense, come to reason, is a thing we can know. Illusion has come to mean the thing that cannotbe seen or sensed, instead of what canbe. For this, the modern Western thinker thinks that the paradox is resolved, a more solid ground on reality achieved, the chaotic unknown now ordered and known, the sacred and mythological lens now unnecessary and worthy of retiring.
In the Western tradition, up to the beginning of the present century at least, it has generally been assumed that only what exists can be real, so much so that when, at one time, universals were denied existence, an ad hoc subsistence had to be invented to give them reality. With the Taoist, however, whatever has existence cannot be real, for whatever exists also suffers from the limitations of the specific. tr. by. DC. Lau[xxxv]
Taoism and Confucianism (the two main branches of Chinese philosophy), both hold the same paradoxical approach to reality: ‘thingness’ is specific and illusory, and keeps us from the real thing itself. Drawn to this idea of oneness, we are fragmented beings living with opposites: being and not being, true and untrue, I and thou, life and death.These ideas originate, as far as we can tell, in the extremely old book, the I Ching. Thought to be from the late 9thcentury BC, it’s based on the hypothesis of the oneness of man and the surrounding cosmos, but also the ying and yang duality that frames our experience and keeps us from being this idea we call ‘one’. [xxxvi]
The name that can be named is not the eternal name. Lao Tzu [xxxvii]
In Taoism, there is the concept of the Way, or the Tao, meaning ‘the path’, and refers to both a way of living as well as a way of thinking about living. The Chinese character for Tao is comprised of a few central ideas. The first part refers to the idea that we are forced to live with duality, and is represented by the yin-yang: known and unknown, finite and infinite, chaos and order. The symbol for ‘oneself’ is found in the Chinese Tao character as well, and speaks to the idea that the Tao, or the path, is within us. The last part means ‘to go’ or ‘to act’, and suggests that the Taoist doesn’t need to look for external authority to achieve balance, instead only needs the self. In this sense, it is recommended that we model ourselves, not after a certain thing or idol or saviour, but after something that is far more elusive: the underlying order of the universe.
There are essentially two ways to think of the Tao. One is to understand it as a Way of thinking and acting in order that we might live the best kind of life and obtain optimal psychological well-being. It’s an aspect of the Tao that can be talked about and practiced. The second way of understanding the Tao is metaphysically. This Way is vague and can’t be properly penetrated by language, since the Tao is that very thing can’t be talked about or understood: a pre-fragmented condition on which all life came to be.
Thus we can see that no term can be applied to the Tao because all terms are specific, and the specific, if applied to the Tao, will impose a limitation on the range of its function. And the Tao that is limited in its function can no longer serve as the Tao that sustains the manifold universe. tr. D.C. Lau[xxxviii]
That first way of understanding the Tao, as difficult as it is, is to live in accordance with it, which is to practice what the Taoists call wu-wei. In English, this translates roughly into ‘non-doing’, or ‘action through non-action’, or ‘effortless action’: one tries to model oneself after, and accept, the natural laws of the universe, living in harmony with them as much as possible. How does one do this? It is indeed a strange and difficult endeavor, and a lifelong project for even the most disciplined individual. The Taoists say that looking for the natural rhythms and balance of nature, seeing nature not as inherently good or bad, but as a balanced state of order and chaos, is a good start to modeling one’s behaviour and thought. We are taught to attempt to attune to an order or stillness behind the chaos of things, and proceed within that frame of mind and behaviour. As Lao Tzu saw it, nature does not hurry and yet everything gets accomplished.[xxxix]Abstract? Sure. But these ideas resonate for many, helping them formulate a Way to approach their lives.
The highest good is like water. Water gives life to the ten thousand things and yet it does not compete. It dwells in places the masses of people detest. And so it is like the Tao. Lao Tzu [xl]
Wu-wei in no way implies laziness, but instead refers to the paradox: the way never acts, and yet nothing is left undone.[xli]Rather than being a lesson in inaction, wu-wei suggests acting as effortlessly as possible.
A good man seems to do little or naught, yet he leaves nothing undone. A foolish man must always strive, whilst leaving much undone. Lao Tzu[xlii]
Attaining this requires a person that can, to some degree, achieve a state where effort and effortlessness flow together. It requires a mind that can focus attention on the present moment, instead of avoiding it. To not distract oneself, but instead learn to sit with the discomforts of life with more ease, check perspective with more clarity, and perhaps be more at peace in the midst of daily tasks.
Alternatively to this model of life, the modern story reinforces a mind/body separation. It’s interested in testable certainties, external validations, and market-driven distractions that keep us from what some might call a simpler Way of life. Taoist insights and lifestyle choices are rarely found these days, trampled on by our conceptions of what value is, what knowledge is, and where it can take us.
The person who thinks he has found the ultimate truth is wrong. There is an often-quoted verse in Sanskrit, which appears in the Chinese Tao-te Ching as well: He who thinks he knows, doesn't know. He who knows that he doesn't know, knows. For in this context, to know is not to know. And to not know is to know. Campbell[xliii]
Jacques Lacan Interprets Reality
The real is what resists symbolization absolutely. Lacan[xliv]
Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) was a French psychoanalyst from Paris, France, and categorized mental functioning into three orders: the ‘imaginary’, the ‘symbolic’, and the ‘real’.
Lacan theorized that our egos are conceived and born in the imaginary order, where we go through what he calls the mirror stage. It is so named because in this stage, during infancy, we get the first sense of subjectivity and separateness. We look in the mirror and see ourselves for the fist time: ‘I am not my mother’ we claim for the fist time. This realization, says Lacan, is what gives rise to our ‘person’ - we see our reflection, we recognize our selves as just that, a self, distinct from things that we are not.