Form and Formlessness

I bought a book about comparative mysticism recently.

Most of it is familiar territory. I’ve read a lot on comparative mysticism, and I’ve made my own comparisons of various mystics. But what attracted me to this book was the author’s analysis of thought and sensation in the context of “form and formlessness”. You can read about it here, but it is lengthy and intense:

What’s so special about this analysis?

Well, mysticism is a fairly esoteric field, and while there are plenty of people espousing various theories and interpretations, it is extremely rare to find a genuine entryway into these esoteric concepts. Many mystics have offered descriptions and idiosyncratic instructions based on their own experiences, but often their language is metaphorical or dependent on their own temperament or religious context.


The essence of the article is that our experience of an object consists of various sensory impressions of that object plus a thought about the object’s existence.

The author uses a gong as his example: you can see it, hear it, touch it, taste it, and smell it. But each of these impressions is transient, and furthermore they are all quite distinct from one another.

If you close your eyes and refrain from other interaction with the gong, how do you know it is there?

You don’t. Nonetheless, we all tend to hold an impression or thought or idea of the gong in our mind like a place-holder for the ‘real’ object. We think “there’s a gong there”, even though we no longer have any experience of the gong.

In fact, this idea of the gong also informs our experience of it: the distinct sensory impressions are all bundled together with this “gong” idea.

Yet the gong idea and all the sensory impressions are ultimately just thoughts – just mental impressions, and we know nothing about the reality beyond them.

All thoughts and sensory impressions are transient, impermanent forms that arise and fall within the mind.

Not that we really know what “mind” is either, that’s just another thought form, a pragmatic distinction between different aspects of my experience.


These forms arise out of something that has no form, and when they disappear only formlessness remains.

I must have read about “the space between thoughts” dozens of times, but I never understood its true significance. For one thing, it’s tempting to conceive of this “space” as something special, something that will of itself reveal all the answers we are seeking. But it doesn’t seem to work like that.

The article does a great job of clarifying that this formlessness is indeed entirely without form – we cannot grasp it, cannot conceive of it. It is darkness to the intellect.

It will not appear as something special, but when we understand how special it is, and that it is everywhere – in all the gaps, in all the spaces, within form and without form – then we can start to lay down the delusions, cravings, and selfishness that blight our daily experience.


After all, what is true of the gong is equally true of you. You have your thoughts, your sensory impressions, and you try your utmost day-in day-out to fit them to a more abstract idea of “I exist”.

Descartes famously reasoned that he could not doubt his own existence because the very act of doubting proved he must exist. But more contemporary philosophers have since argued that this is not the case. Instead of “I think therefore I am”, all Descartes can really say is “thinking is happening”.

Like the idea of the gong, we carry around an idea of ourselves that is nothing more than a thought – albeit a very rich, complex, and convoluted one. That is not to say we don’t exist – just that this thought of oneself is not actually a self anymore than the thought of the gong is actually a gong.

The ‘it never happened’ button

Making decisions is strangely difficult for a Melancholic. For reasons I won’t elaborate at this point, we often find ourselves mired in endless loops of hypothetical outcomes and utilitarian calculations, pragmatic considerations clashing with idealistic ones, fate and destiny alternating with existential self-determination.

We might never know what the “right” decision would be, but I’ve nonetheless discovered and created a small collection of heuristics (rules of thumb) to put an end to indecision. I’d like to do a series of posts to help catalog and elaborate on these heuristics and maybe discover more.

Today’s heuristic is the “it never happened” button.

The background

The “it never happened” button was first invented when someone offered me some paid work that I didn’t especially want to do.

The dilemma

Take the work or don’t take the work?

How much do I need the money? Let’s be honest: I always need the money.

Do I want to do the work? Wrong question: should I want to do the work?

It sounds awful…but it could be the start of something bigger! I could look back on this event as the moment my career in X first began!

Don’t you have an obligation to take on paid work so long as it’s not unethical? Aren’t you being a little stubborn, naive, idealistic, soft?

The work is vaguely within your field…isn’t this how people get their big break?

The resolution

The indecision continued for hours and the only progress lay in feeling more conflicted.

I felt like I was trying to arbitrate over two equally compelling, passionate, and reasonable parties, both of whom just happened to be me.

Then, like the wisdom of Solomon, an answer came to me seemingly out of nowhere:

“If you had a magic button that could go back in time and make it so that this person never offered you work in the first place, would you press the button?”

Yes. O God, yes I would press the button.

And in that moment I knew my answer.

The analysis

This heuristic works because it separates the question of “do I want to do this?” from all the associated social challenges of saying “no” to someone, of turning down work, turning down money, and trying to fit seemingly random and unsolicited events into your own sense of a personal journey.

It also implies that saying “no” to something is not going to have devastating and unexpected repercussions.

I’ve used this heuristic in about a half-dozen instances, and each time it has provided a quicker and easier end to the otherwise wearying and self-destructive loops of indecision.

Chances are that if you really want to do something, you won’t feel so conflicted about it in the first place. But if you are conflicted, give the “it never happened” button a try and see if it helps.

Finding your inner Trump

My latest piece on MercatorNet is part of a first foray into the four temperaments theory:

If you want to know what an extreme choleric looks like, start with Donald Trump.

If an ancient Greek physician met Donald Trump, they would be deeply concerned. Not for any of the usual reasons, but because Trump’s behaviour and appearance would be viewed as indicating a severe excess of yellow bile – a terrible imbalance of humour with associated medical complaints.

On the psychological level Trump is an excellent specimen of an extreme choleric. He is proud, ambitious, audacious, thin-skinned, aggressive, bullying, self-absorbed, energetic, and individualistic.

There’s a little bit of Trump in all of us, but more so (much more so) in others of the choleric temperament.

Are hate crimes motivated by hate?

My latest article at MercatorNet began as a serious self-examination.

A reader had accused me of writing articles that contribute to, or validate, homophobia in the broader community and hence hate crimes.

This despite my articles also disavowing hate crimes, violence, and animosity.  The conclusion seems to be one cannot even dissent reasonably and in good faith from LGBT narratives, constructs and goals without being implicated in atrocities like Orlando.

But I wanted to be sure, so I applied the principles of formal and material cooperation in evil to the problem. Along the way, I found some surprising research into the motivations behind anti-gay violence.

the popular view is that hate crimes must be motivated by hate. Our folk psychology tells us that it takes a small amount of animosity and prejudice to say something rude or demeaning about homosexuality, a fortiori those who commit violent anti-gay assault and even murder must be driven by proportionately greater animosity and prejudice.

Instead Franklin’s research suggests that animosity and prejudice are, at best, incomplete descriptors of anti-gay violence. If people can commit anti-gay violence while being self-professed supporters of gay rights, then the popular understanding of anti-gay violence must be flawed.

Election ’16

In my latest article at MercatorNet, I play “spot the pattern” with Australian politics.
Why don’t you play? It goes: Rudd-Gillard-Rudd; Abbott-Turnbull…?
One has to wonder if the participants in this grand farce of Federal politics ever stop, stare at the heavens and ask themselves what immense and powerful forces are directing their movements. Because it seems too improbable that having lambasted Labor for its leadership woes, the Liberal party could unwittingly steer itself down the exact same course.

Racism and homophobia

In my previous article at MercatorNet I was labelled more insidious than a Southern Baptist preacher. I don’t know much about Southern Baptist preachers, so in all honesty I’m not sure if that makes me very insidious, or just a little. But given the tone of the debate, it seemed about time to reflect a little more deeply on the nature of our intellectual disagreements:

many people believe that a hidden or clandestine animosity or prejudice is the underlying motive of people who oppose or dissent from various aspects of the LGB agenda.

In my case it means that although I state I am sceptical of how the concepts of sexual orientation and sexual identity are constructed, and I am therefore sceptical of derivative phenomena like same-sex marriage, some people will nonetheless argue that I am secretly motivated by animosity and prejudice toward homosexuality – that I am in fact homophobic…

Dispassionate thinkers should be able to see both sides and understand the nature of the disagreement. But most of us are not dispassionate thinkers, and the public debate is littered with activists on both sides. Non-activists, like pacifists in the middle of a war-zone, are liable to take fire regardless of their motives and intentions.

Disavowals of homophobia will not satisfy activists who lack the capacity or the will to understand the real points of contention. But if those of us who disagree with the LGBT movement are to remain dispassionate thinkers, then we can’t blame them for this failing either.


Not your grandfather’s transgenderism

My latest piece at MercatorNet was actually written several weeks ago in an attempt to resolve some of the confusion surrounding transgenderism:

Transgenderism operates on two levels.

The basic level is how most of the public seem to understand it: transgender means a man becoming a woman or a woman becoming a man. It’s associated with sex change, and the social expectation is that the rest of us “play along” with the change so as not to embarrass the transgender person and give the game away. If they’re lucky, they can pull off the transition and everyone will just assume the man is actually a woman or the woman actually a man…

But there’s a more complex level of Transgenderism as well, and this complex level is not about a man becoming a woman or a woman becoming a man. Instead it is about breaking the connection between gender as a social construct and biological sex. It’s a different paradigm from the basic, popular understanding. This is not your grandfather’s Transgenderism.

Who owns the horror?

My latest piece at MercatorNet simply tries to sift through the confusion and conflict in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre.

When responding to a tragedy, people generally and the media in particular turn to pre-existing narratives to inform their responses. And despite the obviously homophobic nature of this attack, mass murder of homosexuals is simply not a common or contemporary narrative for the public to adopt…

In other contexts we are applauded for showing solidarity with the LGBT community, for being “blind” to sexual orientation. But in this instance otherwise well-meaning and ideologically aligned people have picked the wrong kind of solidarity, a solidarity that normalises the LGBT community but in the process diminishes the specifically homophobic nature of the attack. This conflicts with the LGBT community’s own narrative of victimisation, in which the massacre is an extension of homophobic violence more generally.

T comes right after LGB

My Paypal piece received mixed reviews, but my editor at MercatorNet liked it enough to republish it, whereupon the consensus from commenters was that I had either written a piece of satire, or the most deeply anti-gay screed ever published on that site.

The beauty of art appreciation is that there are no wrong answers. I guess that applies to article appreciation as well. Puts a different spin on internet comments, n’est-ce pas?

Anyhow, my latest piece at MercatorNet is a brief response to the apparent acceleration of the sexual revolution. We’re only in June and already it feels like Transgender Appreciation Month. My how time flies when you’re re-engineering social constructs of gender.