Ghost in the Shell: what is it really about?

I’ve been a bit slow on updates since the arrival of our baby girl a couple of months ago.

Nothing quite like regularly-interrupted sleep to trim one’s creative efforts!

But someone ‘liked’ my previous post on Ghost in the Shell, and that reminded me I’d intended to write a follow-up post on it.

(That’s not true. I’m melancholic, so I didn’t need reminding. I’ve been constantly berating myself for not having done it yet).

I originally wanted to write about the character of the Major, what makes her a good character in the anime movie and SAC series, and why these features didn’t translate into the Hollywood adaptation from 2017.

But as I thought about the Major, I realised that what makes her character successful has as much to do with the plot and themes of Ghost in the Shell as it does the character itself.

What is Ghost in the Shell about?

Ghost in the Shell contains numerous themes.

It showcases great action scenes, political intrigue, geopolitics, the widespread impact of new technology, and philosophical and personal questions of identity.

People will draw out different aspects. For example, many fans of the original anime were moved by the explicit engagement with philosophical questions raised by cyborgisation and artificial intelligence.

But that doesn’t mean Ghost in the Shell is “about” philosophy, any more than it’s about the unrequited affection between Batou and the Major.

Rather, what makes Ghost in the Shell so compelling to its fans is that even the profound question of personal identity is just a secondary theme.

The Major wonders about her identity – not her biography, but whether she is, or can remain, the same person over time despite changes to her body, and the further implications of the digitisation of human memory.

But Ghost in the Shell is not about the Major’s identity.

Sci-fi vs Drama

The Hollywood adaptation contains many of the same themes as the anime movie and SAC series, but the priorities are different.

The adaptation features corporate-political intrigue, examines the impact of the new technology of cyborgisation and includes crime-solving and numerous action scenes; but the central theme of the movie is the Major’s personal identity, as in, her true biography.

The adaptation brings the Major’s personal drama to the foreground, and relegates the science-fiction aspects to background or setting.

The movie uses cyborgisation as the pretext for the Major’s identity crisis, but the loss of her memories is not intrinsic to the cyborgisation process.

We could remove cyborgisation from the story altogether, remove all the sci-fi elements, and still have the movie be about loss of identity through loss of biographical memory and an altered appearance.

Real Sci-fi

By contrast, the original anime and SAC series downplay personal drama. Questions of personal identity are raised in both, yet really only enough to show that, yes, there are questions of personal identity raised by this new technology.

How could the original anime raise such interesting questions and not pursue them as central to the plot?

There are actually two good reasons:

Firstly, questions of personal identity might be interesting in a philosophical context, but they would make for a very dry and uninspired movie unless they were dramatised.

Philosophy is an academic discipline, not a performance art; and it’s likely that viewers who are intrigued by the intellectual aspect of identity would be turned off by a dramatic portrayal of a character in the midst of an identity crisis.

Which is likely one reason why fans were less than enthused by the Hollywood adaptation.

Secondly, the original anime didn’t explore the questions of identity further because it is about something else.

The original anime is driven by sci-fi, not drama. And while it takes place in a world full of cyborgisation, an expansive internet, and tanks with legs!, these technologies are just the setting or background for the technology that really drives the plot: artificial intelligence.

It may sound underwhelming or even a little quaint these days, but the big reveal of the Ghost in the Shell anime is the existence of a sentient being who evolved from an espionage program created by Section 6, an intelligence unit under Foreign Affairs.

Project 2501 or “the Puppet Master” gains sentience and realises that in order to survive it must, like all species, find a way to reproduce itself. To that end it offers to merge with the Major, the two of them becoming a new entity.

Technology drives Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell depicts a complete and believable future world in which the emergence of a sentient AI seems plausible.

The other themes of the original anime are either directly or indirectly subordinate to the science fiction question: what would a sentient AI be like? What would it do? How would the world respond to it?

Political intrigue is involved in both the creation of Project 2501 and subsequent attempts to control or destroy it, where it is viewed not as a “living thinking entity” but as a computer program with a functional purpose, touching on the question of what constitutes “life” and the foundation of individual rights.

When the Puppet Master escapes to Section 9, it demands political asylum, leading to this exchange with its former master Nakamura:

Nakamura: Ridiculous! It’s programmed for self-preservation!

Puppet Master: It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So man is an individual only because of his intangible memory. But memory cannot be defined, yet it defines mankind. The advent of computers and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought, parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.

This is the core of the anime movie, what it is really about.

The creation of this “new system of memory and thought” is highlighted by the Puppet Master’s use of a cyborg body similar to that of the Major.

It underscores the Major’s previous doubts about her own identity:

I guess cyborgs like myself have a tendency to be paranoid about our origins. Sometimes I suspect I am not who I think I am, like maybe I died a long time ago and somebody took my brain and stuck it in this body. Maybe there never was a real me in the first place, and I’m completely synthetic like that thing.

But once again the drama is downplayed. This isn’t about the Major’s existential crisis, it’s about the Puppet Master. So the conversation continues along philosophical lines:

Major Motoko Kusanagi: But that’s just it, that’s the only thing that makes me feel human. The way I’m treated. I mean, who knows what’s inside our heads? Have you ever seen your own brain?

Batou: It sounds to me like you’re doubting your own ghost.

Major Motoko Kusanagi: What if a cyber brain could possibly generate its own ghost, create a soul all by itself? And if it did, just what would be the importance of being human then?

Adaptation-failure

The Hollywood adaptation earned some respect from fans for its attempt to reproduce the look and feel of the anime movie and SAC series. But ultimately it disappointed fans because it missed what Ghost in the Shell is really about.

The Hollywood adaptation took a secondary theme of the original anime and used it as the basis for a drama about personal identity in a sci-fi setting.

The adaptation couldn’t help but seem thin by comparison.

It might have been better for Hollywood to have aimed to create a new installment in the franchise rather than an adaptation. What sets the original anime and the SAC series apart is that they each contain a core technological theme that drives the entire plot.

SAC series one is about the phenomenon of the “Stand Alone Complex”, which, like Project 2501, originated in a context of political/corporate intrigue and then took on a life of its own.

I won’t go into series two due to its complexity and risk of spoilers, but it’s noteworthy that the more recent Arise anime series seemed to focus on an origin-story rather than a core sci-fi theme, and like the Hollywood adaptation it too missed the essence of the franchise (and the esteem of the fans!).

Now that we’ve seen what Ghost in the Shell is really about, my next post will look at the character of the Major, and why it works.

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Learning to feel better

It’s been a while since I last posted. We’ve been a bit preoccupied with our new baby, and some days my ability to put words together seems to have deserted me entirely.

In the meantime I’ve been working more on positive thinking, and experimenting with how changing my thoughts can change my feelings and my whole experience of life.

Thoughts that feel good

Being interested in mysticism and spiritual traditions gives me a different perspective on this stuff.

But in a way, thinking about God, ultimate reality, metaphysics and so on becomes just another interesting topic that I can feel good about.

It’s very easy to feel good when thinking about the divine being that underlies all reality, and ultimately the metaphysical implications of (good) positive thinking material seems easily reconcilable with my own understanding derived from comparative mysticism.

So at the moment I seem to be relying on two processes or ways of improving my thoughts.

The first is to take that transcendent, divine perspective and see that “Everything is perfect exactly as it is”.

The point of this is that if you appreciate everything as perfect, you get better at doing that, whereas we usually focus on the problems and irritations in life, which means we’re highly practiced at finding faults.

The positive thinking stuff points out that if we practice finding faults then we’ll continue to find more faults, create more faulty situations, and fail to see how situations are actually perfect for us.

But if we start looking for things to appreciate, we become more skilled at finding things to appreciate, creating appreciable situations, and increasingly fail to see faults and obstacles in our lives.

Typically we avoid doing this, because we assume that reality is a fixed, objective thing “out there”, and our experience is more or less an accurate reflection of that reality.

I used to think this as well….or at least, I acted as though it were true despite my broader theoretical understanding.

But in the past few months I’ve proven to my own satisfaction that it isn’t true at all.

I’ve found that if I change my thoughts – my actual thoughts – on a given topic, I feel differently about it, and mysteriously my experience of that topic changes in ways that I would have thought defied reality.

In brief, things have gone better, because I changed my thoughts in ways that made me feel better.

Obviously I don’t mean that I simply told myself falsely optimistic things and tried to believe them. That doesn’t work.

Thoughts that feel better

What I’ve been doing instead is identifying the thoughts that I genuinely think about a particular topic, and stating them as clearly and as negatively as I fear them to be.

When I do this, part of my automatically comes to my defense, as if bringing those negative thoughts into the light of day shows how incomplete and unwarranted they are.

Sometimes the negative thoughts have turned out to be excessive… For example, thinking “I can’t work out the answer to this problem!” makes me feel bad, but if I think “I haven’t been able to find the answer so far…” then I feel just a tiny bit better about it.

This “tiny bit better” isn’t enough on its own, but at the same time I can choose to take it as evidence that the process works.

It provides evidence that I am able to improve my mood by focusing on more positive thoughts.

That thought in itself is more positive too, and gives me a feeling of hope.

And since I now feel a bit better, I have access to other thoughts that feel better still.

“I haven’t been able to find the answer so far…” “but I’m working on it now with a new approach and a better understanding”, for example.

Again, it’s not a case of just saying stuff that sounds better, if it doesn’t actually feel better then it’s not going to do anything for you.

The whole point is to feel better, after all.

A practiced skill

So I’ve been using these two basic methods: finding thoughts that feel better than my current thoughts, and focusing on a transcendent sense of appreciation, that “everything is perfect exactly as it is”.

The latter works because I believe it on a theoretical level, so it too is an example of focusing on better-feeling thoughts. The reason why this alone is not sufficient is simply that I don’t spend every waking moment on the subject of metaphysics and divine reality.

As my skills increase with practice, I find I’m gradually closing the gap between this transcendent view that everything is perfect exactly as it is, and my views on a range of other subjects.

I’m now much more aware of when I, or other people, focus on things that make us feel bad.

Now that I have the choice to feel better, it’s so much more obvious when I instead focus on the negative.

I’ve also found that I have more of a tendency to look at things according to how I feel about them, rather than the “reality” that is supposedly informing those situations.

For example, if I’m worried about how a brewing process is going, whether I made the right choice with my recipe, I once would have sought reassurance by going over the procedure and revisiting my decision-making process.

Now I’m more likely to notice that this worry doesn’t feel good, and become conscious of where I’m putting my focus. Am I focusing on not screwing up the brewing process and the many ways it could go wrong? Well no wonder it feels bad. Why not focus instead on the final product and wonder how good it is going to taste?

Again, this is not a case of wishful thinking, it’s a deliberate choice to change my focus, emboldened by the knowledge that the resultant experience is far far more malleable than we imagine.

Telling yourself “it doesn’t matter, how you think won’t change the outcome” is simply not true.

Be good to yourself

Underlying all of this is an intention or decision to feel better, and to put feeling better at the forefront of your concerns.

That’s one of the things that struck me when I examined some of my negative thoughts….before I even thought to rebut it or provide counter-arguments, I was struck simply by how cruel and unwarranted the negative thought was.

If someone said your most negative thoughts to you, you’d be taken aback by the hostility and apparent malice or lack of empathy within them. But we tell ourselves these things all the time.

That’s why the choice to feel better and make that the measure of your thoughts and focus is such an important first step.

What is reality, really?

The basic premise of “positive thinking” is that “your thoughts create your reality”.

One of the obstacles I’ve encountered is a narrow or limited interpretation of “reality”.

In the beginning I think I intentionally partitioned “the reality shaped by my thoughts” off from “actual reality”, because…well let’s face it: positive thinking material sounds like cringe-worthy new-age rubbish.

But at the same time I knew from philosophy of mind and psychology that our beliefs do shape our mood and our experience, and that our perceptions are highly malleable.

I also knew from personal experience that a change in belief or perception can have results that seem nigh-miraculous.

And because of my broader spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, I don’t have any trouble with the idea of actual miracles either.

But still, I maintained a kind of distinction between the “reality” I was seeking to change, and actual reality; and this distinction is problematic.

It’s problematic because if I can conceive of a reality apart from my all-encompassing experience of reality, then I can have thoughts and beliefs about that “real reality” that contradict or undermine what I’m trying to achieve in changing my thoughts.

So long as I hold on to a distinction between subjective and objective reality, there’s going to be some wriggle room or ambiguity in my work.

It’s the same as my recovery from my auto-immune disease. For a long time I investigated the psychogenic aspect of it, while still refusing to commit to a psychogenic cause. Once I finally accepted that the cause was psychological, only then did I make progress in overcoming the pain.

I only improved once I chose to believe that my physical symptoms were an expression of psychological stress.

So what is reality?

It’s a tautology, but I can’t experience anything beyond my own subjective experience.

Etymologically, “reality” comes from “res” which means “thing”.

Reality is just “all the things”.

We can’t disprove the subjectivist position that things only exist in our own experience of them, nor the skeptical position that we cannot know anything about reality beyond our experience of it, nor even the solipsist position that all reality might well exist only within my own mind.

Philosophers can argue about it, but we aren’t really looking for a philosophical position here.

What we’re looking for is the relationship between our thoughts, our feelings, and “all the things” of our experience.

What we want is to feel better, with the understanding that we have the power to change our feelings by changing our thoughts, and that this in turn will change our experience.

There’s only one “thing”

The testimony of mystics is that “all the things” are really just one thing — the expression and manifestation of a single divine being.

Our suffering and misery as humans comes from the identifying or “reification” of the one into many, and the attribution of independent existence and power to those many things – ourselves included.

Independence and separation give rise to thoughts of abandonment, of harm, of things going wrong. The moment we start thinking that we exist in a world of isolated things, we lose the freedom and grace of the divine spirit within us.

The metaphysical significance or “divine plan” behind delusion, sin, and evil varies between religions, but the important point is that it isn’t real, it doesn’t have independent existence; the divine alone exists.

When we think of reality as something “out there” with independent existence, and maybe (as my previous post explored) malicious or callous or corrosive to our well-being, we suffer.

We suffer just from thinking of it that way, let alone shifting our perception to seek out evidence that it is that way.

If I view “all the things” as existing out there, with their own independent existence and power, and I myself striving and struggling against them, then of course I feel bad.

What are “all the things” really? They are aspects of my experience, objects of my consciousness, forms and ingredients of this mysterious stream of awareness.

Do they really have their own existence, their own power?

Two realities become one

All my negative experiences have in common a kind of deference to external reality and power, a falling-back into the thought of things “out there” that aren’t the way I want them to be.

I view things as having their own existence and power, and therefore I imagine potential negative consequences if I don’t respond to them in the correct way.

Providence, grace, insight, wisdom, there are various names for it in different traditions, but altogether there’s a common understanding that the power of the divine, the one thing that actually exists, transcends and entirely overcomes the flawed sense that I’m an isolated human being struggling in a multifarious universe.

That’s why detachment, recollection, withdrawal from “worldly” concerns is a prominent theme in mysticism. But not for its own sake, only to allow us to come into alignment with the one.

In terms of “positive thinking” that means changing our thoughts to allow for providence or divine help to come to the fore in our experience, filling in all the gaps and drawing us into the flow that has always awaited us.

Practicing (un)Happiness

Working on improving my mood these past months has had some results, but in typical melancholic fashion I’ve resisted doing it systematically because I can’t ‘see’ the whole system clearly yet.

Nonetheless I’ve gotten to a point where I can slightly shift what I call my ‘baseline’ mood. My baseline mood is how I feel about life generally when I’m not focusing on any particular topic.

If I pay attention, I can imagine life being “perfect” exactly as it is right now, and how that would feel. Previously my baseline mood has been dominated by a sense that things are far from perfect, that there are many many aspects of my life that need to change before I can be happy.

But this is the kind of conditional happiness that can never be fulfilled. It’s systemic unhappiness, and I’m beginning to see that my automatic behaviour in everyday life keeps the dissatisfaction alive.

If you feel bad, you will more easily find things to focus on that perpetuate bad feelings.

If you feel good, you will more easily find things that perpetuate good feelings; but for now “feeling good” is the exception rather than the rule.

Expecting bad things to happen

Because I’ve been working on feeling that life is “perfect and getting better”, I’ve been more and more aware of the daily habits of thought and attention that contradict this feeling.

This is a good sign, because it means I’m no longer accepting these thoughts so easily. It’s as if I’ve been going along with a current, and now I’m turning in a different direction.

My baseline mood has previously been influenced by the expectation of bad things happening. Not terrible, awful, objectively bad events; more like repeated irritations, nuisances, and unthinking insults from a world that is essentially unsympathetic.

It’s the kind of feeling you might have if your home had been built and designed without any consideration for human habitation or comfort, and when you went to complain you were told “What did you expect?”

It’s the kind of feeling you might have if you went on to discover that this is just how homes are built…that it’s cheaper and easier and more convenient to build them like this, and everyone else accepts it.

They might have doors that don’t shut, windows that don’t open, uneven floors, kitchen benches too low, shower too small, and a thousand other gratuitous insults to basic use, but what did you expect? You would be a fool to expect any better.

That perspective doesn’t feel very good. The implication is that you don’t matter, that no one cares, and that your complaints are entirely invalid.

This is just the way it is, that’s all. Resisting, complaining, or wanting it to be different is a waste of energy at best and a moral failing at worst. Or so you think.

Do I need to add that this makes for a depressing experience of life?

Expecting good things to happen

Lot’s of people try positive thinking, imagining that if they repeat the right words or try to fake feeling good they’ll magically transform their life.

But if you consider my negative worldview as sketched above, you can see that it’s not just about good things or bad things occurring. It’s more about the deeper orientation of reality toward us.

If you think reality has a persistently corrosive effect on your experience then it doesn’t really matter what isolated “good things” happen to you.

“Positive thinking” is not some new power to be wielded against a callous universe; it’s more a realisation of the thoughts and feelings that make the universe seem callous – or compassionate – in the first place.

In every religious system reality itself is oriented toward the good, toward happiness, toward life. Evil, sin, suffering and death are metaphysically subordinate to good, happiness, life – and existence itself.

The idea that existence or reality itself is callous and unfeeling is not true, and the ensuing expectation that bad things will happen is likewise false.

This belief and expectation is instead  a form of resistance or delusion, and it is kept alive in our own minds with repeated efforts and re-iterations.

If we forgot to keep looking for bad things or disappointments, this belief and expectation would grow weak.

But instead we practice it more assiduously than anything in life, continually reasserting that the universe itself insists on your being unhappy.

You can try it for yourself: start looking for good things to appreciate in your life, and see how quickly your thoughts turn to problems, mistakes, fears, and failings.

Some people find it easy to practice correcting themselves at this level. For me – maybe for melancholics generally – it feels better to identify the underlying worldview and look to correcting that, before seeking to change the ensuing habits of thought.

Here my background in religious and spiritual systems helps a lot, because I already know intellectually that existence is fundamentally good. My negative belief can’t reconcile itself with my deeper knowledge…the negative can only persist because I tend not to give it my full attention.

Bespoke Artisanal Handcrafted English

In writing my latest MercatorNet article I wanted to use the adjectival form of “penance”.

Penance is “punishment inflicted on oneself as an outward expression of repentance for wrongdoing.”

Such punishment could be described as….what exactly?

The first thought is “penitent”, but penitent is the adjectival (and nominal) form of “penitence”.

Penitence isn’t penance exactly, rather it’s “the action of feeling or showing sorrow and regret for having done wrong”.

Historically it looks like penitence had the adjectival form penitent, which then became the nominal form (“the penitent person” becomes simply “the penitent”).

The alternative adjectival form “penitential” came a bit later, borrowing directly from the Latin adjective.

Penance came indirectly from the same Latin as penitence, via Anglo-French, but there doesn’t appear to be any adjectival form available.

The pattern of penitence would suggest “penant” as the adjectival form of penance.

The only reference I can find to such a word is the nominal form in Chaucer: penant – one who does penance.

I ended up using “penant” as an adjective in my article. “Penant qualities”, for example, and I have to say I’m unrepentant.

Law of attraction vs principle of reflection

I first came across the law of attraction years ago, during the hype around ‘The Secret’ book and movie.

It had some appeal, since I’ve always felt there was more to life and reality than our conventional experience. I’d studied philosophy, delved into mysticism, metaphysics, and psychology, and while much ‘New Age’ stuff is dubious, there’s a clear extension of themes and efforts from religious and spiritual traditions into the supposedly new realm of New Age material.

A few years back, while feeling far more cynical, I looked into the history of the New Age movement and found that much of it could be traced back to the New Thought movement, which in turn was a kind of esoteric re-working of Christianity. New Thought emerged from the same roots as Christian Science.

What bothered me initially about the law of attraction was that it didn’t seem to work, and I ended up quite skeptical of it.

But then a few years ago I began to notice something unusual in my life. I’d spent a lot of time introspecting and had become aware of certain patterns of thought, feeling, and behaviour in me.

Those patterns were quite familiar, but what changed is that I came to realise the more important events and interactions in my life were following the same patterns.

That in itself is not necessarily mysterious. What was mysterious was that when I recognised what was going on – that my experience of life was reflecting these inner patterns of thought and feeling – everything shifted.

Although it seemed that my external experience was making me feel anxious or sad or angry or frustrated, the truth was that I already had within me that pattern or dynamic of negative feeling, and I was somehow recreating it in my external experience.

I came to think of this not as “attraction” but as “reflection”, but the point is probably moot.

More recently I’ve discovered that the better exponents of the “law of attraction” are actually focused on the quality of our feelings moreso than the promise of getting rich and having the life you want.

Or more to the point, they argue that having the life you want is first and foremost about being happy, not about feeling dependent on external experiences to overcome your negative emotional set-point.

With a “trigger warning” for those averse to New Age/New Thought material, what I’ve found the most helpful is the writing of a woman named Esther Hicks. As far as New Age contexts go, Hicks is unapologetically far out there. But I have to admit that once I got past the cringe, I’ve found the underlying message to be extremely helpful.

The message, in essence, is to feel better. Feeling better is achieved by focusing on things that feel good instead of things that feel bad.

As someone who has spent most of his life feeling bad, I find this message breathtaking in its scope and significance. If you’ve followed my posts on introverted Feeling in the Myers-Briggs system, this approach is perhaps the ultimate Fi-dominant attitude to life.

If you’ve followed my posts on the idealism of the melancholic temperament, you’ll find that this approach to life fully embraces the melancholic genius, by depreciating “reality” in favour of the meaning and ideals that we yearn for.

Who would have thought that you could find happiness by focusing on the things that make you happy?

But whereas this might sound like willful ignorance or blindness to life’s problems, the knowledge that life reflects your own internal dynamic means that finding happiness is also the most effective way to improve your life and the lives of those around you.

I’ve seen in my own life that recurring negative patterns of experience are inescapable. We keep recreating them, because they reflect an unexamined and uncontested internal dynamic.

As I explored in my previous post: you could say of any persistently negative, recurring situation or feeling that even though you don’t like it or enjoy it, you do want it. It is the outcome or net product of one or more forgotten or unexamined desires within you.

If you feel bad all the time, there is part of you that either wants to feel bad, or needs you to feel bad as a means of achieving something else that you want. Maybe you value your identity as a martyr or victim? You can’t have that identity without feeling martyred or victimised.

Maybe you like to feel that you’re part of a special minority who alone know the truth? You can’t have that unless you’re surrounded by an ignorant majority that reject your truth.

These thoughts might make you feel good, but only in the context of feeling bad. To feel unconditionally good is therefore impossible unless you give up these aspects of your identity.

My focus on feeling good has already shown me myriad ways in which I instead choose to feel bad. One of the most insidious is that I identify myself with a kind of inward struggle. Identifying with struggle is implicitly endless….if I see myself as one who finds answers or overcomes obstacles, I’ll spend the rest of my life finding questions I need to answer and obstacles I need to overcome.

The real answer is very simple. Just feel good.

For me that currently seems to involve equal parts letting go of negative thoughts and briefly analysing negative thoughts. Some seem to require a bit of patience and untangling, but I think it’s increasingly just a matter of letting go.

When I feel bad, do I really need to know why I feel bad? It’s far more important to know how to feel good.

And typically, actually feeling good helps you transcend the problem, making it all clearer in hindsight than you could ever make it by dwelling on the negative part of your experience.

Not-love: the paradox of evil

The Christian tradition’s best minds concluded that evil has no existence in and of itself.

Contrary to supernatural-themed horror films and “folk theology”, there is no substance called evil that exists anywhere in the universe, corrupting people and causing bad things to happen.

Instead evil is defined as privation or absence of the good, in the same way that darkness is simply the absence of light and cold the absence of heat.

In broad strokes, consider what happened in Genesis:

God created everything, and at each stage saw that it was good. So we have the creator, the ultimate authority, giving each aspect of creation the stamp of approval.

We have God observing Adam and saying “it is not good for the man to be alone”, which is the first instance of something “not good” in creation. Note that God didn’t create the “not good” directly; it is presented as a foreseeable but unintended outcome of good actions, and is soon remedied by the creation of Eve.

So everything is good, and the only “not good” is immediately remedied by God, and everything is good again.

God is love

The significance of everything being good is made apparent when we find out much, much later that God is love. The New Testament reveals that the nature of God is love itself, and God’s love for humanity is expressed in His desire to give us good things, the greatest good being communion with God in love.

Hence “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

The problem of evil

The problem is that despite the assurance of an all-powerful all-loving God, our experience of life contains many things that are not good.

Reading the news and talking to others, we hear about things that are even worse than “not good”, things that are tragic, horrific, and evil.

There may even be things in our own experience we can categorise as evil. But more broadly, anything “not good” comes under that category. As in Buddhism, life itself can seem “unsatisfactory” even if we achieve our goals and satisfy our desires.

The promise of mysticism

Mystics from different religious systems promise that we can experience true love, joy, or bliss in this lifetime. Various saints and mystics have said that they experience great love and joy despite the apparent suffering and evil in life.

They say we can experience this transcendent love, joy, bliss, peace, and so on, because it is the very nature of God, and God is, ultimately, all that exists.

The mystics grapple with paradox in trying to convey their answer to the problem of evil: if God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does he permit evil to exist?

For a mystic, the question has a slightly different angle: if God is love, and God is all, how can there be anything other than love in my experience?

This problem arises in every system of mysticism.

Troubleshooting my own experience

The fundamental question is not theological but pragmatic: why is my experience anything less than the love and joy described by the mystics?

But the pragmatic question is also theological: how is it possible for there to be anything but love and joy in my experience?

The Christian remedy is to love and know God. Non-Christian mysticism echoes the same, with varying emphasis on love or knowledge of the ultimate reality.

But this answer is not complete, because there remains in me something that resists or fails to embrace love and knowledge of God to the necessary degree.

A two-fold problem

So here it is: I need to know pragmatically why I am unable to fully and consistently embrace love and knowledge of God to such an extent that my experience is characterised by perfect love and complete joy.

At the same time this brings us back to the theological problem of how anything other than love and joy could exist in the first place. In other words, the problem of evil.

This is not just a Christian problem. Non-dualist systems like Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta struggle with the same fundamental issue. They posit that the nature of reality is non-dual – that the sense of separation between ourselves and God or the ultimate reality is false. But how does this sense of separation arise in the first place? What sustains it? How can “ignorance” or “nescience” or “delusion” exist if there is nothing but God?

Back to a Christian context: if God made everything good, why do human beings suffer?

I’m skirting around a whole lot of theology here, not because I want to avoid it, but because it faces the same problem from a different angle and I’d prefer to steer clear of the free will debate for now.

Knowledge of good and evil

The answer lies in the very mysterious tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Adam is commanded not to eat of the tree. The serpent tells Eve that if she eats of it she will become like God. God subsequently reiterates that implication…”The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”

But as we saw at the beginning of this post, evil has no positive existence. Evil is the absence of good. Everything in existence up to that point was good, because God himself created it.

So what evil is there to know? We might think this means “evil things” or “evil options” as if the tree gave Adam and Eve the ability to make malicious moral choices.

But in a universe where only good things existed and where an all-loving God is all-powerful, evil could only have theoretical significance.

Questions that should not be asked/how to ‘break’ a perfect machine

My old boss once told me that when he was at university the department still had old mechanical calculators. Apparently if you divide by zero on a mechanical calculator, it goes into an endless loop of calculation and has to be unplugged or switched off to stop it.

There’s nothing wrong with the machine. It isn’t broken. It’s not technically a design flaw. It’s just that when presented with the absurd or impossible command to divide by zero, the machine goes nuts.

But even thought it’s stuck, the machine is still not broken. If you could find a way to stop that calculation, it would be back to normal.

I think this provides an apt analogy for the knowledge of evil in the human mind. Evil is the absence of good, yet it takes on positive significance in our minds.

What I think happened, what Genesis signifies, is that in the fullness of love and communion with God, Adam and Eve entertained the idea of God’s opposite – God’s absence – and the corresponding absence of love, of goodness, of joy.

Maybe God is capable of knowing his absence, but human beings are not God. We aren’t (obviously) sustained by our own nature, but depend instead on God for our existence. God cannot help but be God, but humans could cease to exist at any moment.

An absurd idea

The idea of evil is absurd.

Yet when we entertain this absurd idea, our peace and joy are shattered, our love falters, and like the machine, we go a little nuts.

Our suffering in life, our failure to embrace love and knowledge of God, is due to entertaining this absurd idea: the idea of not-love.

If you spend enough time examining your own psyche, you will find that all fear and sorrow stems from this idea that the love and joy we desire are or will become absent. At the most basic level we are all afraid of the deprivation of love – the idea of “not-love” as a real or potential threat to our happiness and our existence.

In this sense, the more conventional Christian narrative still holds true: our faith in God is insufficient, because we continue to entertain the possibility that his love is not enough, will not come through for us.

We continue, despite the promises of the Gospel, to fear the spectre of God’s absence or insufficiency.

We’re like a young child secretly worried that his parents will abandon him. And as parents we think we should be able to reassure the child that this will never happen; yet the child himself must see that his own fear is not an unlikely or improbable outcome, but an absurdity, a mistaken conclusion that entirely missed the mark.

Light and shadow

God is often described as light. Evil is appropriately compared to darkness.

In this context, our fundamental error is akin to turning your back on the source of the light, and being terrified by your own shadow.

The shadow has no positive existence in the light. It doesn’t even exist. Yet if we mistake it for a real substance, we might imagine it could swallow us whole and we would never see the light again.

But as John wrote: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

The answer therefore is to recognise the absurdity of the idea of God’s absence. God himself could never doubt his existence or his power or his love, and so for us the corresponding answer is faith in love while refusing to entertain the idea of “not-love”.

In practice this means that any negative emotion such as fear, sorrow, anger, and so on, must have the delusion of “not-love” at its core. You might feel hurt that someone ignores or neglects you, but this hurt only has power because of your belief in “not-love”.

You might be angry at some perceived injustice to you, but this anger, and the fear and sorrow behind it can ultimately be traced back to this belief in the idea of “not-love”.

If you ceased to entertain the idea of “not-love” then there would only be love remaining.

“God is love; whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him.”

Do you make your own luck? The Landlord’s sin of pride.

Dtcwee has written an awesome post on one of my favourite topics – Pride.

I’m not a landlord, but his treatment of the subject has broader application. One of my favourite parts:

“We make our own luck” is a popular aphorism among the ignorant. However, Robert Frank has shown that luck plays a far bigger role in our lives than we give it credit for. Also, if you say that you make your own luck, you’re probably ignorant to how much it makes you look like an asshole.

Read the whole thing: http://dtcwee.blogspot.com.au/2017/08/landlord-sins-pride.html

And check out the rest of the series: Envy, Wrath, Greed, Lust, and Gluttony.

Doing the math, I’m expecting one more to complete the set!

Towards a spiritual psychology

I’m very slowly working towards a kind of spiritual psychology or anthropology, based on my reading and experiments over the years.

I hope it will take into account all the variables in my past experience: dealing with things like depression and anxiety, mysticism, cognitive and emotional states, and temperament.

It will be at heart a pragmatic approach, aimed at overcoming the suffering in my own life, and exploring the promises made by various religious teachings about the availability of love, joy, peace, and even bliss in this lifetime.

For me ‘pragmatic’ means I have a goal in mind. I didn’t go looking for answers out of simple curiosity, but because I sensed there was something wrong but had no idea what, how, or why.

So my approach will probably not appeal to many people, just as I’ve failed to find answers in the many popular approaches, theories, and methods available at present. The reason I haven’t become an exponent of any particular system or teaching is that no system or teaching has proven sufficient for me.

A quick sketch

Consciousness is something special.

In some religious systems, consciousness itself is considered divine – part of, or even all of God, right at the heart of your existence.

In others, consciousness is “close to” the divine, and is considered the “true self” or soul, in contrast to the false self, the ego, the accumulated thoughts and impressions that we usually treat as our self.

We could spend a lifetime trying to resolve and explore these theoretical differences, but remember this is a pragmatic effort. Regardless of the exact descriptions or definitions, consciousness is “special” in a good way.

The significance of consciousness is much more obvious in an Eastern context than in a Christian one, but we must bear in mind that the word “consciousness” has only recently been taken to mean what it means in this context. As “a state of being aware” it dates back only so far as the 18th Century.

Years ago I went looking for Aquinas’ perspective on consciousness, but couldn’t find it for the simple reason that Aquinas lived in the 13th Century, and for him conscientia would point to conscience, not consciousness.

In fact conscious is just a derivative of conscience. Both come from con meaning ‘with’ and science meaning “knowledge”. We could just as well say conscient instead of conscious, as in “are you conscient right now?”

The light in the darkness

In the context of mysticism, the specialness and significance of consciousness has been captured in the term “light”, as in “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it”, which is not only a powerful spiritual statement, but also a pretty neat summary of contemporary philosophy of mind and the “hard” problem of consciousness.

Likewise: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.”

We tend to think of evil deeds in concrete ways, as specific actions that contravene divine law.

But in the broader spiritual context it is clear that everything we do is corrupt and insufficient. It is ‘evil’ in a broad sense, and pragmatically this means our efforts are incapable of overcoming suffering or bringing us the happiness we seek.

We needn’t feel condemned for our actions, it’s enough that our actions cannot redeem us. Futility is an evil, just as much as malice.

The evil of human actions encompasses everything from the murderer and rapist all the way up to the proud and spiritually-barren Pharisees. That’s why Christianity presented such an apparent inversion of the moral order – because it doesn’t matter how well-behaved you are if you still have no love in you.

Some people think that light and darkness are metaphors for good and evil. I think it’s the other way around, in the sense that good and evil are ultimately grounded in light and darkness.

Light, love, and maladaptive defense-mechanisms

The ever-present light in us is also love, in that ‘light’ and love are attributes of God. Again, speaking pragmatically rather than seeking theological precision, this mysterious light by which we know the world and our own selves is also the source of divine love.

Yet instead of remaining in that love, we pay greater heed to the world, giving in to doubts and fears.

You can see this very clearly in children.

Young children are (all things being equal) loving towards their parents or caregivers. They give and receive love naturally.

Unfortunately, their parents and caregivers are not consistently loving in return. Our faults and foibles prevent us from responding to the love of our children perfectly.

Children experience this deprivation of love as a threat to their very survival. This makes sense on a biological level – since the child is entirely dependent on its caregivers for food, shelter, and security. But it also makes sense on a spiritual level, since we are told that love, light, and life all come from God.

In the face of this deprivation of love, the child invariably succumbs to doubt and fear, and immediately strives to regain the love it has lost.

This is the root of the problem: succumbing to doubt and fear, and thereby shutting down the immediacy of love in themselves, while then concluding that external conditions (the world) need to be controlled and rearranged before love can return.

In practical terms, this amounts to a child who stops experiencing love because of their parents’ implied or explicit rejection, and then seeks to find a way to regain that parental love and protect themselves from further harm.

The many layers of the psyche

Over many years of making psychological moves to avoid hurt and regain love, the child-teenaged-adult psyche ends up with many complex layers of beliefs, emotions, and choices that all originate in the choice of fear and doubt over love.

What this means is that in theory any of us can at any time feel divine love in our hearts. So long as the light (consciousness) is there, love is there as well. And the light is always with us.

But in practice our receptivity to this love is on a hair-trigger. We are ready to shut off the flow of love at the slightest hint of anything in the world of our experience that resembles the hurts, fears, doubts, and defense mechanisms that have shaped us over the years.

For example, many people develop perfectionist tendencies when young. Let’s say your parents were often depressed or angry, leaving them emotionally unavailable to you.

But then one day you get a good result at school or do well at sport, and suddenly your parents seem interested and engaged and proud of you. From your point of view, it’s as if they’ve said “Yes! This is the kind of behaviour and accomplishment we find worthy of love!”

Many children (depending on temperament and other circumstances) will form an intention to become as accomplished and successful as possible, because this is obviously what it takes to earn their parents’ love again. 

Conflating accomplishment and success with the supply of love is one cause of perfectionism.

Perfectionism can also originate in the inverse circumstance – where a child is told that they will suffer further rejection if they do not succeed in life.

Metastasizing fear

Becoming a perfectionist is one instance of a maladaptive response to fear and doubt. It’s mal-adaptive because it doesn’t really achieve the desired result (securing a supply of love) and it actually creates further conflict and harm.

Because after a while the child will begin to reflect on their perfectionist efforts. They will have further psychological responses to their perfectionism, such as: fear that they will not be able to achieve their goals, resentment that they must be ‘perfect’ in order to be accepted or loved, a sense of emptiness after finding that their accomplishments do not bring lasting rewards, and so on.

Again it depends on the child, but rest assured that they will make some kind of “move” to try to avoid further hurt and attain more love.

If, for example, the child feels insufficiently loved for their accomplishments, they will begin to feel angry and resentful at this injustice. Somewhere in the child’s mind they made an implicit bargain with their parents that they would be loved if they accomplished enough, or did as they were told, or didn’t rock the boat, or whatever particular issue first ruptured their sense of being loved.

But how will the child respond to these feelings of anger and resentment? Whatever they decide, it will be a choice that seeks implicitly to limit their hurt and attain more love, or as much love as they can hope to achieve in their circumstances.

These psychological developments go on and on. Some people have a few, others have many.

The more you have, the more likely you will develop outright internal conflicts between different “moves” or layers. Some people end up depressed or suicidal for no apparent external cause, because the layers of their own psyche create a kind of inner tension or turmoil that they don’t know how to resolve.

Finding the answer

That’s why the spiritual path is both simple and complex, easy and difficult.

The simple spiritual answers like “God is love” can be a source of great comfort, but not necessarily a lived experience. Can you just choose to be full of love, and then do it? Maybe you can, but many of us cannot.

So on the one hand we’re told that all we have to do is believe and we will be saved.

But on the other hand:

“Make every effort to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”

Why this dichotomy? Because the simple truth is obscured by the many layers of our psychological defenses and accretions.

Defenses like turning to alcohol, sex, or drugs to try to relieve the inner tension, boredom, or suppressed pain which is in turn the outcome of other, more subtle defenses.

Defenses like intellectualising everything, shutting down emotionally, using dissociation or hypervigiliance to gain a sense of control over your own experience and environment.

Defenses like seeking out conflict and emotional turmoil, harming oneself or hurting others.

Nonetheless the answers are there.

The underlying, inescapable reality is light, not darkness, and it expresses itself in love, not fear.

Reflecting on love and neglect

I’ve noticed more and more of these reflections in life.

Say that someone you love is neglecting you.

That neglect is painful.

But it’s not just you who are the victim of neglect. If they love you, yet they neglect you, then they are implicitly neglecting their own love as well.

In that sense, their neglect of you reflects their neglect of themselves, since love is central to our existence.

But there’s more.

Because in order to be neglected by someone you love, you must accept that neglect. Unless you are a child, you are a participant in the neglect you suffer, for as long as you put up with it.

And that acceptance of neglect implies…yes, you guessed it, a further neglect of love in oneself.

So you neglect me, and in so doing neglect yourself. And I accept your neglect, and so doing neglect myself too.

There’s something truly mysterious going on here.

The only way for me to stop being neglected by you is to stop neglecting myself, which means no longer accepting the neglect.

In fact, if I keep on accepting your neglect, then not only am I participating in my own neglect, but I’m participating in your own self-neglect as well.

To stop accepting neglect might look like rejecting the relationship. It isn’t. It’s setting a condition or a boundary. You can quite rightly say “I’d still love to see you, but I no longer accept neglect.” It’s then up to the other person to decide what they want to do.

Some of us are so good at neglecting ourselves, we find it hard not to neglect others too, even the people we care most about in the world.

It’s not a coincidence. If you can treat yourself with utter neglect, of course you can do it to someone you love. It’d be almost miraculous if you didn’t.

We have this idea that loving someone means putting up with suffering for their sake. But it’s important to know when your suffering is and isn’t helping the person you love.

In this case, letting someone you love neglect you is not helping them, rather it’s participating in their own self-neglect, and likely your own as well.

It’s fascinating and significant that we are brought together with people like this in life. The people we love are very much on a journey with us. And while it may seem a platitude sometimes to say that love is the answer, in the end it always is.