Ups and downs and spiritual experience

So, in my previous post I explored how pride is an attempt to feel in ourselves the greatness that belongs to existence itself. It’s an attempt to usurp our sense of awe at reality, and feel awe about our own selves instead.

Once you realise this, you’ll experience awe. And you’ll understand for a moment that awe just happens, there’s no need to cling to a sense of self as some kind of false centre of the experience.

But that realisation will be short-lived. Almost immediately you’ll start clinging to the experience of awe as if you can store it up inside you and make it your own.

You want your own sense of self to be the object of your awe.

The moment you bring yourself into it, the awe starts to fade. This happens because your sense of self is not a real thing, it’s just an impression. Treating an impression as if it were real is delusional, and delusion is not something that inspires awe.

Bye bye, awe.

So now you’re back, stuck in your sense of self again, and whatever you do at this point is probably going to exacerbate the delusion.

You’ll most likely feel some kind of bad feeling, because you’re coming down off the awe. You might feel hollow or empty or just miserable.

You might leap head-first into some kind of distraction, hoping to escape the unpleasant feelings that come from being deluded about yourself once more.

It might be a bad distraction that offers short-term relief but makes you feel even worse about yourself later. Or it might be a constructive distraction that leads you into a project with some real benefits for yourself or others.

But whether you find a way to feel good about yourself, or end up feeling bad about yourself, either way you are stuck playing the old game of up and down with your own self-centred emotions.

I used to go through this cycle a lot when I was younger. I would read a book, delve into the wisdom of mystics from various traditions, and for a brief time it would all make sense. I would feel as if the barrier between self and reality had fallen away, and all that remained was an experience of awe.

Then the “I” would creep back in. I’d start to wonder how I could capture, define, control this experience. I’d look for a way to remain in that state of mind permanently.

It didn’t work.

I guess you could say there was no stability to the insights I was having. I only achieved them briefly, thanks to great mental effort. It wasn’t sustainable.

I’ve only just understood what was wrong: even though the experience of awe is wonderful, it is still an experience, still a thought, still an impression. So long as we cling to experiences, thoughts, or impressions we are denying the complete truth.

Saint John of the Cross described the dark night of the soul as precisely an antidote to this kind of spiritual greed. God wants us to love him for himself, not for the good feelings that come from loving God. So at some point the saint passes through a purifying process in which there is no support and no comfort from the usual sources.

Likewise, Buddhist and nondualist sources attest that bliss cannot be the final goal, because the experience of bliss still implies a subject-object division. If you cannot pass beyond bliss, then it’s as if you stand forever at the door, refusing to enter.

So the awe I’ve always pursued is, finally, an obstacle and a hindrance to finding the truth. But I had to pursue it, had to recognise it as the summit of experience, before understanding that an experience is still not enough.

What matters is the source of all “experience”.  The thoughts and impressions that make up our entire reality – where do they come from? So long as we are attached to one experience – however elevated and spiritual it might seem – we cannot go beyond experience. That’s why Christ says we must lose our life in order to save it, why the Buddhist teacher Lin Chi said to kill the Buddha if you meet him, and why the Zhuangzi is just so damn elusive:

It’s easy to walk without leaving footprints; it’s hard to walk without touching the ground. Deceit is easy when you work for men, but hard when you work for Heaven. You’ve heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You’ve heard of understanding by means of knowledge, but you have never heard of the understanding that comes from not knowing. Look into the closed room, the empty chamber where light is born. Fortune and blessings gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still – that is called galloping where you sit.

Endless striving

A friend pointed out to me that I always have an objective. I’m always trying to accomplish something, reach a goal, or at least form one.

The idea of surrender and “letting go” is ubiquitous in self-help and religious literature. Unfortunately for someone like me, it’s easy to turn “letting go” into an aim or objective, yet another form to cling to.

I used to tie myself in knots around the paradox of seeking to be selfless for selfish reasons. This appears in a lot of popular Zen material as the problem of desiring to be without desire or the ego that seeks to be free from itself.

As a melancholic, I’m frustratingly, grindingly slow to learn lessons. In particular I struggle to generalise implicitly. I’m okay with “all X are Y”, but it takes many iterations of X before I realise “hey, it’s X!”

It’s been X all along, but like a person with amnesia, this new memory will not last for long. Even if I remember the conclusion, I’ll forget its true significance. I’ll remember what but not how. And before I know it, I’ll be back striving for some ill-defined goal.

Ultimately, goal-seeking is about feeling in control, and with that realisation I’m immediately tempted to dig at the roots of this love of control and see if I can’t put an end to it. But that would be another objective, and I’d disappear once again down the rabbit-hole.

So, appropriately, this post has no conclusion, no recommendation, no suggestion of how to solve the problem and, perhaps, no temptation to form another goal.

What it means to be free


In my reading of the early free will debate it became apparent that our modern notion of ‘free’ is quite different from that of the Greek philosophers.

For us the freedom of a ‘free will’ implies an unbounded capacity, the absence of limitations, the ability to pick and choose according to our own desires.

But for earlier thinkers, those who laid the foundations of the ‘free will’ concept, to be free meant to be rational, wise, and virtuous.  Free did mean the absence of limitations, but only the kinds of limitations that stop us from acting and being as we ought.  The apparent paradox is that wise and virtuous people have no freedom in the modern sense: an honest person is not free to tell a lie. We might even say that virtuous people are ‘enslaved’ by virtue, and the wise have no choice but to act according to wisdom.

The ancient understanding of freedom was built around a normative sense of human potential and human virtue, just as a doctor’s understanding of health is built around a study of the correct functioning of the human organism.  ‘Free’ was defined in that context, not in a modern context of existential doubt and an overarching relativism.

Freedom for them was like the free movement of a joint. In a state of health your shoulder should be free to move within its proper range.  If you dislocate your shoulder you may be able to extend it beyond its proper range, but this would not be considered ‘free movement’.

Ultimately, this ancient idea of freedom is grounded in an equally deep understanding of what is good for us, such that being free means having an unrestricted opportunity to pursue and enjoy these goods.

It certainly casts a different light on our contemporary sense of freedom and individual autonomy, which is less about the content of our choices and more about our sense of power and sufficiency in the face of obstacles and limitations.  The modern idea of freedom and autonomy puts an emphasis on overcoming and avoiding obstacles at a cost to our understanding of wisdom and virtue.  It’s why so many people apparently choose to have Sinatra’s “My Way” sung at their funerals.  In the end we take comfort not from diligently pursuing something greater than ourselves, but from what is essentially an egoists self-justification set to an uplifting melody.

I think on some level we know that virtue is a kind of limitation, which is probably why we fear it. Not only is virtue difficult to achieve, but it means giving up attitudes and actions that, for most of us, are the substance of our lives.  To be free of our attachments and desires is indeed an intimidating thought.



Other people’s minds

Responding to comments on my dignity piece over at MercatorNet is helping me present the core idea in a different way:

Contemplating the fact of other people’s minds (subjective realities) has an effect on one’s psyche such that one may come to a greater appreciation of human dignity/worth and at the same time undermine the passions, vices, and desires that typically drive us to undermine human worth.

Eg. sometimes I get annoyed at people’s comments, like the occasional personal attacks. But then I find myself imagining the person writing the comment, and how their experience of reality is as profoundly subjective as my own. Ie. they have a whole world inside their head, like a movie in which they are, for better and for worse, the protagonist.

I’m nobody in other people’s worlds. All the experiences, insights, challenges and achievements I hold dear; all the struggles, the failures, and even the background noise of expectations – none of that exists at all in most other peoples’ worlds, and where it does exist it is a mere fact, a single dot in the vast collage of their own inner world.

When I imagine that, I can’t help but feel that my own world is smaller. I might be the protagonist in my world, but the unpleasant commenter is the same in his. They mystery of consciousness and all the existential tension of human life exists in him as much as in me.

I find that my mind changes, I no longer feel hostile toward him, because all such feelings are forestalled by the magnitude of this fact of ‘other people’s minds’. I’ve broken out of the small drama in which I’m the protagonist and he’s some ******** who’s insulted me unjustly, into the bigger picture where he and I are the same, playing by the same rules, and more often than not even imprisoned or enslaved by the dramas in our own minds.

This is my approach to understanding ‘dignity’ not so much as a technical term, but as a general and ill-defined idea which crops up all over the place. People refer to it with a confidence that is not matched by any clear definition. I think it is real, and I’ve attempted to show what I believe is the admittedly esoteric reality at the heart of the concept.

The awe-full truth of human dignity


“It’s dignity! Gah! Don’t you even know dignity when you see it?” ~Credit: Sophie Vourlos (“A Milhouse Divided” S8E6)

My latest piece on looks at the other-worldly essence of human dignity:

a true appreciation of dignity can amend not only the abstract but the personal: spend some time sincerely meditating on, imagining how your whole world, the world where you are the centre of the universe, is reduced to a bit part in the mind of every person you meet from your own family and friends to complete strangers reading your online comments. Try imagining how you look from their perspective, how big or how small a presence you are in their reality, and the result is almost guaranteed to be utterly humbling.

Arguing on the internet

I spend a fair bit of time in comments defending my articles, explaining my meaning in greater length, and thanking people for sincere and thoughtful contributions.

Actually, I spend a lot of time, but it’s rewarding.  I get to see what people think, challenge them, defend myself, learn from them, and sometimes engage in the most interesting conversations.

One of the lessons I learned early on was that there are plenty of people who appear to be after the truth, but who are in fact just looking for a fight.  They use the language of philosophy and argumentation, but really they are only interested in winning.

Thanks to a recent lecture on Plato’s dialogues, I learned that this approach is called ‘Eristic’.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

eristic, (from Greek eristikos, “fond of wrangling”), argumentation that makes successful disputation an end in itself rather than a means of approaching truth. Such argumentation reduces philosophical inquiry to a rhetorical exercise. Eristic argument is closely associated with the Sophists and was ridiculed by Plato in his dialogue Euthydemus. The term is often used more broadly to characterize arguments that rely on subtle but specious forms of reasoning.

I’ll leave you with an abridged version of my latest comment on my MercatorNet article


You shouldn’t apologise for leading someone to the truth.

The quality of internet debate is generally quite low, so you’ll have to forgive me for not taking you up on these points sooner, and allowing instead a more casual discourse. Personally, I find it embarrassing to be wrong, and so I try to read and reread carefully my own and others’ points before invoking logical fallacies and telling people explicitly that they’re probably wrong.

If I may offer some strategic advice: you’re at a disadvantage in picking an argument over a line made in passing in an article that was not explicitly the subject of the whole article, because the author (me) knows much better than the reader what he actually meant by that statement, and readers must either draw out a great deal more information, or risk making rash assumptions about the intended meaning.

After all, my initial line in the article was so ambiguous that picking it out as worthy of sustained debate suggests to me (as author) that either a) I’ve unwittingly committed some horrendous faux pas, or b) the commenter has an axe to grind, or is simply looking for a fight, such that he is willing to engage on the mere possibility that my line made in passing might uncover a hidden trove of bad thinking and hidden fallacies.

In tandem with this advice, might I suggest more generally that you practice the principle of charity in argumentative discourse? That is, err on the side of giving your interlocutor the benefit of the doubt by interpreting his arguments in their strongest possible light. Not only does this save oneself the embarrassment of being overly rash in error, it also trains oneself to find the strongest arguments in any context, and thereby strengthens one’s own position as well.

Otherwise, one might come across as a proponent of Eristic argument.


Melancholic Facades and the Challenge of Sincerity

Melancholics learn to interact with people through a facade. At the same time, they hate to be subject to duplicity or manipulation by others.

This inconsistency makes sense if you consider that a melancholic is, on the one hand, not easily stirred by external stimuli, while on the other hand he is afraid of being shamed or humiliated. Not easily stirred by external stimuli means that the melancholic will often, by nature, fail to give a suitably emotive or excited or even interested response to another’s words or tales. He might in fact be emotive, excited, and interested, but not to the degree of expression expected by the other temperaments. For a Sanguine interlocutor, the words ‘no, I really am interested’ delivered in monotone with a deadpan expression are insufficiently encouraging.

Depending on the degree of negative and disappointed responses he receives, the melancholic may learn that he must amplify his expressions until others are satisfied. A blank stare must become an encouraging nod; an encouraging nod must become a warm smile; a warm smile must become amused laughter.

This is in fact incredibly draining and slightly demeaning; draining because it requires constant effort to monitor and adapt one’s own expression, demeaning because it undermines one’s natural responses. Yet for an adult melancholic these habits may already be deeply ingrained. At its worst the melancholic may feel that the amplification of his expressions takes on a life of its own, becoming a mask or facade that impinges on his own integrity. But the melancholic never thinks of the facade as an imposition on others, or as a form of benign manipulation. It is, after all, benevolent -an attempt to embody a more ideal example of interpersonal communication- and the pains of an amplified smile or habitual chuckle are borne by the melancholic alone, the cost of pursuing the ideal.

There are two main scenarios in which the melancholic facade encounters a facade in the other.

The first is when the melancholic encounters a facade like his own. In such cases, the melancholic usually realises that he cannot ‘read’ the other person, which is to say that he does not get the expected feedback to his own facade. It’s as though both are trying to be ‘good listeners’ but that leaves no one to do the actual talking. The best outcome is to find some point of common interest that can get behind the facade.

The second scenario can be much harder to pick, depending on the other person. It could be a boss, a friend, a colleague, or a neighbour, and the facade will change accordingly. They may be consistently hard to read, or they may simply give off an impression that conflicts with the context or content of how they present themselves. For example, when someone offers praise that doesn’t ring true despite their apparent sincerity, or when they share information that doesn’t seem quite relevant, or when their persona shifts in an unexpected way in the presence of a third person, such that their responses to you become inconsistent; these examples are clues that a person is not being completely open with you, and may have a hidden agenda or vested interest of which you are unaware.

The melancholic finds these instances of duplicity and manipulation hateful for three reasons: first, because he is susceptible to such tactics and hence is doubly embittered when he finds himself deceived. Second, because he hates to be shamed and humiliated, and it can be both shameful and humiliating to be unwittingly manipulated by another. Third, because the melancholic’s own facade is the product of well-intentioned albeit misguided effort to connect with others in a mutually affirming way, to embody the ideal of interpersonal commmunication. Since attempts to manipulate the melancholic are mediated by this facade, the melancholic may feel that his bona fide attempts to relate to others have been abused. Someone has taken advantage of his attempt to meet the ideal.

In such scenarios the melancholic may revert to a more genuine idealist response, which puts personal integrity above interpersonal ideals. Once he realises that others are not playing by the rules, or in good faith, he will immediately become more cautious, reserved, and less responsive. In his mind, the manipulative person can no longer be trusted, and there is no longer any need to maintain the facade. This change can come as a surprise to others, who may feel that the melancholic has suddenly become a different person or radically changed the nature of the relationship.

The Challenge of Sincerity

This example of facades and interpersonal communication shows how the tendency to embrace the ideal can work against the melancholic if the ideal he chooses is incomplete, one-sided, or misguided. At face value it is genuinely ideal to be polite, empathic, considerate, and attentive. But another ideal – the ideal of sincerity, authenticity, and integrity conflicts with a single-minded pursuit of idealised interpersonal communication. In practical terms, the melancholic will suffer if he continually forces himself to pretend to be polite, empathic, considerate and attentive. In fact, the whole relationship will suffer if the melancholic fails to express himself honestly.

Melancholics are liable to apply their uncertainty and fear of being shamed to their own self-expression, holding back out of concern that their natural, uncontrived, honest self-expression might unintentionally offend, hurt, or disappoint others. A melancholic will tend to think long and hard before speaking, in hope of avoiding such outcomes.

The ideal of sincerity presents a challenge. The melancholic knows that everything will be better in the long run if he ceases to control and contrive his interactions with others; yet he fears the immediate consequences of failing to self-censor and self-control, even while knowing it is flawed and unsustainable. He fears that his true self will turn out to be an objectively bad self. Yet he knows that even a bad self is at least a self, whereas a facade is no self at all.

Perhaps there is a way out of this dilemma.

The melancholic tends to think in ‘all or nothing’ dichotomies. Either maintain the facade for the sake of ideal interpersonal communication, or drop it completely for the sake of ideal sincerity. But sincerity does not mean pretending one has no inclination to better express oneself. Sincerity does not mean disowning the desire for ideal communication. Sincerity does not mean that the desire to communicate better is somehow false.

Sincerity simply means being without pretence, duplicity, or deceit. While the melancholic facade may constitute pretence, duplicity or deceit, the motivation behind the facade is sincere, and can be expressed in a more sincere way. In other words, there is no need to present to the world either a polished facade or a polished sincerity. No, the choice is between a polished facade and an unpolished sincerity, a potentially messy and inconsistent sincerity, a sincerity that may take time to come into its own.

The fears that push the melancholic towards a facade will fade in time if we allow the gradual exploration of sincerity to unfold. In practice, this means resisting the urge to fill each moment of interpersonal communication with one’s idealised set of responses, cues, expressions and attention. It means allowing oneself to lean instead toward one’s actual feelings and responses, perhaps slowly at first, but with greater surety over time. It may mean expressing sincerely one’s doubts, concerns, and even one’s wish to communicate more ideally – but to express them without duplicity, rather than through the contrived and convoluted mechanism of a facade.

As the Confucian classic, The Great Learning, states:

What is meant by “making the thoughts sincere,” is the allowing no self-deception, as when we hate a bad smell, and as when we love what is beautiful. This is called self-enjoyment. Therefore, the superior man must be watchful over himself when he is alone.

This applies not only to self-deception but to the deception of others as well. But ultimately we are deceiving ourselves as well if we think that there is anything to gain from the melancholic facade.

Pigs and Fishes – Dealing with Intractable People

According to Rev. Conrad Hock, the melancholic temperament:

reveals his inmost thoughts reluctantly and only to those whom he trusts. He does not easily find the right word to express and describe his sentiments.

Presenting one’s thoughts clearly can feel like an almost impossible task. On the one hand, having spent days, weeks, or months considering a problem, the melancholic often finds his thoughts and ideas have progressed too far to be easily communicated. On the other hand, it seems like there is a more systematic barrier to successful communication, as if there is some elusive secret to conveying the true meaning of his thoughts. As Pascal wrote:

We think we are playing on ordinary organs when playing upon man. Men are organs, it is true, but, odd, changeable, variable with pipes not arranged in proper order. Those who only know how to play on ordinary organs will not produce harmonies on these. We must know where the keys are.

Perhaps the problem is inherent to communication generally; perhaps melancholics are unique only in that they put so much stock in their precious ideas from the outset, and hence are left wondering always whether others *really* understand. There surely is a general problem of communication and influence, enough so that the Confucians and Daoists each had their perspective on how the sage, or the aspiring sage, could be sure of the effect his words, deeds, and bearing might have.

The previous post described the power of sincerity, which, in a Confucian context, is a quality with almost supernatural efficacy and reach.

In a Daoist context, the analogous concept is ’emptiness’, according to which the sage empties himself of desires or cravings, contrived thoughts and plans, and personal interests in order to embody the emptiness of the Dao itself. Section 4 of the Zhuangzi is instructive in this regard. In it Zhuangzi depicts Confucius discussing with his favoured pupil Yan Hui how to go about influencing the tyrant lord of Wei:

Yan Hui went to see Confucius and asked for permission to travel.
Confucius asked him, “Where are you going?”
“To the state of Wey.”
“What will you do there?”
“I have heard that the lord of Wey is in the prime of youth and his behavior is impetuous. He is quick to send his armies off to war and fails to see his faults. He regards it as a light matter that his people should die; corpses fill the marshlands like dried reeds and there is nothing his people can do. I have heard it from you, Master: ‘Depart the well ordered state and go to the state in disarray. The gate of the doctor is filled with the ill.’ I wish to put into practice the teachings I have learned, and so, perhaps effect some healing in Wey?”

“Ach!” said Confucius. “You’re just going to get yourself executed. What you don’t want in a Dao is some assortment of teachings. An assortment is just a profusion of notions, and if you follow a profusion of notions you’ll lose control of them. When you lose control you’ll be governed by anxiety, and once that happens you’re be beyond help. In the old days the Perfect Person cultivated the way within himself before he tried to cultivate it in others. When you haven’t yet settled what’s within you yourself, what leisure have you to concern yourself with the conduct of a tyrant?

The whole exchange is worth reading, but ends with Confucius sharing with his disciple the method for having a true and lasting influence on the tyrant:

Confucius said, “You must fast! Let me tell you. Can any action be accomplished with ease if pursued by means of the mind’s intentions? If you think it is, bright Heaven will not befriend you.”
Yan Hui said, “My family is poor, and I have not drunk wine or eaten meat for several months. Doesn’t that constitute fasting?”
“That is the fasting one does before performing rites of sacrifice. It is not the fasting of the mind.”
“May I ask, what is the fasting of the mind?”
Confucius said, “Unify your will. Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind – don’t listen with your mind, listen with your qi. The ears are limited to listening; the mind is limited to sorting. But the qi, all empty it awaits things. The Dao gathers in emptiness – emptiness: that is the fasting of the mind.”
“Before hearing this,” said Yan Hui, “and grasping it in full, I was solidly I myself. But now that I have grasped it – why, there has never been any I at all! Is this the emptiness you mean?”
“You’ve got it!” said Confucius. “I tell you, now you may go to roam inside his coop, and you’ll never be moved by fame. If he listens, then sing; if not, be still. Have no gate, have no doorway – make oneness your home and lodge in the unavoidable. That’s as close to it as can be!”

People are often disturbed by talk of ’emptiness’ and the Zhuangzi contains some of the more idiosyncratic of such statements. James Legge provides an alternative translation of the key phrase:

Hui said, ‘Before it was possible for me to employ (this method), there I was, the Hui that I am; now, that I can employ it, the Hui that I was has passed away. Can I be said to have obtained this freedom from pre-occupation?’

The Chinese is not easy:


A clumsy, literal translation might be: ‘Hui not yet begin to use, real self Hui; using it, not yet begin to have Hui. Can this be said to be empty?’

The significant difference is in whether Hui, upon using the method of ‘fasting of the mind’ finds à la Legge that “the Hui that I was has passed away” or à la Eno “there has never been any I at all!”, or instead, finds that Hui has not yet begun to exist. Why is this significant? Because the idea of self-destruction is much more severe than self-preemption, but also because Daoist metaphysics encourages a view of emptiness as prior to ‘being’. The point is not to destroy the self or watch it fade away, but to find the point prior to the emergence or actualisation of one’s most developed thoughts, feelings, and desires.

In pragmatic terms, if you are full of yourself you have nowhere to go and no way to develop. To approach the tyrant full of plans, ideas, and schemes is to have already played one’s hand, to have actualised one’s potential too soon. Emptiness is the ‘root’ while phenomena are the ‘branches’. As the Zhuangzi concludes:

It’s easy to walk without leaving footprints; it’s hard to walk without touching the ground. Deceit is easy when you work for men, but hard when you work for Heaven. You’ve heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You’ve heard of understanding by means of knowledge, but you have never heard of the understanding that comes from not knowing. Look into the closed room, the empty chamber where light is born. Fortune and blessings gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still – that is called galloping where you sit. Let your ears and eyes communicate with what is inside and put mind and knowledge on the outside. Then even the spirits will come to dwell with you, not to speak of men. Such is change in the world of things – the pivot of Emperors Yu and Shun, the constant practice of the sages Fu Xi and Ji Qu. How much more should it be a rule for others!