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.

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Nondualism and working on yourself

The aim of contemporary nondualist teaching is to change the way we interpret our experience of reality.

I remember as a young child returning to school at the start of a new term. The teacher asked us to share with the class what we had done for the holidays.

I still recall the sudden and startling realisation that these children had all gone on with their lives while I was going on with mine. They had continued to exist even when they weren’t part of my experience. While I had been visiting relatives interstate, they each had their own experiences and adventures unfold at the same time.

This realisation represents what Joel Morwood from the Center for Sacred Sciences calls ‘reification’: turning a thought, an impression, or a form into a thing.

In that childhood moment, my friends and classmates went from being aspects of my experience, to becoming nascent things – people in their own right with their own equally subjective inner worlds.

I began to think about how I appeared in their experience, akin no doubt to how they appeared in mine.

This is the path we all take as we develop and grow in life. We form deeper conceptual representations of a reality extrapolated from the rules and regularities of our own experience. I’ve never seen inside another person’s head, but at some point, by induction, it made sense to believe that there is such a thing as the inside of other people’s heads.

This isn’t a bad or false conclusion to reach by any means. The aim of nondualism is not solipsistic, that “I alone exist”.

The problem is that our world-building, our reification of our own experiences and extrapolation into an external reality begins to overshadow the immediacy and character of our actual experience.

We start to imagine ourselves as isolated individuals operating in an objective reality of which we partake imperfectly through our senses and our consciousness.

We develop fears, cravings, anxieties, and doubts as well as hopes and dreams that all depend on what feels like our understanding of objective reality, but is functionally indistinguishable from imagination.

Our experience is dominated by rules, expectations, and doubts that are disconnected from experience itself. Like a child whose personality is shaped by early trauma, we take aspects of early experience and keep them alive as thoughts, beliefs, imagination, until they constrict and distort our present and future experience also.

What nondualism wants us to do is to step back from the reification of elements of our experience, and begin to recognise our conscious experience itself as primary.

It wants us to recognise that most of what we call ‘reality’ exists only as beliefs or imagination derived – often haphazardly – from past experience. We put too much stock in these often emotionally-loaded beliefs and imaginings, when the truth of our experience is far richer and more fulfilling.

The details get a little esoteric, but what motivates nondualism is the realisation that the true character of our experience is one of love and bliss. The relationship between our own consciousness, the forms we experience, and the creative power or God behind it all is described by the various mystics as non-dual. Yet there exists the illusion of duality, and in that illusion suffering and fear and misery all arise.

In my own life I’ve found time and time again that reifying my experience exacerbates all my problems and my struggles. It leaves me thinking and feeling that the causes of my problems are “out there” in the world, rather than in my own heart and mind.

Because on closer examination, it is always in my own heart and mind that resistance, error, fear and mistrust reside. I might see hurt and rejection coming to me from other people, but on reflection I find that any external manifestation of these painful events is preceded by my own internal embrace of hurt and rejection.

It’s as though I approach life expecting to suffer and be disappointed, and in subtle ways this expectation leads me to want things I know I can’t have, or approach people and events with unconscious resistance and defensiveness.

Viewing life first and foremost as my experience, to the extent of my field of consciousness, forces me to take responsibility for the underlying causes and influences within me.

Why do I want hurt and rejection, or disappointment and struggle to be part of my experience? In what way have I internalised and kept these elements of past experience alive into the present? What would I prefer my experience to reflect? Do I truly want love and joy as the foundation of my experience, or am I subtly resisting and rejecting them?

How would I really feel if there was no more hurt and struggle in my life? Would I be content? No, not yet. So why is that?

This is the great work of “untying knots” in our minds and hearts until the true nature of our experience can shine forth uninhibited. If you want to know why there is too much struggle and not enough love in your life, ask yourself. Don’t let rules and principles you’ve extrapolated and imagined keep you from finding the love and joy intrinsic to this experience.

The antidote to Pride

Some people think the antidote to pride is humility. Others claim that the antidote to pride is actually love.

I’m going to go with humility, but it depends on your interpretation.

I suspect what’s going on here is that there are two components to the spiritual path: love and truth. Some people are more drawn to truth than love, some more drawn to love than truth.

God is both, which means that love and truth are – in their essence – inseparable. But human beings approach God from different directions, which is why some are more moved by truth, and others are more moved by love.

Regardless of the path, the obstacle is the same: pride. Pride is the desire for control, the desire to be the author of our own existence, our own success, our own conclusion.

That’s why both love and humility can overcome pride. Love overcomes pride because the devotee loses himself in love of God and others. Love, by its very nature, softens the artificial barriers our pride has constructed.

Humility, in its more profound form, is truth. It comes from the Latin for “ground” and implies lowliness but also an understanding of our relationship to God as creatures. That is, we were formed out of clay.

Humility overcomes pride because the truth is that all pride is delusional. We cannot exercise self-control because we are entirely at the disposal of our creator. We can’t be the author of our own existence, because that role is already filled.

True humility sees through the facade of pride. Love overwhelms it.

I’m told that you can’t pursue truth without love developing, and you can’t develop love without learning the truth at some point. The two are inseparable, it’s really more a matter of emphasis.

 

Enlightenment and Depression

So…if your sense of self is really just a bunch of thoughts and impressions created by your mind – or more profoundly: the mind, Buddha-nature, God, consciousness, Brahman – then doesn’t that mean experiences of negative mental states like anxiety and depression are also products of this same mind?

All thoughts and impressions come from the same place. So although on the relative level your depression can be viewed as your reaction to negative life-events, on the absolute level there is no difference between “you” and “your reaction”. Both are products of mind.

Which is pretty weird, if you think about it.

It’s as if you’re a character in a story, and you think the things that befall you are due to your beliefs and choices and actions. But in fact both you and all the circumstances in and around you are created by the author. You have no control, because “you” are just another part of what is being written.

So when “you” start thinking about this, it’s not as though “you” are exercising your autonomy and control over your thoughts and circumstances. It means the author has gone from writing “you – who doesn’t think about this stuff” to writing “you – now thinking about this stuff and realising how weird it is”.

Likewise, these mental states like depression and anxiety; it’s not that “you” suddenly become afflicted by anxiety or depression. There’s no central, coherent, unified “you” who suffers those states. Instead the author has gone from writing “you without depression” to writing “you with depression”. If the depression stops, it will be because the author is now writing “you with depression stopping and feeling relieved about it”.

So what’s going on? Is the author an arsehole? Why is he or it inflicting so much suffering on everyone?

Well, the weird thing is that there is no “everyone” on whom suffering is inflicted.

There are temporary thoughts and impressions, some of which contain the belief that there is an “everyone” who is suffering.

But there are other temporary thoughts and impressions that recognise all thoughts and impressions as coming from the same place.

The thoughts that are full of suffering only think they are full of suffering. They aren’t actually full of suffering.

In other words, if you are depressed, but you then recognise that all thoughts and impressions come from the same place, then it’s not that you would stop being depressed, but that the “you” who feels assailed by depression would no longer be a separate, distinct, enduring entity who can be assailed by things like depression.

If the author writes a character experiencing depression, it’s not as though he first writes the character and then assails them with depression. No, the author writes the character-with-depression as one thing. Then later he writes the character-after-depression as another thing. There’s no actual, continuous character who exists from beginning to end and is assailed by depression, then recovers from it.

Moment by moment, our thoughts and impressions are coming from the same place. They don’t linger. Like the frames in a movie. Some objects in a movie scene might appear to stay still while others, like the actors, move around. But in reality we are seeing continuous individual frames. The sequence is composed of individual frames, and for an object just to remain static in place it must still be reproduced one frame at a time in every frame.

On the relative level we all have individual reasons for the negative mental states we experience. But on the absolute level, our negative mental states are all due to one thing: we mistake the “self” of our thoughts and impressions for an actual entity.

But who commits that mistake? Isn’t it too a product of the same author?

This is why there is such ambivalence about the nature of delusion in Buddhism, and the nature of evil in Christianity. If God is all powerful, is he also responsible for the existence of evil?

One thing is clear: despite the ambivalence over causation, delusion will be overcome and evil will be vanquished. There is no ambivalence about the end. Delusion and enlightenment, evil and good, they are not viewed as equal and opposite pairs.

Depression is a horrible experience, but when we recognise that both the experience and the apparent subject of that experience are products of thoughts and impressions that arise from the same place, then both the suffering and the one who suffers are transcended. The son of man has nowhere to lay his head.

At the same time, there comes the realisation that even this realisation itself has come from the same place as all the other thoughts and impressions. The quality has changed, but not the source.

And at that moment there comes the realisation that this realisation too is coming from the same place – that the author is now writing himself into the story as the author. And everything it took to arrive at this point – all the suffering and confusion and striving and grasping and gradual realisation – that too was the author, writing everything.

And when it stops, when realisation is replaced with forgetfulness and the door closes once more and it feels like “you” have returned to normal…who do you think is doing that?

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: http://www.centerforsacredsciences.org/index.php/Articles/from-form-to-formlessness.html

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.

Form 

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.

Formlessness

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.

No-Self

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 true men of old

For a second time, Ian’s comments have prompted me to clarify my personal response to eugenics, beyond the ethical critique and into a domain that I have not reflected on in this light for a long time.

In practical terms, I realised some time ago that I could not wait for science to unravel the various psychological, biological, and physical mysteries that limit and confuse us.

Nor did I think I could simply work these things out for myself.

But I knew there were people considered ‘wise’ and better still, there were writings and teachings left by wise and mysterious individuals from centuries and millennia ago. What I found in them was the near-universal understanding that our current state was one of decline from our origins. Humans had, through a variety of attributed reasons, lost their original state, their natural state, and suffered for it.

Take for example the Zhuangzi’s depiction of the ‘true men of old’:

What is meant by ‘the True Man?’ The True men of old did not reject (the views of) the few; they did not seek to accomplish (their ends) like heroes (before others); they did not lay plans to attain those ends. Being such, though they might make mistakes, they had no occasion for repentance; though they might succeed, they had no self-complacency. Being such, they could ascend the loftiest heights without fear; they could pass through water without being made wet by it; they could go into fire without being burnt; so it was that by their knowledge they ascended to and reached the Tâo.

The True men of old did not dream when they slept, had no anxiety when they awoke, and did not care that their food should be pleasant. Their breathing came deep and silently. The breathing of the true man comes (even) from his heels, while men generally breathe (only) from their throats. When men are defeated in argument, their words come from their gullets as if they were vomiting. Where lusts and desires are deep, the springs of the Heavenly are shallow.

The True men of old knew nothing of the love of life or of the hatred of death. Entrance into life occasioned them no joy; the exit from it awakened no resistance. Composedly they went and came. They did not forget what their beginning bad been, and they did not inquire into what their end would be. They accepted (their life) and rejoiced in it; they forgot (all fear of death), and returned (to their state before life). Thus there was in them what is called the want of any mind to resist the Tâo, and of all attempts by means of the Human to assist the Heavenly. Such were they who are called the True men.

3. Being such, their minds were free from all thought; their demeanour was still and unmoved; their foreheads beamed simplicity. Whatever coldness came from them was like that of autumn; whatever warmth came from them was like that of spring. Their joy and anger assimilated to what we see in the four seasons. They did in regard to all things what was suitable, and no one could know how far their action would go. Therefore the sagely man might, in his conduct of war, destroy a state without losing the hearts of the people; his benefits and favours might extend to a myriad generations without his being a lover of men. Hence he who tries to share his joys with others is not a sagely man; he who manifests affection is not benevolent; he who observes times and seasons (to regulate his conduct) is not a man of wisdom; he to whom profit and injury are not the same is not a superior man; he who acts for the sake of the name of doing so, and loses his (proper) self is not the (right) scholar; and he who throws away his person in a way which is not the true (way) cannot command the service of others.

[…]

4. The True men of old presented the aspect of judging others aright, but without being partisans; of feeling their own insufficiency, but being without flattery or cringing. Their peculiarities were natural to them, but they were not obstinately attached to them; their humility was evident, but there was nothing of unreality or display about it. Their placidity and satisfaction had the appearance of joy; their every movement seemed to be a necessity to them. Their accumulated attractiveness drew men’s looks to them; their blandness fixed men’s attachment to their virtue. They seemed to accommodate themselves to the (manners of their age), but with a certain severity; their haughty indifference was beyond its control. Unceasing seemed their endeavours to keep (their mouths) shut; when they looked down, they had forgotten what they wished to say.

These religious and philosophical texts unanimously point toward the reestablishment of this unusual state, a state of being that is achievable, yet difficult. It depends on spiritual discipline, and a certain understanding of metaphysics – the nature of existence and our place in it:

7. This is the Tâo;– there is in It emotion and sincerity, but It does nothing and has no bodily form. It may be handed down (by the teacher), but may not be received (by his scholars). It may be apprehended (by the mind), but It cannot be seen. It has Its root and ground (of existence) in Itself. Before there were heaven and earth, from of old, there It was, securely existing. From It came the mysterious existences of spirits, from It the mysterious existence of God. It produced heaven; It produced earth. It was before the Thâi-kî, and yet could not be considered high; It was below all space, and yet could not be considered deep. It was produced before heaven and earth, and yet could not be considered to have existed long; It was older than the highest antiquity, and yet could not be considered old.

After years of reading this kind of stuff in its varied religious contexts, I still find the Chinese Daoist and Confucian traditions most appealing. At the same time, I no longer put much stock in the standard sources of civilisational hope and comfort as before. Technology is great, exciting, and full of promise. But it is also an amplifier of our deeper faults and should be viewed in light of the more profound, restorative path illumined by our ancestors.

As a society we are very good at pursuing what we desire. We are very bad at determining what we should and should not find desirous in the first place. We muddle through life, measuring our failure and success by superficial and shifting social standards. In rare moments we become aware of something deeper, more solid, more real than our own selves. I think our lives ought to focus on that deeper reality, despite all the distractions, social expectations and pressures of life that draw us away. If we could grasp hold of that deeper reality and never let it go, then I think we would know what to do in the rest of our lives.

In this respect, I share C.S. Lewis’ dismay at the prospect of a weak and ungrounded humanity modifying itself – or more realistically, some humans modifying others – under the sway of a poorly-examined technological imperative and an emotivism without true ethical boundaries.

The recent decision in the UK to allow alteration of the human germline means that children created with transplanted mitochondrial DNA from a third person (in addition to biological mother and father) will pass this genetic modification down through their own future offspring.

The logic of this change to the legislation is the same as that which I witnessed in a professional capacity as an ethicist during the stem-cell and then cloning debates in Australia.

It suggests to me that there are no limits to what biotechnological innovations our legislatures will approve, so long as a sufficiently compelling technological and emotive case can be made. In a few short years the Australian parliament went from condemning all forms of human cloning (as a line that could not be crossed) to endorsing ‘therapeutic cloning’ for the exact same reasons they had originally endorsed the destruction of embryos for the purposes of stem cell research. This is not even a case of our legislators holding ethical beliefs with which I disagree, but of a parliament that can’t even hold to its own stated ethical conclusions for more than a few years.

The merits of mysticism

temple

A tiny temple on the side of a mountain in Fuzhou. Every hill or mountain we went to seemed to have some kind of temple installed.

For a melancholic the appeal of mysticism is obvious: just a glimmer of transcendence is enough to inspire our idealist inclinations to follow what one old mystic, the Benedictine/Swami Bede Griffiths called ‘the golden string’.

For a melancholic it makes perfect sense to put ‘ultimate reality’ ahead of the mundane one, to sell everything for the sake of the pearl of great price. But from a more worldly perspective it makes no sense to be uselessly sitting quietly, seemingly inert, inactive, and unproductive.

In fact, while mysticism is a struggle in its own right, from the very beginning the path is entirely opposed to most of the things that are supposed to make ordinary life enjoyable and meaningful. The heart of mysticism is, after all, to recollect and redirect your many and varied desires for worldly things back to the one thing that supersedes the world.

We are, from a worldly perspective, supposed to spend our free time playing with our mobile phones, buying apps and viewing ads. From this point of view mysticism is worse than useless. It can’t be shared, it can’t be bought or sold, and in a strange inversion it even rebukes us silently for the time and energy we waste on truly meaningless vanities.

The paradox of mysticism is that it is useless from a worldly perspective, yet reveals in turn the vanity of the world. Despite the difficulty of the path, it reveals from an early stage that our cares and worries and preoccupations are nothing but dust and straw. Many have compared it to waking from a dream, or seeing clearly for the first time.

Its merits are hard to fathom because we are so used to judging merit by worldly standards. Even climbing a mountain and enjoying the view can be packaged as an ‘experience’, bought and sold, shared and bragged about, measured in mundane terms. What cannot be measured, assessed, described or shared is the emptiness of mysticism, its silence and humility.

As the Dao De Jing puts it (Lau translation):

When the best student hears about the way
He practises it assiduously;
When the average student hears about the way
It seems to him there one moment and gone the next;
When the worst student hears about the way
He laughs out loud.
If he did not laugh
It would be unworthy of being the way.

Hence the Chien yen has it:
The way that is bright seems dull;
The way that is forward seems to lead backward;
The way that is even seems rough.
The highest virtue is like the valley;
The sheerest whiteness seems sullied;
Ample virtue seems defective;
Vigorous virtue seems indolent;
Plain virtue seems soiled;
The great square has no corners.
The great vessel takes long to complete;
The great note is rarefied in sound;
The great image has no shape.

The way conceals itself in being nameless.
It is the way alone that excels in bestowing and in accomplishing.

What this means is that one can fulfill the ideal of human life while doing ‘nothing’ by worldly standards. It means that the endless struggle, striving, craving and distraction of human life is not the final word. To know the finality, the telos, of one’s existence is far beyond being useful, valuable, or meritorious; instead it recasts and reshapes the entire landscape of use, value, and merit. Thus a practice which the world has cast aside nonetheless stands in rebuke of worldliness and prevails.

Comparative mysticism at Christmas

When I was young I read a lot of books about religion. Around the same time I stopped going to church as soon as my parents would (reluctantly) allow it.

My approach to religion was quite ambitious in its scope: I believed that religions were a mix of essential and non-essential beliefs and practices, that all religions would converge on the essential, and that by comparing them all I could work out what they had in common and hence what lay at the heart of true religion.

The answer was mysticism: the search for and experiential knowledge of ‘ultimate reality’.

All religions had mysticism in common, and so I concluded that mysticism is the heart of religion and therefore the only thing worth pursuing. Everything else: the rituals, the prayers, the meditation, the complex beliefs; these were at best only a means of inducting people into mysticism and at worst they were misguided accretions derived from culture or lower aspects of human psychology.

I spent most of my time at university reading the works of different mystics and the mystical branches of different religions. I even wrote my Honours thesis on the subject, attempting to show how a set of mystical traditions contained the same basic approach to reality: a recognition that human experience is ‘not right’, identification of a transcendent reality or being that is right, and a method of approaching this transcendent reality that requires a shift in attention away from external, worldly affairs and interests, a ‘quieting’ of the mind, and an openness to this fundamentally different kind of being.

My actual thesis was not a good piece of scholarly work by any means. At that stage in my education I was so focused on this personal search for knowledge that I failed to heed or really comprehend the requirements of philosophy as a scholarly discipline. What I wrote may have been interesting to a small group of people, but all it really showed was that I had a particular belief about religion, and I could find selective evidence to support my belief.

Having seen religion in such a light, it is very hard to ‘unsee’ it. It is difficult for me to pretend that the different religions really are strikingly different where it matters. Yet I’m also conscious that my perspective may be tautological: “religious similarities are similar”; or as G.K. Chesterton put it:

Students of popular science, like Mr. Blatchford, are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism. This is generally believed, and I believed it myself until I read a book giving the reasons for it. The reasons were of two kinds: resemblances that meant nothing because they were common to all humanity, and resemblances which were not resemblances at all. The author solemnly explained that the two creeds were alike in things in which all creeds are alike, or else he described them as alike in some point in which they are quite obviously different.

Thus, as a case of the first class, he said that both Christ and Buddha were called by the divine voice coming out of the sky, as if you would expect the divine voice to come out of the coal-cellar. Or, again, it was gravely urged that these two Eastern teachers, by a singular coincidence, both had to do with the washing of feet. You might as well say that it was a remarkable coincidence that they both had feet to wash. And the other class of similarities were those which simply were not similar. Thus this reconciler of the two religions draws earnest attention to the fact that at certain religious feasts the robe of the Lama is rent in pieces out of respect, and the remnants highly valued. But this is the reverse of a resemblance, for the garments of Christ were not rent in pieces out of respect, but out of derision; and the remnants were not highly valued except for what they would fetch in the rag shops. It is rather like alluding to the obvious connection between the two ceremonies of the sword: when it taps a man’s shoulder, and when it cuts off his head. It is not at all similar for the man.

These scraps of puerile pedantry would indeed matter little if it were not also true that the alleged philosophical resemblances are also of these two kinds, either proving too much or not proving anything. That Buddhism approves of mercy or of self-restraint is not to say that it is specially like Christianity; it is only to say that it is not utterly unlike all human existence. Buddhists disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess because all sane human beings disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess. But to say that Buddhism and Christianity give the same philosophy of these things is simply false. All humanity does agree that we are in a net of sin. Most of humanity agrees that there is some way out. But as to what is the way out, I do not think that there are two institutions in the universe which contradict each other so flatly as Buddhism and Christianity.

Identifying mysticism as the common core of religion might be similarly problematic. It may be true that the mystics within various religions invoke strikingly similar themes in their disciplines, but this does not mean that mysticism is necessarily central to religious truth. Mysticism might be just an addendum to the truth of a religion. It might be an interesting yet ultimately non-essential aspect of religious practice. After all, if we assume from the outset that mystical experience is the true heart of religion, then of course we will place less emphasis on the cosmological and teleological content of religious beliefs. For the student of comparative mysticism it doesn’t really matter whether we call our goal the realisation of buddha-nature and nirvana, or the beatific vision and the enjoyment of eternal life in heaven; we already accept the mystics’ claim that the experience of ‘ultimate reality’ is beyond words.

How different are Buddhism and Christianity really? More to the point, how are we to determine what are and aren’t meaningful differences? If the ultimate reality transcends language, then we must accept that the contradictions may only be skin deep. Chesterton’s knowledge of Buddhism was admittedly superficial and mediated apparently by the idiosyncratic interpretations of his contemporaries – Buddhism under the influence of Theosophy and Orientalist popularisers; but one needn’t be well-acquainted with Buddhism to realise that there is a danger in upholding the common ground between two faiths as the only ground worth inhabiting. To interpret everything through the lens of similarity begs the question, diminishes differences before we even get to them.

Nonetheless, the reality of mysticism is compelling, and the ubiquity and consistency of it throughout human religious experience is hard to deny. Conversely, adopting the perspective of comparative mysticism distances us inevitably from the formal, exclusive, and particularist aspects of any one religious system. It doesn’t mean we can’t critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of different religions – and even come to recognise truly unique and revelatory elements within a religion; but it will always be somewhat distant, the observations and understanding of an outsider looking in.

To have this perspective and not promote it as necessarily superior, objectively true, and appropriate for others puts me in an unusual position. There’s not much I can say about it, and since most of my friends and acquaintances are either strongly religious or not religious at all, I tend not to discuss it with anyone. But it is nonetheless a view I have formed, examined, and considered over and again for more than half my life, and to which I keep returning, or should I say: it keeps returning to me. As indistinct as it may be in my own daily life, I have to acknowledge it as a profound influence on all aspects of my view of the world.

As Christmas approaches I can’t help but see it through this lens: the incarnation of that ‘ultimate reality’ within the utterly humble and unspectacular domain of ordinary human existence. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the uniqueness of Christianity, not in as something that denies or refutes the past, but as fulfillment and reaffirmation of what has gone before. Not only God incarnate in its own terms, but a kind of ‘metaphor incarnate’ if we can set aside the misleading implications of such a phrase. To me this is the greatest sense I can make of it; a sense that grounds the metaphysical and ontological mysteries in the lived experience of the individual. An incarnation that mirrors the presence of the ultimate reality in the microcosm of the individual human being.