Writing as catharsis

Seeing the world as Van Gogh did

Posted in Philosophy, Prose, Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on July 24, 2012
Road with Cypress and Star by Van Gogh

Road with Cypress and Star by Van Gogh (1890)

I feel like this is a subject I should write about immediately, as it may be of the utmost importance. There may be clues hidden far in my past that could help me have a better understanding of myself, and of the trajectory of my spiritual thought.

In my life I have had some unique experiences which, upon reflection, I once find quite hard to categorise. I’ll start by describing one experience in detail.

It was a Friday afternoon some five years ago. I had returned home from work to find an empty house – which, in those times was definitely a blessing. Time alone and in-silence was rare and to be treasured. This had put me into a good mood, and I was feeling particularly content with life.

I resolved to walk down to our local purveoyer of fine wines and celebrate my good mood with a nice bottle of Shiraz. The sky threatened rain, but I felt like walking regardless. I slipped on my headphones and began strolling through the scenic route to the sound of Bohren & Der Club of Gore’s Sunset Mission.

I walked slowly, looking around at the clouds and their different shades of gray; the different styles of houses in each street; and the types of plants growing in each yard. I could smell that sort of fresh, cool change in the air that marks the moments before a storm. Then, as the rain begun to lightly fall, something happened to me.

My sense of contentment grew so as to become almost overwhelming. It was a sensation that was all-consuming. I felt that everything was good; that there was an innate harmony and correctness to the universe. Colours seemed more intense, more vibrant; taking on an almost hyper-real quality.

I became rapturous; enamoured. The stroll, the trees, the streets were just too beautiful. In the distance lightning began to flash – an electrical storm was coming – and I slipped further into a state of mind of which I still do not completely understand.

I’ve recently been able to identify when I’m being put into a trance-like state – usually by slow, droning music. It has also become a semi-regular occurrence (I can recall particularly the experience when listening to Space Bong and Scott Kelly of Neurosis live in the last year).

When in a trance, my eyes feel glazed and cloudy; I become incredibly content – filled with some inner warmth – and I find it hard to keep my eyes open, or my head up. I don’t go to sleep, but rather remain awake in a trance-like state, rendered in complete bliss by the music.

There are some similarities between those music-induced trance-like states and my state during that walk. I felt the same sort of cloudy ‘glaze’ over my eyes, and I felt a more intense version of that bliss and contentment.

These experiences have not been overly rare in my life. I’ve been struck by similar instances many times, though not always with the same clarity or level of intensity. While I have failed to make a proper and complete record of these experiences (which I am vowing not to fail at ever again) I find that they are usually induced by walking, listening to music and observing natural elements around me (the way that sunlight illuminates particular plants; the jagged arms of a grey gum; the structure and pattern of leaves).

I will definitely have to pay close attention the next time such a feeling overtakes me.

But what does it mean?

Reflecting now, I have some vague sense of how I might frame or interpret these events.

In the past few years I’ve become more and more interested by mystical experiences. Colin Wilson’s The Outsider really helped me begin to frame mankind’s existential and spiritual crisis; nihilism. Nihilism is essentially the inability to reconcile reality and the universe with a personal philosophy or religion; and the failure to find objective value and meaning.

Wilson uses the experiences, art and biography of key literary, artistic and religious figures to demonstrate different qualities of awareness as to unity within the universe. The real acheivement of The Outsider was to work those different qualities and types of awareness into a sort of theoretical framework.

Wilson used this awareness framework as the foundation for the development of his own philosophy — one I have not read, though the small elements of which I heard do not particularly interest me.

I digress. The point is, Wilson goes into detail about mystical experiences; those of William Blake, George Fox and other various mystics. Some descriptions of their experiences are similar to my own.

Through reading of and about William Blake, Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Colin Wilson I’ve come across many cases of people being ‘overwhelmed’ by the ‘natural beauty of the world’, or of a sense of connectedness – usually associated with entering some sort of trance-like state.

That considered, I guess what I’ve had are essentially ‘religious’ experiences.

I feel like on those walks I saw what Van Gogh might have seen as he painted the world ablaze with life and intensity.

I would guess that most people who have these experiences have little recourse but to explain or frame them within the religious lexicon they were raised as — a direct experience of a Christian God; the presence of an angel; a burning bush.

Having little stock in the forms of Christanity presented to me, I will not do similar. For now, I must think further on the circumstances of my own experiences, resolve to read more about mystics, and the analysis of their experiences.

Introducing the East

I’ve also found a sort of congruance of my experiences with the concept of Zen.

In the last 12 months I’ve been exposed to the writings and teachings of Alan Watts (specifically The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, What Is Zen? and the 12 CD lecture series Out Of Your Mind). While I certainly don’t hang off his every word, his presentation of the idea of Zen is of particular interest.

In a nutshell, to experience a state of Zen is to essentially become conscious of the unity of the entire universe.

It is the realisation that you – your thoughts, experience, life, body – are but one miniscule aspect of a greater whole.

We shouldn’t depart into more fanciful interpretations of Zen (IE: you are a magic creator-being who creates the universe using quantum science) — but stay rooted in the idea that Zen is but the abrogation of the delusion that you are “seperate” from the universe, and that you are a composite of a larger whole. That much at least shouldn’t be too controversial. Any elaboration or interpretation of Zen beyond the above statement should be treated with supreme skepticism and caution.

Many seem to conclude that Zen demosntrates there are significant and meaningful connections between you and the universe. That it’s an awareness that black and white, light and dark, good and evil, happiness and pain and all other polarities are all essential composites of existence that rely on one another — that is, without dark there is no light. In this way, existence can ultimately justify itself.

I’m certainly not taking that jump on faith. Still, Zen has provided another interesting tool for the possible interpretation of my experiences. Much more thought and research still needs to be done.

These are definitely interesting and possibly fruitful lines of thought which I will follow.

I know Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy is of particular use. I might have to give that book that time and dedication it deserves in the near future – as with William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. I placed an order for the latter this afternoon.

What about you?

I would be particularly interested to hear if anyone else has had a similar or comparable experience. It’s definitely not something I have discussed publicly – or with anyone, really. I’ve only read about them, and (apparently) experienced it for myself.

A million threads of delusion and egoism

Posted in Philosophy, Prose, Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on July 23, 2012

Today the soul is silenced and repressed.
Its sedation takes root when we are young.

Mechanisms of egoistic self-preservation of delusionWhen raised on a diet empty mantras and tedious legalism, is it any wonder many find religion worthy of scorn?

I followed those lines of thought when struggling to free myself from the mental and spiritual shackles that had been clumsily applied in my youth. Today, however, such a conclusion seems like folly.

To be sure, the escape itself was exceedingly necessary — one must break with the suffocating ideas of which you’ve been indoctrinated with during youth — but to then transition into a permanently unreceptive state of mind in which you completely ignore any hint of spiritual ideal is naivety and ignorance. It is like discarding all of mankind’s artistic endeavours based on one traumatic viewing of Two and a Half Men.

This is why I’ve got a particular irritation with people who read The God Delusion or god Is Not Great then consider the case of all things spiritual closed forevermore. The arrogance is astounding.

There is more beyond the horizons then you could possibly anticipate. To deny yourself some sense of continued development would be to fall pray to an egoistic mechanism for self-preservation.

Your mind runs in familiar grooves — ones that you must become aware of, and attempt to break free from. To be stuck in a groove same forever represents the death of your mind.

To avoid this process is no simple feat. The mind is like a cobweb; each new thought builds upon – and in time, supports many others. As a reflex you might fear the destruction of this fragile web, but does not need to be this way. You must prepare to throw away your assumptions and conclusions should a new essential truth dawn tomorrow.

Attempt to perceive the grooves in your mind and the threads of your web as much as possible. Many times have I reached a conclusion that, while initially seeming true, appears false upon reflection — as if it were a mental reflex to feed the ego and support the self with delusion.

We are all propped up with delusion to a degree. But this is why humility, openness and reflectiveness to be the most important characteristics of an individual looking to acheive self-actualisation. Be prepared to let your web of belief break, collapse and reshape. Ultimately it is better to have one thread of truth and nothing else than a million threads of delusion and egoism.

Grasping for foundations once more

Posted in Philosophy, Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on July 20, 2012

It’s been almost two years since I sat down in a picturesque park in Oxford with a laptop and a small ball of hash to begin mapping out my philosophical and religious beliefs. The project was not a small one. It ended up engulfing many late nights over a period of nine months.

Looking back, I consider the result as quite messy and incoherent – but then I remind myself what the point of the exercise was.

Self-reflective writing is one of the most valuable habits I have. Putting words to paper (or arranging pixels on an illuminated screen in my case) in an honest fashion forces you to expose yourself to yourself. It is clear within the space of a few sentences whether you’re entertaining a delusive and unjustifiable perspective – and you just can’t hide from that fact. You’re made to actually articulate many of the assumptions that run un-checked in the back of your mind, assumptions that you take for granted.

Questioning those assumptions on a regular basis has been one of the most fruitful exercises I have undertaken. It’s made me more humble and certainly far more open to new or different ideas. The arrogant venom at which I gleefully expressed every half-baked opinion that came to mind as a teenager seems laughable (though by no means is that scorching cynicism and flippant egoism extinguished – I just take it less seriously). In the space of the last 10 years, my perspective on just about every issue of importance has changed drastically.

Recently I’ve been failing in my habit to write regularly. I think my brain needed the chance to have more experience and absorb more data before I had anything new or interesting to say.

Well, now I feel like progress is being made. The wheels are turning once more.

Soon I will begin to grasp for the foundations of my philosophical, ethical, political and religious thought once more, and make a systematic attempt at expanding my mental horizons.

Though humans are not stupid, they usually have been obstinately attached to their old ideas, not just from fear of the unfamiliar, but because an old idea is part of a system of thought, which is like a cobweb: every part sustains every other, and once you are in your cannot escape.

(…) Nothing influences our ability to cope with the difficulties of our existence so much as the context in which we view them; the more contexts we can choose between, the less do the difficulties appear to be inevitable and insurmountable.

– Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity

We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a ‘case’ with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends.

– George Orwell

Book review: An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin

Posted in Book review by Lachlan R. Dale on July 11, 2012

An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore ZeldinIt’s taken me some time (Goodreads informs me 3 months), but I have finally finished reading Theodore Zeldin’s ambitious book, ‘An Intimate History of Humanity.’

Zeldin’s stated objective is to provide us with a history of humanity that surpasses stale cataloging of kingdoms epochs, and ages. Instead, he turns his attention to some of the most important and defining dynamics of human society. He takes our fixed assumptions about the nature of humanity, and, through an exposition of engaging historical examples, reveals them to be far less fixed than we have previously assumed.

This quote perhaps sums it up best:

“Nothing influences our ability to cope with the difficulties of our existence so much as the context in which we view them; the more contexts we can choose between, the less do the difficulties appear to be inevitable and insurmountable.”

That is the crux of Zeldin’s mission; he wants to provide readers with the tools and inspiration to look beyond narrow cultural and social assumptions, and imagine new ways of being; new forms of politics, ethics and morality. His is essentially an optimistic, humanitarian vision. Once more I quote:

“It is not enough to focus only on the minute synapses of personal encounters. It has become possible, as never before, to pay attentinon to what is happening in every corner of the globe. Humans each have a personal horizon, beyond which they normally dare not look. But occasionally they do venture further, and then their habitual way of thinking becomes inaequate. Today they are becoming increasingly aware of of the existence of other civilisations. In such circumstances, old problems take on a new appearance, because they are revealed as being parts of larger problems. The shift in interest away from national squabbles to broad humanitarian and environmental concerns is a sign of the urge to escape from ancient obsessions, to keep in view all the different dimensions of reality, and to focus simultaneously on the personal, the local and the universal.”

But how well does he succeed? The book begins with a brief introduction that outlines his intent. From there, we are presented with an almost relentless anthology of chapters that follow the same structure – pick a theme, provide an initial modern case study to open up the discussion of that theme, then delve into the other possibilities of being that are supported by examples cherrypicked from throughout human history.

Here is a sample of some of those chapter headings:

  • How men and women have slowing learned to have interesting conversations
  • How some people have acquired an immunity of loneliness
  • How new forms of love have been invented
  • Why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex
  • How respect has become more desirable than power
  • Why the crisis of the family is only one stage in the evolution of generosity

Clearly Zeldin has not set his sights on low hanging fruit. Each chapter focuses on a particular thought or feeling, like toil, the art of conversation, voluntarism, compassion, attitudes on class and social status, and authority.

Throughout this book, there are signs that Zeldin would wrap up with an impressive, overarching concept – and indeed he does, but after finishing ‘An Intimate History of Humanity‘ I cannot help but think that a re-reading would be immensely beneficial. The concluding chapters provide essential context that I feel was missing from the introduction, and they really help illuminate the value in Zeldin’s approach and his objectives.

Perhaps his introduction is too brief – perhaps it would have paid Zeldin to revisit his objective in detail before the final concluding chapters – but I feel as though his concept was not explained as well as it could have been from the outset; and that this would have made for a more engaging book if he had taken more time to do so. Perhaps this is simple a flaw lies in my own comprehension.

Verdict: recommended.

Undeniably, many of the ideas in this book were intoxicating. Zeldin has immense scope of vision. His concept strongly appeals to my desire for a universal view of human nature and history – to cut through mere cataloging and classifying, and to draw out a better understanding of human nature drawn from across millenia.

While certainly not flawless in its execution, this book is groundbreaking in it’s approach, and will prove a worthy inspiration for anyone seeking a deeper level of understanding of human nature and the human condition. I finish this book very curious to where Zeldin’s thoughts and understanding are at today (the book was published in 1997), and hope that future writers can build off his concept. It might prove to be a exceedingly fruitful method of philosophical inquiry.

The sea is eternal: when it heaves
One speaks of waves but in reality they are the sea.

– Hamzah Fansuri