Writing as catharsis

Review of Stephen Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

Posted in Book review, Buddhism, Philosophy, Zen by Lachlan R. Dale on March 15, 2014

Stephen Batchelor's Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

This is a fascinating book.

In the opening pages I was struck by the similarities in Batchelor’s teenage years and my own. In high school we were both baffled by our fellow pupils and teachers lack of interest in the meaning of existence. For us, the quest for existential resolution overrode all other concerns. We were (or still are) obsessed by the search for meaning.

Batchelor too shared my love of Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, and also possessed a strong drive to reject the complacency and spiritual-intellectual sterility of those around him. Unlike Batchelor, however, I never wandered off to India to smoke hash and join the company of the Dali Lama (well, not yet in any case).

I assume Batchelor’s trajectory is far from rare; certainly this would explain why so many Westerners are drawn to his work. His story may be a common one, but it is made far more interesting given Batchelor’s many years experience in delving into various forms of Buddhism – Tibetan Gelug and Korean Zen in particular.

Batchelor’s many decades of study, coupled with his interest in existentialism makes Confession of a Buddhist Atheist a most excellent reference for fellow ponderers. Since Buddhism is still relatively new to Westerners, Batchelor has saved many of us decades of brutal legwork in de-mystifying Buddhism; stripping it of its metaphysical additives to lay bare what secular/rational value remains, and providing a humanised and historically-accurate portrait of the life of the Buddha.

But the greatest value Batchelor can offer is the clear manner in which he articulates his sophisticated form of sceptical, spiritual agnosticism. His fusion of Western philosophy and Eastern spirituality has inspired me deeply, and I will be picking up more of his work in the future.

The point is not to abandon all institutions and dogmas but to find a way to live with them more ironically, to appreciate them for what they are – the play of the human mind in its endless quest for connection and meaning – rather than timeless entities that have to be ruthlessly defended or forcibly imposed.

– Stephen Batchelor

The delusion of separateness

Posted in Buddhism, Philosophy, Prose, psychology, Ranting and rambling, religion, Science, self-knowledge, Zen by Lachlan R. Dale on December 22, 2013
The Lotus by Nicholas Roerich

The Lotus by Nicholas Roerich

In this piece I hope to define what I consider to be the most useful philosophical perspective I hold. 

In my early twenties and late teens I struggled to reconcile the immense suffering found in conflict, war and genocide with the shallow aims and pervading sense of self-satisfaction I found amongst my peers. For me, the existential issue of large-scale suffering (the likes of the Rwandan massacre) pressed on my mind with intensity and regularity. I could not comprehend how so many seemed content to occupy their lives with trivialities in the face of such a moral challenge; did not their minds not seek to understand humanity and existence? Were they not hungrily searching for meaning too?

I was consumed with a desire to find out how to live a full, ethical and contented life. I observed many around me whose lives were in tatters – elders usually, who had awaken from the daze of their lives to find themselves locked in an unhappy marriage, surrounded by children they considered a burden, weighed down by debt, and damned to work the rest of their days in a monotonous, unfulfilling job. They were completely miserable but lacked the sufficient consciousness to identify and alleviate the source of their misery. Even if they could perceive the life-change their circumstances demanded, the strength or courage required would likely be too much for them. Instead, they resigned themselves to waging a bitter war of small miseries on their family, co-workers and friends (if they have any). These unhappy, twisted men poisoned those around them, and in their self-pity they wallowed.

But I digress. What is of importance is that I struggled heavily with the moral challenge posed by acts of genocide in the recent ‘civilised’ past. I was also baffled by people’s complete indifference to these atrocities (though the severe limitations of the average human’s psyche is far more familiar to me these days).

I struggled in part because my foundations were rotten. I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and so had at least entertained the notion that God is essentially good; that he intervenes in our lives to mete our justice; that suffering is rare, and that unfairness is merely a mistake awaiting correction. It featured a sort of deluded optimism that left me completely unprepared to confront the true nature of the world.

Gladly, these days I feel as though this issue has been largely reconciled. At the very least I do feel like I am succeeding in living a contented life, and in spending my time and energy on things I consider meaningful. At this stage the threat of the total failure of my life is small (though the fear still lingers in the dark corners of my mind). I’ve tried to define exactly what it is I have gained since those early years.

Above all I have attained a significant amount of self-knowledge. What defined my life back then was a sense that I was somehow a stranger in the universe. I felt safe in my suburban home, but my attitude towards nature was largely that of contempt or indifference. I was possessed by a simple, egoistic delusion that arises when one lacks sufficient understanding about oneself and one’s relation to the universe. I believed (or somehow sensed) that I, as a conscious being, were somehow separate from – and not part of – the universe in which I existed. I felt outside of it – beyond it. Sure, I existed ‘within it’, but I was an alien. I lacked a sense of kinship with nature, and as a result I was possessed by an absurd feeling of entitlement. As far as I was concerned the natural world was there for exploitation, or at best it had a place as a sort of trivial museum of the Earth. My ignorance and lack of self-awareness was astounding.

Today, at 27 years old, this notion seems absurdly naive and misguided. It seems that we are armed with sufficient information for a refutation of this delusion in our high school science class. I appreciate now, however, that it is one thing to acknowledge the truth of a proposition, and another to feel it. The latter requires the individual develop a degree of consciousness beyond that of selfish immediacy.

This delusion is one that I have found quite commonly suffered. In this piece I want to try and accurately define this delusion and chart the series of experiences and epiphanies that helped me lift me from it. If I have the mental clarity, at a later date I hope to move on to psychological, religious and social observations – but for the time being I will consign myself to definition.

Defining the delusion

The problem is this: certain members of our species have somehow convinced themselves that human beings stand outside the natural world and it’s order. They believe this in spite of the basic facts of nature; that we are the product of Darwinian evolution, and that we are demonstrably part of the same process of organic life as any other animal. Perhaps they have convinced themselves that we are not of this universe; that we were created after the fact by a bearded Creator – but the specifics are not hugely importance at this stage. What is important is to recognise that this belief has serious consequence in the way that we live and view our lives, not to mention our perceived moral obligations and personal aspirations.

Carl Jung once wrote:

People who know nothing about nature are of course neurotic, for they are not adapted to reality. They are too naive, like children, and it is necessary to tell them the facts of life, so to speak – to make it plain to them that they are human beings like all others.

(Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 166)

By this Jung meant that humans need concrete, physical contact with the natural world to remind them that they are animals of nature. Huddled in cityscrapers and in constant engagement with abstract ideas and environments of our own construction, we tend to forget this fact, in spite of it’s self-evidence. The delusion of which I speak is a common manifestation, and one which inhibits psychological wholeness.

Our scientific understanding of the nature of the universe can provide us much to combat this delusion. I ask you please indulge me while I spell out the obvious (that we perhaps ‘know’ but might not yet ‘feel’):

We are animals.

Our species and our selves are the result of the process of evolution of organic life.

The universe is the meta-process that enables and makes possible our very being.

We are comprised of the same stuff as any other living creature – and of any matter in the universe; atoms.

When we die and our bodies decay those atoms are recycled into other materials, forms and being.

These facts are non-negotiable. Any conclusions we wish to draw from the above might invite a variety of interpretations of varying validity, but we cannot reasonably discount our understanding of the above. It would serve us well to regularly repeat that thought for grounding and perspective; this is what is known, so let us start building our morality and worldview from that.

Escape from delusion

But again we come back to the crux of the issue; we might ‘know’ or acknowledge the above – but acknowledgement is not enough alone. We must feel this to be true; or, in other words, we must couple a scientific/rational understanding of our relation to the universe with an emotional or spiritual one. And this is crucial, because the absence of an existential foundation has great potential to warp our psyche and leave us with a permanent psychological limp. How can we be expected to maintain a balanced mental state if we are unable to recognise the most basic truths of our existence?

We cannot. Instead the narrow limit of our consciousness consigns us to be blown about by shallow emotion and egoistic drives. We would exist merely on the surface of life, with deeper forms of contentment rendered inaccessible. We would also lack a firm moral grounding – for how we view the context of our lives effects a huge amount of the small actions and decisions that make up our day-to-day.

The ultimate consequence is, in short, is misery – both personal and more general. We will be damned to live out our days without ever knowing how to access deeper states of contentment and happiness. Thus we are left to blindly discern aims merely guided by our wills; constantly goal-seeking – but when we achieve our goal (or if our will falters) we experience a moment of profound panic or fear. While the goal has been met, that feeling of a deeper satisfaction still seems to elude us. We ask ourselves: ‘Was that it? What now? What comes next?’ And so we might be led down a false path, building up a series of goals and achievements in an attempt to hopelessly chase a longer-lasting satisfaction – but if we lack a proper understanding about who we are and how our minds work, then we will never find it. And so we risk ending up like those miserable husks of humans I mentioned in my opening paragraphs.

And this, friends, is surely what we would like to avoid.

To me it seems our failure to recognise some that we share a common essence with the universe – or a failure to we feel we ‘belong’ here – is the root of all nihilism. To feel as though we are unwanted strangers whose cries echo endlessly in the halls of a cold, unfeeling world that cares not at all whether we live, suffer or die — this is a severely traumatic experience, especially for a species as psychologically fragile as we.

It is for this reason that I feel this delusion is the defining spiritual sickness of our time – but if think back to those foundational scientific claims, we can defeat this delusion. It is so clearly inaccurate given the facts at hand. Human life is like any other form of organic life; a process of the universe. Human beings are so obviously of life and of the natural systems on earth – so what stops us from recognising this?

Overcoming the delusion

It is our ego, the teller of lies, that fuels this sense of estrangement. While it certainly plays a useful psychological role, it also regularly infects our minds with delusion. It is like a parasite that will whisper endless untruths for the sake of its own survival. It would love nothing more than to endless bloat itself with self-satisfaction until we are completely consumed by a sense of arrogant entitlement. We ultimately suffer for the over-indulgence of the ego – and so too the people that we love and care for.

So, how can we combat the influence of the ego? Well, most importantly we need to be able to properly identify it’s influence. This requires the purposeful cultivation of detached self-awareness, introspection and reflection. To paraphrase Alan Watts; take care to watch your thoughts like an impassive observer – do this especially whenever you feel yourself in an elevated mood (say in a moment of anger of jealousy) and try to discern why this is taking place. The idea is to think about your thinking, and through this method you will begin to understand how your mind works, and from there gain the power to question the validity of the ego’s influence.

So now we have come full circle. The most desirable trait we can accumulate is knowledge about the self. Through this process we can gradually become aware of our ‘true’ selves (of which I feel I am beginning to get glimpse). The result is a pervading sense of contentment, the cultivation of meaning, and the avoidance of the bitterness of triviality. Above all, we greatly reduce the risk that we might wake up one day to find our life a failure.

It is one of the great ironies that the deeper we delve deeper into ourselves , the more the universe outside becomes illuminated. As Carl Jung wrote (and as I tend to quote endlessly):

Who looks outside; dreams.

Who looks inside; awakens.

Reflection and self-knowledge are the key to better understanding and connecting-with the true nature of reality – and in discerning how to live a more fulfilled and meaningful life. This is the most useful proposition that I hold.

Using a Zen-perspective to defuse depression

Posted in Buddhism, Philosophy, psychology, Ranting and rambling, self-knowledge by Lachlan R. Dale on March 31, 2013
A mandala drawn by Carl Jung, from his recently-published Red Book

A mandala drawn by Carl Jung, from his recently-published Red Book

As of late I have been plagued by emotional turmoil. I’ve had a sense of being cut adrift to oscillate between poles of elation and depression; and I have been increasingly frustrated by my failure to work through these oscillations. I have tried to remain conscience of the changes in my mental state so I might observe the duration and depth of each swing; an attempt to identify patterns and overall trends that might provide some insight into my condition. I awake some days soaring, my spirits in the highest realm, filled with beaming gratitude for even being alive. Other days however, I am pulled down into depression and defeat, and wallow there.

I am largely a stranger to depression; it is not something I experience often. What I have found most troubling about this period is that my writing and my thoughts have largely failed to reach the high planes of philosophy where they once regularly did. (I consider that philosophic detachment to be the highest, most rewarding and most desirable state I can attain). It is though, aside from a supremely memorable exception, I have been too engrossed in the direct world of my emotions to achieve the level of cool detachment and mental clarity required to reach this state. To have such a long period lacking in philosophic contemplation is uncharacteristic of me.

I have therefore been looking for tools, ideas and practices that might help defuse my negative emotional states (anxiety, depression), and set me on more beneficial and enjoyable mindsets. Yesterday, while enjoying a coffee and my morning read, I had a minor epiphany that may have provided me with a much-needed key.

But first, a preface.

Why and when is philosophy useful to an individual?

When we read philosophy we are essentially coaxing our minds to comprehend an alternate perspective. This perspective might be highly personal, or it might be a collective conceptual perspective built up over years of development.

While philosophising professionally, or for the sake of academia might be enjoyable, I believe that philosophy is of most value when what we are reading resonates deeply with our own life; when our reading provides us with practical tools to help us live our lives better, more fully and more contently. When we can relate deeply to another’s perspective, we can walk the cow-paths of their thought, taking notes to familiarise ourselves with the route. Given enough time and reflection, we can begin to construct mental scaffolding using their words. Over more time still, we can begin to accrue enough scaffolding to build bridges between concepts and schools of thought; perhaps ultimately developing new, unifying concepts and lashing once separate pockets of wisdom together.

I have had this experience with philosophy often – it is exactly why I keep returning to it. At various times a mind-expanding concept has come out of scientific rationalism (our beloved New Atheists), cosmology, mysticism, psychedelia, Carl Jung’s psychology (particularly mythology, dream interpretation and the collective unconscious), Hermann Hesse’s philosophy, Colin Wilson’s conception of nihilism, William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, post-modernism, and Wade Davis’ anthropology — but now it is Alan Watt’s explanation of the nature of Zen that has become my latest useful framework.

What is Zen?

I have been living with a real problem that demands a practical solution (depression, anxiety); and I believe that by regular adoption of the perspective of Zen (perhaps coupled with meditation) I can escape powerlessness in the face of these emotional states.

I’ll quote in passing the passage I scrawled in my notebook when the epiphany hit:

Perhaps what I need to focus on is my understanding of the basic principle of Zen; harmony with existence (and other beings; the chain of causation; our sense of existential powerlessness). My sense of anxiety seems to be rooted in childish self-doubt and anticipation. Is this not a clear instance of ill-spent energy; a wasteful psychological habit that drains my life and puts stress in my jaw? And is it not unnecessary?

When I observe these problems from a perspective of Zen, my anxiety is rendered inconsequential and erroneous. Fighting against inevitability or reality simply becomes childish in this light – an aberration that should be replaced by what I have long regarded my basic philosophic principles; humility-towards and acceptance-of existence.

At its simplest Zen is a framework that aims to allow an individual to move with the flow of life and change in the universe. It breeds an awareness and acceptance of the Eternal Becoming (the “constantly changing apocalypse” that Aldous Huxley observed on mescaline). It is a state of humility, receptivity and awareness.

Zen shares an interesting root with nihilism; both are essentially responses to the realisation that we are ultimately powerless and inconsequential in the grand scheme of the universe – but where nihilism turns to despair and inaction, Zen transitions into life-affirmation. Zen recognises that a response of despair is little but a selfish demand of the ego, and that that is the root of the problem (not our powerlessness, but our ego’s deluded demand to be powerful), for the ego does not represent the whole of our selves. Nihilists, however, allow their ego to be locked in a death-struggle against this inevitability, and in the process achieve little but suffering, stress and anxiety. If this fighting is prolonged, they can invite neurosis and mental instability.

In place of the ego’s desire to control and dominate existence, Zen speaks of cultivating acceptance; of surrender; of harmony with the eternal chain of causation. The ultimate goal is an eternal awakening; a state of perpetual and acute consciousness of the entire universe; being tuned-in to the flow and gracefully moving with it. (The paradox is that while this is a sublime level of personal detachment, it is through this consciousness of eternity that you can also discover much about the true nature of yourself)

The fork between Zen and nihilism rests in yet another ego-delusion; the absurd misconception that we are somehow separate from (and not of) the universe. Even the most basic understanding of the natural world would show that this is not true; that we, animals ourselves, are the product of evolution; that we are comprised of atoms (obviously part of the universe) that have been recycled and reused many times before creating our form, and will be recycled many times more in the future. When we consider the almost impossible time-scale of the universe, it doesn’t take a whole lot of pondering to realise that we are exceedingly transitory – an infinitesimal speck in the grander scheme of the universal flow of matter and the eternal chain of causation.

Once we are cleansed of this delusion that we are somehow strangers in the universe (“here on sufferance or probation”), we begin to understand that we are very much an intrinsic part of it. Our own forms are not fixed or static – we are a process; we grow, we change, we age, we decay – and we are but a small process in a much larger, and infinitely more complex process. We should strive to be aware of this fact. Once we become truly conscious of this idea, the result is a feeling of eternal gratitude, peace, and humility.

If you read the literature of the great religions, time and time again you come across descriptions of what is usually referred to as “spiritual experience.” You will find that in all the various traditions this modality of spiritual experience seems to be the same, whether it occurs in the Christian West, the Islamic Middle East, the Hindu world of Asia, or the Buddhist world. In each culture it is quite definitely the same experience, and it is characterised by the transcendence of individuality and by a sensation of being one with the total energy of the universe.

– Alan Watts, What Is Zen?

(I could segue here into a discussion of the nature of duality and the cross-over between Zen, the accounts of mystics and the use of psychedelics, but I think we’ve tackled more than enough for the time being)

Sure… and how is this useful in defusing depression?

When I conduct thought-experiments with this perspective I find it renders the small waves of my life (such as my recent bouts of depression) as completely inconsequential – not to mention thoroughly short-sighted and self-absorbed. It has the effect of pulling back my point of view so that I can observe impossibly larger tides – and in this contemplation of the universal my small defeats and sadness have their sting removed. Zen acts as a reminder of the appropriate state of being; humility and gratitude; acceptance without anticipation; calm.

My end-goal, of course, is to move far deeper into these frameworks to undercover more useful ideas – but for now my small epiphany as to the practical application of this realisation is more than enough to share and enjoy.

If you’ve read this far I hope this has been in some small way of use or interest.