Writing as catharsis

My new piece on Tibetan Buddhism for Philosophy Now

Posted in Book review, Buddhism, Philosophy, religion by Lachlan R. Dale on October 2, 2017

Well now, it has been some time, hasn’t it?

I thought I might drop by and mention my first piece for Philosophy Now has just been published.

In it, I explore the tensions between Tibetan Buddhism and atheism by discussing an most excellent book – The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life.

Give it a read!

Rāhula in Tibetan Buddhism

PS: This is the Facebook page I’m using these days.

 

 

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Review of John Gray’s The Silence of Animals

Posted in Book review, Philosophy, psychology, Ranting and rambling, religion, Science by Lachlan R. Dale on February 23, 2014

John Gray's The Silence of Animals

A sense of bitter pessimism seeps through the pages of The Silence of Animals as John Gray confronts the darker side of human nature.

Gray’s aim is the dissolution of illusion; a desire to face existence as clear-eyed as possible in the hope he might uncover a key to more real and meaningful life. But first he must clear away the mythological debris in which modern thought has become entangled.

In the book’s first section Gray produces a wide-ranging commentary on society, religion and philosophy. He is ruthless in his pursuit of two targets in particular: belief in the irreversible progress of civilisation, and faith in rational, liberal humanism.

The two are somewhat intertwined. Liberal humanists believe that mankind is capable of overcoming it’s flaws through the development of rationality. They anticipate a transformation into a perfect, logical utopian man.

Belief in irreversible progress represents similar utopianism, albeit on a grander scale. It posits that civilisation has (or can) progress to such a degree that any further relapses into barbarism are impossible. The concept follows that we are gradually progressing towards a sort of heaven on earth.

Gray scoffs at both suggestions. He claims that the belief in the perfectibility (or even basic rationality) of mankind is a “dangerous conceit of reason”; naive and unrealistic. He points to countless instances of barbarism in the past century to argue that humans are only ever “partly and intermittently rational”, declaring:

If belief in human rationality were a scientific theory it would have long since been abandoned.

Gray says humanists delude (and flatter) themselves by crafting a mythological self that is more noble, controlled, rational and ‘good’ than sober reflection would allow. For instance; humanists would have us believe that all humans long to be free, and that, if given the chance, would choose to live rational and ethical lives. Gray’s response?

To think of humans as freedom-loving, you must be ready to view all of history as a mistake.

The man has a point.

While this first section is littered with strong historical examples, Gray’s use of the rise of Nazi Germany to demonstrate mankind’s irrationality en masse is particularly apt. Under Hitler the general populous submitted to a totalitarian ruler. The ruling class utilised propaganda to stimulate brutal, primitive sub-conscious urges in the public — the lust for power, fear of the other, and the ‘collective psychosis’ of the mob.

This approach was effective primarily because humanity has not managed to completely divorce itself from its animal past – and no amount of self-delusion on the part of humanists can change this. Through National Socialism the German populace were liberated from the terrible burden of freedom and personal responsibility; which, when left unchecked, can open up a chasm of meaninglessness to swallow one whole.

Much of the history of the twentieth century demonstrates how easily ‘advanced’ societies can lapse into barbarism. It is a century punctuated by horrific atrocities and barbarism, from nationalist fascist movements, genocide, ethnic cleansing and world war. It is also one littered with millions of corpses from failed social utopias, sparked by people who believed that, through reason, a perfect society could be conceived. Thus Gray is easily able to erode any notion that mankind has somehow progressed beyond the days of barbarism. Civilisation is, as ever, remains a thin veneer.

When we consider humanity’s recent past alongside other facts of our existence, the optimistic self-image shaped by humanists fails to add up (however it’s lack of accuracy does not prohibit it from being a useful fiction). To Gray, humanism is a human-centric delusion which fails miserably to encompass what we already know about mankind – and while secular humanism may prove a valuable stepping stone away from the irrationality of unreflective religious belief, it still fails to resolve any of the central questions of existentialism, and tends to atrophy into a particularly detestable form of pompous egoism – precisely the form of mental stasis Gray wants to avoid.

As an alternative to such self-delusion, Gray advocates a form of naturalism that undermines the notion of human superiority over other animals. He wants the reader to recognise that as a species we are equally capable of great good and horrific evil – and that we are unable to simply deny the darker side of our nature:

There are not two kind of human being, savaged and civilised. There is only the human animal, forever at war with itself…

Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.

I certainly find it hard to argue him on this point.



How should we respond to the facts of existence?

Throughout The Silence of Animals John Gray is preoccupied with facing and accepting chaos in the universe. As a result he can seem to excrete measured nihilism and negativity.

Gray spends much of the second part of his book attempting to sketch out a world-view in response to the facts and perspectives expressed above. In particular he draws inspiration from Sigmund Freud’s philosophy of ‘stoic resignation’.

Freud recognised that mankind is innately flawed. His psychology did not seek to ‘cure’ man, but rather teach him how to live with the conflict and cognitive dissonance in his mind. As Freud saw it, all of mankind is sick and controlled by the unconscious. There is no order to human affairs, nor to the universe. Chaos is final, and in such an environment all there is for man to do is to assert his will against the inevitable end; to trudge on, without hope of reprieve.

Gray is attracted by this note of bitter, heroic resignation. In contrast he has no time for the dreamy mysticism and mythology of Carl Jung, and spends a few pages cutting down a few of his key ideas and casting aspersions on his character.

Another key figure of inspiration for Gray is British author Llewelyn Powys. Despite facing an early death, Llewelyn refused to give in to pessimism or to lessen his lust for life. Instead, he hungrily searched out the beauty, meaning and experiences that made life worth celebrating. Gray reveals much in his disposition when he comments that “the fact that (Llewlyn) was never far from death left him free to follow his fancy, which was the sensation of life.”

This sort of world-view strongly appeals to Gray. Llewelyn is a man who admits that “at the bottom of the well of life there is no hope” – but this seemed to just make him all the more determined to enjoy existence; to search out and create meaning. It’s a romantic image of a man waging an unwinnable war and asserting the self against the pitiless universe.



Godless mysticism

Here comes the reveal. Despite all this rather sombre talk of humanity’s flaws and life’s innate meaninglessness, Gray ultimately seeks is a path for yea-saying; that is, towards a philosophy of acceptance and embrace of life. He desires more abundant life – not less – and therefore refuses to view life-negating nihilism as a legitimate, long-term response to the questions posed by existence (though one suspects this might be for purely practical reasons, namely self-preservation).

Gray seeks to build a new perspective from the ashes of mythology, one that he has called ‘godless mysticism’. Robinson Jeffers describes this concept as:

The devaluation of human illusions, the turning outward of man to what is boundlessly greater.

No other sentence could better encapsulate the essence of The Silence of Animals.

Godless mysticism meets at a curious intersection of Eastern contemplation, stoic, cynical rationalism and paganistic regard of nature. The sort of reflection Gray advocates fundamentally differs from most disciples of eastern philosophy. Gray does not aim to “dissolve the self into an imagined oneness”. Rather he firmly rejects the metaphysics behind just mysticism*:

The freedom that nature-mystics look for beyond the human scene is like the spiritual realm of the religious, a human thought-construction… Godless mystics do not look to merge themselves with something larger they have imagined into being.

Where “monks and mystics try to still the mind so that it can grasp what it eternal”, Gray seeks to do the opposite; to “sharpen the senses” and better perceive the current moment; to absorb and reflect on it. Judging by his affinity for nature writer J. A. Baker this likely includes reflection on the beauty of natural world – but Gray also stresses we should not romanticise nature’s brutal and unsentimental character.



Conclusion

What John Gray strives for is an increased receptivity to reality. He is driven by a deep desire to break out of automatic existence, and to experience the present moment with more clarity and intensity.

Gray recognises humans tend to create abstract realities in which they can become trapped. The result is a barrier between the individual and the ‘real’ world. While Gray certainly refuses to entertain the notion that humans are capable of experiencing pure, undiluted reality (it would go against his strongly skeptical nature) he does believe that at times the sleep can get lighter.

The Silence of Animals has huge value in helping us think about the true nature of humanity, society, and the world in which we live. However, we need to recognise that Gray’s response (his affinity towards ‘stoic resignation’) is based on temperament. He would have us, the reader, praise and embrace existence in spite of it’s inherent meaninglessness – but warns us not to over do it. It would be equally valid to accept the same premises as Gray and be filled with joy, inspiration, love and gratitude for the chance to exist; and this would be no less valid than Gray’s sterner, strained reaction.

I admire strongly admire Gray’s resolve. While he embraces one of the most negative, cynical and sober perspectives I have encountered, he still looks beyond the horizon for a life-affirming state of mind. His naturalistic streak sees him searching for a deeper connection with the natural world, and ways in which mankind can live in harmony with the universe.

The book itself is a pleasure to read. At times Gray’s writing style seems almost stream of consciousness; he tosses up ideas as they spring to mind, and moves on as quickly as he had begun. From one perspective this makes The Silence of Animals a constant source of interest – the pacing is reasonably fast, and we are never bogged down in one strain of thought for too long – but it also means that some ideas or statements aren’t given the elaboration they require.

Some critics have lambasted Gray for over-use of citations (they run at about one-third of the book’s two hundred pages), but I’m quite comfortable with this approach. Colin Wilson utilised a similar citation-heavy style in his much-cherished portrait of the challenge of existentialism in The Outsider – and I will thank him forever for it. Throwing in passages from Conrad, Nietzsche, Borges, Freud, Schopenhauer and many more obscure writers and thinkers keeps reading fresh.

Gray’s is often thought-provoking. He touches on countless other ideas I have not been able to cover here for brevity’s sake. While Gray’s bouts of misanthropy, and his tendency to grimace might scare some off, for many this book will provide yet another useful perspective to consider the most important questions of our life.

The Silence of Animals is recommended reading to those who, like Gray, seek inner peace and freedom from delusion.

* Though I should note his argument against such ideas leaves much to be desire; he simply rejects them, then moves on.

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.