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.

A statement of intent

Posted in Philosophy, Prose, Ranting and rambling, Zen by Lachlan R. Dale on August 14, 2013

(Unfortunately I do not know the copyright details. I apologise.)

I’ve tried to write on this subject countless times over the last year, but the words always seemed to ring of melodrama, causing me to abandon my work in disgust. No matter. I will write this now – and if this entry lacks finesse or flowing phrase, then so be it.

This year been a hard one. The end of my last relationship almost destroyed me. Without going into detail, the end was one I somehow had never foreseen – though optimism or wilful delusion I am unsure.

Foreshadowing (and following) this break I have struggled with bouts of depression. The experience has not been pleasant, but there is good I can take from it. I’ve had many friends who’ve suffered from anxiety, depression and other forms of psychological illness over the years; I have always tried to help and understand them, and this year has certainly taken me another step forward towards that end.

I have long comforted myself with the ideals of self-knowledge and self-development. I believe there are few more important tasks in this life than growing to know – and better – yourself. Your life should be an attempt to eradicate delusion and ego; to cultivate empathy and understanding; to break down the barriers between yourself and others; to understand and accept your flaws; and ultimately to work towards a state of enlightenment (or self-actualisation).

My past struggles with nihilism and my sympathy of absurdity and existentialism has led me to view sanity as a purely relative construct. I have always found psychological illness to be comprehensible; and I seem to have a knack at working out the dynamics of the psyche.

I’ve always wondered: are the people who think deeply about existence and the meaning of life, and who struggle to find meaning in reality – are they really less sane than those who might flutter through life unaware of the reservoirs that flow deep beneath the earth? Where one struggles, the other may self-delude — surely neither situation is ‘good’, but which will result in an enlightened or higher state? Which is ‘ultimately’ ‘better’?

All of this background has helped me frame my experiences this year in a positive and constructive light. That is not to say that times haven’t been hard — I’ve reached new lows; but I’ve also experienced moments of elation (the absurd paradox of emotional relativism!). My interest in psychology has armed me with the knowledge I must confront the root of my problems; that I must dig beneath the anxiety, study the meaning of my dreams, search out my compensations and delusions, and use the framework of eastern philosophy to help defuse negative mental states.

Of course I have maintained my dedication to the use of writing, drawing and playing music for catharsis — and, unsurprisingly, this has helped me immensely. I really don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say art has helped me keep at least a semblance of sanity intact. In the course of this year I’ve written some 15+ songs, a suite of poems, pages of prose and a whole host of scrawlings.

Musically my output has had two major streams – Jackals, which is an expression of tension, stress and an exorcism of negativity; and an as-yet-unnamed acoustic project, which has moved from moments of contemplation and soul-searching to celebrations of elation and fragility. While my work with Jackals is now finally being released, my work on the acoustic project has stalled. I feel no small amount of pressure to give this avenue of expression a release.

Recently I was struck a spark of insight; firstly, that the recovery from such a major change in my life will surely take time – and that I have no reason to pressure myself in this process. Secondly, that I could do with some physical and mental space to consider things in detail. In the brief times I’ve travelled alone this year the distance has proved exceptionally beneficial.

To this end I have planned a period of solitude and contemplation in the coming weeks. I will retreat to an isolated cottage in the Blue Mountains. Located in a valley between peaks, and with no other humans in sight, this will make the perfect location for some long overdue reflection.

My goals are threefold; to relax and ease myself of all tensions; to dig deep into my psyche and attempt to resolve the fractures within; and finally, to finally record the songs that have taken up the bulk of my creative energy this year.

I will stare at stars, lie in the sun, read books, draw, write, sleep and dream. My very honest hope is that this will provide something of a resolution to an extremely difficult period in my life — and I am optimistic about this.

My absence from this blog this year speaks volumes about my state of mind — I have been too clouded and too absorbed in my own anxieties to be able to reach the state of detached contemplation that I used to enjoy so regularly. My output has been self-absorbed and full of angst — and surely of little interest to anybody.

With some luck I will return from the mountains with words, music and a cleansed soul. I will share any insights that may arise.

Coming soon: a reflection on Carl Jung’s ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’

Posted in Ranting and rambling, Zen by Lachlan R. Dale on May 9, 2013
Carl Jung - Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Carl Jung – Memories, Dreams, Reflections

I’ve been a little bit quiet of late; work, post-graduate study and music have been taking up a lot of my time. I thought I’d quickly let you know what I’ve been working on.

I’m developing a summary-of and reflection-on Carl Jung‘s autobiography ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections‘ in the hope that I can communicate some of the wisdom and exceptional ideas he developed over the course of his life.

It’s a considerable task, but one I feel is particularly important. Jung was a fascinating individual who had the incredible insight to link the psychology of the ego and the unconscious with eastern philosophy and spirituality. His work is still exceedingly relevant to people dabbling in eastern philosophy/religion today.

I’m really hoping I can do this project justice – so if you don’t hear much out of me for a while, you’ll know why.

Ideally I’d like to follow this up with some reflections/highlights of some of Hermann Hesse‘s work on philosophy, art and psychology.