Writing as catharsis

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.

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Doubt gnaws: can I consider myself a philosopher?

Posted in Philosophy, Prose, Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on September 20, 2012
Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse

There has been a question plaguing me lately: can I consider myself a philosopher?

The query periodically rises above the mist of my sub-conscious, accompanied by a lurking fear that the answer is in the negative.

Today I will answer this challenge and find a resolution.

My fear can be traced to a consideration of the definition of a philosopher, and the discord between it and myself.

I would define a philosopher as an individual who creates a system of thought purported to reveal objective truth. A philosopher should bring new insight, meaning and perspective to key questions of existence, morality and spirituality.

At first glance it would appear as though I have categorically failed this criteria of being a philosopher – that is, I have not presented a new, coherent system of thought to this date. I certainly epsouse grand aims and ideals on a regular basis, but the actual meat of philosophical insight could be regarded as lacking.

It’s worth noting a commentor here has accused me of a failing along these lines on ‘A million threads of delusion and egoism’:

I think you almost said something here.

But is this critique to shallow? Too simplistic? Surely great philosophers do not simply emerge with a fully-formed philosophical framework. There is a process involved – and one that I would argue I am undertaking.

I am preoccupied with two streams of broad activity that feed into my philosophic development:

  1. The absorption and reflection of other philosophic ideas.
  2. The analysis of my own personal experience.

I also have objectives – a broad scaffolding to focus my line of inquiry; a move towards self-knowledge and enlightenment.

I pursue self-knowledge with the understanding that only by knowing your mind, your beliefs, your ethics, and your ego can you move meaningfully towards deeper contentment of the self. It is a process of decoding, shaping and strengthening the mind, as well as a practical search for better ways of living, and different contexts with which to view the world.

“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

Alternatively, enlightenment pertains not only to that which is within, but also without. It moves from a simple directive of ‘know thyself’ to the loftier goal of uncovering deeper truths about the human condition, existence, spirituality (assume I always use this word with reluctance) and so forth.

To date, I have worked soundly to better define and slowly inch towards these goals. I would further submit that through this process of inquiry, I am absorbing key influences and perspectives – scientific rationalism (Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins), post-modernism, mysticial experience (William Blake, William James, Colin Wilson), anthropology (Wade Davis), long-view historical context (Theodore Zeldin), the essence of Zen, Mahayana Buddhism and various conceptions of religion (Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, William James), psychedelic experiences (Aldous Huxley), philosophic literature (Fydor Dostoyevski, Herman Hesse), nihilism and existentialism (Niesztche, Albert Camus), self-actualisation and other psychological concepts (Carl Jung, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Abraham Maslow), anarchism and transcendentalism (Henry David Thoreau) and so forth.

All the above are weighed as useful perspectives for which I can interpret my own life, and forge my own synthesis – hopefully in a configuration that a) has not been assembled before, and b) has some value, insight or truth beyond myself.

I have drawn my approach. There is a clear progression to be had; and I should not be discouraged. I feel justified to consider myself as a philosopher upon the path of forming his own system.

Colin Wilson may have brilliantly framed what he saw as the cruical philosophic challenge at the age of 25 in The Outsider, but it took him many more years to build a coherent framework in response (noting that his framework is not one that I endorse or entertain).

I have all the time in the world; and it cannot be said that my efforts to date have not been of worth.

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.

The product of nine months spent attempting to define and refine my current line of philosophical, religious and existential thought.

Posted in Philosophy, Ranting and rambling, Science by Lachlan R. Dale on April 12, 2011

“The implications of quantum theory and why they have led prominent physicists to believe that there may not be any deep reality, or that reality only exists when an intelligent observer is looking, or that all things are interrelated in a manner that allows “action at a distance” to travel beyond the speed of light (actually instantaneously), or that there are many parallel worlds continuously being created.” – Dr. Fred Alan Wolf

“Space, like time, is not an object or a thing. Space and time are forms of our animal sense perception. We carry them around with us like turtles with shells… there is no absolute self-existing matrix in which physical events occur independent of life.” – Robert Lanza

“Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” Arthur Schopenhauer

“The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less cocksure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable Mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.” – Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception

*

Introduction

I will be twenty-five in fifteen days. At this point in my life my struggle of belief regarding traditional religious institution is long over. Nowadays it seems absolutely absurd for me to debate the finer points of archaic and failed religions. Questions about the exact nature of God’s omnipotence or omniscience are fundamentally useless to me, since the basic proof (or feeling) or his existence is so distinctly absent. No, I gave up on traditional religion a long time ago, and I maintain that I have flourished spiritually and morally since that day, unrestricted by the weight of unmalleable and unwieldy superstitious doctrine. I no longer try to define myself and my morality by someone else’s translated, abridged and edited set of (often contradictory) rules. Now I only have my own conscience and my own sense of self to account for – and it has led to a deep personal growth, a sense of purpose and a sense of responsibility.

I have arrived at a point of complete and utter gratitude for every moment that I am alive. I have managed to ‘take the whole world into (my) soul’ (Nietzsche); to accept everything – death, life, uncertainty, chaos, powerlessness, random chance, cosmic injustice. I try to harbour no regrets, and I have long been convinced that at the point of which my life ends, I will be nothing but grateful and joyous for having lived even an instant on this plane of existence. To dwell on the loss of life seems to me a great insult to its majesty and complexity – ‘a great misappropriation of awe’ (to steal from Christopher Hitchens). For so long, I have been filled with one consistent image in my head when it comes to my death. I only know I am filled with a sense of gratitude and pride for even having lived a single day.

For a while now I have wanted to undertake my own little personal project in attempting to map out the growth (or perhaps it’s better to say ‘shifting’) of my philosophical, spiritual and religious beliefs – to attempt to weave and follow a rational thread from my experiences being raised as a Roman Catholic to the state of mind which I now find myself in. Today on this cloudy afternoon in Oxford, I will attempt to do just that. I am unsure whether I can class this thread as an evolution or progression of thought. From my experiences (or various cognitions from the vaguely recollected past) I can say that things have gradually seem to become more clear, though at a glacier-like pace; and one that still weaves down many false roads. I have found the fog has very, very slowly dissipated – though I am only a few paces down an infinitely long road. I hold no illusions that this fog should dissipate completely (to be honest I’m not sure that is even technically possible – why does it always seem that those who seek enlightenment are always so sure that such a state can even exist?), but nonetheless and despite the unlikelihood, the stars continue to align ever-so-slowly, and I find myself affirming again and again the personal ‘truths’ I hold even in the face of true and honest questioning of the self.

Now to determine where my path began, where it led me and where I feel I stand currently. Maybe my own trajectory will prove useful to others – or perhaps it is nothing but a useless indulgence. In any case it does exist and I have spent countless hours revising, rewriting, expanding and editing this document. Will it ever really be finished? Of course not.

*

Questions unanswered: a slow awakening to the short-comings of traditional religion.

I have some fairly vivid memories of being a young boy of around eight or nine years old. To my recollection I was a believer in God back then – as well as Jesus and perhaps even Mary and the virgin birth. I can remember sitting the pew of our local Catholic Church and honestly believing that Jesus – perhaps in some spiritual, if not physical form – was watching over my every thought and action.

The very act of sitting on that hard, unforgiving pew inside of that stern and strangely ornate build-ing seemed to create a certain gravity for our prescribed weekly act of piety. It crystalized my feeling and fear of being watched and of being judged. I used to stare – half in wonderment and half in dread – at the little clothe covered brass compartment that the Communion was stored in. I saw the priest solemnly enacting his rituals to remove the Communion from its metallic case. I theorized that perhaps if he did not follow those precise movements exactly he would be struck down by the horrible vengeance of the Almighty One. I believed – and feared – that that box contained some essence of God and of Jesus; that if I could just sneak a look inside I would see Him for myself and have all my doubts obliterated in a single instance of truth irreconcilably intertwined with ultimate sin (how ironic such a situation in my childhood would run parallel to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden). I never did look. I was light-years removed from such a bold act at that age, and I truthfully believed that if I dared to look myself I would be reduced to ash.

There was certainly one emotion above all others that was streaked throughout my early religious beliefs, and that was fear. I was afraid that God was watching and that he could hear my thoughts. I was afraid that some awesome and incredibly vengeful power could be unleashed upon me at any second for the most minor transgression. The stories I had heard from the Holy Book seemed con-fused and muddled; people turned to salt for the act of looking back, almost the entirety of life on earth drowned in a storm… I had weighed up and calculated the cost and decided that I had best confess my sins to the Priest lest a far more terrible punishment be wrought upon me. Surely this is not a book-keeping exercise that a child should learn; and surely this does not represent our best method of moral instruction. I can distinctly remember many occasions in which I sat in church trying to silence or reprimand my thoughts for venturing into an unbecoming or obscene tract while inside of the ‘house of God’; looking at a pretty girl, cursing inside my mind or even following a vaguely undesirable train of thought.

I can also remember in the years that followed having some vague sense that ‘faith’ was leaving or had already left me. There was some point at around 12 or 13 years of age that knew I could not ‘feel’ the presence of God, no matter how hard I tried or how much I wanted to. The words of the priest and of my prayers had begun to ring hollow – and I very much felt that hollowness inside. No one seemed to have any answers. I had been instructed to base everything on my faith in God – that he was the source of my joy, my hopes, and of course conversely, he was the source of my punishment. Now I began to wonder; had I ever really believed, or felt ‘Him’? Were my early pious actions a purely mathematical outcome of trust and fear from a child who had not yet developed rational thought? Did he ever exist for me? Even today I do not know; but I would not assume it to be so.

It was a long and arduous process to fall entirely from religious belief, as anyone who has experienced it themselves can understand. It is not some sudden or immediate thing – if only it were that easy or simple! The process is far more awkward and painfully drawn out. You dwell in a state of confused ambiguity, often feeling completely isolated in your thoughts. Didn’t all the others lack such doubts? Didn’t they all believe? I must admit that it took me an extensive amount of time and mental effort to reconcile a realistic (and possibly cynical/pessimistic) world-view with the expectations instilled in me as a child. I’m sure most semi-intelligent individuals have had a similar occurrence. I underwent a very complex and painful thought-process in an attempt to absorb and process the gravity of the situation. I had to come to terms with the notion that, essentially, everything I had been so classically conditioned through repetition and authoritative gravity to regard as the absolute and unquestionable truth was in-fact nothing more than a series very poorly covered fallacies – obvious fallacies, which have not even developed a strong network of defences, but have rather been left in the hands of those totally incapable of a protracted debate. It is a very disorientating realisation for a young child to go through. You find yourself wondering how far this deceit-through-misguidance has seeped into other areas of your life and education. If all this – the most basic elements of life purpose, morality and spirituality – is untrue, then what else? It cannot be helped but be regarded as something of a betrayal by your peers. You cannot help but be confused; and just a little bit paranoid. It is no wonder so many don’t cope with the transition well.

My reaction against traditional religion (specifically Roman Catholicism, but I was also exposed to a variety of other minor religious institutions, many of them quite bigoted) led me down a certain path of inquisition. I began to question my teachers, my priests, my parents and anyone else who would listen. If they brushed me aside, refused to engage me or condescended me, then they would lose my respect – that too I began to learn that respect must be earned, and not simply intimidated through authority. My inquisition picked up more and more speed as the questions became bolder. I began to regularly question myself and all the concepts I had thought true. I came to view my old religious beliefs in a light of a system of rhetoric and cultural indoctrination; an essential cultural mutation encouraging social stability. I began deeper inquiries into the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – of absolutes and of the complexity of conceptualisation. I questioned why there must be a god and why he must be necessarily ‘good’ – especially given the traditional definitions, words and acts associated with him in his Holy Books (that people seem to take very literally, despite the ironic fact that their literal faith is places then in a whole succession of editors, revisers and translators). Cannot it be such that incidents, which may on the surface seem like a negative event, not ultimately change an individual’s life for the better? Cannot tragedy steer people to overcome their position and achieve heights previously unimagined? IF so, then why do most assume such a drastically simplified perspective? “John lost a limb because he was bad; he is paying for his sin.” Must one maintain such a delusion to stay sane? What then of the common definition of sanity? Who is in any position to judge – and on what grounds do they have the power to judge? Why should there be an obsessive fear of death? Isn’t it obvious and inevitable? And why must we be unquestionably pre-occupied with extending one’s life for as long as possible – forcing an obsessive cult of life-sustaining? Why do people not think about death? Or fear to mention it? Why can’t the majority of the human race the inevitability of death?

I was recently told by my father that when I was moved from Blakehurst Public School to the private St. George Christian school at the hint of being ‘gifted’, I initially did quite well. After a short time however, I continued to question and continued to ask more and more of my teachers. The answers given – particularly the ones I felt most important; that of life, religion and mortality – were far, far less than adequate. I was often forcibly discouraged from such uncomfortable questioning and punished. The more this happened the less I respected my teachers, and the more I rebelled.

*

The devaluation of all values: a growing sense of nihilism.

By some absolute stroke of luck, my parents once more perceived that my poor behaviour was not a simple result of me being a ‘bad kid’, but once more I was not being challenged enough mentally. Again, here is a point at which it becomes obvious of my luck. What if I had not such parents? You can quite easily imagine a spiralling pattern of descending dissent stemming from mismanagement of such a pivotal period.

At the end of Year 7 at St. George Christian School, my parents very hurriedly took me to visit a number of other private and selective schools; Trinity College, Sydney Boys High, Sydney Technical College, Endeavour High School and finally Newington College. I was given a say in where I wanted to go, and I chose Newington College. There I was exposed to a school perhaps 10 times larger than my old one, with so many options, so many classes and a number of very talented teachers. At Newington College we were taught all the major religions without bias. We had Chaplin’s who would not force their views on students, and instead choose to engage in respectful and constructive philosophical discussions. They empowered us rather than cut us down. A friend got full marks for a paper in religious studies entitled “Why God doesn’t exist’. All of this just helped to fuel my notion that questioning things is good and correct. If anything is to be learned, questions must be asked – and in the most honest, reflective way possible. Without that, surely progress would be greatly inhibited.

There was also a distinct period wherein I became acutely aware of the immense and unchecked suffering that goes on in the world on a continual and relenting basis thanks to A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (Samantha Power). I learned of the various wars, genocides and horrific acts undertaken in the name of a great many causes – nations, individuals, corporations, races and religious sects. What impacted me the most (alongside of cour the immense scale) was the sense of regularity and above all the recency of these events. They were pointless, abhorrent and completely avoidable. The sheer scale of an event like the Holocaust and the Rwanadan genocide shocked me deeply. So too did the absolute corrupt immorality of large-scale capitalism; the exploitation of the Third World just being the most obvious starting point. Was I expected to believe that this, too, was ‘God’s work’ and all part of a ‘great plan’? Wasn’t a large amount of this mayhem undertaken in the name of God (or various other gods)? If we could not protect or help these people – whose suffering could so obviously have been avoided – then how can we really consider ourselves the ‘good guys’ in such an oversimplified, two-dimensional world?

I was extremely fortunate to find an appropriate emotional outlet during this period. I had discovered music as a brilliant means for catharsis. I was instantly attracted to grindcore, which seemed to best represent the discordant chaos of the world around me. It spoke to extremes, being intensely fast-paced, hyper-active, angular and grating. This, I felt, was exactly the expression I wished to use, and it provided a fantastically healthy outlet for an enormous amount of anger, outrage and confusion. As time moved on it would literally take mere seconds for me to go from a state of frustration to complete relaxation. The absurd level of intensity in the music cleansed those emotions from me. I would not like to think what may have happened had I not found such an invaluable outlet.

My education in the world history of humanity’s cruelty was the final nail in religion’s coffin. Not only had religion failed to produce the answers under analysis that I demanded, but I could also find no demonstrable balance; no universally governed sense of justice. My path of thinking led down a path which would have me question and dismiss the concepts of nationalism, various political systems, the illusionary rhetoric of politicians and so forth.

I entertained what seemed to be a sense of nihilism – a natural result of my devaluation of the religious values instilled in my youth. I had found the world not perfectly ordered by a divine personal god as I had been led to believe. I found a place of suffering and chaos; where cosmic balance on a personal level is demonstrably an absurd concept; personal judgement usually never paid; a moral balance never met in any meaningful sense. So if the Christian concepts were incorrect, then what else was there for me? There was no rational basis for simply halting the ever-successive series of inquisition, to find a nice dark corner to curl up into and give up – so I continued with the questioning that had served me so well thus far.

I can recall a quote I quite liked from the period from Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai (a gift I believe from the father of a Balinese man; he was simply ecstatic to find anyone even mildly interested in the spiritual side of traditional martial arts):

“Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily”.

I found this a very useful and necessary thought. Perhaps it was that I had found the phrase coming to mind frequently; it had some kind of resonance, perhaps some sense of truth to it. Or perhaps it was just a strange though for a child to come to try and understand. I do know that in the years that followed I experienced several seemingly meaningless deaths; perhaps that’s when it fully came into perspective. [details omitted] It is left what it is; a meaningless, painful tragedy. Immovably so.

Then came the death of my ten year old cousin, who was one of the most fundamentally beautiful and good-natured human beings I have ever been so lucky to meet. He died of cancer at age ten following twelve months of chemotherapy. What purpose did his suffering serve? To dare to believe that this was part of some ‘divine personal cosmic plan’ against those experiences would seem disgusting, absurd, cruel, stupid and an absolute disservice to reality. It would be stupid and despicable to claim either of these losses had a ‘point’ or some concise moral we could recite as if in a nursery rhyme (ed – I find myself adopting Christopher Hitchens sense of insult at such a rationale). I continued to meditate on inevitable death, and eventually found that I could put these events into perspective without appealing to supernatural powers or religion by cultivated a certain sense of realism and acceptance. To date I have found such a perspective has helped me absorb these incidents far, far better than anyone else I have come to meet.

I came to a point of acceptance such that I not feel a particular fear of death what so ever. I feel no overt concern for age or time. In short, I felt I could confront reality – whatever it may be – and accept it. But I had to move beyond nihilism; I had to move beyond that wholly non-constructive anxiety concerning my initial loss of my religion. What sense did it make to discover that fact and then cease to continue looking?

Really, nihilism is an extremely understandable – if not inevitable – condition; if you are taught to base your life, love, spirit and morals on scripture, then find scripture to be untrue then you cannot help but feel as though that base has been torn from you. The very ground on which you stood is no longer there – and you had barely time to notice the grass. For some people this realisation is quite traumatic; they seem unable to accept the situation and might give-up their search out of despair – but what rational sense does it make to discount one explanation and not ponder the infinite alternatives? Does this line of thinking really stem from enforced self-denial?

Blaise Pascal once wrote:

The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me”.

It can be terrifying perhaps; if you cultivate an unrealistic sense of self that is incompatible with infinite space and infinite time – but I do not find myself in that situation. In any case, nihilism really does require a drive to continue seeking; to continue the quest for answers and to move far beyond the wreckage of your past beliefs. I accept that I will probably never find ‘truth’ (if such a base concept exists – let alone can be perceived by us!), but the process of seeking has proved immensely rewarding and very useful.

*

Beyond nihilism.

I can remember very early on discovering the concept of self-actualisation through self-discovery and self-questioning – the framework developed by Abraham Maslow, the idea that you should always attempt to discover more about yourself. Slowly all of these ideas were melding together; to question everything – even your own thoughts, desires and emotions. The concept seems to define a movement from a person being trapped by only blindly and emotionally reacting to situations, but to have a sense of objectivity or self-awareness that would assist in by-passing such a surface-level thought process (or lack thereof). First you think, then you think about your thoughts – when you think about you thinking about your thoughts, then you’re getting it. They are layers of separation, of objectivity and of disconnection. If I come to a conclusion I feel sure of after thinking about a situation for an extended period of time, then the following thought usually runs through my mind: “Is my fallible mind just leading me to this conclusion as some kind of limited coping-mechanism? Have I failed to actually grasp and grapple with this?” The answer is usually “probably”.

But again, I never saw this as a point of negativity – only through being completely and brutally honest with myself was I ever going to learn anything about myself or this world. Honesty and acceptance did away with negativity. I saw that many people’s anxieties and behaviours stemmed from a kind of cognitive-dissonance. I tried my best to apply what I knew about myself to counteract the grooves my mind ran in – for instance, I frequently wash any thought process with the notion that any thought or conclusion I reach that boosts my own sense of self-worth is more than likely just a delusion created in order to do just that.

Colin Wilson‘s very important essay The Outsider essentially defines the question of post-nihilism as one of eternal yea-saying or nay-saying – whether your response and answer to the question of life is positive or negative. Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra seems to indicate an acceptance of nihilism and the meta-physical meaninglessness of life. He begins with the concept that ‘God is dead’. He sees no truth in Christianity and feels – like all religion and all philosophy – that it is an invention of the mind to keep us sane. But he also sees it as more than that; it is an enabler. In Nietzsche’s eyes it is the creativity of thought within the religious idea that allows man to surpass himself – philosophy, religion, morality and ethics are all just tools which helps mankind surpass his limitations: through dedication to the Christian ideal mankind built inspiring cathedrals. Recent research also suggests that the Egyptians quite willing built the Great Pyramids – not, as the popular narrative goes, built by an army of slaves. It seems now more plausible than ever that these monoliths of history were created out of spiritual devotion and inspiration.

Concepts and thoughts such as these have allowed man to achieve great heights he may not have otherwise achieved. It is from here Nietzsche (in the form of Zarathustra) preaches his Übermensch; the man who utilising his creativity to further enable him to depart from destructive concepts like Christianity – which values death over life – and instead bring the natural world into the highest regard. He does not speak of truth; but of aspiration:

“Man is something that shall be overcome… All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?”

When I left school I had understood that there was a fundamental chaos in the world; that things could not so easily be labelled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, nor could spiritual questions simply be solved by a set-as-standard spiritual doctrine. I had used marijuana for some time, smoking most weekends in the second half on Year 11 and in Year 12. I used the drug to help me dissect and hear music – it definitely helped me define and appreciate sound textures – as well as help fuel my introspective thought processes. My mind would go into overdrive, revelling at the idea of running with thoughts and questioning everything. I actually used marijuana to assist me with my work in English, developing and mapping out essay concepts. Of course, there was a threshold where my use increased and its usefulness decreased. I’ve crossed that threshold many a time, and continually have to improve my self-discipline to limit my usage within the realms of productivity and my general good health.

*

A sense of universal perspective.

I have always been fascinated with space. I have fond memories of my mother taking me out to various observatories as a child. I found that the science of the cosmos was infinitely fascinating – far more than tales of burning bushes, of people turning into salt and of profoundly irrelevant parables. I think one of the major shifts in my perspective of my place in the world came when I began to sense the awesome scale of the universe – and also of the awesome amount of the time that has passed since its birth.

Our solar system makes up only one pathetically small part of the Milky Way galaxy. If we gaze out into the clear night sky from Earth, there are 2,500 stars visible to the naked eye at one point at any one time. However, the estimates of astronomers tell us that there are some 100 billion to 400 billion (100,000,000,000 to 400,000,000,000) stars contained within the Milky Way alone. Remember also that stars are not planets; they are producers of nuclear energy – like our sun. The smaller bodies of planets orbit around stars.

In any case, that would make our sun 1 of (let’s say) 250,000,000,000 within our galaxy. We can pull that perspective back even more; using the images and data sources from the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (god I love that device), our recent estimates places the number of galaxies in the universe at around 100 billion to 200 billion (100,000,000,000 to 200,000,000,000). One German super-computer even suggested a number of 500 billion. It is worth noting we have only directly observed a fraction of this number; perhaps only 20,000.

Now these 200 billion galaxies have on average 100 billion to 1 trillion stars each, placing the estimated number of stars in the universe between 10 sextillion and 10 septillion – or between 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 and 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. Are you getting all this?

That would make our sun one of 1 of around 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe. Who knows how many potential planets there are – when you begin talking in numbers this large it is beyond absurd to attempt to imagine. What should be inspired however is an appropriate sense of awe for the sheer scale of our universe, and of our unimaginably small position in it. Our understanding of the universe has come a long way from the heliocentric model of ages past, and I believe this understanding should be a requisite component of all attempts to address the human condition, our place amongst the stars and our own sense of self-importance and self-worth. This is the perspective that I find immensely important; against such an immeasurably vast backdrop the petty everyday squabbles of humankind seem absurdly unimportant. How can you possibly entertain narcissism or self-obsession or arrogance in the face of such terrifying insignificance?

We’ve covered a universal orientation regarding space; now let’s do the same regarding time. Estimates put the age of the universe at somewhere between 13.5 billion to 14 billion years old (13,500,000,000 – 14,000,000,000). Organic life on Earth is estimated to be 3.5 billion years old (3,500,000,000). The species of which we are a part – homo-sapiens – are thought to be 100,000 to 250,000 years old.

So let us then consider homo-sapiens existence on the grand scale of the universe:

Our species existence represents 0.000185% of the universe’s age.

Or another way: if the timespan of the universe’s existence was 24 hours, we would have come into being only in the final 16 seconds (16 of 86,400 seconds).

For me, this timescale makes it absolutely impossible to glorify the human race as some kind of crowning achievement of creation. We know many would like to place us at the centre of this infinitely vast universe (“if you believe this, I think you have a self-centredness problem” Christopher Hitchens – the author and my hero, now dying of cancer – once quipped). When you consider those numbers I am at a loss how you can still maintain that we are somehow the absolute pinnacle of evolution.

The process of evolution continues today – that is an established fact. We are not special, but merely one of the later and more complex expressions of the experiment of life – and even that is perhaps not true. Humans have ~30,000 to 40,000 genes. Worms have 20,000. We must remember we too are a species subject to the process of evolution which continues its slow monotonous drag up the impossibly steep gradient of infinity. To put it bluntly: we are clearly not some grand sum product of evolution – a finale; a crowning achievement.

As Sir Martin Rees attempted to give this concept the appropriate gravitas with this:

Consider this: the beings that watch the death of our sun – should there still be beings in 5,000,000,000 years time – will be as different to mankind as you or I are to bacteria or amoeba. Or more so.

After Hitchens recited this quote at the Sydney Festival of Dangerous Ideas in 2009 he commented “Now if that isn’t awe inspiring, then you don’t have the capacity for awe.”

All of this talk of universal perspective brings me to one of my core beliefs; the need for an appropriate level of humility. Humankind has a tendency to believe (or pretend) that it knows much, much more than it really does. Some pretend they know the absolute meaning of life – even the afterlife – as if they had a 2-way radio to God. I’m sure this misappropriated confidence is likely some by-product of our own evolutionary track; I doubt our species would have progressed very far is we were paralysed by a sense of supreme insignificance as opposed to say, unhinged self-belief or irrational fear.

Another core concept; Richard Dawkins has spoken at length on the idea of our species having evolved in ‘middle world’. His concept essentially states that organisms simply develop imperfect models of the world with their imperfect senses to suit their survival needs – obvious enough, I know.

From that, I think it is clear we need to recognise and understand the biological limits that evolution has placed on us, and adjust our minds accordingly.

*

Acknowledging the limits of human perception and the quantum spanner in the works.

It should be said that I hold absolutely no illusion, I realise that every one of these personal truths that I’ve held in confidence could be entirely obliterated in an instant. I do not assume that these past eight or so years of continuous seeking, questioning and absorption holds any definite value – and I am of course, quite prepared to discard them should a more apparent truth come my way – that is one of the basic tenants of my thought process. I think the most valuable thing one can do when trying to discover truth – especially regarding the self – is to leave nothing off the table. It can be a scary thing – leaving yourself vulnerable to the chance that your entire ego and all your beliefs could be whisked away and left baseless at every moment, but it is always the most rewards. Another Christopher Hitchen’s quote; “I think the attempt to live without illusions is the most rewarding things one can strive for”, but again I do not possess the arrogance to believe my vague answers hold any ultimate truth. By definition how can I? Science would have us believe that we perceive only a small fragment of reality; with our senses – we see only the tiniest band of the electro-magnetic spectrum (we see from 0% and 0.015% of the universal range).

I think that Ralph Emerson summed up this concept best:

“We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors. Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects.”

It is the ‘coloured lens which we have no means of ever correcting’. There are many frequencies of light and sound waves that we simply cannot perceive. Some estimates say we can only directly experience one millionth of reality (though I’m not sure how that is quantifiable, I’m sure it’s just a metaphor).

But consider; if we are experiencing the universe through our imperfect perceptions, and processed through an imperfect model representation of reality within our fallible brains, how can we hope to truly experience ‘reality’? How can we ever place immovable weight and faith on the rationalisations of such an imperfect system? Of course one of my major points of development was a strong investment into the power of rationality, of scientific process and of truth through logic – but then came the question of Quantum Mechanics, which of course throws our entire notion of an entirely rational, ordered and predictable world into chaos.

I think there is one obvious development of thought that comes with just an investment into systems of rationality and the empiricism of science; scientists don’t claim to be correct as such, they rather claim to have formed the best current model within the limits of our current understanding. The most illuminating example of this are the conflicting laws of quantum theory and our understanding of the other fundamental forces at work in the universe – they are technically incompatible, yet both appear to work fairly well in spite of this. We search for a theory of everything; but we should also consider the possibility that should one exist, it is probably far beyond our limited powers of cognition.

“No our problem is this: our prefrontal lobes are too small. And our adrenaline glands are too big. And our thumb finger opposition isn’t all what it might be. And we’re afraid of the dark, and we’re afraid to die and we belief in the truths of holy books that are so stupid and so fabricated that a child can – and all children do, as you can tell by their questions – actually see through them.”

Yet more Christopher Hitchens.

The stupidest assumption one could make, is that we are experiencing true reality – my God, our own perceptions and thought processes in everyday life vary so enormously that the mere thought is absurd. I have found the most destructive and ridiculous concepts are often the one where man has created a pedestal for him to place himself on; God exists and can do anything and he created the earth and he said we’re boss and fags are bad.

I do actually think the single most important lesson I have learnt is this: be wary of any proposition that would have you placed above others. That is surely the most obvious sign of a trick; of a mere unconscious mental sleight-of-hand that keeps this stupid mammalian species alive. As we’ve seen above, we’ve existed as a species an absolutely pitiful amount of time. To assume that we are the culmination or evolution of God’s chosen or soon-to-be masters of the universe for all eternity, then we have another thing coming.

What I have been getting at is this: we cannot perceive true reality. We have no hope of ever perceiving true reality perfectly. We will do the best within our limits, but mankind should have absolutely no place for smugness – at this very moment it is estimated that we have approximately 25,000 nuclear warheads placed over the Earth. Pondering a futurist, enormous data-driven model of reality, as The Meaning of the 21st Century, will quickly demonstrate just how very many ways we quite easily slip out of existence – and the eternal stars will not have even known we were there. Our chance of survival is slim. Most are clearly not gambling men.

All this in an attempt to reinforce this maxim: be humble. Admit what you do not know. If you cannot give concessions and you cannot address things with humility and honesty, then you are ultimately without value in the realm of rationality.

Beyond that idea, a slow awakening to epistemology has brought me to the notion the scientific theories in themselves represent only one tiny portion of the world – again through a generalised, simplified model that could never hope to truly represent reality. At least the models are constantly improved and updated to the best of our understanding, but it all comes back to process of abstraction that the human mind is so comfortable with. Our minds, our perceptions and our rational though processes never can, by definition, achieve the ultimate goal we seek: imperfect data placed into an imperfect machine that results in imperfect rationalisations.

I was heavily absorbed by the rational/scientific world for quite some time. I think that a large portion of my reading in the past 2 years has revolved around scientific theory, quantum mechanics and it’s epistemological implications. Evolution and rational-Atheist arguments against (a small window of) traditional religious thought, but slowly the limitations of our mind and our perceptions caused me to slowly cast doubt on the absolute infallibility of science and science alone. Any semblance of belief in traditional religion may have long ago extinguished from me, but slowly I was become aware of spirituality for the first time. Many scientific-rationalists see god in natural world through understanding and dissecting it, studying it in all its chaos. And it is that chaos that they too embrace and see as beautiful. Some of the more prominent scientific-Atheists are intolerable; they go about interpreting symbolic texts as literal then set about hacking them apart with logic and rationalism. To be certain there are large proponents of Western religion who do take their beliefs and their holy words literally, but the attacks of people like Dawkins seem to only focus on soft targets. Sam Harris would be the only exception I can bring to mind; he touts rationalism in defeating narrow religious views, but it careful to stress the importance of spirituality (though to my knowledge he has not actively defined why his skepticism ends essentially with Western religious thought and has not adequately managed to express this fundamental concept).

*

A psychedelic encounter.

There was another marked experience that I found changed me immensely. It was Boxing Day, 26th of December, 2008. A close friend had brought some magic mushrooms for and a few others in a quiet, well-controlled area. The weather was gorgeous in that intense, mid-summer sense – aggressively hot, vibrant and alive. We had a pool; ample shade prepared; chilled drinks and a near endless supply of music.

We took our doses. My friend had thought he had been given enough for two people, but decided to share that amount between the four of us. You can certainly never, ever tell with magic mushrooms. The other two halved their dosage again still, while the original and myself consumed all of ours. I ate mine with BBQ’d sausages and a bread roll. Others opted for a ridiculous bread and garlic dip combination.

We were told it would take some while – an hour perhaps.

We waited. We talked and waited. We smoked joints, and waited.

After nine minutes I felt a little sluggish and a little light headed. I found it quite hard to move around. To walk around caused great effort. I walked inside and look at one of my pals crazy mind-bending puzzles. The patterns gleamed at me; their complex intertwined nature was mesmerising. I found I could barely take my eyes off the patterns – they demanded so much attention. I showed my pal, who did not seem as impressed as me. We confessed to feeling a tad strange.

We sat back down outside and started talking. Discussion moved smoothly from topic to topic. Everyone understood. We were completely at ease with each other. Then suddenly seemed extremely funny; to laugh was so easy. Our conversations frequently halted in fits of laughter.

I can remember from then on things got a bit more serious. We commented on the various planes of existence distorting for us. Slowly we separated around the backyard. The comments and conversation became less frequent and we became more absorbed in what was happening. Past and future were removed; we were slowly brought into a timeless state – into what some might call the Eternal Now. We live completely in the moment. All perception of the passive of time vanished. We were all very comfortable in letting this happen, and all free enough in ourselves to not worry about what others would think.

Things continued to get serious. One had to bail out and go sit in a quiet, dark room with some soothing music. The rest of us remained outside. I was in absolute bliss. I knew myself; I was comfortable with myself, and I was in no way afraid of where my mind my take me – this was ground I had trod before, although in different circumstances. Still, as I slipped deeper and deeper into this very strong mushroom trip I got a growing sense of affirmation. My mind became to question itself intensely and with ego-shattering honesty as it had done many times before. I found myself affirming many things, but also learning a great deal too.

I could feel no time. I existed completely in the current moment. Music still played, but it was bizarre to try and listen. On multiple occasions I complained to my other friend that a song was too long, or that I felt like a whole album of this artist had played out. It turned out we were about 17 seconds into a song – time was that warped. As I stood in the pool in the sun, a leaf fell from above me. It fell impossibly slow as I absorbed absolutely every moment of that short passage of time. Watching it all felt like an eternity. It slowly drifted through the air to land upon the water surface, causing subtle, perfectly round ripples to fill the pool. I was in a state of absolute wonderment and elation. Existence and nature were beautiful. I look up into the sky, and saw like the ripples that four-dimensional patterned connections joined every atom in the universe. I felt as though I could sense space-time; the very essence of this play pen we call reality. Everything was connected. Didn’t that feed back into quantum theory? Didn’t that seem to venue back into almost religious territory that I had abandoned so long ago?

The four hours of its height brought many revelations as I searched every inch of the self while revelling the beauty of seemingly unmitigated reality. It remains the greatest and most profound experience I have had. Many doses of LSD before and after in no way produced the same effect, and subsequent mushroom experiences had proven pitifully mild. I had not been out of my head; I had been outside these four dimensions. I had transcended time.

This is what I would call my awakening to nature. Beforehand my eyes were closed to it. I was indifferent and wholly a product of cityscape and comfort. Now I feel like I have a far greater awareness of the natural world and our important connection too it – and I think that reconnection is such an obvious one that needs to be made.

*

The end (for now).

From here I really wanted to tie up all of these concepts into an extremely coherent, unifying concept – and I was stuck on that ambition for most of the last few months. I realise now that reconciling rationalism, spirituality, anthropology, cosmology, quantum mechanics, religious tradition, the history of philosophic thought (and so forth forth) is extremely fucking difficult.  I am actually not in a position to be able to tout some ‘final’ clear and concise philosophical concept to wrap things up into a nice, neat little package. I am still searching and still trying endlessly to understand; to apply different perspectives to my own mode of thoughts; to develop self-awareness; to counter-act the biased grooves of my own mental processes; and to reconnect with some kind of fundamental spiritual essence which seems devoid in a lot of Westernised societies in advanced staged of consumerist hyper-capitalism.

The journey to get where I am now was a very long one. Naturally there is no end in sight. I feel I have at the very least begun to actualised my existence, and begin to understand the limitations of our imperfect senses (and, ironically, all rational thought processes). What is the next step? From where do I progress?

Perhaps I should end this by summarising the major concepts in my current worldview;

  1. The scale of the universe should distill our all-too-human narcissism, and give reason to adjust our behaviours to people and nature.
  2. The sheer fact that we cannot directly perceive reality should convince us that we probably do not know the answers, and dispel any arrogance surety alongside close-minded bigotry.
  3. Science and rationality are extremely useful tools, but are not the answers in-and-of themselves. They too have very apparent limitations.
  4. Observation of world events should distill blindly optimistic and an out-right misleading be-lief in the ‘balance’ of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.
  5. Even a simple understanding of psychology, morality and motivation should distill the painfully inadequate black-and-white concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.
  6. We should be eternally grateful for our lives and exist in humility and good spirits, for we need not have existed, nor should we by rights exist – and we certainly do not deserve the comfort, wealth and profit of modern capitalist societies at the expense of those in the third world.
  7. We are clearly too disconnected from nature, which has lead to spiritual void and a bizarre literalist interpretation of religious texts. That is not what the mystics spoke of.

Thank you for reading my ranting and raving. More than happy to discuss anything below, in email or in person. I don’t get the opportunity to discuss these ideas anywhere near enough.

Drugged and Damned in Amsterdam: Part 3 of Lachlan’s Exhilarating European adventure

Posted in Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on October 7, 2010

28/06/2010 to 31/06/2010 – Amsterdam, The Netherlands

A scene from one of Amsterdam's many canals

A scene from one of Amsterdam's many canals

The more perceptive of you may have noticed that this particular entry contains but a single log for the four nights we stayed in Amsterdam. Some still may have coaxed reason from the mystery. Simply put, I enjoyed a little too much of the local coffee to keep up an extensive diary.

As soon as I arrived the Amsterdam I was confronted with clashed violently with my preconceptions. Predictably, one of my first acts was to find one of these famed coffeeshops to hang out in. I found a little place just around the corner from our hostel and a fair way away from the centre of town called Yellow Mellow which seemed as good as any (note: this coffeeshop turned out to be one of the oldest in the city, and without a doubt the best we encountered – and we encountered a great number).

Despite being perfectly legal, I initially found it very hard to relax in the coffeeshop, surrounded with a wide assortment of hash and marijuana strains. I spent the first few minutes looking around shiftily for signs of an imagined danger, though I got acclimatised myself after a while. I found it a somewhat bizarre notion that smoking or possessing marijuana outside the vicinity of a designated coffeeshop is still very illegal. In any case, I spent a very fair proportion of my time in Amsterdam inside of them reading, writing and drawing while sipping coffee. I became finely attuned to the laid-back atmosphere, and soon found myself quite attached to little Yellow Mellow.

The semi-sordid glow of Amsterdam's famed red light distict

The semi-sordid glow of Amsterdam's famed red light distict

On our first night in Amsterdam we explored the famed red light district. I was immediately struck by two things; just how small it is, and how clean it is. It did not fit the sordid, sleazy, underground, Kings-Cross-on-steroids image I had built up in my head in the slightest. From what I understand Amsterdams’ red light district has an incredibly low level of violent crime. I can honestly say that at no point in the duration of my stay in the liberal city of licentious and legal sex and drugs did I ever feel in danger, or even merely unwelcome – something I most certainly cannot say about just about every single Saturday night outing in the heart of Sydney city. Case in point; there were mothers walking around with their children in the district.

All the pubs and clubs were without security guards – absolutely unheard of back home. I encountered no obnoxiously drunk tourists or locals. I could see no one who was particularly out of control or out of line… perhaps these laws have some strange chaotic balance. Perhaps state regulated vices actually do infact remove the more criminal and undesirable elements. This was definitely a strange town, totally alien to my sensibilities.

The Dutch seem to be an incredibly happy and friendly people in spite of having their town absolutely overrun by touring jerks. I found that most pubs and coffeeshops were run by a particularly serious sort of human being. I can recall that one Dutch pub was run by a 7 foot tall Hollander who absolutely towered over patrons with an enormous bushing, curling beard, a booming, baritone voice and an extremely sunny (not to mention musical) disposition. Another establishment we frequented represented the typical Irish drive/bar, where various thick Irish accents exchanged happily heated words in a bizarrely and customarily warm way.

Van Gogh - Wheatfield with Crows (1890)

Van Gogh - Wheatfield with Crows (1890)

One essential tourist stop we ticked off the list was a visit to the Van Gogh Museum. Van Gogh became much more to me when I began to get a fascinating insight into the artist as a severely flawed and emotionally intense human being thanks to Colin Wilson’s incredible epic The Outsider (no I will not stop talking about that book – not until you read it and appreciate it like I do). The museum itself featured a few pieces that stood out as being genuinely awe inspiring in the midst of some outstandingly mediocre work from other Dutch impressionists. Van Gogh‘s ‘final work’ “Wheatfield with Crows” (which was allegedly painted at the field at which he shot himself, shortly before he sent his final words to Theo reading ‘misery will never end’) in particular sent a chill up my spine. Shortly after we visited the nearby Rijksmuseum which boasted a sizeable Rembrandt collection alongside other famous ‘Golden Age’ Dutch artists. I recall Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” being particularly impressive.

But it was not all good times with drugs, art and local culture – not by a long shot. Infact, being of Dutch heritage and being one who loves to try traditional cuisine, I was absolutely appalled with the distinct lack of traditional Dutch culture on offer in Amsterdam. Sure, there were plenty of Dutch people around, but the culture in the city of Amsterdam has degenerated into a reactionary tourist hangout haven. The dominant cuisine of the city were hamburgers and pizza. Despite looking quite hard each night we could not find a single restaurant that sold anything resembling a traditional Dutch meal, though that isn’t to say we didn’t have a few nice meals, including a delicious steak with cream and cognac sauce and Matt’s battered sol.

The sun sets on the Netherlands

The sun sets on the Netherlands

Now I would like to state for the record that the Heineken Experience is an absolutely awful tourist abortion that should be avoided at all costs, though perhaps my ‘Heineken Experience’ was tainted by additional external factors, for Matt disturbed me from my genius plan of spending an afternoon smoking joints in an enormous park, basked in the sun while reading my books to take part in this farcical branded “tour”. The tour itself consisted of a series of increasingly degrading and innovative marketing opportunities. It was as though we had stumbled into a series of advertisements and brand strategies that we had somehow mistakenly PAID TO SEE. Spending the afternoon lying in the sun near the canal would have been absolutely bliss than being forced to drink such a shitty, mass-produced beer.

Perhaps one of the highlights of Amsterdam was our chance to watch the The Netherlands football team playing Brazil to get to the Football World Cup semi-finals inside a crowded pub filled with rabid Dutchmen. Unlike the French, the Dutch clearly take their football very seriously. Every single pub or drinking venue was packed (unless deemed by locals as simply a ‘tourist’ or ‘outsider’ pub) with Dutch fans, drinking and cheering. When The Netherlands won, they proceeded to loudly parade the streets, honking horns and chanting for at least the next 8 hours. The main districts were absolutely over-run with Dutch supports that night, in some form of ‘take back the town’ movement. The general energy around the game was an awesome experience; there was a definite tension that was felt all over the city. The prospect of being in Berlin for Germany’s semi-final (and possibly final) match is a great one. The people seem electrified.

We leave for Berlin early tomorrow morning. Apparently the bus trip it 10 hours long – and we’re staying in a shared accommodation hostel. After spending the last four days smoking heavily, the notion of forced social interaction does not sit particularly well with me.


Lachlan’s Exhilarating European adventure

  1. Picturesque Paris
  2. Beers in Bruges
  3. Drugged and Damned in Amsterdam