Writing as catharsis

Mindfulness and shadows of the psyche

Posted in Philosophy, psychology by Lachlan R. Dale on May 17, 2014

(c) James Jean

On the importance of mindfulness

The human mind is a strange thing. The degree to which we are consciously aware-of, and involved-in the activities that make up our daily life can vary immensely.

For instance, some tasks can occupy our minds so completely that we can lose perception of time and awareness of our surroundings. This is the experience of ‘flow’; a psychological state observed by ‎Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that represents the height of creative/mental immersion in an activity. This is the peak experience of a performing musician, or creating artist – a highly desirable and enjoyable state, and a testament to the joy of purposeful, conscious focus.

Alternatively, we can undertake other tasks in a purely automatic sense. Consider the experience of being lost in wandering thought while you undertake a mindless activity like brushing your teeth or walking to work.

It is as if we possess a robot that can take over our body to perform menial tasks. The robot is infinitely useful in some respects; it is able to provide us psychological relief from uninteresting or repeated activities. The risk is that, left unchecked, the robot can take over tasks that you would like to be (or should be) fully immersed in. You can see this in people whose have lost the ability to take joy in music or nature or family; their familiarity with something disables their conscious enjoyment, and their engagement becomes automated.

The real concern is that, should this condition develop to a sufficient degree, we could tune out of some of the seminal, joyous experiences of being human. I shudder to think of where this could lead — to an individual’s complete disconnection with the human race? The inability to feel empathy? To depression, existential woe and suicide? (I wrote about this nightmare scenario in ‘The Delusion of Separateness‘, which tries to understand nihilism as disconnection from the universe.)

How can we stop this robot from taking over and sucking the joy out of certain activities in our life? Well, we must monitor the robot, and influence or disable it when we want to increase our focused awareness on a task. The key here is mindfulness, which can loosely be explained as possessing an awareness of your psychological state, and being attentive to the world around you.

Mindfulness has been described as “being in the moment” – a state whereby the ‘robot’ is disabled to such an extent that we increase our receptivity to everyday reality, and are able to see the world with all the wonderment and intensity of a child. This capacity the poet values above all others, and represents the extreme end of a spectrum stretched between cold disconnection and overwhelming embrace of the universe.

This sort of self-reflection and awareness is highly valued by psychologists and many schools of Buddhism – and it’s easy to see why. By watching our thoughts we can better understand our shifts in mood; our psychological triggers; our strength or flaws in personality and habit; and give us a more accurate conception of how we appear and relate to other human beings. Through practise we can learn to de-escalate or avoid negative states of mind, and work towards gaining mastery over the self and our life.

In short, the training of self- and world-consciousness is a key to self-betterment, and to a more fulfilling life.

Sometimes I find myself wondering what level of self-awareness can be attributed to the ‘average’ human being and what the cost to society could be. I assume the average level of would be rather slight; and this is certainly no minor manner.

Whenever you see an individual lose control of themselves in a flight of anger, it is an indication that they are unaware of their emotional triggers, and are unable to step back, reflect and question whether their emotional response (and their behaviours thereafter) are actually valid or justified.

Such a human might lash out at a loved one, or belittle a friend out of their own psychological insecurity. If they lack that separateness from their immediate emotional responses, they will likely be unable to see that their own emotional reaction is unjustifiable. They tend to justify their actions in terms of their emotional reaction – “I hit you because you frustrated me. Why are you always frustrating me?” Of course, they never ask why they are getting frustrated. The emotional response is deified as a form of truth.

Sometimes I wonder if society could benefit from the roll out of exercises of mindfulness and self-reflection in schools

Perceiving shadows of the self

What is interesting about self-reflection is that even I (who I guess possesses a somewhat elevated capacity) can only perceive some of my psyche second-hand. Even to me psychological changes can appear as reflections or shadows. It is a truly bizarre and fascinating situation.

For instance, a few weekends ago I noticed a certain change in my mind. Having felt this undefinable sensation before, I instinctively knew I needed some quiet time alone – perferrably with a book – to help order, relax and clear my mind. When I was unable to do this for the following six hours, my psychological situation escalated. I then felt a very powerful drive to spend some extended time alone. I cancelled my plans for the evening and dedicated the rest of my day to playing music, reading, cooking and reflecting.

Now, at this point I was completely oblivious as to the cause of this psychological state, but, being a fairly reflective individual, I knew what was needed to help defuse this state.

It was only some days later that I began to identify the cause. I had noticed that my sense of cynicism was peaking; as was my frustration with broader humanity. Things that would usually mean nothing were starting to get to me. I was emotionally raw.

What opened up my awareness was observing the way I interacted with a few of my good friends — I behaved very distantly; and used stock, detached phrases to communicate with them. I didn’t particularly want to talk, and I certainly wasn’t in the headspace to open up my mind to them.

At this stage I knew something was wrong, and began searching my mind for the cause. I looked back on the past few days; on how I was feeling, what I was thinking, and how I interacted with friends and family. The experiences of that Saturday came back to me; and I – almost subconsciously – started making connections and began to assemble possible reasons for my state of mind.

The reasons are perhaps too personal to go into detail here, but let it suffice to say that a close family member is quite ill. I’ve had to confront their mortality – and in fact have had quite open discussions with them on this subject. I had thought that I was completely adjusted to this dynamic; but the psyche operates in strange and shadowy ways. It was not immediately apparent at how this had affected me.

There were other events too. Within the same fortnight a close friend had shared with me a difficult medical diagnosis. I had also had (positive) interactions with a few people who, though once close to me, I had fallen out with had not spoken to for years.

Surely all of these things can take a heavy emotional toll; and, as I am ever re-affirming, their psychological affects can be very difficult to directly divine.

What is even more interesting is that, as I became conscious of these psychological pressure – and spoke with a few friends about them – the pressure eased. I understood what was taking place, and began working through those issues. The mere identification of these dynamics was enough to greatly alleviate the suffering and emotional chaos they caused.

This roughly follows Jung’s treatment of neurosis; to bring sub-conscious fractures to the surface so that they might be resolved and integrated by the conscious self.

But that we can be such a mystery to ourselves is still a source of great wonder. We inhabit the shadowy work of the psyche; and should always strive to increase our awareness of what is taking place.

I have always had this great inward focus, and experiences like the one above constantly vindicate it, for how can we hope to relate to other people, or to change the world for the better if we lack this fundamental understanding of our own mind – let alone the minds of others?

The answer is poorly – and so once more the importance of reflection is reinforced.

Review of John Gray’s The Silence of Animals

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

John Gray's The Silence of Animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man has a point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How should we respond to the facts of existence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Godless mysticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The delusion of separateness

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

The Lotus by Nicholas Roerich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining the delusion

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

Carl Jung once wrote:

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

(Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 166)

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

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

We are animals.

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

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

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

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

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

Escape from delusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming the delusion

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

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

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

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

Who looks outside; dreams.

Who looks inside; awakens.

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

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.

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.

A well-spring of positivity

Posted in Poetry, Prose by Lachlan R. Dale on March 27, 2013

My mouth is bitter with the salt of all human things.
I taste our failings; our broken dreams; our yearning and our falls.
We fail more than we know.
We destroy more than we ever show.
We are miserable, grasping, spluttering for air,
And we choke on the poisons we ourselves have let free.
Consumed with contempt, my mind screams.
Banality surrounds me.
Civilisation swallows me.
Let it take me whole.
Let it be done.
But this waiting, it torments me,
Kicking at my heart, mocking my soul.
It cuts me down with ocean breeze;
Batters me with rays of the sun;
Allows me to think that for a minute I have won,
That I will rise up and face the day,
And manage too, to live through the night
– Then the long fall to the dirt;
Humiliation at the hands of the mocking earth.
Let it take me whole.
Let it be over and done.
Give me my final defeat
And let me stifled voice rest free.

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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.

A writing experiment

Posted in Prose, Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on August 25, 2012
Illustration by Harry Clarke.

Illustration by Harry Clarke.

Sheets of hail cascade, punctuating the silence on the tin roof.

I know that muted pounding. It is the drone of the electric hornet; savage creatures of steel, sharp with violence.

Their effect on my consciouisness is profound. The air of menace, severe.

My mind has misfired. The focus of my contempt has moved from the external to the internal. The dialog in my mind has taken a turn for the worst.

My stomach is sour with the taste of dust and concrete. I picture it; severely discoloured by now, spotted black with bile and hate.

I taste the bitter remnants of adrenaline; putrid off-green flavour. I gag a little.

I reflect on the days events. I sense evil mockery from all angles. All are ready to burst forth with pitying, manic laughter. Their pity is false. Their hatred of my essence runs far deeper.

The void is unbreachable. Malevolence and humiliation haunt my every secret action. Escape? But how. Wherever I run, they will be the same. Their faces might change, but they never will.

I reach for the pillbox. Try and deaden my nerves. If I take enough, I will become numb – and numbness indicates freedom from pain.

My choice is rational.

A mental lurch. My brain slurs. Groggy now. The nauesa worsens. The drone gets angier; louder; now the pitch of a dentist’s drill.

I vomit.

I fall.

Silence. Nothingness. Solace.

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.