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.

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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.

Fire

Posted in psychology, Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on November 2, 2013

For too long this page has been silent, and no longer will it be so.

I have not been writing these past few months. This is always a bad sign. It usually means that I am being reluctant to delve into my mind to confront some psychological blockage. Gladly nowadays I can recognise the situation as such; and I know that I inevitably must dig.

Well, after some pondering, tonight the floodgates will open. I will attempt to write every night this month, and we will see what issues come to the surface.

Let’s start with something easy; my job. I work for a human rights organisation. I am exposed to news of all manner of horrific acts every day. As a coping mechanism I generally refuse to discuss the details of these cases – I compartmentalise my experiences, and ignore them after hours. This cannot be healthy. The issues are ones I am passionate about, so surely I am morally obliged to raise these matters with the people I care for. It is as though I have been too weak to face the realise of humanity’s dark side – but life has been prodding me back into consciousness. I have been watching Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of America, which has refreshed my memory of the many atrocities in the last century. Tonight I attended a talk by one David Simon, who discussed inequality and capitalism at length – and it is this final experience that has re-lit the fire in me.

To ignore, to be placated, to repress – these are all unworthy things. Yes, surely they are necessary at times – we cannot expect to bare the brutality of existence at all times, our strength must ebb and flow – but in the long-term these realities must be faced. You must allow yourself to feel outrage and sadness, for these are the things in which change are formed. You must engage, and you must open yourself – no matter the chances of injury. Fail to do this and you risk stasis and neurosis.

So what is it that I am doing here on this page? I am drawn back to the same old goal; to find inner peace; to gain self knowledge and work through matters of the psyche, to uncover some semblance of truth or meaning in the world; to discuss ideas that come to me.

Today I am glad to find myself charged once more with the energy and strength to face the darker aspects of mankind. My silence ends here.

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

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

Carl Jung – Memories, Dreams, Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Book review and reflection on William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience

Posted in Book review, Philosophy, psychology, Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on September 25, 2012
William James - The Varieties of Religious Experience © eoopilot (Flickr)

William James – The Varieties of Religious Experience © eoopilot (Flickr)

For a while now I’ve held the nagging suspicion that there is much that a populist scientific-rationalist critique of religion fails to account for.

If we truly want to understand how and why people believe what they do, then how much value can really be drawn from a literalist interpretation of the Bible? As many of the proponents of “new atheism” note (with a mixture of bewilderment and ridicule), believers seem to pick and choose which verses they pay attention to, and which they ignore. To me, this would signpost the idea that religious belief itself is not a wholly conscious, rational process, but moreover a complex synthesis of emotion and experience that is driven by mankind’s need for meaning rather than the pursuit of objective, empirical truth.

In short, there is a need for deeper psychological analysis on the subject.

Over the last six weeks I’ve worked my way through William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, a series of lectures which seek to study:

“the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”

James’ goal is not to busy himself with the proclaimations of theologians or the secondary claims of religious creed and dogma. His criticisms of the former are scathing:

“What is their deduction of metaphysical attributes but a shuffling and matching of pedantic dictionary-adjectives, aloof from morals, aloof from human needs, something that might be worked out from the mere word ‘God’ by one of those logical machines of wood and brass which recent ingenuity has contrived as well as by a man of flesh and blood. They have the trail of the serpent over them. One feels that in the theologians’ hands, they are only a set of titles obtained by a mechanical manipulation of synonyms; verbality has stepped into the place of vision, professionalism into that of life. Instead of bread we have a stone; instead of a fish, a serpent. Did such conglomeration of abstract terms give really the gist of our knowledge of the deity, schools of theology might indeed continue to flourish, but religion, vital religion, would have take its flight this world. What keeps religion going is something else than abstract definitions and systems of concatenated adjectives, and something different from faculties of theology and their professors…

So much for the metaphysical attributes of God! From the point of view of practical religion, the metaphysical monster which they offer to our worship is an absolutely worthless invention of he scholarly mind.”

Instead, he moves to focus in on the very essence of religion – that is, the individual’s direct relationship-with and experience-of religion; how he believes, and how this process shapes the context by which he views his existence. He notes that for many, religious experience works as a psychological process by which individuals alter their perception of existence; how, through a spiritual/philosophical framework, individuals come to unify their “higher and lower feelings, (their) useful and erring impulses” into a “stable system of functions in right subordination”.

This book, in essence, anticipates the key existential question of the last century: how do we go on, make meaning, find stable identities of ourselves and the world – and how does religion fulfill this function? To me, such an approach is of real worth if we wish to truly understand this quaint and rather persisent aspect of the human condition.

The Varieties of Religious Experience gets to the very root of what atheistic rationalists so obviously ignore: individual experience. Despite the claims of Ayn Rand, men cannot live on abstract scientific formulae alone, and our minds are far from perfect processing machines. So much of our life is guided by sub-conscious process, emotion and experience. For instance, we know through scientific inquiry that electromagnetic radiation has no inherent colour – that colour is merely an illusionary function of our imperfect perception – but this does nothing to change the fact that for all intensive purposes we still think and see with colour. We cannot wholly divorce our existence from imperfect perception, emotion or personal experience – nor do I believe there is particular value in doing so.

I found much to love about this book. I picked it up with specific interest in James’ lectures on mysticism (which were incredble – they offered some of James’ most inspired prose and tantalising insights), but I put it down with a far deeper understanding of how and why people believe, and a far greater appreciation for the various nuances of belief.

The Varieties of Religious Experience is a brilliant piece of psychological literature with profound existential scope. It is regarded as a masterpiece for good reason, and should be a mandatory companion piece to temper the enthusiastic throes which seemingly follow a reading of The God Delusion by the more boorish of faux-rationalists.

“Ought it to be assumed that in all men the mixture of religion with other elements should be identical? Ought it, indeed, to be assumed that the lives of all men should show identical religious elements? In other words, is the existence of so many religious types and sects and creeds regrettable?

To these questions I answer ‘No’ emphatically. And my reason is that I do not see how it is possible that creatures in such different positions and with such different powers as human individuals are, should have exactly the same functions and the same duties. No two of us have identical difficulties, nor should we be expected to work out identical solutions. Each, from his peculiar angle of observation, takes in a certain sphere of fact and trouble, which each must deal with in a unique manner. One of us must soften himself, another must harden himself; one must yield to a point, another must stand firm, – in order the better to defend the position assigned him. If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions. Each attitudes being a syllable in human nature’s total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely. (…) We must frankly recognize the fact that we live in partial systems, and the parts are not interchangeable in the spiritual life. If we are peevish and jealous, destruction of the self must be an element of our religion; why need it be one if we are good and sympathetic from the outset? If we are sick souls, we require a religion of deliverance; but why think so much of deliverance, if we are health-minded? Unquestionably, some men have the computer experience and the higher vocation, here just as in the social world; but for each man to stay in his own experience, whate’er it be, and for others to tolerate him there, is surely best.”

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.

Book review: Hermann Hesse – My Belief: Essays on Life and Art

Posted in Book review, Philosophy by Lachlan R. Dale on March 7, 2012

Hermann Hesse - My Belief: Essays on Life and ArtI’ve spent the last six weeks slowly reading through Hermann Hesse’s My Belief; a collection of essays, reviews and letters from the author of Steppenwolf, Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund. I had high expectations for this book having been a huge fan of most of Hesse’s work, and I was not disappointed.

Hesse’s thought gravitates towards the universal and the spiritual. Each letter and essay delves into some of the deepest realms of human thought – the quest self-knowledge, psychology, mysticism, religion (Buddhism, Zen, Hinduism, Christianity), war, and, the ebb and flow of civilisations past and present, and the role of art and the poet in society. Each piece in this book must be given the mental space required for full appreciatons and consideration of the subject.

After carefully reading through this collection for the first time, I feel I am intellectually a richer person. Here the tantalising undercurrent of philosophy and the quest for self-knowledge that is so prevalant in Hesse’s fiction is laid bare. Hesse open talks about his experiences, his books and, important importantly, his intellectual and spiritual passions. Through his series of reviews, I’ve also added a number of new books to my reading list.

I feel I have been given a privileged glance in to the mind of this brilliant man, and I only wish there were still more for me to devour. Highly recommended.