Along the Phantom Canyon Road

(About a 5 minute read)

Earlier, Don and I drove out of town south into a hazy fall afternoon. We speculated the haze could be coming from the large California fires, for there seemed no other source for it. It’s happened before that smoke has drifted hundreds of miles into Colorado from large fires as far away as California. Was that happening today?

No way of to be certain. But the distant mountains to the south and west were obscured by the haze while above us the sky still embraced the royal blue depth of a perfect autumn day.

I hadn’t driven south of Colorado Springs in well over two years. You forget how beautiful the hills and canyons are. The colors are mostly understated and subtle in the fall. Olive junipers dot the yellow grasses, cling to the sandy red cliffs like freckles. The deeper greens of ponderosa and pinon pines crowd the junipers, and the scrub oak has copper leaves. All respectable earth tones. But then along the water courses, the light bursts as it falls onto the luminous yellow leaves of the cottonwoods.

Gorges and canyons, mesas and buttes. The land seems eternal here. It’s hard to believe people own it — you think more of the land owning them.

There’s defiance of the land in some of the houses people have built. Houses whose architecture is traditional in distant parts of America — in the northeast, for instance — but not here in Colorado. You can’t look at those houses without imagining some newcomer has tried to transplant a bit of the lush eastern United States, complete with well watered bluegrass lawns, to the rocky, thin soils of the arid west. Maybe he got homesick for a more congenial landscape. Maybe he’s in denial he no longer lives in Massachusetts, Georgia or Kentucky. Whatever the case, it’s not really your problem — yet in this land, his home is an alien.

Some miles south of the Springs, Don and I turned off the main road and, after a few miles, entered Phantom Canyon. Phantom Canyon is a narrow gorge whose rock walls rise 150 or 200 feet. It winds for miles up into the Rocky Mountains — right into the heart of the high gold country. The road changed from asphalt to gravel, and then from gravel to earth. The walls were mostly red rock deeply fractured by the weather, like an old man’s face; and brilliant cottonwoods lined the floor of the canyon.

It’s strange how in some parts of Colorado you can see everywhere the evidence of people — you are after all, traveling a road built by people — and yet you almost feel you are the first person to explore the land. Twice in the Canyon cars passed us coming from the other direction and each time the occupants waved to us as if we were the first people they’d seen all month. I think that feeling of being a little bit beyond the boundaries of society doesn’t just come from the scarcity of people on the Phantom Canyon road. I think it comes from the way the world rises up 150 to 200 feet above you. I think it comes from the way the trees, the grasses, and the brush obey their own laws — not some gardener’s laws. I think it comes from the uncivilized quiet that confronts you when you finally stop and step out of your car. But whatever the source of it, the effect is to give you a slightly different perspective on yourself.

It’s not the beauty of nature that most inspires me to reflect on myself. Nature is not always beautiful. But nature is always indifferent. And it’s that indifference that inspires both thought and feeling about the human condition.

You can never really put what you learn about yourself from nature in words because what you learned, you didn’t learn from words. Rather, you simply experienced a truth. You can write all the commentaries you want about your experiences, but you cannot recreate them through those commentaries. Words never brought a fractured rock cliff into existence.

At times, it seems that societies revolve around the ego. Perhaps it can even seem they are huge conspiracies to make the ego primary in this world. I think the ego is just as much a part of us — of who we are as a species — as our eyes and noses, and I reject any ideology that calls for the permanent annihilation of the ego. Yet, I don’t think the ego is of primary importance. I think it has its place, but that place is not central.

I believe I see that most clearly when I am out in nature, away from society, away from its tendency to make the ego primary. Yet, it is also out in nature when I feel I am being most true to myself. Is that a paradox?


Originally published October 28, 2007.

Late Night Thoughts: Love, Consciousness, Moralism, Red, and More

(About a 10 minute read)

The half moon is riding high tonight.  Silver light on the lawn.

The weather is warm enough now that I can leave the doors open most of the night to let the air in through the screens.   This is the stillest part of the night.  The city is for the most part asleep, so there is very little traffic on the nearby roads.  Besides, my cottage is far enough off the closest road that passing cars are usually muted.

In a couple hours, the birds will start singing.  Then a bit later, the dawn.

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One of the very few posts on Café Philos with more than 80,000 views is The Difference Between Loving Someone and Loving an Idea of Them.

The post’s core notion is that one sign we love an idea of someone, rather than love them, is that we are trying to change them to fit our notion of them.  Especially if we are trying to change them against their basic nature.

Of course, me being me, it took 600 words, two personal stories, and one reference to beer,  to get that idea out.

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Have you noticed how some folks seem to bill you for the love they give?  Maybe they can’t seem to say, “I love you”, without expecting you to feel obligated to them for it.  Or maybe it’s not so much when they say “I love you” as it’s when they do something for you that they charge you for it.  But they always send out a bill, and expect prompt payment on time.

My second wife was like that.  I didn’t hold it against her, I didn’t hate her for it, because I knew she got the behavior from her mother.  All the same, I couldn’t live with it, and it was one of many reasons I divorced her.

She liked to go to an all night restaurant and sit up as late as four in the morning drinking tea.  Her work hours allowed for that:  She started late in the morning and worked until late in the evening.   But mine often didn’t.  Still, she felt I was obligated to go with her because, as she explained more than once, “You have a monopoly on my heart”.  Which, if you knew her, you would have recognized as a subtle threat to cheat, to break that monopoly, unless she got her way.

Now and then, we’d have a falling out, during which times she’d burn all the poems I’d composed for her since our last falling out.  The first time, it surprised me, but afterwards, I just thought it was funny.

For the longest time, I was convinced I could change her, but in the end I was only kidding myself.   She had a lot of good qualities that woman, but the price of her love became far too great a price to pay.

 One Way to Pay a Bill

 I would rather sit beside evening waters,
Feeling air lift across my arm like lips,
Smelling moisture that could be breath
From one who comes near enough to care

Than go late into a restaurant
Where air is still as dust in a corner
And light twists through incandescence,
Malnourished, to strike at shadow with a rag.

Although if I told you this
You’d accuse me of disregarding now and forever
Your right to stay up until four with your tea;

Then some weeks later you’d accuse:
I lacked an enthusiasm for sunsets
Which deprives you of romance —

“Since I have a monopoly on your heart”,
You’d say.

I’ve lived with you and noticed
When your heart flicks on, “I love you”,
It sends a bill for the energy used,
Which it feels seldom is paid for gracefully
Or on time.

I’ve willed for your love in the absence of another,
But shouldn’t your heart account in its books
The warmth you’ve taken, now and then,
From burning my poems?

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For the most part, it seems to me the relationship between our consciousness and the rest of our mind (or brain) is like that between a monkey and an elephant.

The tiny monkey is full of pride at being atop the elephant.  It sits there stubbornly trying to direct the elephant’s path with its constant chatter, hops, and gestures.  And the monkey is always deluded into believing it is the master of the elephant.  But almost invariably,  the elephant ignores the monkey to go its own way, taking the monkey with it.

Consciousness, it so often seems to me, is almost entirely a commentator on our behaviors, and almost never the cause of them.

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Beauty is the Beautiful Lie

I’m never quite sure
When I look to horizons
If it’s brighter out there
At the dawn or the dusk.

And I’m never quite sure
When I look for the truth
If its the truth that I find
Or only my own dust.

And I’m never quite sure —
But when I listen to flowers —
Their lies seem the truest
Of the lies I’ve been told.

There lies seem the truest
Of the lies I’ve been told.

◊◊◊

Moralistic people are not necessarily moral people, just as you can be clownish without being an actual clown.  To be moralistic, one only needs to be swollen full of moral-sounding judgments.  “By the Faith, did you hear that Sakeenah divorced her husband! And he a good provider, too!”

I think one thing that so very often distinguishes moralistic people from profoundly moral people is that moralistic people usually think in terms of absolutes, while profoundly moral people usually think in terms of odds, or probabilities.  The former tend to see things as black and white; the latter tend to see things in shades of grey — or even better — in colors.

Which do you suppose is the more realistic?

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I am still looking for great and snerklesome blogs, by the way.  If you know of a blog that has some stand-out characteristic of it, something that makes it special or unique, please leave a link to it for me in the comments.  Even if it’s your own blog.  Especially if it’s your own blog.

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One of the very few things I find generally irritating about women is that so many of them undervalue, underestimate, and over-criticize themselves.

Of course, I realize it’s not their fault, that they are all-too-often trained to do those horrifyingly destructive things, and they are not to blame for it.  But spontaneous irritation doesn’t pay much attention to causes: It is a response to the fact of the matter, not to the cause of the matter.

Men do it too, but women do it more often.  Both are irritating as a cruise vacation on the River Styx when they do it.  Folks really should pay attention to Aristotle on this issue.  Aristotle believed that genuine humility was claiming for yourself no more and no less than is your due.

To him, claiming more than your due is arrogance, while claiming less is false modesty.

Of course, I am not talking about self-deprecating humor here.  I almost never find that irritating.  An ability to laugh at yourself is a precursor to wisdom.  I’ve never known a wise person who was incapable of laughing at themselves.

◊◊◊

Red

I like the red
the red of her red skirt
Her red skirt
Her red skirt outside
outside in the sunlight
outside in the sunlight
now.

◊◊◊

A young friend has been emailing me tonight for advice with a woman he’s romantically interested in.

Naturally, I told him a safe way for him to gauge her interest in him without his having to awkwardly ask her if she is indeed interested (because such frankness is so often embarrassing to both parties) is for him to quietly spread jelly on his chest and see if she offers to lick it off for him.   “If she does, Arjun, it’s a good sign!”

I pride myself on my “being there” for today’s youth.  So many adults these days refuse to impart their hard won nuggets of wisdom to the up and coming generation.  Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.

But not me!

After explaining to me that she and he had very different political views, Arjun went on: “I’m more worried about losing the potential romance along with being rejected due to being perceived as unattractive than merely losing it due to something like difference in worldviews. Both scenarios wouldn’t be desirable for me, to be sure, but being seen as unattractive and rejected due to that would be painful for me.”

How would you yourself guide him?

◊◊◊

Adriana has written a good, solid blog post on the topic of whether the feminist movement should re-brand itself as the egalitarian movement.  It is, perhaps, a surprisingly important question.

I mostly agree with her points, but I’m thinking about challenging her to a mud-wrestling match to determine the truth or falsity of one of her points — a point I happen to disagree with.  I haven’t quite yet decided whether to write my own post about it, though.

You can find her article here.  It’s quite obvious she put a lot of thought and work into it, and it’s well worth a read.

◊◊◊

The sky is a pale blue-grey wash now that silhouettes the trees.  The birds are singing, their songs interweaving like the tree branches.

And now the first pinks blush on the horizon.

The Observation of New Things

(About a 1 minute read)

It’s about 30 minutes before dawn.  I hear a wild goose off in the distance, and then my neighbor cough. Now and then a car passing on the distant street. My thoughts come and go.  I feel I should grab one of those thoughts, wrestle it into submission, and present it as a blog post.

But that can wait.  For now, I’d rather just watch the night turn into day.  The refrigerator comes on.  The furnace creaks.  I hear wind chimes from across the yard.  A morning dove.

The sky is light enough the trees are silhouetted against it now.  The early dawn.

I think an odd thing about observation is that we so often want to give it a purpose and then guide it. By guide it, I mean we want to weed out some of what’s happening because it doesn’t fit in with our purpose — with what we’re looking for.  Then, too, we want to hold onto other parts of what’s happening because those parts actually fit our purpose.

Yet — when we observe with a purpose in mind — we more or less observe what we expect to observe.

It seems to me that it can be extraordinarily difficult to observe without any purpose.  For the most part, we’re looking for something.  Often, that “something” is beauty, pleasure, or whatever we expect to find because we’ve seen it before.  But whatever it is, we are actively looking for it, whether we are fully conscious of actively looking for it, or not.

Still, it’s in those rarer moments when we are not looking for anything — when we do not seek beauty, pleasure, or this or that thing — that we are most likely to discover the new.

Late Night Thoughts: Poetry-Readings, Weltanschauung, Love, Abuse, and More

(About a 10 minute read)

Silence

You’ve spent the day into the night alone
When the moon suddenly rings
Like china dropped on a tablecloth,
Startling you.

◊◊◊

Lori decided to organize a poetry reading.  She persuaded the owner of a downtown restaurant to lend her his back patio.  Then she designed some fliers and printed them up.  Meanwhile she was going about lining up people and their poems.  When the night came, she strung up some tiny colored lights, lit the candles she’d bought for all the table tops, and turned out the patio’s main lights: A good flashlight would do to spotlight the poets.

A fair number of people showed up, but not much went well after that.  Several of the poets had weak voices that didn’t carry to the back tables, or even much beyond the front row.  Some of the others had written abominations.  Lengthy, long poems, for the most part, that lectured you on their author’s feelings, but failed to produce any feelings in you.

The most common problem, however, was that so many of the poets had shown up fully prepared to read their poems.

You can do a lot when sounding a poem.  You can dramatize it, you can chant it, you can swing it, you can sing it, you can cry it out in pain.  You can even sometimes drone it  when that adds to its meaning — but however you perform it, you shouldn’t just read it.  It’s not the newspaper.

Fortunately, the whole night was saved by a single poet.  A young woman rose up and tore something about love and the abuse of intimacy from her chest that she flung across the patio like sheets of windblown rain.  You almost cried for her, a stranger, even as you stood and pounded your hands together.

◊◊◊

Weltanschauung, or “worldview”, is such a grim, heavy, ponderous term that I am fairly convinced Immanuel Kant invented it around 1790 at approximately three o’clock on some cold morning — typically our weakest hour — while sleeplessly suffering from a near fatal case of indigestion brought on by an all-too-heavy Prussian Winter’s meal of greasy sausages and sauerkraut the evening before.

The concept, in my opinion, is pretentious and incorporates only the thinnest shred of psychological insight — the insight that most of us think we have a more or less coherent view of the world.

Do we really have a single coherent worldview, as Kant thought, or do we, as Whitman suggested, “contain [contradictory] multitudes”?

I’ll go with Whitman.

◊◊◊

My first wife was stunning.  To be sure, she couldn’t drop jaws, not quite.  But she could audibly hush a room just by entering it.   And that’s how I first noticed her.

One day, two weeks after classes had started, Jana walked into the dorm cafeteria for the first time.  She’d transferred into our university a couple weeks late from the University of London, and when she entered the cafeteria that day it was the first time anyone had seen her.

Of course, it wasn’t as if the whole, huge room of a few hundred people went silent.  But the noise level did sink so much that day that you could suddenly pick up clear snatches of conversations from all the way across the room.  And heads turned.

When the group I was eating with — males from my dorm floor — had recovered their voices, the speculations naturally began in earnest.  Who was she?  Had anyone seen her before now?  What floor did she live on?  And, most importantly: Was she the first, second, or third most beautiful woman in the dorm?

Why does our noble species of super-sized spear-chucking apes always rank things?  Isn’t it enough to say, “She’s gorgeous”, without having to say, “She’s the most gorgeous”, “The second most gorgeous”?  Why?

I opted for third most gorgeous.

As it turned out, Jana’s new home was on a women’s floor that we’d scheduled a party with for the following month.  I showed up around eight that night, and started making my way through the women folk.  That is, I start circulating with the objective of systematically saying “Hi” to every woman at the party, one after the other, and regardless of whether we’d met before or not, until I’d said “Hi” (or more than “Hi”) to every woman who was not too preoccupied with an alarmingly glowering boyfriend.

Naturally, my aim at that age was to get laid, and I was perceptive enough to know that could often enough be accomplished simply by “working the numbers” in order to find the women who had also come to the party with an aim of getting laid  — a perception that by the end of the second semester would result in my being voted in a meeting my floor’s “Whore of the Year”, a title of unquestionable distinction and honor.

The alleged distinction and honor, in my case, was marred only by the fact that my competition consisted almost entirely of engineering students. Almost to a man, they were good, decent people.  But surely to a man, they were socially awkward.  As socially awkward as they were smart.  And, as just about the lone male on the floor in possession of at least a single social skill, I would have won that title even had I never picked up a single woman all year — just for being willing to talk with women!

Towards midnight, all I could show for my efforts were some platonic conversations with a few women I was genuine friends with. They were generally long conversations because I’d lost focus on my objective (beer will do that), and I doubt now that I made it through all the women at the party.  It was about then, however, that I noticed Jana sitting off by herself.

After our introduction that night, we started dating.   Yet, for all my alleged worldliness, I felt insecure and intimidated by her beauty.   She was, after all, the most gorgeous woman I’d dated up to that time in my life, and I was quite unsure of the extent or depth of her attraction to me.  Add to that, I was nowhere near her class of physical beauty.

Of course, by thinking of her as a class or two above me in beauty, I was comparing myself to her, ranking her and me, and I didn’t have the wit or insight at that time in my life to grasp that my comparison was one of the roots of my insecurities.  For had I not compared myself to her, ranked us, and then taken that ranking seriously, I would not have thought of myself as inferior to her in looks, and felt insecure because of it.

It all came to a head on one of our dates when Jana and I were sitting in a late night deli that was packed because the bars had just let out.  Jana was wearing a cheerful T-shirt with a cartoon frog on it.  Beneath the frog were the words, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince Charming”.

My consciousness kept returning again and again to those words, wondering if they had anything to do with me — which, of course, is routine for consciousness.  That is, it’s always trying to figure out what something has got to do with one’s self.

Finally, my simmering insecurities boiled over, “What’s with the shirt?”

“The shirt? This shirt?  What do you mean, Paul?”

“Umm…I’ve got to know.  Does that shirt have anything to do with me?  Am I one of your frogs?”

Jana burst out laughing.  It was the biggest laugh I’d gotten from her yet.  Fortunately, she wasn’t laughing at me.  She was laughing at the idea I might be a frog to her.  “No”, she said at last, “I wasn’t thinking of that at all when I put it on tonight.  I just grabbed the first thing in my closet.”  After a thoughtful pause, she added, “Besides, I’ve been thinking recently that you might be my Prince.”

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Have you ever had a friend who contacts you only when he or she is down and troubled?  A friend who perhaps never seems to want your advice so much as they want someone to dump their feelings on?  I think most of us have had such a friend at one time or another in our lives.

Here’s another question:  Have you ever read a poem — an excellent poem — about such a friend?  It seems to be a rare topic in poetry, doesn’t it?  Yet it’s such a common experience in life.

Davy D’s recent work, An Hour With Jake, is a masterful treatment of the topic.  The craftsmanship alone is excellent: I couldn’t find a word that I thought needed to be removed, nor a word that I thought needed to be added.   And the words are true, on occasion almost clinical in their accuracy.  But there is nothing brutal, nothing ugly in Davy’s poem. There are even touches of humor.

Davy not only looks at his friend Jake’s behavior, but at his own responses to Jake.  The result is greater richness and depth.  Here’s an excerpt:

scripts roll.

his, a tale of how
his wife,
his dog,
his work colleague,
don’t understand him.

mine, a crafted questionnaire
designed for glibness,
adding to the
self-help deception.

Poets ought to be experimental, in my opinion, willing to take a risk, and never expecting themselves to produce one masterpiece after the next.  That makes it all the more rewarding when one composes an excellent capture, as Davy appears to have done here.  An Hour With Jake.

◊◊◊

In my experience, there are at least four kinds of love.  More, if you subdivide the four.  But one thing they all have in common is that they are affirmations of something.

Sometimes they affirm something as narrow as sex, and sometimes something as broad as life itself.  But each way of loving is a way of affirming, and each way of affirming has the potential to — to one extent or another  — renew us.  I would suggest, if you are weary, seeking some kind of rebirth, great or small, then find something or someone to love.

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Do all forms of abuse have any one thing in common?  I think if they do, it may very well be this:  They are all behaviors that risk unnecessarily alienating us from ourselves.  That is, they tend to derail us from being true to ourselves, from being authentic.

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The most often way I write a poem is to sound it out loud, again and again again, as I go through the process of composing it.  I think a lot of poets must do that.  It has its advantages too.

When you’re stuck, blocked, and can’t think of how to get the creativity going again, it sometimes is sufficient to simply start sounding words and phrases in new voices.  That is, pick a persona — perhaps the way a friend talks — then sound out whatever words come to mind in her tone and rhythm of voice.

I once met a woman who was traveling the country.  For reasons I’ll never know, I imagined she was some kind of hero wandering ancient lands who’d brought tales from afar to my pathetically small village of thatched huts.  She had a way of speaking, that woman, and I tried to capture her voice in a poem.

Who Comes by Far

The horizon from the highest hill is the useless
Edge Of The World when you don’t travel.

You meet people who come by far,
So they must be heroes; so I believe you’re a Rider
Passing to the Sun’s Door…though you tell me,
You once knew so cold a land the clouds froze
And fell from the sky, and the People
Wore heavy skins.

Still, I look at your hands
Warm and dark with the candle,
And can barely imagine
What I’d think their color by Dragon’s Fire,
Leave alone the morning sun.

Then you turn in our shadows as if to say,
You’ve begun your liking of me,
So tonight you’ll stay.

Scandalous! The Shocking Truth About Objects!

(About a 9 minute read)

It will surprise few of my familiar readers that, when I was but a tender child, my devoted mother would lullaby me to sleep by softly chanting over and over again four sweet questions:

What is truth?
What is belief?
What is knowledge?
What is justification?

Eventually, I was to discover at the age of seven, in one the most significant revelations of my life (second only to the understandably puzzling revelation that my first wife desired for us to indulge in sexual congress on our very wedding night!), that my mother’s four questions were the four foundational questions of epistemology.

Perhaps you can imagine the ecstatic, blissful joy I felt upon it being further revealed that the four questions could actually be studied, pursued with zeal, and that there might be answers to them!  Altogether, it was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Soon afterwards, my happiness was made nearly complete by my very first ever discovery in philosophy: Namely, that objects do not exist.

To be sure, I was reinventing the wheel, for the notion had long been known to philosophers and scientists.  Yet, the discovery encouraged me to write my first academic article, which was published in the even then strangely unpopular, Journal of Philosophical Investigations for Children, Ages 3 to 11.  I was off!  Off to becoming the epistemologist and logician that I am today!

I now wish your indulgence as I guide you on a wonderful trip down memory lane to revisit my “old haunt”, the scandalous problem of the object!

Exposed! The Sordid, Hidden Nature of Objects!

We should in all propriety begin with a definition: An object is anything that exists as an independent or discrete physical reality.

Now, perhaps nothing seems more obvious to us than that objects do exist. For instance, my copy of Gettier’s Almanac appears to physically exist independently of the desk it graces.  So why should I think Gettier’s Almanac is not an object?

Dear Reader, the astonishing fact is that claiming objects exist entails dreadful conclusions.  Simply dreadful conclusions!  I must strongly advise you to have your smelling salts at hand as we proceed with our revelations! Philosophy is not for the mild of heart!

The True Nature of Physical Reality Revealed!

Barring such implausible notions as that we are all disembodied consciousnesses, I believe the physical world is real, and that it exists apart from our minds.  Moreover, it appears to be made up in part of fundamental units of highly concentrated energy — call them what you will, “strings”, “quarks”, or even “atomic particles” — which when arranged in various ways, produce the material world that we empirically experience.

Purely for the sake of our convenience, we conceive of the various arrangements of those fundamental units as “objects”.  But the fact we conceive of them so, does not make them so.  For objects do not exist as physical entities, but only as concepts in our own minds.  And that, dear reader, has several implications, a few of which are actually quite stimulating even to very worldly minds, such as my own.

Objects Discredited by the Change Problem!

The notion that objects do not exist has ancient roots.  Around 500 B.C., Heraclitus had the imposing insight to observe, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”.  Thus Heraclitus raised what I call, “The change problem”.

The change problem is, as the name implies, the fact that objects tend to change over time and circumstance.  Heraclitus’ river, for instance, is in a constant state of flux — as is virtually everything else, albeit quite often at a slower pace.  But if that is so, then how is it possible to define something as an object?  Constant physical change raises the issue of what it means to say an object “physically exists”.

For instance, a high mountain over time is worn down by the elements until it becomes a mere hill, or even flat land.  So, precisely what can we mean when we call the mountain an object?  Do we mean the mountain as it was a million years ago?  A half million years ago?  Today?  And if today, do we mean today at 10:59 AM, or today at 3:23 PM?

There is basically only one way in which we can rationally claim all of those different mountains are in reality one and the same mountain.  That is to assert that, the mountain possesses some essential nature that has remained constant and unvarying though-out all the physical changes that the mountain has undergone.  But we must ask,  what could be the nature of that essential nature?  For it certainly cannot be something physical.

Frankly, the problem has driven some philosophers into raving madness.  That is, into scandalously metaphysical speculations!  The poor, depraved creatures have ended up imagining the mountain remains the same mountain by virtue of its possessing an indemonstrable metaphysical essence.  That is, an essence or nature “beyond the physical”.  But how can they possibly justify such an appalling delusion?  There is, in my opinion, simply no good argument for that distastefully speculative notion.  Simply none.

I shall not, however, digress into the reasons I am convinced, absolutely convinced, most days of the week that there is no justification for the metaphysical speculations of my poor, depraved colleagues.  We — by which I mean you and I, dear reader — have already put ourselves at sufficient risk of a coronary arrest from the sheer excitement of discussing the steamy topic of how the concept of the object so frequently seduces us humans.  Thus, I will reserve the alluring topic of metaphysical speculations for another day.

In sum, we cannot say that the mountain exists as an object in reality, but only as a concept in our own minds, without resorting to wild metaphysical speculations.  And what applies to the mountain, applies to all alleged objects.  They exist only as concepts, but not as physical realities.

Objects Compromised by the Boundary Problem!

The “boundary problem”, as I call it, is a philosophical dagger plunged by the passionate force of logic straight into the very heart of the notion objects physically exist independent of other objects.

To illustrate, first suppose you had a pile of sand.  Allow such a pile of sand to stand in for objects.  All objects.  Now, further suppose you were to diminish the pile by removing just one grain of sand at a time until no sand at all was left.  At which point in the process does your pile of sand cease to exist as an object?

You see, dear reader, if the pile of sand is actually an object — that is, something that exists as an independent physical reality, rather than as a mere concept of the mind — then there must necessarily be a precise boundary between when it is a pile of sand, and when it is no longer a pile of sand.  Were we to say, “There is no precise boundary, but it is still an object”,  we would be indulging ourselves in the terrifying sin of self-contradiction!  For then, we would be arguing that one object can merge into another object while yet remaining independent of the object it is merging into.  Frightful!

And the very same problem — the boundary problem — applies not just to our pile of sand, but to all objects.  When, for instance, does a shirt become not a shirt if we start picking away at it, one molecule at a time?

Shocking as it might be to us, we must now come to the full realization that we have been shamelessly seduced by our own imaginations into believing that physical reality is promiscuously strewn with objects.  In truth, those “objects” are nothing more than wanton concepts in our mind.

A Most Titillating Implication!

No doubt the natural excitements of the discussion have so far been just as robust and numerous for you, dear reader, as they have for me.  Perhaps you are even thinking, “Too much!  Far too much fun!”.  But I must ask you to stick with me for only a few words longer, for I now aim to briefly expose an astonishing implication of all that has gone before.

 You see, if objects are merely concepts, then it follows that scientists can not actually study them as physical realities.  But this logically raises the question of how can scientists, when studying physical realities, distinguish one physical reality from another?

The question is a large one, too large to explore here in this one post.  I propose, however, to explore it in a future post to be published on this same blog.  For now, it is time to bring to a close what, doubtlessly for some of my readers, has been a day of strenuous excitements!

Mysticism is a Whore: Allow Me to Introduce You

(About a 26 minute read)

If words were characters in a novel, the word “mysticism” would be the whore with the good heart.  Like the whore, mysticism has a bad reputation.  People, both religious and non-religious, look down on her.  Reactions to her range from deep suspicion to shocked disbelief, often followed by rumor-mongering, gossip, and slander.

Some folks, such as most of the Catholic scholars of mysticism, try to reform her. Though they might love her, their efforts to bring her into the respectable fold of Catholic theology are doomed from the start: She’s wild is mysticism.  You may love her, but you’ll never tame her.  There are schools of Hinduism that acknowledge her, even claim her as one of their own; but so often — not always, but so often — they too want to tame her, bring her into the fold of their theologies just as much as the Catholic scholars.

Many Muslims, who usually know her by the name of “Sufism”,  deny she’s properly one of them at all.  The New Agers like to claim her as their own, but frequently think her many, often gaudy, accessories are the true her.  Fundamentalists of any religion generally claim to have never themselves been so improper as to have even met her,  although a few certainly have “snuck out at nights”.

“Spiritual, but not religious” folks are everywhere on the board when it comes to her. Some have never had a thing to do with her, while others have written all over their faces: “Just got laid”.  And then there are the scornful non-believers.  Not just any non-believers, but the non-believers who have plenty of cheerful vile for all religions.  They quite frequently conflate mysticism with religion — when they’re not busy conflating it with sheer madness — and condemn both with happy, if blind, zeal.

Like all proper outcasts, mysticism has her true lovers, the folks who as best they can, fundamentally accept her as she is  (for how can you truly love someone you also labor to fundamentally change?).  Historically, Siddhārtha Gautama, the man who become the Buddha, was probably one of her earliest known lovers.   Meister Eckhart was a famous lover from the late European Middle Ages. So, much more recently, was Jiddu Krishnamurti, who some say was the final, promised reincarnation of Siddhārtha.  Still alive today, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh are among her more internationally famous contemporary lovers.  But she has millions of other lovers, mostly unrecognized,  mostly ordinary men and women in every culture and society on the planet.

For that’s the thing about mysticism: Like a whore, she is to be found everywhere.  Never the mainstream anywhere, she is nevertheless ubiquitous.  

So, the lady mysticism presents us with a problem.  How can we see her for who she is when who she is, is masked by so much slander, gossip, and rumor?  Is it even possible to see her in a fresh light now?  Or are we so set in our ways that such a thing is as improbable as reforming her?  And what are her prices these days?  Not that I’m interested in her prices for anything but purely scholarly reasons.

Towards a Fresh Look

I suspect one way for many of us to take a step towards gaining for ourselves a fresh look is to begin by recognizing the crucial role played by experience in mysticism.   One of the several ways mysticism is different from religions — at least, so many religions — is that thought, belief, knowledge, theology, dogma, are not even close to being core to it.  At the very best, those things play a merely supplemental role.

Instead, I think the core of mysticism is experience.

As it happens, there are a small number of experiences that are often called, “mystical”.  Those experiences range from such things as predictive dreams and visions to what I very creatively, almost poetically,  call “the mystical experience” (“the”, because the mystical experience seems to be in several ways the most life changing experience of them all).   But in all cases,  “experience”, and not “mystical”, is in some ways the most important word in the expression, mystical experience.

As I see it, no amount of knowledge about mysticism or about mystics themselves, no matter how comprehensive or accurate it is,  can make one a mystic.  Only a mystical experience can do that.  And especially, the mystical experience.

Many people, however, use the term “mystic” more inclusively than me to include, not just folks who’ve had the experiences, but anyone who merely studies or advocates mysticism.  And that’s fair.  That’s not how we do things around my cottage, by golly, but it’s fair.

[Insert Section Title Here.  Don’t Forget, Paul!]

One summer’s morning, around the age of 13, I was biking down a leafy tree-lined street in my hometown when I happened upon someone I had not seen in awhile. He was a boy a year younger than me, and he had a reputation for being wild.  I suspect his reputation was owed more to his frank honesty, though, than to his actual wildness.  In that small town, you tended to collect all sorts of reputation  — if you were honest.

He and I entwined the handlebars of our bikes — a trick that stabilized the bikes nicely, allowing us to sit them without needing to put our feet down to stay upright.  Then we were off telling each other all the news fit to forget.  And I have indeed forgotten most of it, but the one thing I still vividly recall came towards the end of our conversation when my friend confided that he’d recently had an experience of indescribable bliss. I had never heard of the word, “bliss”, and had to ask what it was.

As he spoke, his face took on a radiance somewhere between happiness and joy.  He told me he didn’t know the right words to describe his experience, but it had to be what adult‘s meant when they talked of being “seized by the Holy Spirit“.  Though only twelve, he was completely serious.  And he was certain — absolutely certain — he’d discovered life’s greatest and most precious gift.

While I was skeptical of his claims to being seized by the supernatural even at 13, I could not ignore his sincerity. Consequently, I hung on every word until the very moment I suddenly recognized he was talking about his having discovered masturbation.

Although I wouldn’t have put it quite this way at the time: That was the first time in my life I heard someone insist that a non-mystical experience was actually mystical.  Of course, it has not been the last. It’s a curious fact that many of us who have not yet had a mystical experience are nevertheless inclined to think our biggest, most moving experiences to date must be — absolutely must be — what the mystics are talking about.  I suppose there is something very human in that.

Although many people have tried, it is virtually impossible to communicate the content of the mystical experience to people who have never themselves had one.  The experience is radically different from normal experiencing.  And it is so extraordinarily difficult to communicate its content because of the nature of words.

There is a profound sense in which words do not refer to “things”, but to shared experiences.  When I say, “I saw a barn”, you either get my meaning or not to the extent you share with me some kind of experience of a barn or barns.  If you have no experience of barns then I must resort to trying to find some shared experience with which to suggest a barn to you.  “Barns are large buildings used to house animals and to provide a place where farm boys and girls can smooch in privacy.”  But what if something is so radically different from anything else that it’s incomparably different?

For instance, sometimes the word “blissful” is used to describe the content of the mystical experience — and that might mislead some of us into thinking that we can imagine this bliss by mentally multiplying joyful feelings, say, a thousand times.  But mystical bliss is not one end of a joy continuum.  It is altogether something different.

Later on in this post, I will now and then drop a word or two about the reported content of mystical experiences, but please bear in mind that those words  should not be taken as representations of the content, but instead as interpretations.

The Mystical Experience

I first became interested in mysticism some forty or so years ago when I was studying comparative religion at university.  I noticed that a group of people — mystics — seemed to be describing more or less the same sort of experience despite  the fact they were as individuals from cultures and societies as diverse as 500 B.C.E. China and Medieval Europe.  To be sure, they weren’t saying exactly the same things.  But they were close enough that it was like reading the different opinions of people experiencing, say, looking at the same cat.

That struck me as unusual.  I knew enough about religions at the time to appreciate how different they can be one from the other.  And yet, here were these strange people more or less agreeing with each other!

I won’t recount here all the false trails and dead ends I went down over most of the next 40 years after that initial insight.  Suffice to say one of the few truly fruitful things I did with all that time is listen to people, perhaps a surprising number of people, when they told me of their own strange experiences.

Studies performed in Britain and the United States have found that about a third of the people surveyed in each country report having had at least one exceptional or extraordinary “spiritual or religious” experience.  What percentage of those experiences are the mystical experience is anyone’s guess.  But I have met quite a few people who’ve had the experience.  I have also learned that you can develop a sort of nose for who is likely to have had such experiences, and that you can sometimes — not always, but sometimes — gently coax then into talking about their experiences.

 So far as I can see, the mystical experience can be characterized as coming about when normal subject/object perception comes to an abrupt end while some form of experiencing yet continues.

Subject/object perception is the kind of normal, everyday perception that we’re all familiar with as waking consciousness.  Specifically, it is the part of consciousness that divides the world into us and not-us.  Us is the subject.  Not-us are the objects.   I look at a tree.  I do not merely see the tree, though.  I also “see” that the tree is not me, that it is distinct, other than me.

When that way of perceiving the world breaks down, you apparently enter a radically new world where instead of sensing division, you sense unity or oneness.  You become one with the tree.  Or, as Robert Plant famously sings in Stairway to Heaven, “When one is one and one is all…”.

Mysticism and God

Now, this One seems to be easily characterized as deity:

The self, when confined into the usual wakeful state of consciousness, is human, but when enters into the transcendental state of Absolute Oneness, becomes God. ― Abhijit Naskar

It is easily characterized, or interpreted, as god because, if you think about it, what can possibly be bigger than the oneness of all things?  There appear to be other reasons as well for why the experience is frequently interpreted as an experience of god, but that one in particular is a biggie  (pun shamelessly intended).

Yet, the experience need not be interpreted as such.  The Dao De Jing (or Tao Teh Ching, for old foggies like me) implies that it is an experience of The Way, an apparently non-sentient “something” that is superior to the gods and proceeds them, but in some sense permeates all things.  And while theistic mystics seem to be in the majority, there are plenty of atheistic and agnostic mystics too.

If you wish to be perfect and without sin, then do not prattle about God. Also you should not wish to understand anything about God, for God is beyond all understanding. A master says: “If I had a God that I could understand, I would not regard him as God.” If you understand anything about him, then he is not in it, and by understanding something of him, you fall into ignorance.  — Meister Eckhart

Even with many theistic mystics, one gets the impression that their use of the word “god” is more like a placeholder for a mystery than it is like a description for something known.  It is as if they are using the world for lack of a better one.

“God is not the name of god, but an opinion of him.”

The Ring of Pope Xystus, based on The Sententiae of Sixtus, a Pythagorean.

 

One of the most common criticisms of mystical experiences is to claim they are “hallucinations”.   But mystical experiences don’t fit in neatly with what psychologists know about genuine hallucinations.  For one thing,  people who suffer an hallucination realize it was an hallucination the moment it’s over.  But people who have a mystical experience usually claim that it still seems real to them  even years or decades later.

For another thing, hallucinations tend to involve a single sense. One hears a disembodied voice.  One sees Jesus.  One feels the presence of something.  But mystical experiences typically affect, in one way or another, the entire, or nearly the entire, perceptual field, just like normal experiences.

Last, hallucinations can be frequent and recurring.  But mystical experiences tend to be rare.  One is “lucky” to have had one.  To have a few is exceptionally lucky.  To have had more than a few is almost unheard of.

Basically, it might be open to debate what mystical experiences are of, but that they seem real — at least as real as anything else — is pretty much indisputable, so far as I can see.

Both from reading the often fairly well known writings of mystics, and from private talks with mystics, I have form the impression that mystics, as a group, are a bit on the wild side when it comes to harboring “proper” beliefs about gods.  They tend not to reference, say, holy scriptures as authoritative guides to what to believe about deity.  When they reference such things, it is most often done in the spirit of “and here’s something that sounds surprisingly like what I experienced”.

Police, lawyers, and psychologists are all acutely aware of the fact that, if there are 20 witnesses to the same car accident, there are likely to be at least 21 versions of what exactly happened.  Witnesses to the mystical experience are no exception to that rule.

Some will tell you they experienced god, some will tell you they did not, or are not sure that they did.  Perhaps more significantly, some witnesses seem more reliable than others, just as with witnesses to anything else.   It’s my impression that the more reliable the witness, the more hesitant, cautious, and circumspect they are when arriving at any interpretations or conclusions about what they’ve experienced.

Last, the mystical experience seems to transform people, often profoundly, and often along certain familiar lines.  I have learned there is a bit more general agreement  among mystics who give some indication of having been transformed by the experience than there is among mystics who give little or no indication of having been transformed.   Just so, mystics whose experience or experiences were drug induced seem to me, at least, to show fewer signs of any lasting transformation than mystics whose experiences arose spontaneously.

We shall now turn to those transformative experiences.

The Transformative Nature of the Mystical Experience

By a single such experience of only a few moments’ duration a man’s life may be revolutionized. He may previously have found life meaningless and worthless, whereas now he feels that it has acquired meaning, value, and direction, or his attitude to life may sometimes be radically and permanently changed.  — W. T. Stace

I spoke earlier of having developed over time a “nose” for mystics.  Much of that nose seems to involve picking up on clues so subtle or slight as to be difficult to easily describe.  A “lightness” when dealing with beliefs about god, for instance.  And, so far as I know, no one clue in itself is a notably reliable guide to who is or isn’t a mystic.  I’ve learned to wait for a number of clues before guessing that someone might be a mystic.   In fact, I’m never certain who is or isn’t a mystic until they tell me their stories, and even then, not always.

It does seem to me, however, that mystics tend to be transformed, permanently transformed, by their experiences, except perhaps in the case of most drug induced experiences.  I should make clear here, though, that I am now speaking specifically of mystics who have had the mystical experience.  There are other mystics who’ve had other experiences, but not the mystical experience.  Of those mystics, I am not at the moment gossiping rumor mongering talking about for the simple reason that their experiences do not seem to me all that transformative.

It also seems to me that some non-mystics are also “transformed”, but by what I don’t know.

I do know, however, that there are people who in most or every respect seem to be mystics, except they claim to have never had any such experiences.  So it does not seem to me that one must necessarily be a mystic to be like a mystic.  But it sure does help: For every normal person I’ve met who is very much like a mystic, I have met several actual mystics.

One of the things I believe I have noticed about mystics (and some non-mystics) is that they are somewhat unusually aware of their ego and how it behaves or operates in practice. Almost no mystic I’ve come across (except, once again, in the case of drug-induced mystics) is notably unaware of, say, the ways in which their ego distorts their views and understanding of reality.  Moreover, most mystics seem to me to be less egotistical than the average member of our species.  They tend to be  more modest, more willing to laugh at themselves, and less trapped or led around by their ego than most (but certainly not all) non-mystics.

In general, mystics are what I call “spiritually advanced”.  But I mean that in a very off-beat way.  My definition of “spirituality” is rather unconventional.  It is “the manner and extent to which a person deals with their psychological self”.  I go into that in much greater detail here.

Not every mystic has an especially profound love, appreciation, and respect for nature, but most of the ones I know do.  Their love, however, is not usually of the sentimental sort that romanticizes nature, and sees only its positive aspects.  Rather, they tend to be very realistic about it.  They know and accept that nature can be unpleasant at times and that it has horrors.  Yet, mystics tend to treat nature with reverence.

The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.  — Thich Nhat Hanh

A few have told me that, like Thich Nhat Hanh, they find it easier to feel “alive” in nature than in towns and cities, or even in their own homes.  As one young man passionately told me, “Nature is my church”.

Mystics on the whole also seem to me to be notably less likely to complain about — or to be defeated by — misfortunes than the rest of us.  They appear to be a resilient lot.  They very seldom turn cynical or bitter even though they seem to have suffered as much as is usual for a human.   This might have something to do with W. T. Stace’s observation that the mystical experience tends to give people a sense of meaning or purpose in life, even if they had no such sense before.  It seems that people, both mystics and non-mystics, who feel they have a purpose or meaning in life are generally more resilient than those who don’t, and mystics usually seem to have an enduring sense of purpose or meaning

The most psychologically healthy people I personally know are every one of them mystics. Yet, that does not mean all mystics enjoy good psychological health.   I have known plenty of mystics, for instance, who suffer from depression or other disorders.  Maybe the one thing I haven’t known, so far as I can recall, is a depressed mystic who was suicidal.  Again, perhaps that has something to do with an enduring sense of purpose or meaning.

There are mystics of every religion and of no religion at all.  As a general rule (with exceptions) they tend to wear their religions (or non-religion) lightly.  Mystics, by and large, are almost the opposite of fanatics.  Even when they believe they’ve experienced god, they overwhelmingly tend to be unwilling to impose their views or beliefs about god on others.  The non-believing mystics I’ve met tend to be just as reluctant to impose their views or beliefs on others as the believing mystics.

The relatively rare exceptions usually seem to be people who were very quick to arrive at firmly held interpretations and conclusions about their experiences.  That same group, incidentally, are more likely to be members of a particular religion, more likely to interpret their mystical experience(s) in terms of that religion (e.g. “I didn’t just experience god, I experienced God, the God of the Bible.”), and more likely to come from a fundamentalist background within their religion.

As a group, mystics do not strike me as notably more moral than other people.  But they do strike me as overall a bit more humane.  They tend to treat others with decency, even others they don’t particularly like.  And they tend  to strongly disapprove of unnecessary cruelty.  I have not yet known a mystic to seriously advocate murder, rape, assault, or even mistreating someone in any significant way.  I assume, however, that it’s possible there are mystics in this world who are exceptions to the rule.

There are some other ways that mystics seem to me to stand out at least a bit from the crowd.  But most of those ways are rather difficult to describe, so I haven’t tried to do so here.

Mystics themselves will very often tell you that their experiences absolutely changed everything, or at least everything important, about them.  It’s not only Christian mystics, for instance,  who speak of their experiences as “being reborn”, and as “the start of a new life”.  Plenty of others do too, including non-believers.

In my experience, however, this seems to be an exaggeration.  Those mystics I have not only met, but gotten to know well, do not seem to me to be radically changed.  They seem changed in some ways, but not in every way, and not so much that they might be fairly called “radically” changed.   But I have no access to their psychological interiors, so it’s quite possible they are much more changed than I myself can see.

Also — and I think this is most important — I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting someone along the lines of Pema Chodron , Thich Nhat Hanh, or Jiddu Krishnamurti. By almost all accounts that I’ve read or have heard told of these people, to know them is an extraordinary experience in itself.  Had I met someone like them, I strongly suspect I would now be telling you that, in my experience, the mystical experience can be radically transformative.

It seems to me that the differences between mystics and the rest of us are matters of probability.  Things on the order of, “Forty-six percent of non-mystics are X, but ninety-three percent of mystics are X”.  That, rather than non-mystics are X, and mystics are Y.

It would be quite interesting if some science were done of this.  My own impressions are just that: Impressions, and probably as full of inaccuracies as is humanly likely.  Nevertheless, accurate or not, my impressions are that mystics  — with notable exceptions — are less egotistical, more spiritual, more resilient, psychologically healthier, and more humane (among other things) than most of the rest of us.

The Physiological Basis for Mysticism

When I first became  interested in mysticism, almost the entire library of published scholarly books on the subject could have been carted around in a single student backpack with space left over for copies of the Bhagavad Gita, a collection of Rumi’s poetry, and a few other primary works.  Over the past twenty or thirty years, that’s changed dramatically.

Some of the most significant changes have been coming from the field of neuroscience, which seems to be rapidly discovering the physiological basis for mysticism.   So rapidly, in fact, that my own information on the subject is very likely outdated by now.  So, I won’t go into the details here, but I do plan to post on the subject at a later date, once I’ve had time to read some recent books I’ve purchased in order to get reasonably up to date.   Meanwhile, I’d like to mention two things here.

First, regardless of whether one thinks the mystical experience is of god or not, it is now more than clear the experience crucially involves the brain.  This might disappoint those of us who were hoping  that the experience would somehow provide evidence for a disembodied consciousness. or even evidence of being produced by a miraculous intervention by deity.  I myself never hoped for either thing, but I know people who have.

Next, it should be noted here that the mere fact there is a physiological basis for the experience does not logically imply that god is nothing more than a brain fart.  To say that it does is just as illogical as saying that, because we have largely discovered the physiological basis for vision, everything we see is an illusion.

Stay tuned to this blog for a future post or posts on current findings in the physiology of mystical experiences!

Other Mystical Experiences

In addition to the mystical experience, there is a whole host of other experiences — or alleged experiences — that folks routinely call “mystical”.  These include, but are not limited to, telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, and apparitional experiences.  The Zen monks call these experiences “makyo”, and sometimes say that almost all of them are illusions, but that now and then someone has one that is for real.

But are any of them really really really real?  They do not seem to be reliably verifiable through any current methods of intersubjective verification, and are therefore outside the realm of the sciences — which are generally speaking our most reliable means of inquiry.  Moreover, whenever it’s been possible to subject any single experience of those sorts to scientific scrutiny, the result has been either to debunk the experience or to find little or no support for regarding it as real.

However, none of that absolutely rules out the possibility that some such experiences — perhaps only a few — are indeed for real.  It just makes it unlikely that they are.

Those of us who hope or believe that at least some of those experiences are real can take heart in Saint Elmo’s fire.  Saint Elmo’s fire, it is now plausibly suspected, is a rare, but naturally occurring plasma.

That explanation, however, would not have been at all possible a few hundred years ago when the “fire” was spotted hovering around the dome of Sophie’s Cathedral on the eve of the battle for Constantinople.  The key thing to grasp here is that no one — not even the finest most knowledgeable people on the planet at the time — could have discovered the cause of the fire.

Let me repeat that for emphasis: Under no likely circumstances could the cause have possibly been discovered back then.  That is, it wasn’t just a matter of no one did the right research.  It was a matter of no one could have done the right research.  The gulf between the knowledge of the time and the necessary knowledge to explain St. Elmo’s fire was simply unbridgeable by the technology of the day.

One might ask then, is there a natural explanation for at least a few paranormal events?  Are they as real as St. Elmo’s fire, but as inaccessible to us today as the fire was roughly 500 years ago?

I think it quite likely that, if any such events be real, they have natural explanations, although we might be years or even centuries away from when such explanations will be possible for us to formulate.

Trenchant and Insightful Summary

I must now confess that I’ve had my own mystical experiences, including what I so wittily call the mystical experience. There was a time, when I was much younger than I am today, when I thought my experiences were definitive.  I have since been thoroughly disabused of any such notion.

Today, I see myself as like one of 20 witnesses to the same car accident, and if I stand out in any particular way from any of the other 19 witnesses it’s merely that I might be a bit more unsure of my own accounts and interpretations of the events in my life than they are of theirs.  That uncertainty comes to me largely through having talked with so many other witnesses, a few of whom even impressed me as much better witnesses than myself.

There is so much about mysticism that I have left out here.  This certainly should not be taken as a comprehensive essay on mysticism.  Anyone who wants to read more of my thoughts on the subject should go here.  Meanwhile I’d appreciate any comments you would like to share on mystics or mysticism.

Thank you for reading this!  As usual, any cash donations in appreciation of this post will be immediately forwarded to Uncle Sunstone’s Cottage Refuge for Wayward Dancing Girls.  You can be absolutely confident your money will go to buying the girls the g-strings they need to stay warm during sudden cold spells this Spring and Summer, and also to replace the strings that somehow so frequently wind up stuck in Uncle Sunstone’s teeth.

It’s quite a mystery how that happens.

Be Yourself! A Guide From Why to How

(About a 30 minute read)

Once, the Hassidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him:  “Zusya, what’s the matter?”

And he told them about his vision; “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”

The followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”

Zusya replied; “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ and that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?'”

Zusya sighed; “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”

— Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim

If a wily pirate could hide his gold anywhere — even somewhere fanciful — he’d be wise to hide it beneath a cliché, because almost no one digs very deep beneath a cliché.  They are the nearly perfect mask for whatever truths they might express.  I believe it was Hegel who somewhere said, “Precisely because something is obvious, it is not at all well known”.

It is also easy to ridicule clichés.  I think that might be because, over time, they accumulate so many different interpretations of them that you’re sure to find a few that are ridiculous.  “Be true to yourself” is no exception.  “Hi! I’m Ronnie, the successful author and self-help guru who is here to help revolutionize your life!  If you’re like me, you have wondered at times:  Is the feeling I have of something moving deep down inside me calling me to a new life, or is it just intestinal gas, and is there a difference?  Well, you’re in luck!  Now you, too, can be true to yourself, discover your inner purpose in life, and improve your bowl movements, all for the low low price of $29.95!  Simply call…”.   Yet, the notion that one should be true to him- or herself is unlikely to go away.

For one thing, it seems even those who make the most fun of the notion feel just as much disappointment as nearly everyone else when they fail to be true to themselves.  Simply apply for a job you don’t want, but need: it’s only human to feel “this isn’t right for me”.  Marry the wrong person, same feeling multiplied.  Just sucking up to someone is likely to induce such feelings to some extent.  For many of us, something as slight as wearing the “wrong” clothing can trip our sense of self — and regardless of what we think of the cliché itself.

It runs deeper than that, though.  Infants are born incapable of self awareness, but then, generally between the ages of 18 and 24 months, they develop a sense of self.  For the rest of their childhood, they are defining and re-defining that sense of self.   “Mommie,  I’m not like that!”

During adolescence and young adulthood, the search for self intensifies.  The “13 to 30 group” is in some ways even more experimental than children in defining and re-defining their sense of self.  At times they seem to test everything — fashions, music, literature, hobbies, jobs, even friends and lovers — against the standard of “is it me or not me”.

Midlife seems to be a time when most of us deepen our commitments to things that match our self-images — or feel trapped in lives that seem not our own.  It is often during midlife that many people, perhaps for the first time, see with some clarity just how powerfully their upbringing influenced or determined their sense of self, and how much their sense of self has had to do with their choices in life.

During our elder years [Author’s note to loyal reader Teresums: I’m not there yet, Teresums.  So shuddup!], we tend to become increasingly reflective, and our reflections so often turn to whether we lived true to ourselves.  These reflections can become especially poignant as we lay dying.  Bronnie Ware is an Australian author who for many years worked as a caregiver with people who were dying.  Typically, she was with a patient for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.

When she asked her patients whether they had any regrets about how they had lived their lives, she discovered the single most common regret dying people have is that they have not been true to themselves:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

This was the most common regret of all.  When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people have not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

“Be true to yourself” is a cliché, but it seems to be one cliché that’s well worth digging into.

Why be true to oneself?

But why should one try to be true to oneself — apart from merely trying to avoid being disappointed in old age?  As it turns out, being true to oneself, or authenticity, correlates well with life satisfaction and a sense of well-being.  That’s not only psychological well-being, but physical well-being, too.

In addition, it fulfills the human desire to stand out a bit from others.  And it also correlates with greater realism, mindfulness, vitality, self-esteem, goal pursuits, and coping skills.  In contrast, those who score relatively low on psychological tests of authenticity “…are likely to be defensive, suspicious, confused, and easily overwhelmed.”

Beyond those points, authenticity seems to be an absolute requirement for a genuinely intimate relationship.  It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to be loved for who you are when you are, in fact, hiding who you are.

Last, there is a subtle, but still observable beauty to authentic people.  I don’t know whether this is evident to everyone — aesthetic things tend not to be — but I myself at least have noticed that people who are mostly true to themselves tend not only to radiate a sort of beauty (and charisma), but they also tend to be inspiring, even at times liberating, to be around.  And these qualities do not seem to depend on their physical appearance per se.  I’ve noticed these things in conventionally plain or ordinary, and in conventionally pretty or handsome, people both.

Living as authentically as ethically possible can have it’s downsides — for instance, it might alienate us from folks who fail to approve of our real selves — but it certainly has its upsides too.

What are the obstacles to being true to oneself?

Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. –Oscar Wilde

As it happens, there are more obstacles to being true to oneself than there are reasons to be so.  One of the biggest of those obstacles is the fact that so many of us have quite rigid and inflexible notions of ourselves.  Notions that at the very least hamper our understanding of who really are.  I have written extensively on that issue here.  A second, and I think, equally important obstacle can be broadly summed up as “society and/or culture”.

“Society and culture” cover quite a number of things.  Obviously, social pressure to conform is among those things.  Also among those things are the various ideas and expectations of who we should or should not be.

It seems human nature to want to live up to the expectations of others.  Apparently, most of us do it every day in ways both great and small.  A friend of mine — someone I very much admire — is a middle-aged woman who is now discovering that she has spent her life living for others. She was raised to put the wants and needs of everyone else before her own.  And that message was both reinforced and justified by her family’s fundamentalist religion.

For instance: The notion she was morally obligated to subvert herself in order to please others was so deeply instilled in her during her upbringing that she felt shock the first time someone stated to her that a woman is not required to have sex with her husband if she does not feel like it.

Today she is discovering — one step at a time — her own wants and needs. For the fact is, when you have been thoroughly taught to put the wants and needs of everyone else before your own, you most often suppress your own wants and needs to the point that you no longer clearly know what they are.  It is easy to tell such a person, “Be true to yourself”.  But that person might have a long ways to go before she knows her real wants and needs, let alone is confident of her right to them.

Yet, we do not need to be first abused — as she was — before we cast ourselves aside in order to live up the expectations of others. Abuse certainly helps us do that — the very essence of abuse is that it unnecessarily alienates us from our true selves — but abuse is not required for us to fail to be true to ourselves.  We are social animals.  Profoundly social animals.  Almost anyone of us, if he or she really thought about it, could list dozens of ways in which our noble species of poo-flinging apes manifests its social nature.

It is deeply ingrained in us to desire companionship, to want the acceptance of others, to value love and friendship.  When scientists ask us what it takes to make us happy, we quite often tell them the single most important factor in our happiness is the quality of our relationships with our friends and family. Most of us at one time or another bargain for friendship by trading who we are for what someone expects of us.

Yet, our social nature can be turned on us to alienate us from ourselves.  If nearly anyone of us could list dozens ways in which our species manifests its social nature, anyone of us could list hundreds of ways in which we are encouraged, cajoled, wheedled, browbeat, bullied, or forced to subvert ourselves in order to live up to someone’s expectations.

The most loving parents and relatives commit murder with smiles on their faces. They force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder.  ― Jim Morrison

Closely related to the sometimes alienating influence other people’s expectations can have on us is the fact that authenticity can bring on the judgement and condemnation of others.  I have found that the people most likely to object to someone behaving authentically are those nearest the person who, under certain circumstances, might perceive such behavior as a threat to their relationship with the person.  Suppose, for instance, that you had gone years without really being very true to yourself.  Then you start changing.  That can cause quite a bit of consternation among the people who have up until then relied on your false front.  In my experience, though, if you’ve always been down to earth with someone, they are more likely to be attracted to your authenticity than concerned by it.

Authenticity crucially depends on accurate self-knowledge.  Yet, self-knowledge is something many of us would prefer not to have too much of.  We like the “good parts”, the fact we can be kind, intelligent, industrious, creative, witty, honest, and so forth.  But we wish to ignore or deny the rest of it, the fact that we can also be cruel, petty, malicious, cunning, lying, cheating, and so forth.  If we are very good at denial, then we’ve never done any of those latter things at all!

Yet, authenticity not only requires us to be honest with ourselves, it also tends to eventually require of us to do something far more difficult than be honest.  There can come a day when it requires us to accept ourselves as we are, without condemnation or praise. For any kind of judgement, in the end, distorts what we see.  Ultimately, the surest knowledge of ourselves comes from seeing ourselves as dispassionately and non-judgmentally as we might look at the tree in our neighbor’s yard, with the eyes not of a moralist, but of a sage.  This, however, is extraordinarily difficult.

The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence. ― Jiddu Krishnamurti

There are other obstacles to being true to oneself, but those seem to me the most mentionable.  (Consequently, I have mentioned them.  You can trust me to do things like that.)   I think becoming aware of the obstacles is a step towards surmounting them.

What is the self?

It is one thing to say, “Be true to yourself”, but what is the self that one should be true to?   “Who am I?”, is perhaps the second oldest question on earth, next only to, “Why the hell did we elect that guy?”

Perhaps the most popular Western notion of the self — the notion most of us in the West would subscribe to today were we asked about it — is that we have some essential core, some single, stable core self, that makes us, us, and that is more or less constant through-out our lives.  In some profound sense, we are born, live, and die the same person.  In Western philosophy, for instance, that notion dates at least all the way back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, roughly 2,400 years ago.  The Christian and Muslim concepts of the soul reflect it.  It is not, however, an ubiquitous notion.

In Japan, for instance, there are many people who believe the self is like an onion.  You can delve deeper and deeper into it, layer after layer, until you reach — not a core, for an onion has no proper core — but nothingness.  The peoples of at least several Native American nations were accustomed to change their names more or less periodically through-out their lives to reflect the changes they had undergone in themselves (as were some Japanese).  And not even every ancient Greek believed in a permanent core self.  As Heraclitus famously said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Near as I can see, Walt Whitman was getting at the truth when, in Song of Myself, he proclaimed, “Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes”.  And I think Anaïs Nin must have been seeing much the same thing as Whitman when she said, “I take pleasure in my transformations. I look quiet and consistent, but few know how many women there are in me.”

The self,  simply observed, and without analyzing it further than to observe it, seems to resemble nothing so much as a mess: Layer upon layer of often conflicting memories, sensations, impressions, ideas, desires, fears, emotions, sentiments, and behaviors unified only by a constant current of horniness running though-out all of it.

But a messy self fails to satisfy most of us, who seem to think of ourselves in the old way when it comes to being true to ourselves.  Ask a person who he or she is, authentically is, and they do not usually respond, “a contradictory, incoherent  multitude”, unless of course, they’re either drunk or are for the first time in their lives asking someone out on a date.

Is it possible to discern in all that mess a core or true self?

I think so.  What is necessary is to look for factors — such as behaviors, emotions, etc. — that can be considered “traits” in the sense of being sustained across situations and at least somewhat over time.

A good example of a trait might be a talent or aptitude for something, such as music, athletics, mathematics, and so forth.  Generally, talents seem to endure through-out life.  The skills built on them can fade with disuse, but the talent itself — the predisposition or aptitude for something — seems to last.

Another example might be how consciousness basically works.  Here, I do not mean one’s fleeting awarenesses, which come, shift, and go moment to moment, but rather the fundamental workings of consciousness.  For instance, consciousness quite often ranks things according to some measure of superiority or inferiority.  It can be barely noticeable that it does this, but it does it rather frequently.  On my way to the store today, a homeless man introduced himself to me with the words, “You look like Arlo Guthrie!”

The first thing my consciousness did was pat itself on the back for being compared to such a distinguished gentleman, but some part of it also noted that the homeless man didn’t mention an even more distinguished gentleman than Mr. Guthrie.  What?  I don’t rank a Brad Pitt?  There are fundamental, predictable ways in which consciousness works.  Just as I consider consciousness itself a trait of my core self, I also consider its basic workings traits of my core self.

A third example of our core traits might be any reasonably enduring desires and fears we have, such as a desire for fame, health, money, or to be favorably compared to Brad Pitt.  Such desires need not last a lifetime for us to consider them part of our true selves during at least some phase of our lives.  They are, however, more likely to change over time than, say, our talents.

To say that our core or true selves are comprised of traits is to imply that more fleeting or limited behaviors, emotions, sensations, ideas, etc. are not actually our core or true selves.  That only seems to make sense to me.  We all have moments, days, and even longer periods when we are “not ourselves”, meaning we are feeling, thinking, or acting in ways that are uncharacteristic of us.  That are not traits of us.

What does it mean to be true to ourselves?

Do exactly what you would do if you felt most secure. — Meister Eckhart

When I recall the appearance of various people in my life,  I seem to remember some for their smiles, some for their laughter, others for their bodies, still others for the voices, and so on.   But Paul Mundschenk I remember for his shrug.

It was a shrug that I once described as “hinting of nature’s perfect indifference, but without any coldness”, and I still think that’s a pretty good description of it.  As I recall, Mundschenk, who was a professor of Comparative Religious Studies, was especially apt to shrug when anyone said something to him about himself.  “Thank you, Dr. Mundschenk, that was very kind of you!”  Shrug.  His words would say, “You’re welcome”, but his shrug would say, “I’m more or less indifferent to myself”.

Most of us, when we’re in our teens, can detect a fake from across a room.  We might not know how we ourselves can be authentic (largely, I think, because we don’t yet know ourselves well enough) but we can sure tell when someone is faking it.   As teens, we tend to have little sympathy for fakes.  Especially adult fakes.

We still think that, the older you get, the truer to yourself you are able to become, as if being true to yourself were as easy as growing into new privileges, such as staying up late, or getting to borrow Dad’s car.  It hasn’t occurred to us yet that most adults are under tremendous, sustained pressure to be false to themselves.  Nor has it usually occurred to us that we will soon enough feel those pressures too.

If that’s the case, then I think there might be a sense in which Paul Mundschenk never grew up.  That is, he just gave you the impression of a man who has never accepted the common wisdom that he must put on a front to get on in the world. He had an air of innocence about him, as if it had somehow simply escaped his notice that he ought to conform to the expectations of others, and that any of us who refuses to do so is asking for all sorts of trouble.

Now, to be as precise as a dentist when untangling the inexplicably tangled braces of a couple of kids the morning after prom night, Mundschenk did not seem a defiant man.  He was anything but confrontational.  Anything but contrary.

There are people who are naturally contrary, or naturally defiant, and they are often mistaken for being authentic, even exceptionally authentic.  But their “authenticity” is more of a reaction to others, an opposition to them.  True authenticity comes not in reaction to others, but comes from oneself, and comes irregardless of others.

Rather than being some sort of defiance, Mundschenk’s notably open and honest individualism seemed deeply rooted in a remarkable indifference to putting on any masks or airs.  He simply couldn’t be bothered to conform, if that wasn’t what he already wanted to do.

What then, was at the heart of Mundschenk’s authenticity?  For our purposes here, we may define being true to oneself,  or authenticity, as “the unobstructed operation of one’s true- or core-self in one’s daily enterprise”.

The definition is not my own, but comes from the work of Micheal Kernis and Brian Goldman, two of the most notable pioneers in the psychology of authenticity.    Kernis and Goldman believe that authenticity is comprised of four components:

  1. Awareness: Accurate and comprehensive self-knowledge along with a willingness to learn more.
  2. Unbiased processing:  Objectively evaluating any self-relevant information, be the source internal or external.
  3. Behavior: Acting on the basis of one’s internal values, needs, and preferences, and not as a consequence of any external goals.
  4. Relational Orientation: Revealing one’s true self in close relationships.

There can be no such thing as a step-by-step guide to how to become more authentic.  The process is too variable, too much dependent on the individual involved. Yet, I believe Kernis’ and Goldman’s “four components” offer a generalized point of departure for us.

First, authenticity is virtually impossible without we know ourselves. Unless we have accurate, up to date knowledge of who we are, very little else can be accomplished.

That’s not to say we will ever completely know ourselves.  I don’t think that’s even possible. But we can we can usually get a fair understanding of ourselves, an understanding sufficient to guide us in being true to ourselves.  A key thing is to keep it up to date, stay open to changing our self-image as we ourselves change.

Some people prefer to introspect in order to discover themselves, but I have found introspection to be unreliable.  For every genuine fact about myself that I’ve discovered through introspection, I’ve discovered a dozen things that merely had the misleading appearance of fact.  Better than introspection for me has been to as dispassionately as possible watch how my consciousness responds in relationship to the things in my environment, very much including the people.

If that is difficult for you to do, it can be made easier by keeping a daily journal for a month or so in which you write down your thoughts, feelings, and behavior towards the things in your environment whenever you have an opportunity to do so.  Be as comprehensive and as honest as you can be.  Then review the journal each evening.  You will soon enough see patterns emerge, insights you’ve never had before, and your understanding of yourself will most likely be multiplied (unless your attention is divided.  Division, as everyone knows, is the opposite of multiplication).

Second, as much as decency and your circumstances will permit, act according to your own needs, wants, desires, preferences, and values. Avoid, if possible, acting according to the expectations, preferences, etc of others. Again, this can require a great deal of self-knowledge to accomplish.

Last, if you do not already have friends with whom you can be yourself, find and cultivate such friendships.  This is more important than it might sound at first.  For one thing, it can be difficult getting to know yourself if you do not have in your life anyone you can be open and revealing with.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I discuss some aspects of this matter more fully here.

If you are unfortunate enough to be in a “close” relationship with someone who you do not feel comfortable being yourself with, seriously consider distancing yourself, or even ending the relationship.  Do not be afraid of being lonely for awhile.  In my experience, there is no greater loneliness than that felt when in a relationship with someone who fundamentally rejects you.  You are most likely already feeling as lonely as you’ll ever feel being by yourself.

Self-knowledge, self-directed behavior, and appropriate relationships are all key to being true to ourselves.

  The Limits of Being True to Yourself and the Nature of Abuse

The ideal adult human in my view is an authentic, functional individual who is socially and environmentally responsible.  Social and environmental responsibility potentially place restraints or limits on his or her authenticity.  I see those limits as necessary, even though they might amount to alienations of oneself.  Otherwise, a serial killer, say, might justify their crimes as “being true to themselves”.  But I have  written more about that here.

Also in my alarming opinion, the very heart and core nature of all manner of abuse — physical abuse, mental abuse, verbal abuse, even sexual abuse — is to unnecessarily alienate us, or tend to unnecessarily alienate us, from our true selves.  I haven’t written much on that elsewhere, so I can’t link you to anything.  At least not yet.  You are so lucky!

Fancy Summary

Authenticity or being true to oneself is not for the faint hearted. It can be a taxing and difficult road to travel requiring sacrifices, the least of which might be estrangement from folks who disapprove of you, the real you.  However, I have found that such things are far easier to take and cope with when you are being true to yourself than when you are being false and they reject you anyway.

That seems to me to tie into something else I’ve noticed:  When we do our best — which varies from time to time — we regret failures so much less than when we fail while “slacking off”.  This seems true to me not only in accomplishing tasks, but in such things as far afield as romantic love.  And I suspect something of the same principle is at work with authenticity.  When we are being authentic, we are inevitably doing our best.

In this single blog post I have tried to offer up my ideas about the reasons why we try to be authentic, the major obstacles to our being authentic, the nature of our core self,  the meaning of authenticity, and a hint of the limits to being authentic.

Naturally, there is so much more to it — all of it — than can be covered in a mere blog post, even a long one.   Anyone interested in more of my own writings on the subject can find some of them linked to here.  I would suggest Danielle Goes to an Erotic Dance Club as a good place to start because it provides a relatively unique, out-of-the-box perspective on authenticity.

Thank you for reading!  Please feel warmly invited to comment on this post!  I would love to hear your own thoughts and feelings about authenticity!