Monday, November 12, 2012

Spirituality and Ego: Thoughts on Deepak Chopra

My wife Kathy and I recently saw “Decoding Deepak,” the new movie about Deepak Chopra, made by his son Gotham Chopra. It’s well known that most spiritual teachings tell us that we have to go beyond the personal ego. In the movie, Deepak denies that his many books and his constant appearances on TV have anything to do with his ego. Gotham responds with a disbelieving snort, but his father concedes nothing on the point. Deepak is evidently convinced that his life is in line with what he teaches in his books.

Kathy and I both have major doubts about Deepak’s supposed lack of ego-involvement. These doubts are encouraged by our experience with our own high-energy, charismatic fathers. Like Deepak though on a smaller scale, our fathers fascinated many of the people they knew and met. Both of our fathers also had major, but usually well-hidden insecurities, which they dealt with by developing the charismatic personalities that fascinated people. They had certainly not gotten beyond the ego.

If I myself were beyond ego, I doubt I would be a writer. I would feel no need to share my experiences with people I don’t know face-to-face. I would trust the divine in the world to bring illumination to everyone when it’s appropriate. 

I have no inside knowledge of Deepak Chopra’s life or his relationships. I have a lot of sympathy with the broad lines of his Vedanta-based teaching, and I’m happy that he has directed many readers to Buddhism, Vedanta, Sufi mysticism, and so forth. But because of my experience of other charismatic people and of myself, I’m deeply skeptical about his claims to have no ego investment in his activities. The ego can express itself in people’s lives in ways that they themselves have little or no awareness of.

Because of this tricky nature of the ego, spiritual and psychological teachings that don’t address the ego in some detail seem to be asking for trouble. I don’t think you can truly go “beyond” the ego without first having a healthy one, to go beyond. Judging from this movie and from some acquaintance with his books, I doubt that Deepak Chopra has shown us how to do this.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


"We can only know that we have left a mark while we are alive." The inevitable quote on this subject is Shelley's: 

On the pedestal, these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings!
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
the lone and level sands stretch far away. 

So much for physical "monuments." It seems to me that the only truly permanent monuments are spiritual. And they aren't monuments of the individual who put them up; rather, they're instances of something that that individual "channeled" effectively. Jesus channeled the importance of love. The Buddha channeled the importance of freedom-through-mindfulness. Their personal names may someday be forgotten, but what they identified with is permanent.

"But I want personal immortality!" Well, what is it that you care about most, in yourself? Your brown eyes? I doubt it. I suspect you care most about something like what Jesus or the Buddha cared about. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"Broken Open"

Around the internet, in academic and twelve-step meetings, and in churches, I've made an observation. The people who respond with sympathy to adumbrations of mysticism tend to be people who are or have been in love, or who have experienced some other major interruption of their normal lives—a health crisis, a bankruptcy—which (as we say) "broke them open." 

A skeptic might wonder whether people who are "broken open" have lost some of the reasoning powers that would otherwise make them suspicious of the apparently unreasonable claims that mysticism makes. (Namely, the claims that we are fundamentally one with each other, and one with God.) 

A mystic might suggest the opposite, that people who can't take mysticism seriously are prevented by their normal, healthy egos from seeing or feeling the "One-ness" that mystics talk about. Whereas experiences like falling in love, health crises, and bankruptcy break the normal ego down, and thus allow a person to perceive connections that the ego ordinarily obscures.

The other side of the coin of the healthy ego is shame. Like the healthy ego, shame too obscures the way we're one with each other and one with God. This is because shame, like the healthy ego, is self-centered. 

An ego is a valuable thing. It encourages us to resist being mistreated by others, to avoid mistreating ourselves, and so forth. Shame too is valuable, when it's for something that we should be ashamed of. 

But the ego and shame may at the same time obscure deeply important facts. When Dr. Eben Alexander writes that his discovery of cosmic love, during his coma, was "like being handed the rules to a game I'd been playing all my life without ever fully understanding it," those of us who've been "broken open" know what he's talking about.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Eben Alexander, MD, "Proof of Heaven" (Newsweek)

Is the universe defined by love? Do we have nothing to fear? 

Dr. Eben Alexander III, a neurosurgeon, has a book coming out entitled Proof of Heaven (Simon and Schuster, Oct. 23). It's excerpted in Newsweek. Dr. Alexander himself was in a deep coma for a week, and the experiences that he remembers having during his coma have changed his life. "Not only is the universe defined by unity," he says, "it is also—I now know—defined by love." What he learned was that “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever. You have nothing to fear.” And "there is nothing you can do wrong.”

It's unfortunate, though probably inevitable, that the book has been packaged as a "proof of heaven" and of "the afterlife"—that is, of a different place from the one that we normally inhabit. In the excerpt, Dr. Alexander in fact describes what he experienced not as "heaven" but as "the universe." "The universe as I experienced it in my coma is ... the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways." 

Conventional believers may be surprised to be told that the universe itself is "heaven." But this will be no surprise to mystics. Or to readers of Plato, Plotinus, and G.W.F. Hegel—the "philosophical mystics." 

Materialists will dismiss Dr. Alexander's story as a delusion, an exceptionally powerful product of the imagination. Sam Harris explains in a blog post that CAT scans don't in fact register all cortical function. Harris also points out that there are lots of parallels between Dr Alexander's experience and those reported by users of DMT. 

Scoffers can also make fun of the details of Dr. Alexander's story. Do you really mean to tell me that heaven or the universe is occupied by pink clouds and gorgeous butterflies?

In my opinion, the important question, regardless of what Dr. Alexander's experience was "produced by" and regardless of its wonderful poetic details, is this: Is it essentially true? Is the universe defined by love? Do we have nothing to fear? 

I have given reasons in my post, "What Is Philosophical Mysticism?" for thinking that the ultimate reality, which we can experience at any time, is, as Dr. Alexander says of the universe, defined by love. And I've given reasons in my post, "Philosophy Versus Science," for thinking that materialism can't be the last word on what's real. Dr. Alexander may not find many of his neurosurgeon colleagues embracing his interpretation of what he experienced. But an illustrious tradition in philosophy, as well as in literature (Henry Vaughan, Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman) and in religion, supports the central message that he has derived from his experience. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

"Fear of the Feminine"

Does the ongoing “war” against birth control, abortion, and equal pay for women simply reflect men’s reluctance to share with women the social and political power that they’ve monopolized in most of the world for several thousand years? Or is it also due to men’s fear of learning something about themselves, which might undermine their hard-won sense of who and what they are?
Erich Neumann, a student of C.G. Jung, took the latter view. He wrote in 1959 of “the crisis of fear in which the patriarchal world now finds itself” (The Fear of the Feminine [1994], p. 265).

Fear of the Feminine? 

What did men have to fear from women in 1959? To all appearances, very little. But Neumann suggested that men had always had reason to “fear the feminine.” To create a sense of himself as an independent agent, the male had to overcome the power in his mind of the woman who gave birth to him and on whom he was totally dependent in his earliest years. Female goddesses like the Gorgons turned men to stone. The female Furies threatened to pursue to his death anyone who honored his father as much as his mother (Aeschylus, Oresteia). The “Great Mother” could be just as much a terrifying monster as a source of nourishment and safety.
The patriarchal cultures that men created in the Mediterranean and elsewhere tried to replace these all-encompassing Mothers with male sky-gods who would represent and support the males’ efforts to stand on their own feet. But this was much less easy than it may look in retrospect. The Hebrews frequently threatened to backslide into the worship of female “idols.” The Greek patriarchy had to deal with raving maenads who tore men limb from limb (Euripides, Bacchae). European communities felt so threatened by women that they carried out a war against (mostly female) “witches,” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Patriarchy Fears Equality because it Fears Self-Knowledge

What does this have to do with us, today? Neumann writes that in patriarchal cultures, "the man wants to remain exclusively masculine and out of fear rejects ... transformative contact with a woman of equal status." Men avoid contact with a woman of equal status by picturing “woman and the feminine ... either as a negative, downward-pulling force, as swamp woman or water sprite [or maenad, witch, or "slut"—RW], or as a positive, uplifting force, as angel or goddess. … ” (264). Whether she's lower than men or higher than them, woman doesn't have equal status, and men don't have to face the question of what they might have in common with women. 
Neumann follows Jung in maintaining that men who do experience transformative contact with a woman of equal status discover and find value in a feminine element within themselves (the “anima”). This puts them in a complex relationship to femininity, valuing and incorporating it as well as being different from it. As Hegel would say, Jung’s and Neumann’s not-exclusively-masculine man is “with himself in the other,” rather than merely contrasting himself with the other. He experiences a "coincidence of opposites," or what Jung calls a "sacred marriage," within himself. 
We might reasonably wonder how many of the men who currently defend “traditional marriage” and campaign against birth control and abortion have marriages with women whose accomplishments and independence are comparable to their own. And how many are in touch with a feminine element within themselves, which they value. Such questions apply as much to US preachers and politicians as to male authorities in Saudi Arabia. It seems likely that the answers to these questions would support Neumann’s description of the “exclusively masculine” man as taking pains to avoid experiences like these. 
And Neumann’s suggestion seems plausible, that the exclusively masculine man avoids these experiences because he fears, simplistically but understandably, that they would undermine his hard-won masculine “independence” from his mother. For he takes it that this independence requires him to exclude feminine qualities from the realm of what he himself could have, by characterizing them as either crazy/sluttish (beneath him) or angelic (above him).

Patriarchy Is not Primarily Due to Desire for Power

            The striking thing about Neumann’s account of gender relationships is that he does not describe patriarchy as resulting from a natural desire for power, which leads the sex that generally has greater physical strength to impose its will on the other sex. Neumann suggests that most men act "power-hungry" not because we want power for its own sake but because we fear what we might learn about ourselves if we dealt with women as our equals. We fear that we would discover feminine qualities in ourselves, and that this would undermine our sense of ourselves as independent and self-sufficient. 
Many observers have noted how anxious we males often are to make it clear that we aren't homosexual, where homosexuality is depicted as "sissy" and "woman-like." What Neumann and Jung are pointing out is that even if there were no such thing as homosexual inclinations or behavior, men would still face the issue of how to deal with the "feminine" qualities that every man has within him. And that the initial tendency to deny such qualities absolutely is a very natural and understandable one, as a way of carrying out the difficult task, with which every boy is faced, of achieving an identity that distinguishes him from his mother and from the world of women in general. 
If patriarchal attitudes reflect, in large part, this difficult task of defining a "male" identity, then they aren't simply the natural result of combining a natural desire for power with greater physical strength. That is, patriarchal attitudes are much less "natural" than they appear at first glance. 
If Jung and Neumann are right, the only “natural” thing about patriarchy is that men did need to learn to stand on their own feet, over against their mothers. This was necessary, but that doesn’t mean that the simplistic way in which men have done this—by making women subordinate in society—is necessary or natural. It may be a necessary and natural phase, but it’s neither a necessary nor a natural final result.

But Going Beyond Patriarchy s Naturally Difficult

But if Neumann’s account of the male achievement of independence from the mother is correct, we have to acknowledge that accepting the feminine as equal and as part of oneself is bound, initially, to seem extremely dangerous. For from the point of view of the newly-“independent” male, this acceptance will seem to threaten precisely what he has barely and with great effort achieved. It will imply that the male is not, in fact, fully independent.
Is this why we hear such a compulsive repetition, these days, of the idea that a “man” must either be “self-made” or be a mere parasite (where the latter is beneath contempt)? It’s the mantra of male liberation from the mother.

So We Must Have More Intelligent Sympathy for those who Face this Difficulty

So if Neumann’s analysis is correct, we need to have compassion for the “strong, authoritative” men who “dare to discipline,” to “defend the traditional family,” and so forth. For they are in a very difficult position, challenged by their wives and daughters and their own feelings to explore a territory that must cause them great fear. Their “strength” is—and they must know this on some level—a fragile and inherently temporary construct, threatened by nature as well as by true, inter-dependent freedom. 
So rather than merely raging against the patriarch’s rigidity and his apparently terminal self-centeredness (as many of us male and female feminists do, much of the time), we must have more intelligent sympathy for his plight, and thereby give him some real help in finding the courage to go beyond it.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Birth in Beauty

Wednesday night I participated in a session of deep spiritual sharing. I came home and naturally tuned in to comments on the Presidential debate, which had just taken place. A person needs to keep abreast of events, right? Well, in one way, yes; in another way, no! What we need to keep abreast of, is our deepest self. Before tuning in to anything else, let's make sure we're in tune with that. 

This is the paradoxical Sufi advice that we should "die before we die." That is, we should see the world and our life from a perspective that fully understands how short, how evanescent is the life that we're living. We have X minutes or hours remaining to us. How can we best employ those minutes or hours? When I think about my situation in that way—when I "meditate on my bones," as Buddhists recommend—my feeling about my life changes dramatically. I care less about "current events," and much more about sharing what I think is deepest and potentially most valuable, within me. About "giving birth," as Plato puts it in the Symposium, to whatever is truly beautiful. Nothing else is even remotely as important as this. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Suzanne Lilar: Love in Western Society

Has anybody heard of Suzanne Lilar? I discovered her recently. Her Aspects of Love in Western Society (1962) (in French: Le Couple), is the best single broad treatment of the topic that I've found. Better than Denis de Rougement's well-known Love in the Western World, because Lilar knew Greek philosophy, and Plato in particular, much better then de Rougement did. She was a passionate feminist, but with a classical education—in Christian as well as Greek literature—that few writers on general topics have any more. Very interested in Jung, but free of psychological jargon. Probably only in France (actually she was Belgian, writing in French) has there been a deep enough tradition of writing about love and Neoplatonism that these could be combined with a very lively sense of mid-twentieth-century social and political realities. She was a lawyer and a successful playwright, produced in Paris. Wikipedia has a good article on her. I'm thrilled to have found her.