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.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What Is Philosophical Mysticism?

In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in
            the glass. …
Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death…. It is form and union and plan….it
            is eternal life…. it is happiness. 

(Walt Whitman)

For me, mysticism is the doctrine that God and I, and you and I, are all, in an important way, One. And that consequently, you and I can be and are immediately conscious of God. Philosophical mysticism is the kind of mysticism that emphasizes the role of thinking, in this Oneness. We’re One, and we're conscious of God, through our deepest and most serious kind of thinking, which is indistinguishable from love. So in response to the common assumption that “mysticism” is vague and irrational, philosophical mysticism aims to show how, if we take seriously the thinking and loving that we do every day, this thinking and loving point beyond the usual assumption that God and I, and you and I, are ultimately separate and distinct. 

Involving thought and love in this way, my mysticism is obviously a matter not just of “theory” but of experience. It’s an endlessly fulfilling experience which I had barely dreamt of, before it came to me. For my first four or five decades, I inhabited what looks, in retrospect, like a spiritual waste land. In The God Within Us (an unpublished book) I’ve described some of the experience—of pain, despair, love, and thought—that brought me from that waste land to my current more or less ongoing ecstasy. 

My mysticism also reflects my study of philosophers including Plato, Immanuel Kant, and G.W.F. Hegel, and my reading of poets including Jelaluddin Rumi, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Mary Oliver. These writers all reflect in various ways the sort of thinking and experience that I call "philosophical mysticism." My academic book, Hegel's Philosophy of Reality, Freedom, and God (Cambridge University Press, 2005) shows in some detail how Hegel's philosophical mysticism works. 

How can God and I be One? We can be One if my effort to be myself, is God. Such a God isn’t identical with my physical body or my habitual fears, desires and ideas. God may involve that body and those fears and so forth, but God is called “God” because he/she/it goes beyond (“transcends”) them. So when I say that this God is in me, I’m not saying that God is physically present in me or that God has the failings that I have. God goes beyond all of that. But a God who transcends those parts of me can nevertheless be present in me as my capacity for inner freedom, or self-determination: for being, or trying to be, something that goes beyond my physical and habitual aspects. In this way there can be, as the Quakers say, “that of God in everyone,” without this God’s being identical to anything merely physical or externally determined.

How can a person experience this presence of God within her? By observing her desires and thoughts, thus creating a space in which they can be reformulated so that they're more fully her own. This observing, and the resulting space, reformulation, “her-own-ness,” and opening up to the world, are God’s presence. For decades I was driven by fears and resentments that I couldn’t name, and that I consequently couldn’t observe, couldn’t get any distance from, and couldn’t reformulate. When I finally found some of this distance, with the help of twelve-step groups, of therapists, and ultimately of my wonderful wife, Kathy, my “self” finally began to assert itself, naming my fears and resentments and thus creating increments of distance, space, and reformulation. In this way, I discovered my capacity for freedom. 

Because it took so long coming, I don’t take my freedom at all for granted. Rather, I feel it as a gift—even while it’s effectively identical with (the real) me, which is finally emerging. I’m aware of the great disparity between what I was "by nature”—namely, fearful, resentful, self-protective—and what I can be by freedom; and thus I’m aware of how I “transcend” what I am "by nature." Consequently, I find it reasonable to think of this entire development as (in a significant sense) "super-natural,” going beyond nature, and thus as revealing the presence of something that we can very well call “divine,” in the world.

This observing, getting distance from, and thus (eventually) reformulating my desires, thoughts, and feelings, to make them more reflective of me, is what I referred to in my first paragraph as “the deepest and most serious kind of thinking.” Under the rubrics of the “soul,” the “self,” “freedom,” “autonomy,” and “authenticity,” this kind of thinking is what a great part of “philosophy” has been about, from Plato down to the present. Plato analyzes it especially in his account of the soul, and of the exit from the “cave,” in his Republic.

While this kind of thinking makes my life more reflective of (the real) me, it also integrates my life with every life, with the universe at large. This is where deep thinking becomes love, because if my thinking focused on myself as separate, it would focus on what separates me from others, rather than focusing on me. Deep thinking expresses the "I that is we," rather than the "I that isn't you, or you, or you...." The true self unites, rather than dividing. Plato explains this thinking/love in his Symposium, which is the foundation text of western mysticism, Greek, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Romantic (Wordsworth, Hegel, Whitman, et al.). 

To this broadly Platonic mysticism, traditional religious believers (on the one hand) and atheists (on the other hand) often object that a “God” who is “in us,” isn’t the God that they believe in or the God that they reject. It’s not “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” as Blaise Pascal put it. I agree that this God looks different. But I think this God in fact captures what people really care about, in “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” First, this God transcends nature, in the way that I’ve described. Second, this God gives freedom and love, and thus “saves” or “enlightens” us. I certainly feel saved and enlightened by my new life. And third, this God gives me, and thus the world of which I’m part, a fuller kind of reality, by making us real as ourselves, rather than merely as products of our fortunate or unfortunate circumstances. This giving of (full) reality is analogous to the traditional role of the “Creator.” In all of these ways, this phenomenon seems to qualify as, in an important way, “divine.” 

If someone wants to call me a “heretic,” I have no problem with that. I don’t feel a need to be an “orthodox” anything. Though I wonder whether the stress that people put on “orthodoxy” doesn’t reflect their fear that without it, they’ll lose the God that they really care about; and I don't think that has to be true. 

I do want to insist that my experience is authentically religious. I don’t see how that could reasonably be denied. I also want to suggest that what I’ve found seems to represent an important middle ground between scientific thinking and traditional religious ways of thinking. My experience contains something that “transcends,” “saves,” and “creates,” and thus clearly deserves to be called “God”—but which doesn’t involve (“anthropomorphically”) projecting human characteristics onto a separate, divine “being,” and doesn’t conflict with modern (Darwinian) biology, and doesn’t depend on any kind of blind “faith.” The existence of this middle ground undermines the assumption, which is so widely made on both sides, of an inevitable conflict between science and religion.

Philosophy versus Science

Julian Baggini interviewed physicist Lawrence Krauss in the Guardian on “Philosophy v. Science: Which Can Answer the Big Questions of Life”.

Baggini suggested that "We have no reason to think that one day science will make it unnecessary for us to ask 'why' questions about human action to which things such as love will be the answer." He asked Krauss: "Or is that romantic tosh? Is there no reason why you're bothering to have this conversation, ... you are doing it simply because your brain works the way it does?" Krauss's answer to Baggini’s question was that his brain is built to enjoy this sort of activity. Krauss went on to say that "Ultimately, I think our understanding of neurobiology and evolutionary biology and psychology will reduce our understanding of morality to some well-defined biological constructs."

Two household-name scientists these days who make remarks similar to Krauss's are Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking. It's a familiar line. Baggini's discussion with Krauss ends in a genial agreement-to-disagree. I think Baggini could have pursued the central issue more effectively than he did. 

When Krauss said that his brain is built to enjoy the kind of discussion they’re engaged in, I think Baggini should have asked whether Krauss only cares about "enjoyment," or does he also care about finding the truth about the issues they're discussing? If Krauss cares about finding the truth, is this merely because his brain happens to be built that way? Or does he think there's something inherently valuable in knowing the truth? If he thinks there's something inherently valuable in knowing the truth, does he think this merely because he was programmed to think it? Or does he think there are good reasons to think it? Krauss is a scientist. I doubt that he'll want to say that science is significant only because certain apes have been programmed to feel that it's significant. To say that, is to say that science and the truth as such have no ultimate significance. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein would have been horrified by such a statement. 

But if Krauss agrees with Newton and Einstein that science and the truth as such are worth pursuing for their own sake, regardless of how we may have been programmed—so that someone who didn’t happen to enjoy seeking the truth, would be objectively unfortunate—then Krauss must acknowledge that "empirical" information about how we happen to have been programmed can't settle all the important questions about how we should live. Contrary to what he said, ethics and value in general are not just a branch of biology, even for Krauss. 

I think this is in practice the case for all of these people. No one really wants to turn over the decisions about how to live his own life, including what to believe, to his biological programming. We want to make these decisions ourselves! But theories blind us to these simple facts about ourselves. 

You might wonder whether neuroscience won’t show, or hasn’t already shown, that we can’t make these decisions ourselves. But it’s interesting that no scientist ever says that we can’t really decide for ourselves what to think about scientific questions; we just have to accept whatever we’ve been programmed to think. On the contrary, they all claim to be thinking hard and evaluating the reasons for and against. Just as we non-scientists do when we try to decide what kind of life to live, etc. If scientists can make their decisions about scientific questions rationally (and not just in the way they’ve been programmed to make them), then I think I, too, can make my decisions rationally.