Deconstructing an Ugly Election
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
| John Keats, Ode On a Grecian Urn
Daphnis and Chloe by Pierre Auguste Cot
Regardless of our political, educational, economic, or philosophical differences, no doubt we can agree that there is such a thing as beauty, and that regardless of whether or not we agree that a particular thing is beautiful, there will be little disagreement about what we mean by the word. That is, we likely can agree that beauty is that quality that uplifts and stirs the soul, that it is pleasing to the senses, that it inspires, embodies balance and proportion, and so on. As an example, John Keats’s famous poem, quoted above, directs our attention to an ancient Grecian urn, whose voluptuous symmetry has withstood the punishment of centuries. Its static beauty calls us into a state of wonder about the images painted on the urn’s stony surface—a group of men pursuing a group of women, two lovers lying in a glade, some villagers on their way to an anonymous destination, leaving us with questions of whence and whither and wherefore the answers to which we can never know because the urn, both timeless and frozen in time, is mute. Yet, its beauty lays a claim on us and by doing so, offers us a profound insight into human nature possessed by the Greeks—that the only enduring truth we can know is the truth of beauty, such that in the end, what is not beautiful cannot rightly be said to be true, and to this equation the Greeks added a third quality—goodness (arete), which encompasses both excellence and virtue.
If, like the Greeks, we regard this equation today as describing three facets of one sublime reality, it doesn’t take much to do the philosophical math. What isn’t beautiful is false. What isn’t true isn’t good. Any ugly act, because it is necessarily both false and bad, will lead to bad outcomes. Beauty, in this most practical sense, isn’t limited to aesthetic evaluation. Rather, it is a light we can shine on any act, choice, or direction to illuminate it and discern its nature, a sanctuary that falsehood and disinformation cannot enter, and a compass heading for making wise decisions. Whatever honors truth, beauty, and goodness expresses the divine and invites the favor of the gods, while falsity, ugliness, and evil, as acts of hubris that defy the divine, unwittingly sow the seeds of their own destruction.
This ancient wisdom seems particularly timely here in the United Sates in the wake of a national election that it is safe to say most voters would agree was ugly, a brawl devoid of beauty in any form—generosity of spirit, civility, kindness, candor, self-possession and tasteful restraint, discourse unsullied by self-interest, respect for others, or even the most inarguable and basic standards of decency. While we have had elections before that called voters to choose the lesser of two evils, this time was different, because for both leading candidates, fundamental character was so much in doubt that nearly half the electorate stayed home on voting day, in many cases because they were unable to reconcile either choice with the dictates of conscience. Now that the debacle is over, we must wonder what the results say about the state of the soul of the nation, and many rightly fear what will follow from a contest in which beauty in both character and conduct was thrown to the dogs. What we have grounds to expect is not encouraging, for when beauty is forsaken, what is true and good has nowhere to stand.
The ancient Greeks extolled the virtue of qualities that were for many, shockingly absent during the primaries and the debates leading up to the election: prudence, temperance, and self-control (sophrosyne), lights of the “well-ordered soul” that shine in stark contrast to the dark impulsiveness of hubris, which, in willfully flouting the standards of beauty, truth, and goodness, sooner or later lead to tragic consequences under the watchful eye of the gods. There is no time off from these standards, and no exemption from their authority in human affairs. Kings and presidents and dictators are bound by them as surely as are commoners, and no victory that does not bow to them will be sustainable for long. It is a supreme tragedy that, for all the suffering that human hubris has inflicted throughout history, we insist on discounting what the Greeks knew two millennia ago. The rhetoric of hate, at the end of even the longest day, is the rhetoric of fools, and no seemingly convenient lie, no cover-up, no amount of “spin” changes the truth one whit. In the Gorgias, Socrates reminds us that the truth cannot be refuted. It is exactly for this reason that those of us committed to living life beautifully must be vigilant in our responses to the grotesque remarks shamelessly made by the candidates as though they were the most normal thing in the world, so that we are not drawn into ugliness ourselves. Rather, we must deepen our resolve to live a personal ideology that is predicated on beauty, and so, intrinsically, on what is true and good.
Voltaire writes, “It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.” The current political reality in the U.S. has yet to unfold, but already we are seeing at the highest levels of government the same rancor, divisiveness, wanton self-interest, and abdication of high thinking that debased the campaigns. It is a sober reminder for thoughtful people everywhere, for those committed to self-examination and the improvement of their character, who know that there is no greater truth than kindness and compassion for others, and who eschew belligerence and scapegoating in the awareness that ultimately, on this rare and beautiful planet we inhabit, we either all win or we all lose. For now, we may take comfort in the confidence that the pendulum of history swings only so far before it returns, and that what follows next is in the good hands of the gods, whose ways are subject to the will of no man.
This post brings us to the end of another blogging year, as we “go dark” in December to enjoy some needed downtime, celebrate the season with family and friends, and plan projects for the coming year. We hope you’ve been enriched by the journeys we’ve shared here, and that we’ll “see you” in January. Meanwhile, we thank you for your interest in our work and wish you and yours an abundance of beauty, truth, and goodness in the new year and always.
25 November, 2016
We who live here in Florida recently dodged a bullet fired at us by Mother Nature. Matthew, a cat-5 hurricane that decimated poor Haiti, leaving a thousand dead, came roaring toward the Florida coast promising to unleash a cataclysm of weather after which there almost certainly would be deaths, injury, massive property damage, and widespread power outages. The governor of the state even declared, as Matthew approached, that the storm was a killer in the hope of persuading die-hards living near the ocean to evacuate. The Caribbean leading into the Atlantic and along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. is a predictable corridor for these devastating systems, so Floridians certainly are no strangers to the phenomenon, nor are we unique in this respect. Other parts of the country and the world have their own forms of exposure to the worst of the elements—earthquakes, flooding, drought, tornadoes, tsunamis, all of which demonstrate that we live at the mercy of forces far greater than we can control or even anticipate. When one of these natural disasters hits, all we can do is run for cover, hole up, wait it out, and hope for the best.
Well, that’s all we can do sanely. There is an insane alternative. We could stand outside in the murderous winds and curse Nature. We could raise our fists in protest, rail against the demons of earth and sky, even spit at them to express our frustration, helplessness, and sense of injustice in the face of such arbitrary and destructive power. Of course, spitting at a hurricane falls somewhat short of a good idea, because it amounts to spitting in one’s own face. Here, we have a metaphor that has far-reaching application in all areas of life where we find ourselves facing conditions that affect us, perhaps greatly, but about which we can do little or nothing.
The Greeks called such conditions “fate.” Nietzsche, who was well versed in the Greeks, went as far as to declare, “Amor fati”—love your fate! No mean task when you’re in your house surrounded by gale force winds, hoping some live oak won’t make an entrance through the roof. Maybe on a good day, we can accept our fate, work with it, tolerate it, meet it without resistance, which the Greeks regarded as a mark of good character. One of them, Heraclitus, states, “A man’s character is his fate,” suggesting that how we meet conditions that erupt into our lives without our permission and beyond our control actually determines what those conditions become for us. Our leverage then, lies not in the hands of fate, but in our hands. Fate may dictate what happens to us, but we get the last word. This is so important for living what the Greeks called “the good life,” that they viewed the refusal to accept one’s fate as an act of hubris before the gods, a failing of character that led ineluctably to suffering and tragedy.
Oedipus Rex, the protagonist in the play by Sophocles, is the classical embodiment of this hubris. Not knowing when to quit, he stirs up hurricanes and refuses to stop spitting at them, even when he is warned by the prophet Tiresias. As a result, the ending of the story of Oedipus is anything but a happy one. Having turned a blind eye to the prophet and the gods, unwittingly having fulfilled a fate too horrible to behold, he blinds himself physically. In this story, Sophocles is offering posterity a bit of wisdom that shows how deeply the Greeks saw into the heart of what it means to be human, to live well or badly, and the inescapable interplay of free will and fate—a timeless truth in that it is as relevant today as it was when Socrates was kicking up dust within the city wall of Athens.
Hubris is a sickness of the soul, one that shows up in the insane attempt to control what lies beyond our control, to manage what no one can manage, to dictate outcomes that are not in our hands, to go riding with saber raised into battles we cannot win. This insanity, as obvious to anyone not immersed in the Sturm und Drang of an overreaching will as would be the insanity of spitting at a hurricane, may be all but invisible to the psyche blinded by hubris.
In applying what the Greeks knew, we may benefit greatly in any situation in which we find ourselves struggling or stressed, by reminding ourselves to acknowledge what we can influence and what we can’t, what lies in our hands and what does not, what diligence requires of us and what must be left to larger forces and timings to be worked out. Accepting what we can’t change is basic sanity, something that seems to be in short supply these days. Yet the choice for sanity is there. When the winds of circumstance are blowing, shaking the rafters and threatening to tear down the house, we may find a refuge at the center of our character in relinquishing all efforts of the will and accepting things as they are for the time being. That sanity is available to us regardless of conditions, even as an eye of calm exists at the center of every hurricane, unaffected by the fury surrounding it. Adverse forces don’t last forever. When we’re already being blasted by torrential rains, spitting into the wind only makes a bad situation worse. This bit of wisdom is not limited to the weather. Sometimes the secret to getting through a tough time lies in knowing what not to do.
12 October, 2016
On the Limits of the Will and Philosophies of Grandiosity | Part II
In last month’s post we looked at the limits of the will and a few philosophies of grandiosity that deny those limits in the claim that the world, including other people, are constructs of one’s personal consciousness, and that therefore, one can manipulate the world, including other people, by manipulating his or her consciousness concerning them. The examples given were the so-called law of attraction, New Thought “treatment,” and Huna’s ho’oponopono. Fundamentally solipsistic, these popular philosophies discount limits of the will essential to healthy engagement with reality. The argument that I presented disputing such philosophies dealt with psychological implications, viz., that having a well-defined and undistorted sense of our will and its limits is a prerequisite of psychological health. In this post, the second in the series, I want to examine another, relatively new form of grandiose philosophy known as “quantum jumping” or “reality shifting,” which while ingeniously sidestepping solipsism, nevertheless fails to acquit itself of the charge of grandiosity, and so, like the others, is highly misleading and potentially injurious to the psyche and dangerous to others, and therefore, to be scrupulously avoided.
The first section of this article offers a summary of quantum jumping along with some of its main assumptions adapted from the new physics. The three that follow present arguments that expose fallacies in the logic of quantum jumping theory and the dangers of its practice based on scientific, epistemological, and existential grounds. Section five is a note on the Field Project Course, which while also drawing from the Many Worlds model, differs fundamentally from quantum jumping and steers clear of grandiosity. The last section shares some thoughts in conclusion.
What is Quantum Jumping?
Quantum jumping draws from several theoretically established principles in quantum mechanics describing the behavior of subatomic particles. These include superposition (existing in many places at the same time), quantum tunneling, and entanglement (Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance”). Most of these behaviors are accepted by today’s leading physicists as an accurate report of how quantum entities (particle/wave hybrids) behave. Quantum jumping also relies on the Many Worlds model, developed in 1957 by Hugh Everett, which states that with each act of observation, reality splits or “decoheres” into parallel universes, each containing a different outcome of the observed event. Prior to observation, all versions of the event are co-present in state of superposition (see “Schrödinger’s Cat”). At the moment of observation, the quantum decoherence occurs, we observe one version of the outcome, and the others go on their merry way into their respective reality frameworks, each with a new version of the observer, with no two parallel realities ever intersecting. Thus, according to the Many Worlds theory, whatever can happen, does happen—in some parallel reality. The totality of parallel realities make up what has been termed the “multiverse.” Now, according to proponents of quantum jumping, we can, through meditative and various other techniques, intentionally “jump” from one parallel reality to another, effectively relocating to the version of self inhabiting that reality. So, for example, if one is struggling with poverty in this reality framework, one need only enter a meditative state in which one is aware of oneself essentially as energy, turn one’s attention to a parallel universe in which one is enjoying wealth, and direct sufficient energy to this “intention,” whereupon, at some point, one will find oneself physically and more or less seamlessly “jumped” to the new reality.
The Scientific Argument
The quirky behavior of quanta described by quantum mechanics flouts the laws of classical physics—that is, the world of our everyday experience does not behave in the same, weird way that quanta do, and we should count ourselves lucky for it, since if it did, physical objects would appear and disappear, the same object would exist in many places simultaneously, objects would move through other objects, cause and effect would happen backwards, and we might run into a parallel version of ourselves at the market. In other words, the conditions necessary for a world of ordered experience would be swallowed up in a cloud of chaos. Fortunately for us, everyday life is far more stable and persistent, allowing for life as we know it. Whereas quantum objects (particles) have no precise position but exist in all probable positions simultaneously, worldly object do have a precise position. The same can be said of momentum.
There are other discrepancies. If the observing consciousness is rendering reality at the macro level as it does at the quantum level, why do physical objects persist in time and space? If objects behaved the way quanta do, every time we turned around, we’d find them in new positions or otherwise exhibiting momentary and changing properties. In other words, if observation renders objects (an idea Einstein ridiculed), then why is that when we stop observing an object and then turn around and observe it again, we observe the same object? If prior to observation, what becomes the object once it is observed existed in a superpositioned state that gets localized at the moment of observation, like the electrons it comprises, then why does it keep showing up in the same place and with the same properties with each new observation? How does locality arise from multilocality in the transition from the micro to the macro? To these question, quantum mechanics has no answer, yet they are raised by both the Copenhagen and Many Worlds interpretations. The incongruity between the quantum and classical realms has been a thorn in the side of physics the past near century. Because quanta appear to follow a different set of rules than objects in our world, the mathematics that govern the microscopic realm does not work at macroscopic levels. In fact, the attempt to bring these two mathematical models together set the direction for modern physics in the search for the “theory of everything.” In short the claim that the peculiar principles inferred by widely accepted interpretations of quantum mechanics based on the evidence (e.g., the double-slit experiment) operate at the classical level is empirically contraindicated and mathematically unfounded.
Furthermore, Many Worlds—which quantum jumping uses as the theoretical basis of its claims—states that, once the collapse of the wave into a specific version of particle reality is irreversible. Once the bell is rung, it cannot be “unrung.” The electron may exist in any position within the wave until the moment it is observed, but once it is observed, it is localized, and no act of will by the experimenter can send that particular electron back into a state of probability from which it may then be observed as a different version of itself.
Finally, quantum jumping distorts the quantum theory even further by suggesting that reality can be recast through an act of will, essentially reversing the collapse of the “reality wave”—yet this is prohibited by Many Worlds, which states that the various versions of reality or parallel universes are “orthogonal”—that is, they don’t intersect. Put simply, you can’t get to one from the other. Once observation assigns reality, the split off versions go their separate ways. Yet quantum jumping alleges that one can change realities the way one changes channels on a television set.
There is at present no bridge of theory or experiment that justifies the assumption that the physical world in which we move about is like the quantum world based on the prevailing interpretations of quantum mechanics. Thus and for example, if a particular wave set makes up what we call a “frog” at the classical level (we are allowing here, somewhat generously, that at the quantum level, all versions of the frog exist simultaneously) then according to Many Worlds, all versions of the frog exist simultaneously at the Newtonian level, albeit in different universes. Certainly what Many Worlds posits as true at the quantum level does not appear to be true at the Newtonian level. Furthermore, the two realms are separated by two, currently irreconcilable mathematics. Even if we allow that the frog is “made up” of superposed quanta and wave functions, this in itself does not imply that the larger system comprising these quanta and wave functions is itself superposed. The fallacy here is that of “composition.” What is true of the part is not necessarily true of the whole. Finally, if Many Worlds gives us an accurate description of the innermost workings of reality, then we cannot simply ignore one of its most important features, viz., that decoherence is not reversible. Once rendered, a particular version of reality becomes fixed. The claim that it could then be revised would be a mistaken one.
For these reasons, the inference that what holds at the quantum level holds at the Newtonian level hardly seems justified, or at least bears a burden of proof that cannot be satisfied by assumption alone.
The Epistemological Argument
There is a practical argument against quantum jumping as a philosophy and particularly as a practice. This argument follows from the limitations of our knowledge at any given time. We may desire this or that version of reality, but whether the sudden appearance of that reality would be good, whether it would turn out to be a blessing or a curse in our lives, what else about our lives and the lives of those we affect would change if the wish were granted—these things we don’t know and rarely pause to consider, either individually or as a species. Yet great harm can come from looking no further than the impulse to throw a switch. Assuming for a moment that quantum jumping were possible, there is no way to avoid the problem that a particular jump might have profoundly adverse unforeseen consequences. Scientists split the atom and unleashed a power so massively destructive, all life on the planet hangs in the balance of whether we will find a way to limit and control what we have unleashed. Other worrisome examples abound: the decimation of the earth’s rainforests, the systematic destruction of the ozone layer through unchecked greenhouse gas emissions and resulting global climate change, the widespread pollution of waterways and ecosystems, coal mining and fracking, environmental damage arising from the massive overproduction of plastic and the use of landfills, the problem of how to dispose of nuclear waste—all the result of heedless forays on a road to potentially disastrous consequences that no one anticipated. Once opened, Pandora’s box cannot be closed, and it does not seem anti-scientific to recognize that there are some “boxes” that we are wise not to open. This seems to be a point that quantum jumping proponents as a rule do not bother to consider. If it were possible to access quantum power for the purpose of shifting realities, who can say what that power might do once it’s “out” in the life of the practitioner? The failure to consider consequences, and to acknowledge with humility the all but total limitations of our knowledge before we start picking at the threads of forces we do not understand is hubristic, foolhardy, and dangerous. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should do it.
Furthermore, loudly dogmatic proponents may insist that their model captures the nature of physical reality, any explanation of reality may be telling us more about ourselves and how we measure and interpret the results of measurement than it does about what we’re measuring. A model is essentially a map, and therefore at best an approximation of the territory it represents. The argument that a model is proved by the fact that it “works,” e.g., allows for accurate predictions or lends itself to technological application, is specious. Many models work, even ones that disagree or derive from radically different views. Aristotelian logic works; so does Boolean logic. Euclidean geometry works; so does Riemannian. Newtonian assumptions work, as far as they go; so do those of quantum mechanics, though they don’t seem to play well together. Every model has its limitations, for it is based on axioms and assumptions that are themselves not demonstrable within the model and so are more like articles of faith than scientifically established and incorrigible principles. This is why the word “interpretation” is a good one; it implies an appropriate humility before even our most convincing explanations to date. Many proponents of one model or another seem to lack this humility. They take their conclusions as the final word, a hallmark of science at its worst, as the history of science has shown us again and again. David Deutsch, for example, a physicist at the University of Oxford, has been quoted as saying that calling Many Worlds an interpretation “is like talking about dinosaurs as an ‘interpretation’ of fossil records.” Yet paleontology has frequently had to revise its “interpretation” of dinosaurs based on the fossil record as new discoveries and findings came to light demanding a reassessment of what we thought we knew. None of this leads to skepticism. I am not proposing that we discard what we know on the basis of the inevitability that our knowledge is approximate, never absolute—only that we wear our conclusions lightly, remember that even the most ingenious model is necessarily interpretive—not the fact but a way of looking at the fact, and that even our best and most convincing models are fallible and subject to revision.
While the Copenhagen and Many Worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics are widely accepted, they are not the only ones consistent with the behavior of quanta described in the double-slit experiments. Pilot-wave mechanics, also known as De Broglie-Bohm or Bohmian mechanics, offers an alternative way of understanding this behavior that seems to be making a comeback. It eliminates the wave/particle duality paradox of the Copenhagen and Many Worlds interpretations, fits the experimental data of seemingly anomalous quantum behavior such as multilocality and tunneling without having to resort to classically paradoxical, probabilistic, or counterintuitive explanations, and does a much better job of conforming to Occam’s Razor.
The Existential Argument
At the foundation of the interest in quantum jumping is an existential immaturity primarily preoccupied with a magical way to “get things,” as are all philosophies of grandiosity. Quantum jumping manages to avoid solipsism in a clever way; as it posits an infinite number of parallel realities, the objectivity of the world is preserved to some extent. In other words, the otherness of others is not reduced to the shadow world of subjectivity, because all versions of the other objectively exist in some parallel framework. Rather than construing the world and others as constructs of personal consciousness, the practitioner is merely “tuning in” to a desired reality in which the other’s otherness conforms to the desired version. The result is that, while one has changed the world through changing one’s consciousness, the otherness of others is conserved. That said, there is still an underlying assumption that happiness, the good life, fulfillment, etc. consist in securing certain worldly conditions. This comes down to what I have come to think of as the “Amazon.com” view of the universe. If I visualize, if I repeat affirmations, if I pray, if I intend, if I quantum jump—then the universe will deliver the goods, perhaps even in two days if I apply myself and become a “prime member” of the community of quantum jumpers. The existential problem here is that there is more to happiness, the good life, and the fulfillment of human life than getting things. The ancient Greeks knew this, and nowhere is it presented more beautifully than in the life and teachings of Socrates. Happiness, Socrates tells us, is a well-ordered soul. What the world brings us—this is our fate, and we may have little to say about it. How we meet our fate, however—this is a matter of our character, and it is through the cultivation of character and excellence in all we are and all we do that we discover true and abiding happiness. In these terms, any philosophy that reduces us to consumers placing orders with the universe misses the point of what it is to be human, and what we need in order to flourish. Even if we could quantum jump into every desired reality we could want, even if the forces with which such attempts tamper turned out to be benign, we would not be any happier or wiser or better off for it.
On the Field Project Course
The Course, which I wrote for the Field Project, also draws from the Many Worlds model. While a cursory read might suggest that Field practice is thus in the same camp as quantum jumping, nothing could be further from the truth. Most notably, the Course does not present Many Worlds as a way of magically manipulating reality through a quantum leap into a parallel version of reality in which the student’s desire already is fulfilled. Rather, it uses Everett’s work as a theoretical basis for the belief that a particular desired condition already exists and so does not need to be created. This is important because belief is recognized within the Field model as generative—that is, as having the power to fulfill itself in worldly experience at least to some extent; thus the belief that a desired condition needs to be created leaves the student in the contradiction of believing in the nonexistence of something that he or she desires. Put another way, if belief is creative, and one believes in the lack of a desired condition sufficiently to be trying to create it, then the whole project falls into contradiction, since belief has cast its vote against itself, as it were. This exposes the contradiction at the root of the New Age approach to reality creating. The Course solves this problem by using Many Worlds as a theoretical basis for the belief that the desired condition already exists ((in some parallel reality), and so doesn’t need to be created. The practical result is that the student is freed to let go of all effort to “create” and rest in a state of friendly agreement with whatever identity corresponds to the desired condition, without waiting for the facts to give him or her permission to assume that identity. (Note importantly here that this unique use of Many Worlds serves the aim of Field practice whether or not Many Worlds is true.) By adopting the belief that the desired condition already exists, the student can “let go” of the desire and stop trying to “make it happen.” This releases the student from the tyranny of preoccupation with outer conditions and facilitates a shift in focus to where it belongs—on self-work. In this way, the Course uses desire as a point of departure on a path of practice that leads to the transcending of desire. The practice is in this respect paradoxical. What the Course calls “alignment” (a state of friendly agreement between desire and belief) is its own reward. Admittedly, due to the self-fulfilling nature of belief, alignment tends to inform reality according to its lights. So, for example, a stance of gratitude will tend to evoke more for which to be grateful, a stance of conflict will tend to evoke conflict, and so on. The Course makes clear, however, that this operates at the level of the form of our experience in the world, not at the level of content. Deliberately intending wealth, for example, will not necessarily create or attract money. Nevertheless, our identity will locally and nonlocally shape and inform how we experience what happens to us. A millionaire immersed in a belief in lack lives in a reality of lack even with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank, while a beggar who believes himself wealthy will see the wealth in what little he has. This is why happiness does not reside in outer conditions, but follows from the “state of the soul.”
One last thought here: The Course presents the idea of “retro-creativity,” but not in the same way this is used by quantum jumping adherents. In the Course, the student is encouraged to consider that events cannot be entirely separated from the meaning and significance we ascribe to them. This idea has its roots in modern philosophy primarily in Kant’s work, and in ancient philosophy in Plato’s idea of “participation” (in the Forms). Importantly, the Course makes clear that it is not the physical event that can be retro-created, but the event’s meaning or significance—which in effect, changes its essential quality. This idea, that self and world are “entangled,” that the observing (participating) consciousness informs reality, rendering it as the reality that it is, again directs the student’s attention to self-work. Here we have a non-grandiose adaptation of some of the elements of quantum theory. Rather than presuming that there are many superpositioned physical realities, the Course tells us that there are many superpositioned versions of reality, because there are many simultaneously available ways that we can engage reality through the meanings and significances we ascribe. The past can be changed in that we can recognize that what we call “the past” already has been informed by our beliefs, assumptions, stories, and conclusions about it. In this sense, “the past” is a construct of current belief, which is what makes retro-creativity possible. Subject and object arise interdependently. Any version of reality presupposes our participation in it. When we change ourselves, our reality changes—but self-work is the key and the focus, not trying to change the world or other people. This is a point that all philosophies of grandiosity miss, to the great detriment of those who subscribe to them. It is a fatal error that the Course diligently avoids.
Even grandiose philosophies, as noted in last month’s post, may contain a seed of truth. Solipsism itself grows out of the truth of the so-called egocentric or subjective predicament. After all, the world upon which we humans look is of necessity a human world, ordered and rendered, as Kant recognized, by the structures of our consciousness, with its uniquely human neurology, perceptual gear, and “categories,” as he called them. We can imagine that a creature different from us in these respects would inhabit a very different sort of objective reality, perhaps one in which, say, infrared and ultraviolet light are visible, or objects are not as solid as they are to us, or what we experience as past and future events occur simultaneously. The quanta of the quantum world thus may be thought of as theoretical representations of Kant’s thing-in-itself, unknown and, as Heisenberg concludes, unknowable, since it is only in the pre-world encounter between this unknowable something and an organizing consciousness that a world of whatever sort springs forth into expression. This gives us the philosophical equivalent of the principle in quantum mechanics of observation “collapsing” or “decohering” the complex of probable realities into the observed, actual one. Human consciousness, then, by definition, brings forth the objectively human world out of itself, but it by no means follows, as quantum jumping and indeed all solipsistic philosophies assume, that any individual has personal access to the levers of this mysterious ontological process, or that it is subject to his or her will or whim. Solipsisms fails because it does not recognize the intersubjectivity that establishes the objective. The organizing, ordering, and rendering structures are hard-wired, so to speak, into our being as the beings we are. To recognize and acknowledge that the objective world of human experience is necessarily rendered by human consciousness is one thing; claiming that you or I or anyone else can personally direct that rendering volitionally is quite another. While the first is true by definition and the inherent nature of the subjectivity of our species, the second requires a leap that even an electron would not be able to pull off.
Whether we live in a multiverse amid a theoretically infinite number of many worlds remains to be demonstrated. Despite the fact that many physicists regard the Many Worlds model as accurate, when we consider for a moment that the entire quantum realm we have been describing constitutes less than five percent of all that’s “out there” in the cosmos, with dark matter and dark energy making up the rest (we think), we begin to appreciate how little we really know of the nature of the universe. Indeed, the only thing we can state with certainty is that we know we don’t know. Science, at its best, becomes Socratic. As we’ve seen throughout the history of science, tomorrow’s discoveries and advances reduce today’s most educated and convincing speculations to ignorance, and so we are wise to hold our conclusions lightly. Even if live in a multiverse of parallel realities, the assumption that we can quantum jump among them is, for now, unfounded, more fiction than science. Furthermore, even if we could hop from one version of our life to another, given how limited our vision is at any moment, how little we can see of the impact that a particular jump would have on our life, it is not overstating the matter to say that we do not know enough to know where to jump. Finally, as long as we remain preoccupied with manipulating our reality in order to get this or that, as long as we view the universe as a great Amazon.com, here to take our orders and deliver what we want to our door, we won’t find what we’re looking for, because we’ll be looking in the wrong place. The universe is not a retail outlet, and we are far more than consumers. Real and lasting fulfillment lies not in having more but in being more. Remembering that and living up to it would be a reality jump worth making.
15 September, 2016
On the Limits of the Self and Philosophies of Grandiosity | Part I
Growing up without healthy personal boundaries that both develop and delimit the will gives rise to various emotional, psychological, physical, and social maladaptations such as inappropriate acting out, victimhood, overreaction, magical thinking, codependency and enabling, and in severe cases, narcissism and addictive disorders, among others.
Regrettably, there are several popular philosophies that encourage the obfuscation and deconstruction of personal boundaries, e.g., the so-called law of attraction, New Thought “treatment” methods, and the ho’oponopono forgiveness technique of Huna, all of which are rooted in some form of the metaphysical premise that the practitioner can alter material conditions by changing his or her consciousness. This idea is misleading precisely because it contains a seed of truth that opportunists can exploit to take advantage of those who for one reason or another are susceptible to the plethora of films, books, lectures, and other instructional offerings that claim to hold the key to magical manipulation of the world.
The seed of truth lies in the undeniable correspondence between personal consciousness and personal reality and within limits, the self-fulfilling nature of belief. In its conspicuous forms, this correspondence is easy enough to observe, and there is nothing particularly metaphysical about it. Someone who goes out into the world looking for a fight no doubt will find one, or one will find him. Round peg, round hole. Somewhat more mysteriously, this seems to operate at least sometimes along nonlocal trajectories, showing up as surprising fulfillments, happy coincidences, and synchronicities. While such extraordinary events do occur, none of them does so predictably; consequently none can be reduced to a method or technique, what to speak of a “law,” and this is where the seed of truth gets buried in the soil of untruth, for these popular philosophies all “package” this element of correspondence in techniques that deny the boundaries that delimit healthy selfhood, and so lead to confusion, failure, and disappointment if not far worse.
Both New Thought “treatment” and Huna’s ho’oponopono are founded on the startling assumption that the world, including other people, is an outpicturing of the beliefs of the practitioner. To treat another, therefore, one need only treat oneself, for when one has resolved the mistaken belief in his or her own consciousness that presumably is being expressed in the “patient,” the patient’s condition will spontaneously resolve, thus making the “demonstration.” This, at least, is the theory. That said, I have spoken to numerous New Thought ministers, all of whom have reported that among hundreds of their congregants who practice this sort of treatment regularly, about three percent see results. Three percent. Here is a number so low, it clearly supports the conclusion that what is occurring in these exceptional cases is a happy coincidence rather than the invoking of a universal principle. Of course, when the technique doesn’t work, its practitioner can always rationalize that the required faith was missing, that some further troublemaking belief was operating in the shadows, or that in some other way the practitioner failed to effect the required inner shift. No amount of evidence that the assumption underlying the technique simply is false is allowed to count against this sort of “faith,” because the justification is always available that the necessary inner condition must have been lacking, a tour de force of circular reasoning. Worse, these approaches often are presented as “scientific,” by which is meant that they are empirically verifiable and repeatable, neither being the case. Karl Popper’s fine work, which identifies falsifiability as a criterion of legitimately scientific hypotheses, cautions us that any proposition that would not allow itself to be falsified under any possible conditions is not scientific at all but pseudoscientific. The refusal to admit of any possible falsification is in fact a hallmark of dogmatic, fundamentalist, and militant thinking of every stripe. Yet many writers and speakers have made a living, if not a fortune, off the willingness of the credulous to swallow ludicrous, pretentious, unfalsifiable claims.
The view that the world, including other people, is a construct of one’s personal consciousness has a name in philosophy: solipsism. As a philosophical position, solipsism, which alleges that only the self exists—that “I alone am real” and that the world is my personal dream, is not only self-contradictory; it’s also dangerous. It is, in short, the philosophy of the megalomaniac. When we hear a U.S. presidential candidate declaring, “I alone can fix it,” we are in the unsettling company of the solipsist. Ho’oponopono’s contention that the practitioner is “totally responsible” for everything he or she experiences in the world is another solipsistic assertion. One can see how quickly a seed of truth can be cultivated into a convincing, highly marketable, and potentially dangerous system of lies.
Furthermore, the consciousness-reality problem is in fact far more complex, as evidenced by the profoundly influential work of Immanuel Kant in his response to the David Hume, the Scottish skeptic who in his seminal treatise An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding calls into question whether causality is indeed a law of the physical universe or merely a belief inferred from numerous observations to date. In other words, we have observed that B follows A consistently and without exception, and on this basis and this basis alone, we assume that there is a law operating, namely causality. But, as Hume points out, we have no empirical experience or evidence of such a law. We know that B has always followed A so far, but there is no contradiction implied by suggesting that B might fail to follow A, or that A might without precedent suddenly be followed by C or D or E instead. The ascribing of necessity and the status of a “law” to certain observed interactions, Hume concludes, is unjustified. What others call “causal law,” Hume maintains is merely “custom.” Kant was so struck by this, that he said Hume’s work awoke him from his “dogmatic slumber.” The result was a brilliant reframing of the question in what became Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In that groundbreaking work, Kant takes on the question of how it might be possible for certain observable processes in the world to operate with necessity, rather than merely appearing necessary due to customary and empirically unsupportable assumptions. In the language of modern philosophy, Kant was seeking to establish the “synthetic a priori.” He did this by turning the tables on Hume through the argument that the objective world we experience operates with necessity because certain structures of our consciousness inform and order and even render the world as such, and it is within the framework of these structures—Kant called them “categories of the understanding”—that necessity enters the picture. Without the objective organization of the world within the framework of necessity, Kant replies to Hume, one could not even raise the question.
It may not be immediately clear how Kant’s work has solipsistic implications, but his idea that the observing consciousness renders the world has led to the troubling notion that all we really experience is our own sense data, and this has in some ways drawn the so-called objectivity of the world into question in a kind of backfiring of Kant’s philosophical intention. Things as they are, in themselves, Kant called the “thing-in-itself,” which is by definition unknowable—in fact, the thing-in-itself ultimately can’t even be thought of as a “thing” at all. Unknowably, in a kind of pretemporal encounter, the structures of consciousness (Kant’s categories of the understanding) intersect with the pre-formed world (thing-in-itself), bringing forth the world of ordered experience that we know. But the synthetic a priori comes at a price. Kant saved necessity as an objective principle inherent in the world, but only by positing “the world” as something that is being somehow constructed by the observing consciousness, and in this the whole classical concept of “objectivity” as “out-thereness” is left a bit shaky, and solipsism advances. If all one experiences is one’s own sense data, then the whole world is “in one’s head,” an unavoidable conclusion that’s more than a little creepy. Clearly, the internalizing of the outer world introduces problems of its own. If, for example, what I call “the world” is in my head, then what I call “my head,” as an object in that world, also must be in my head. This line of reasoning thus ends in an infinite regress, suggesting that the original question that brought us to all this was off, and that we have strayed down the wrong philosophical road into a bad neighborhood.
None of this seems to vex those who peddle the philosophies of grandiosity. Let me illustrate the point with an excerpt from the book, Zero Limits, written by Joe Vitale, who was featured in the highly controversial film, “The Secret,” and Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len, regarded as one of the leading proponents and experts in the practice of ho’oponopono. Vitale describes a phone conversation with Dr. Len, who had worked as a therapist at Hawaii State Hospital, an institution for the criminally insane. Some of the inmates at the hospital were so dangerous, they had to be kept chained, and the staff regularly quit or failed to show up for work. The narrative that follows describes how Dr. Len “treated” these patient without ever actually seeing any of them. Writes Vitale:
Dr. Len told me that he never saw patients. He agreed to have an office and to review their files. While he looked at those files, he would work on himself. As he worked on himself, patients began to heal.
Vitale, quoting Dr. Len, reports that the patients improved to the point that absenteeism and turnover among the staff disappeared. With the increased availability of staff, conditions continued to improve. Eventually, the ward was closed. Writes Vitale:
This is where I had to ask the million dollar question: “What were you doing within yourself that caused those people to change?”
“I was simply healing the part of me that created them,” he said.
I didn’t understand.
Dr. Len explained that total responsibility for your life means that everything in your life—simply because it is in your life—is your responsibility. In a literal sense the entire world is your creation.
Whew. This is tough to swallow. Being responsible for what I say or do is one thing. Being responsible for what everyone in my life says or does is quite another. Yet, the truth is this: if you take complete responsibility for your life, then everything you see, hear, taste, touch, or in any way experience is your responsibility because it is in your life.
This means that terrorist activity, the president, the economy—anything you experience and don’t like—is up for you to heal. They don’t exist, in a manner of speaking, except as projections from inside you. The problem isn’t with them, it’s with you, and to change them, you have to change you.
I know this is tough to grasp, let alone accept or actually live. Blame is far easier than total responsibility, but as I spoke with Dr. Len, I began to realize that healing for him and in ho’oponopono means loving yourself. If you want to improve your life, you have to heal your life. If you want to cure anyone–even a mentally ill criminal–you do it by healing you.
“Tough to swallow” is an understatement. Perhaps Vitale’s instincts were trying to tell him something. Solipsism certainly is tough to swallow for any psyche with a healthy sense of where it ends and others begin. Vitale’s narrative leaves us guessing what other factors might have come into play, unacknowledged, that could account for the alleged improvements in the patients’ mental health. And notice the philosophical sleight-of-hand: “Blame is far easier than total responsibility.” As though these were the only options. As though acknowledging the responsibility others bear for their actions and holding them accountable amounts to blame. As though the criterion for determining whether or not to embrace a belief is the level of difficulty. At every turn, Vitale’s truth-bending logic is so opaque, it comes across as disingenuous, like the patter of a card sharp or the ancient Sophists, who would construct any argument and prove any point for a fee. Million dollar question indeed.
Now: If one rejects the underlying solipsistic assumption, one may find value in grandiose philosophies. Ho’oponopono, for example, working with four short and highlly charged phrases—”I’m sorry,” “please forgive me,” “thank you,” and “I love you”—may provide some emotional release and healing in areas where one feels the need to be forgiven. New Thought “treatment” without the solipsistic element might move us to examine the preconceptions we’re bringing to a situation or relationship that could stand improvement, and one might reasonably expect that with the relevant self-improvement, the situation or relationship would improve accordingly. Even the so-called law of attraction can be useful if one takes it no further than the insightful idea that our consciousness informs our experience through the self-fulfilling power of belief, and is careful not to mistake this for the ability to “attract” or create specific conditions at will, an ability we do not have outside the pretensions of magical thinking.
In the Course, which I wrote for the Field Project, I introduce the idea of “radical responsibility,” which suggests that we approach our worldly experience as corresponding to our intentions, defined as that with which we identify and that which we take to be real—even when that experience seems to be resulting from the will and choices of others. Such a claim sounds solipsistic but isn’t, for two reasons. First, the Course makes no attempt to reduce “deliberate intending” to a law-of-attraction technique. Indeed, it states as plainly as can be stated that “the aim of practice is alignment, not manifestation.” Second, and consistent with the first point, radical responsibility is presented in the language of self-work, i.e., of taking on the curriculum of beliefs we may not know we harbor in the interests of living more consciously and working to improve our beliefs and so the influence they exert on the world, locally and nonlocally. The usefulness of this practice lies in its ability to help the student enter a state of alignment or friendly self-agreement, free of contradiction. Thus and importantly, the whole model is explicitly about self-work, not about manipulating outer conditions. No exaggeration of the will or deconstruction of personal boundaries enters into it. There is no claim made anywhere in the Course that through altering our consciousness, we can effect specifically desired conditions or change other people, and therefore, no solipsism. The influence of alignment on the phenomenal world is subtle and indirect, and although the correspondence between inner and outer can be remarkable, it is not presented as a technique one can use in any premeditated way to manipulate reality. While on the face of it, radical responsibility might sound similar to ho’oponono, it’s more like the statement by Herman Hesse, “Only that which is part of us bothers us.” Often, we suffer because we don’t see how we’re participating in a situation that seems convincingly to be “out there.” We don’t see our part in it. Radical responsibility, like Hesse’s statement, calls us back from immersion in the world to self-examination and self-knowledge. Within the Field Project model, others remain real in their otherness, and while it is true that our view of others may be filtered by our beliefs, assumptions, expectations, and so on, it also is true that we would be responsible for those filters, and not in any case “totally responsible” as Huna, New Thought, and the law of attraction would have us believe to our detriment. Indeed, the central philosophical challenge of developing a thoughtful “consciousness-as-cause” curriculum was to throw out the solipsistic assumptions of the New Age law-of-attraction model and cultivate the seed of truth—that our beliefs have an impact on our experience in the world—in a way that would elevate the conversation to a new level and introduce an element of maturity in directing the practitioner away from magical thinking and “manifestation” in favor of self-work. This was crucial, because any solipsistic model, however otherwise beautiful it may be, poisons the well through encouraging exaggeration of the will across essential boundaries of identity. Of this, no good can come.
I have said that solipsism is self-contradictory. This is due to the fact that it denies that there is any “objective” truth (in asserting that all truth is the truth of the solipsist’s subjectivity) while maintaining that its central premise, “I alone am real,” is true objectively. In other words, solipsism denies what it asserts. No philosophical position that denies that there is any such thing as objective truth can purport to be objectively true without collapsing into nonsense. The most solipsism could say is that its position is subjectively true, since it holds that only its immediate subjectivity is real—but then, it ceases to be a philosophical position at all. The same problem shows up in any philosophical model founded on solipsistic assumptions. Ho’oponopono, as we have noted, states that the practitioner is “totally responsible” for his or her experience in the world, including the actions and choices of others. Presumably this is inferred from the fact that the only experience the practitioner can have is his own. But this is what makes it solipsistic. There is a chasm between “I am experiencing the actions of others,” and “I am totally responsible for the actions of others.” The first is true but trivial; the second is solipsistic—it denies others their otherness, appropriates responsibility it could not have in any non-delusional world, and then claims to change conditions in the otherness it denies. Despite the appeal of the method’s simplicity and potential usefulness when liberated from its solipsistic underpinnings, it remains deeply counterintuitive and off-putting. Because it grows in the soil of solipsistic exaggeration of the will, it simply does not ring true.
We owe it to ourselves to be careful about what we believe. Claims that sound too good to be true usually are just that. Despite the inescapability of the subjective amphitheater, the world and others exist in their own right, apart from our consciousness. The failure to respect this otherness has cleared the way for all manner of evil wrought by the dictates of a deformed will. Because others are real in their otherness, they remain autonomous and responsible for their choices and actions. We may benefit from soul-searching and self-correction in any situation where we are playing a part in co-creating the problem, but beyond this, we are wise to steer clear of those who espouse solipsistic principles, who offer us counterfeit power by encouraging us to view the world and other people as nothing more than constructs of our personal consciousness, for they disregard essential boundaries of the self, exaggerate the will, and while promising the key to heaven, unlock the gates of hell
24 August, 2016
If you try to cure evil with evil, you will add more pain to your fate.
Socrates states in the Protagoras that no one knowingly does the wrong thing, that all evil is the result of ignorance. It is a generous view to say the least. In the Gorgias, however, Socrates argues that ignorance does not absolve the wrongdoer of responsibility for his actions nor mitigate the need for appropriate punishment. In fact, he goes on to say, it is imperative that the perpetrator be punished for to commit evil and get away with it is a harm in itself of the most grievous sort, since until the debt is paid, the wrongdoer carries a spiritual burden. Doing wrong thus harms the one who so acts, and as no one knowingly acts against his own interests, all wrongdoing, all evil, must be the result of ignorance. Socrates maintains, therefore, that we always act in the service of what we believe in the moment to be our greater good. One example of this might be a man who steals bread to feed his family. He knows that stealing is wrong, but under the circumstances, believes that he is acting in the interest of a good cause.
The argument has merit and more than a little appeal in cases where those who commit evil have a conscience. Dismissing their better knowing, they act out of ignorance due to blind reaction, shortsightedness, or what Socrates called “false opinion,” and by so doing, set up interference patterns in their psyche that they may experience as guilt, shame, remorse, the fear of reprisal, and so on. But what about the many cases where conscience seems to be absent, and we see something more like a fully formed evil intent operating? The sociopathic personality, for example, may derive pleasure from deliberately and knowingly inflicting pain. Depravity along these lines seems to know no limits, as anyone can attest who has perused the voluminous records of the Nuremberg trials or read with horror how the stormtroopers of repressive regimes have tortured and murdered children in the enforcement of a heartless ideology. In Socratic terms, the Nazis could be viewed as seeking what they regarded as the “greater good” of Aryan hegemony and the extermination of “inferior” ethnic groups. Like the thief, they are seeking “the good,” but taking Socrates’s claim this far seems to reduce it to absurdity, since good and evil become indistinguishable.
It is not a trivial question whether we are to regard a certain act as proceeding from ignorance or from a deliberately evil intent. If we side with Socrates, our response would be to educate, to enlighten, to rehabilitate. If, on the other hand, we conclude that the act is born of evil intent, then the appropriate response would seem to be some form of punishment commensurate with the seriousness of the wrong done. The entire criminal legal system tries every day to sort out just such matters. We do not want to execute someone who acted in ignorance, but neither would we want to attempt to rehabilitate someone whose character may be so deformed by the will to do harm to others that he or she is beyond rehabilitation. In such cases, Socrates’s argument in the Gorgias that punishment, though painful, is good for the soul of the wrongdoer, seems naive.
In a famous series of articles written for The New Yorker in 1963, entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt describes how surprised she was at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem to see that this architect of the Third Reich with its deportation programs and death camps and mass executions was not a sociopathic fiend or monster but a most unexceptional sort of man, one motivated not by ideology or malevolence but by careerism and obedience, a stupid man with no thinking life who had accepted the clichés of the Nazi regime and was simply “following orders,” who murdered innocent people by the thousands, stacking their bodies as routinely as any office worker might stack documents, then went home at the end of the day and kissed his wife and children, sat down for the evening meal, listened to music—all without a thought about the enormity of his actions. According to Arendt’s account, it was this banality, this complete lack of moral thought and reflection, that enabled Eichmann to carry out the innumerable crimes against humanity for which he eventually was hanged.
Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann as banal rather than monstrous has been contested, in part because she attended only four days of the trial, relying largely on the transcript to write her report for The New Yorker. Her critics claim that during the parts of the trial that she missed, Eichmann was exposed as someone far more driven by anti-Semitism and ideology, and that as the testimony showed, he had been well aware of the immorality of his actions. There also were allegations that Arendt was laboring under prejudices of her own that may have slanted her journalism. These controversies aside, the point here is that Arendt’s conclusion—that evil can result not from the intent to do evil but from the failure to think and consider and hold one’s choices and actions up to a moral standard—seems consistent with Socrates’s claim. If genocide does not count as evil, it is hard to imagine what would, and it does seem that Eichmann’s banality and moral vacuousness, as reported by Arendt, constitute an extreme example of what Socrates calls “ignorance.” But where does this leave us? Was Eichmann ignorant or evil? More generally, what is the proper response? To educate or to punish?
One could make the argument that the ability to “look the other way” while committing atrocities, to suppress every native impulse of empathy and compassion and fellow feeling, is precisely where ignorance becomes evil. Aristotle, disputing the Socratic ethic, holds that it is possible to knowingly do wrong, a state the Greeks called akrasia, translated as “weakness of will.” In such cases, evil would not be the result of ignorance but of a failing of character. Socrates might reply that akrasia follows from not understanding that the good and right and virtuous course of action is always the only workable and sustainable one, not to mention the only one consistent with longterm self-interest, in which case akrasia would amount to another form of ignorance.
To muddy the waters a bit more, there is the relative nature of good and evil. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Whether an act constitutes evil or serves some greater good depends largely on whom one asks. It is possible to adjudge a suicide bomber in an open-air café to be the very embodiment of evil while justifying the dropping of a nuclear bomb on a city in the name of saving lives. We can avoid moral relativism to some extent here by considering the question in the context of excesses. Even in those cases where someone commits a wrong in the belief that some greater good is thus served, there would be moral limits to how far the wrongdoer could go without committing what we might think of as an unjustifiable act. To kill the enemy in war might be defended as a “necessary evil.” It would be much harder if not impossible, however, to justify the use of torture. Even allowing that people see things differently, evil remains evil, and the question of its nature remains.
To be thorough in our considerations of these things, we have to allow not only that there may be a point past which ignorance becomes evil, but also that evil acts, even those committed with the full intent to do wrong, the awareness that such acts are evil, and with no weakness of the will involved may yet presuppose a type of ignorance. In such cases, the ignorance lies not in banality or a failure to recognize the nature of the act, but in the assumption that through doing wrong, one can bring about some desired end. In other words, the evildoer may be ignorant of a profound truth that history has demonstrated time and time again, i.e., that evil as a method is doomed to fail, since it relies on force and on imposing one’s will upon others, strategies that invariably backfire. Beyond this, there may be yet a deeper current of ignorance at work in the assumption that one can achieve any good end by manipulating worldly conditions. Tyrants do seem to be ignorant that happiness and “human flourishing,” as Socrates tells us, are states of the soul, not the world. Using force to drive the world to its knees, in the end, leaves one far worse off in every way that matters. The mentality that tries to use force to exploit the world and others is rooted in ignorance, viz., the failure to understand that happiness is an inside job. It cannot be wrought through conquest and domination. In light of this broader perspective, Socrates may have been right, after all.
Whether we side with Socrates and his idea that “no man knowingly does evil” or subscribe to the view that there are those who, whether through thoughtlessness or cruel intent or weakness of will, commit acts of evil with full knowledge of the nature of their actions may matter little in the end. How we respond to such acts, however, matters greatly. It is crucial that we understand that in reacting to evil, we run the risk of committing evil ourselves, and it is not overstating the matter to say that the future of humanity may well depend on our steering clear of this danger. Evil, however it originates in the human psyche, begets evil. Especially in what many moderns now think of as the “age of terrorism,” with acts of evil erupting in the headlines regularly, we may feel so outraged and threatened that we deny the humanity of the evildoer and unwittingly become the thing we hate. Some exploit this dark potential. They stoke the fires of fear and in the name of law and order and security, make a bad situation worse while wiser courses of action are swept aside. To deal with inhumanity humanely; to meet evil with clarity and measured determination; to hold to a higher ethical standard than the worst among us; to respond to those who do monstrous things without becoming monsters ourselves—these are the virtues of what Socrates calls the “well-ordered soul,” the only real remedy to ignorance and evil, in others and in ourselves.
30 July, 2016
A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.
| From the film “War Games,” spoken by Joshua, a supercomputer after running all permutations for “Global Thermonuclear War”
As a rule, destructive behavior will lead to painful consequences for the perpetrator, but in relational systems, the resulting pain is dynamic—that is, it can move to someone else within the system, provided the host is willing to accept and carry it. Since painful consequences are inherently instructional—if only in teaching us what not to do—appropriating someone else’s pain preempts his or her opportunity to learn, self-correct, and develop. It is an act of meddling that interrupts the natural circuit of another’s evolution, deforms love and compassion into martyrdom and victimhood, creates a closed system of chronic imbalance and disorder, and leads to potentially harmful outcomes for everyone involved.
Destructive behavior ranges from rash or reactive judgment and ill-considered choices to more damaging forms, such as antisocial acting out, passive-aggressive manipulation, narcissistism, victim thinking, and the aberrant interpretations and justifications of the sociopathic psyche. In all cases, such behavior gives rise to increasingly adverse consequences—”increasingly,” because life lessons deferred by the displacement of pain tend to become more insistent the longer one puts them off, due to the dialectical nature of experience.
In philosophical counseling sessions, we see this most among parents who are carrying responsibility for the choices and behavior of their adult children. The weary mother whose adult son or daughter keeps ending up in an abusive relationship or in trouble with the law, the father of the drug user or shoplifter, the grandparents who, seeking to insulate their grandchild from the inevitable adversities of growing up, unwittingly interfere with the child’s development are examples of how pain can move, since in each case, the well-meaning parent or grandparent pays the price of taking on the displaced pain in the form of emotional, financial, or even physical suffering. As if this weren’t enough, the one to whom the pain rightly belongs may come to resent the one who has taken it on, because—good intentions notwithstanding—usurping another’s pain is an insidious form of interference in his or her life curriculum and development—which is why it’s been said that “the one for whom you do the most resents you the most.”
The mother who lets her teenage children control her through tantrums and the withdrawal of their love may suffer the displaced pain of this mutiny so deeply that she becomes an emotional hostage. It may not occur to her that the pain she’s carrying is not native to her choices or actions but originates in her children, that they count on her to be in pain as proof that they have power over her, and that her enabling distracts them so they never deal with the painful consequences of their destructive behavior. The woman who suffers in silence while being verbally abused by her husband is carrying displaced pain. In some cases, the displacement is obvious; in others, it may be difficult if not impossible to map, but in all cases, pain resulting from the actions of someone within the system is being appropriated by someone else in the system, enabling continued destructive and irresponsible behavior.
Those carrying displaced pain may at times feel half crazy. Their experience doesn’t add up, because it isn’t their experience. One way philosophical counseling can help someone immersed in the murky waters of displaced pain is to ask questions that encourage “surfacing” into an awareness that the suffering isn’t original but appropriated. Some of these questions are:
Whose pain is this? Where did the pain of this situation originate? Is this pain being carried for someone else? What would follow from refusing to carry the other’s pain?
It’s wise to keep in mind that a relational system that’s been deformed through the displacement and misappropriation of pain has been significantly compromised, and that solutions aren’t likely to spring up overnight. It may take more time that we’d like for those in the system to get the message that the rules have changed, that the old configuration no longer will be accepted. That said, the relief of refusing to participate as the usurper of another’s pain can be immediate and profound. Refusing to take on another’s pain restores order in the soul, puts the perpetrator on notice that destructive behavior will no longer be enabled nor the consequences deflected through reframing the system in terms of power, and frees the one to whom the pain belongs natively to experience both the consequences and the instruction implicit in them.
We give a priceless gift to those we love when we remember that love is not a license to interfere. One of the greatest forms of love is respect for another’s curriculum and timing. Getting out of the way so we aren’t standing between our loved ones and the lessons they need to learn takes clarity, strength of character, and a deep and abiding conviction that, as Michael Crichton writes, “Life will find a way.” There is a distance in all genuine closeness, and no buried treasure is ever found without the hardship of digging.
Individuals dealing with domestic violence should contact local law enforcement, social services, abuse shelters, or other community resources for immediate intervention.
20 June, 2016
The ancient Greeks recognized that, while pure wisdom (sophia) is exclusive to the gods, we humans can achieve a practical wisdom they called phronesis, which involves discerning the appropriate response in any situation, bringing the force of one’s character to bear for the greater good, encouraging others to virtuous action, and so on. Those who pick their battles demonstrate phronesis, as do those who make skillful compromises. Cultivating phronesis allows us to live a life of beauty and excellence, so that our being-here becomes not unlike a work of art.
One good example of phronesis is this business of picking one’s battles, because the ability to do this presupposes a certain self-overcoming or self-possession. Picking our battles implies choice under fire—that is, the clarity that allows us to act deliberately rather than by default, to respond rather than react, and this requires that we gain a certain mastery over the more prevalent tendency to react, which is often destructive. One fascinating thing about this is the immediate impact it has on the world and others. Racing into battle in the heat of reaction tends to escalate conflict, whereas remaining cool and reasonable have a mitigating effect. This appears to be the point Lao Tze makes in the Tao Te Ching in the statement: “The sage cannot be beaten because he does not contend.” Phronesis is, in this case, disarming. It “stops thing when they’re small,” as Lao Tze puts it, and therein lies the art of it. One doesn’t need to dodge bullets that were never fired.
Think of road rage. In most cases that cross the line into tragedy, we can imagine something like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. There is usually an opening, however brief, to disengage, to “lose” in the confrontation and by losing, to skillfully prevent the thing from becoming something far worse. For those lacking in phronesis, disengagement is difficult if not impossible in practical terms. Ego presses us on, into meaningless violence, past points of no return. But ego and phronesis do not speak the same language, any more than do foolishness and wisdom.
Disengaging when confronted with belligerence turns out to be a wise thing to do for many reasons. Belligerence, for one thing, is the favorite posture of fear. The bully, for all the pain he inflicts on others, is a scared child. It is almost always the victim who victimizes. While reaction might insist that we condemn and retaliate in the face of belligerent behavior, phronesis prompts us to respond with understanding and compassion. In that wiser choice, we dodge the bullet that, if it struck us, might make us a victim, too, in a vicious cycle that can end only in the self-overcoming of phronesis. So are we saved by the cultivation of our character, and our example may well serve to save others.
On the path of phronesis, we do not shrink from those tests of character that can appear without warning. Indeed, we welcome then, since they show us where we stand, and where further self-work is needed. It helps to remember to breathe, to slow down, to take a step back. Living deliberately is challenging, but the self-overcoming that allows us to live beautifully and well is the foundation of meeting and overcoming all other challenges. We are wise to take it up with a willing spirit, and without delay.
30 May, 2016
Popular wisdom advises us to “go for the gusto,” and in the pursuit of happiness, which it mistakes for this or that arrangement of outer conditions, to “make it happen.” This exaltation of the will may be one of the greatest errors of modern thinking, one that flies in the face of centuries-old wisdom that instructs us to release our will and let things happen. It is an odd idea to the mind steeped in traditionally Western assumptions that have led to “taming” nature (think deforestation, the ozone layer, frac sand mining, etc.), splitting the atom (was that a good idea?), so-called Manifest Destiny, “globalization,” and the invasion, conquest, and exploitation of whole cultures whose only inferiority to our own was military. Those who assume it is our place to exert and impose our will are likely to hear any suggestion to let go of willfulness in favor of allowing things to unfold and find their level as an invitation to passivity, even sloth—one of the seven “deadly sins,” and our natural reaction—or what seems to us natural—is one of aversion.
It hardly occurs to us that the whole universe got here, and at least for the time being, is moving in its course, without our managing things, without our agendas, timetables, and strategies. We did not create the Earth or set it spinning in the void of space or set the clock of the seasons or the rhythm of the rolling tides. Indeed, the arrival of modern humankind on the great geological timeline took place only the barest fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second ago, and the opaque, driven infatuation with our will made its appearance even more recently. Whatever creative and organizing principle has been operating since time and space first “banged” hardly could be called passive, yet nowhere in the cosmos do we see the slightest evidence of anything resembling the exertions and presumptions of human will.
Moreover, while the universe in its natural state is beautiful—wild, sometimes violent, madly prolific, yes, but beautiful nonetheless—willfulness is flat-out ugly. There is nothing graceful or elegant or attractive about it. On the contrary, willful personalities are off-putting. Full of themselves, they lack empathy and the willingness or ability to listen to others. They are grandiose, constricted, and overbearing. The more willful a person is, the more complacent and strident he becomes, until his very presence seems to crowd out those around him. One can see it in almost any political debate these days. Willfulness, fully entrenched, is always absolutely right and anyone who disagrees absolutely wrong, and in this, there is nothing even remotely appealing. One can only imagine how it looks to the world, when a nation will not stop willfully declaring its greatness, or when the poster child for this sort of arrested development (around age two, cultivation of the will is a good and necessary stage) is a U.S. Presidential frontrunner.
Beyond aesthetics, willfulness can become dangerous, even deadly. It contains within itself the means and mentality to despoil whole ecosystems, even while our best scientific minds are telling us that the very survival of our planet is in jeopardy. Willfulness drops bombs on hospitals, because it lacks the essential humility to acknowledge its own capacity for error. It pursues the development of weapons that can kill entire cities, never considering whether a thing that can be done should be done, or what the longterm consequences of doing it may be. It walks explosive vests into nightclubs and flies commercial airliners into office buildings. Myopic, awash in hubris, it has no idea that there is a principle operating in the world that rewards the willful use of force with unpredictable and unwanted results.
If passivity were the only alternative to “making it happen,” then willfulness might have a case. But it isn’t. There is another, much overlooked third possibility, one in which we, recognizing the limits of our will and having learned the painful lessons of what happens when we force situations or timings, step back and give things room to resolve, while we remain alert and responsive, open to creative solutions and directions—not passively, never passively—neither laying back nor marching blindly into battle but engaging through willingness. A pause is a powerful thing. In an argument, it can break a spiral of escalating resentment and reaction. If one will simply stop and take a breath, stop and disengage the will, something new can show itself. Letting go is often the first step in letting something come.
It is a beautiful thing when what we want comes to us. Whether this takes the form of a spontaneously reciprocal love interest, good fortune in business, or civilized international relations, the unfolding of events is so much more satisfying when we have abandoned the role of the pursuer, the hunter, the one who “makes it happen” and let the thing we want come to us. In his commentary on Patanjali’s Yogasutras, Satchitananda talks about this in terms of the siddhis—the powers that the yogi inherits on the path of yoga. These powers, Satchitananda states, should not be the reason for spiritual study or practice, which is never self-aggrandizing. He then raises the question of why Patanjali even mentions them. Wouldn’t it be better to have left them out, and let the yogi discover them on his own? Satchitananda goes on to explain that the siddhis are beautiful—if the yogi lets them come by themselves at the right time. The instruction is clear: A good thing, when it is pursued, becomes untimely and a disadvantage. Conversely, even an adverse situation met with willingness can be instructional and beautiful. Socrates says essentially the same thing in the Republic. Happiness, then, is not just an arrangement of outer conditions but a state of order, balance, and harmony in the soul, made effective by release of the will, a state without which even good things fall from our hands, and with which, even “bad” things improve our lot. How well we live, it seems, is determined not only by the path we’re on, but by how we walk the path.
The release of the will is an experiment worth making. Perhaps there’s something you’ve been wanting, doing all you could to “make it happen,” pursuing, pushing, working every angle, all from within an exhausting state of preoccupation. Why not see what happens if you release your will, take a breath and a step back, disengage, and allow room for what you want to come to you? Not pushing does not mean adopting a passive stance. When we let something go, we go about living our life. We don’t sit around waiting for the thing to come to us, which would be passive. Such passivity is just as willful as trying to force outcomes; it is simply willfulness sitting quietly in a chair with its hands folded. Getting busy with other things helps. Staying alert and responsive in the grand experiment of “letting it come” doesn’t mean watching the pot. It means more than anything else, resting in the confidence that when life knocks at your door, you’ll be there to open it—self-possessed, beautiful in willingness, and ready to be pleasantly surprised.
30 April, 2016
Once I saw a greeting card with these words on the cover: “The secret to happiness is…” and on the inside: “Try not to get too personally involved in your own life.” I consider this a fine bit of wisdom, rarely found in greeting cards or anywhere else these days, because this habit of taking things personally seems to have infiltrated our national character to the point that people kill each other over parking spaces. In the age of terrorism, with violence escalating on both sides of the law, we’re all a little jumpy, and would do well to take a deep breath and a few steps back. It is possible to “fight fair,” to find common ground, and along the way, to disagree without being disagreeable, to discuss charged issues without raised voices, finger-pointing, or churlish swagger.
To illustrate: Sometimes in couples counseling, one person comes to the session with the complaint that the other did some hurtful thing, and in the cases where the suffering runs the deepest over, say, having been lied to or disregarded and so on, part of the narrative invariably is, “I can’t believe he/she did this to me.” You see, this “to me” is the bit that confesses that the hurtful action is being taken personally. So, the first thing we try to do is see what happens to the complaint if we subtract this “to me.” We step back and take a deep breath and ask the one who was hurt by the act to reframe it so it becomes simply, “He/she did this.” When we make this little change, what else changes? Suddenly, a space opens up around the problem. Reactions slow down; there’s an easing of the constriction, and it becomes possible for the hurt party to look at what happened more on its own terms. As the firestorms of personal reaction subside, both parties become less defensive, and the one who committed the act can take newfound responsibility for its consequences. Most of us don’t do things “to” anyone. We do things. We have our reasons. Sometimes those reasons come out of inner contradiction, unexamined assumptions, life script imperatives, or pathological imbalances that never got addressed and resolved. When the wounded person lets go of the “to me” and considers the hurtful act in this broader light, it becomes possible to take it less personally, less as a betrayal, and perhaps even to begin to understand it, to see it for what it was, and in this seeing, compassion enters the conversation. The act was destructive. It was thoughtless. Maybe it was a deal breaker. But it wasn’t personal. We can hold to our human and ethical and emotional requirements without making ourselves a victim and someone else the “bad guy.” I’m not saying hurtful actions are never committed with the aim, wittingly or not, of inflicting pain of one sort or another, but this sort of thing appears to be rare. In those cases, where it actually is personal, the problem is more serious, and a different sort of intervention is needed.
Which brings to mind the current political climate here in the U.S. One can hardly turn the television off fast enough, as there seems to be no end to how low candidates are willing to go in taking things personally, name-calling, and puerile posturing. It is not something the electorate should tolerate. We have a right to expect maturity, disinterest, and self-possession from those who claim to be fit to lead the nation. Most of what these candidates have shown us about their character should have disqualified them months ago, but their belligerence and demagoguery seem to have captivated and rallied the disenfranchised. These days, more than ever, we need our national leaders to be mature, thoughtful men and women who can engage the issues calmly, consider diverse approaches and creative courses of action, encourage real dialogue between polarized factions, and bring people together to work out inclusive and healing solutions, to “build not walls but bridges,” as Pope Francis put it recently. In a volatile world where violence has become increasingly hard to predict and prevent, the last thing we need is a volatile president fighting wars of arrested development and taking matters of state personally. I, for one, certainly hope that come November, the national electorate will prove to be at least as wise as a greeting card.
27 March, 2016
As a philosophical counselor, I often speak with clients who are immersed in an issue that has left them raw with pain and struggling for resolution to a point past exhaustion. At such times, I’m reminded that a problem can’t be solved at the same level that produced the problem. Invariably, what these clients need is a paradigm shift, a new and liberating way of looking at the situation that has them stuck fast, and the history of the sort of work we do offers many examples of brilliant facilitators who were able to evoke a realization or “reframing” that allowed the client to shift from contradiction and constriction to realization and release. Milton Erikson, Carl Jung, and Viktor Frankl are three that come to mind. I’ve spent a great deal of time pondering ways that such a shift can be effected. No method works for everyone, of course. Philosophical counseling demands that the counselor remain mindful, alert, and intuitively open to the requirements of the client, the timing, and the situation at hand, and no formula can cover the endless diversity of variables.
One thing I’ve discovered that can help a client out of immersion and at least open the way toward the liberating paradigm shift is to step back from the conflicts with which he or she has been struggling and regard the situation as a painting that all of those involved are creating together. From this new angle of vision, right and wrong or true and false tend to fall away as the standard of the good, and the beautiful is allowed to come forward. It is a thoroughly Platonic approach, one that demonstrates how relevant and powerful Plato’s work still is today. The client, then, rather than thrashing about in the self-repeating details of an inadequate paradigm, tossed on waves of self-doubt and speculation, gets to ask a different sort of question: What am I adding to the canvas? The idea here is to add something good and beautiful, to assess one’s participation aesthetically by holding one’s choices up to whatever standard—generosity, nobility, compassion, detachment, serenity, kindness, etc.—speaks to the client as the most meaningful and humanly beautiful.
Here’s an example: Imagine two people in conflict. Each is convinced that he or she is right and the other wrong. Their perceptions, interpretations, assumptions, and conclusions are locked in a fight to the death. When such situations arise, it usually involves two people who care deeply about each other, such as romantic partners, family members, or close friends, since only two people who care deeply about each other will earn each other’s rancor. Rather than trying to solve (or resolve) the problem at the level that produced the problem, we ask these individuals to consider what they are adding to the canvas of their experience. Are they painting in the dark and depressing colors of blame and recrimination? If so, is this what they want to add? What might they add instead? What happens if they take a moment to recognize and take to heart each other’s pain, grant that something humanly valid is motivating the other, whatever it might be, perhaps even something long unresolved that has little to do with the seductive and intransigent context in which they are immersed, and put down their swords?
There is a story about an African tribe that deals in the most remarkable way with those who violate the social order. Instead of putting them on trial to determine a fitting punishment, they bring the perpetrator before the whole village. One by one, the villagers recount experiences they have had in which the one “on trial” behaved in a way that was heroic or selfless or merciful or noble or wise. Instead of retribution, they invite recollection of all that is good and beautiful and worthy. That is what they add to the social canvas. The effect, as you might imagine, is profound, for never is the good in us called forth and quickened more powerfully than when it is recognized and appreciated by those we love.
The resolve to honor the beautiful lifts us up, out of immersion and into the clear air of inspired thinking and acting. Note that such resolve is completely consistent with self-respect and self-care. Allowing that even the thief running in the night has his story and his reasons in no way obligates us to associate with thieves. We can extend compassion and forgive trespasses from a safe distance, and in this regard, I do not see much value in testing ourselves. There is no question, however, that remembering to ask, “What am I adding to the canvas?” and assessing our choices against the standard of beauty and goodness rather than right and wrong, can elevate us to the realm of truth that sets us free.
28 February, 2016