Friday, July 18, 2008

Living In Limbo

I'm watching a devastating documentary on HBO about people who have suffered severe brain injury and are either comatose or have come out of a coma but are greatly impaired, temporarily or, most likely, permanently. It's heartbreaking to see doctors telling a patient's loved ones that there appears to be no chance for recovery and that they might want to consider removing life support and letting nature take its course.

Yet, if it does and these patients die, they and their loved ones might be the lucky ones compared to the patients who linger in a persistent vegetative state or who recover enough to consciously struggle terribly with profoundly compromised capabilities for the rest of their lives, and to their loved ones who are left with dashed hopes and broken dreams and, especially in the case of parents and spouses, saddled with the prospect of overwhelming debt and of having to devote essentially the rest of their lives to providing constant care for the all-but helpless person in their charge.

And when I see things like this, I wonder how there can be, as some religions teach, a spirit or divine Self underlying and animating our consciousness and being. For if there really were such a thing, why can it not overcome the ravages of brain trauma and break out of the coma and shine through the deficits and debilities that follow?

11 comments:

ned said...

I understand how these things can hurt one's faith, but the point is that we have to learn to share in the collective suffering of humanity. We have to learn to be participants in this suffering. Instead of recoiling in horror egoically at the sight of suffering, we must learn to bear the cross, so to speak -- and this is impossible to do at the level of the ego. One has to trust that there is a power beyond the ego that can help us overcome suffering, death and limitation.

There was a point when, exactly for these reasons -- frustration at the suffering in the world -- I refused to have faith even though I had had beautiful spiritual experiences, experienced a descent of Ananda and so forth.

Then I realized what this was: it was my ego's refusal to annul itself so that I could become a real instrument for change.

On a related note, it does seem that people who already have spiritual awareness and perhaps get a more spiritually aware environment to heal in, DO recover from terrible traumas and illnesses. Did you watch neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor's talk on TEDTalks? She suffered a stroke, but was able to detach from it and literally watch it from a witness consciousness as it happened. The result was that she was able to heal completely from this stroke in the long-term. She describes this mystical experience in her talk.

I would also recommend a fantastic new book called "Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century". It includes converging evidence from a number of fields against materialism, and also includes an entire chapter on psychoimmunology -- on how the mind can seemingly heal the most painful illnesses if one learns to trust oneself.

It's all connected. We are all contributing to this collective suffering. Supposedly I am "healthy" by human standards, but by spiritual standards I am profoundly unhealthy. It is my *pretense* to health that is indirectly causing the ill-health of others.

The more each of us sacrifices our personal preferences and starts to trust in something bigger than our egos, the more this suffering will ease and, at least in the Aurobindoan vision, disappear eventually once and for all once its utility is over.

I don't know whether this makes any sense or not, but a number of inner transformations have convinced me that this is the only way out of the apparently pitiless human condition.

ned said...

You might also find this post of mine interesting:
http://naqsh.org/ned/?p=110

(True story! ;-) )

ned said...

Hey, I'm not sure if you got this link or not because I posted it before but it's not showing up here. It's a post I did called "Psychosystemic Illness", which you might find interesting in the light of this topic:
http://naqsh.org/ned/?p=110

Hope I'm not annoying you. ;-)

Nagarjuna said...

Ned--
"Instead of recoiling in horror egoically at the sight of suffering, we must learn to bear the cross, so to speak -- and this is impossible to do at the level of the ego. One has to trust that there is a power beyond the ego that can help us overcome suffering, death and limitation."

I confess that I'm still a little mystified about the nature of the ego and of "egoic" attachment and about what happens to the ego in an enlightened person. Does it go away and never come back? Did it never exist in the first place, in which case, how could something that never existed have ever misled us? Because of my puzzlement, I guess I don't understand how our egos cause us to recoil from suffering and how losing or overcoming or doing whatever we're spiritually striving to do with or about our egos makes us more receptive to suffering or to 'bearing the cross.' It seems to me, although, perhaps, this is only my ego talking, that suffering and the deformities and debilities that often go with it, is UGLY, and not just to the ego, and that our whole being is naturally repelled by suffering and attracted to the beauty non-suffering.

I can certainly empathize with how your pain and frustration over the suffering in the world made you 'refuse to have faith.' As I wrote previously, it seems to me that the "problem of evil" is really insoluble for a monotheist--Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. That is, there's just no sane or sensible way to reconcile omnipresent suffering with an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good personal divinity who intentionally made the universe and its creatures.

Therefore, I am much more inclined to embrace a pantheistic or panentheistic view of "God" that sees It not as a conscious--except insofar as it is conscious through all sentient beings that partly comprise it--entity of perfect goodness who designed and fabricated the universe, but, rather, as the unified totality of all that is, and which transcends "good" and "bad."

"...it does seem that people who already have spiritual awareness and perhaps get a more spiritually aware environment to heal in, DO recover from terrible traumas and illnesses. Did you watch neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor's talk on TEDTalks? She suffered a stroke, but was able to detach from it and literally watch it from a witness consciousness as it happened. The result was that she was able to heal completely from this stroke in the long-term. She describes this mystical experience in her talk."

No, I didn't see Jill's presentation, but I most assuredly will. Ram Dass has reported a similar experience with his own stroke in which he also "witnessed it" from the same detached perspective. However, his recovery has not been, so far as I know, nearly as complete as Jill's. Perhaps his stroke was worse, or his spiritual practice less powerful?

In any case, the questions I keep pondering are: (1) Is our spirit or Self greater than our body and mind, and, if so, (2) Why can't Self override the limitations of mind and body in EVERYONE and not just in some who practice spiritual disciplines? For why would someone need to practice spiritual disciplines with his inferior mind and/or body to allow his superior spirit or self to manifest? Isn't this a little, to use a very crude sports analogy, like saying that a grade school basketball team must undergo long and extremely rigorous training in order to allow an NBA championship team to defeat it?

Thank you for your book recommendation. I'm adding it to my list of books to buy or, at least, check out of the local library, if I can find it there, and read as soon as I can find the time to do it.

"Supposedly I am "healthy" by human standards, but by spiritual standards I am profoundly unhealthy. It is my *pretense* to health that is indirectly causing the ill-health of others."

I don't understand how this could be true in your case, although I could see it much more readily in the case of a certain blogger whose name I shall not utter. :-) But, seriously, how do you see yourself as "profoundly unhealthy" spiritually?

"The more each of us sacrifices our personal preferences and starts to trust in something bigger than our egos, the more this suffering will ease and, at least in the Aurobindoan vision, disappear eventually once and for all once its utility is over."

I wonder how we 'sacrifice our personal preferences' by 'trusting in something bigger' and what REALLY happens if and when we can do this. I admit that I'm very skeptical about the "Aurobindoan vision, although I admit that I know very, very little about it, that we may eventually be able to transform the world into some kind of spiritual utopia that eliminates the necessity and thus existence of suffering.

Furthermore, isn't it someone's "personal preference" to 'sacrifice personal preference,' and aren't the specific sacrifices one makes in service to others, to the world at large, or to God shaped by 'personal preference'?

I feel like I'm more or less just babbling here in an almost free association to what you've written. I don't expect you to be able to answer these questions or to even want to try. But I must say, Ned, that I feel almost overwhelmed by the beauty, profundity, and wisdom of what you've been sharing with me, and I am deeply grateful for all of it. Far from being an "annoyance", you are a great inspiration to me to "go deeper" and 'follow my bliss," and not just through the intellect, but with my WHOLE being.

ned said...

Nagarjuna, thanks for your perceptive questions. I've read them carefully, but due to a lack of time (a paper due on Monday!) I'll have to postpone a reply. It seems I'll have to finish up my essay, which I think addresses a lot of your concerns here. ;-)

One of the things I want to address in my essay is why I think a naturalistic spirituality doesn't meet the challenges of solving the problems of human existence, and most importantly, doesn't meet the challenges of solving the problem of *human incompleteness and fragmentation*.

Oh, and btw, I'm *profoundly* spiritually unhealthy compared to sages like Sri Aurobindo, the Mother, Christ, Ramana Maharishi, the Buddha, and all the rest. As long as we keep comparing ourselves to other egoic human beings, we'll always feel superior. But compared to those who have attained to what I believe is the conscious, intelligent Divine Being, most of us are very unhealthy. So for me, the bar for "health" is extremely high. ;-)

The thing is, I could keep explaining some of the things I've experienced in words, but one really has to experience it to know what's going on and how the ego is making up stories to keep us from taking a closer look at ourselves.

I'm not saying I have it all worked out, there is so, so, so much I don't know (and plenty of undiscovered character flaws). But I've had enough spiritual experiences to be able to start becoming *aware* of -- in a way that is transrational -- a Divine Grace that is trying to help humanity overcome its limitations, and to use humanity as a vehicle through which to overcome the limitations of the universe. At minimum, I am absolutely convinced that materialism is false -- I've had too many paranormal and transformative experiences to believe otherwise.

I should also thank you for letting me express myself and also sound off on your blog lately, especially to express some criticisms of the One Cosmos blog. It's not my nature to waste too much time criticizing others, but I guess reading his blog really provoked me -- and is forcing me to look at my own shadow more carefully (which I suppose I ought to be grateful to Gagdad about! ;-)).

I considered leaving some comments there the other day, since he's just quoted Sri Aurobino and the Mother again, but as always he really has no clue what they are talking about (he seems to think they mean some sort of heightened human individuality, but they are talking about going beyond the human species altogether to a new, more harmonious mode of being). But then I figured, why bother, he's not going to listen anyway.

ned said...

Oh, and I think you would really like "Irreducible Mind". It's not a "mystical" book -- it's a proper academic book, addressing mainstream academics in cognitive psychology and cog sci. The authors are primarily working from a Whiteheadian process philosophy perspective. But what I liked about this book was that it showed that materialism can't even explain fairly down to earth phenomena, like memory, much less mystical or paranormal phenomena. The book got good reviews in peer-reviewed journals like the APA's PsycCRITIQUES and The Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Ulrich Mohrhoff wrote a summary and review here (but bear in mind that he's a dyed-in-the-wool Aurobindoan like myself! ;-) ):
http://anti-matters.org/ojs/index.php/antimatters/article/view/21/23

Nagarjuna said...

Ned--
I wish you well with your paper. Something tells me it's going to be a good one. :-) Your instructor must look forward to reading your papers.

When you have the time and if you have the inclination, could you elaborate a little on what you mean by a "naturalistic spirituality"? Perhaps your essay will do that. In any case, I'd love to read it.

"Oh, and btw, I'm *profoundly* spiritually unhealthy compared to sages like Sri Aurobindo, the Mother, Christ, Ramana Maharishi, the Buddha, and all the rest. As long as we keep comparing ourselves to other egoic human beings, we'll always feel superior. But compared to those who have attained to what I believe is the conscious, intelligent Divine Being, most of us are very unhealthy. So for me, the bar for "health" is extremely high."

This reminds me of a line from Max Ehrmann's Desiderata: "If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself." But, in keeping with my question about why the Self or spirit doesn't assert itself to the same extent in all of us, I wonder why some, like Aurobindo or Maharshi, are or are allegedly so much more advanced spiritually than the rest of us. I speculate that spirituality, or at least one aspect of it, is, in Wilberian terms, a "line of development" and that it takes someone gifted in this line, the way other people are gifted in other lines, to be spiritually great. But, again, why, if the same spirit or self resides in all of us, aren't we all equally gifted in this way? Why could most of us undertake spiritual disciplines with the same or greater rigor as Buddha or any other revered spiritual figure and still far short of their attainment? I posted an entry here years ago that elaborates on my concerns so far as undertaking any spiritual discipline or path is concerned. It's titled "Integral Spiritual Practice."

"The thing is, I could keep explaining some of the things I've experienced in words, but one really has to experience it to know what's going on and how the ego is making up stories to keep us from taking a closer look at ourselves."

Point taken. But I guess I need to read a compelling explanation before I become sufficiently open to this experience or sufficiently motivated to undertake the kind and degree of practice that would produce such experience, and, so far, I can't say that I've found one. Or maybe I've found great explanations but just haven't had that "Aha" experience of sufficiently deep understanding yet. Or maybe I'm just making excuses for not undertaking rigorous practice.

"At minimum, I am absolutely convinced that materialism is false -- I've had too many paranormal and transformative experiences to believe otherwise."

I haven't had any paranormal experiences, at least not any I'd be confident in labeling as such. But I don't think one needs to have had such experiences to reject or at least profoundly doubt monistic materialism. For it seems to me that consciousness and the patterns of thoughts and volitions and other conscious phenomena we experience are not reducible to the anatomy and physiological functioning of our nervous systems, or, on a more fundamental level, to the movements of molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, or vibrating "strings." In other words, no matter how much physicists learn about matter and energy, and biologists learn about neurons, synapses, and neurochemicals, they won't be able to explain how I'm writing these comments right now. There's something beyond the strictly material that's enabling me to do this.

"It's not my nature to waste too much time criticizing others, but I guess reading his blog really provoked me -- and is forcing me to look at my own shadow more carefully (which I suppose I ought to be grateful to Gagdad about! ;-))"

Ned, I feel the same way about reading his blog. It really "provokes" me too, and I can't help but think that one reason it does this is because it's bringing some of my own "shadows" to light, and that this is a good thing or can be if we know what to do with them after they come to light.

"I considered leaving some comments there the other day, since he's just quoted Sri Aurobino and the Mother again, but as always he really has no clue what they are talking about (he seems to think they mean some sort of heightened human individuality, but they are talking about going beyond the human species altogether to a new, more harmonious mode of being). But then I figured, why bother, he's not going to listen anyway."

You're undoubtedly right about how he and his fellow "Coons" would react to your input, but the provocateur in me wants you to go for it anyway. :-) It seems to me that, if nothing else, it could be a good psychological and spiritual practice for you. If just reading his blog beneficially brings shadows to light, just imagine what commenting there in disagreement with Gagdad and then reading and responding to the ensuing litany of insults will do for you (or to you)! :-) Then again, you may have better things to do with your time. I did, which is one reason why I stopped commenting there.

ned said...

Nagarjuna, I can't reply to everything, as I'm working on another paper again (I'm still waiting for your reply via e-mail).

By "naturalistic spirituality" I meant pantheism, or some sort of spirituality that denies the existence of higher planes of reality or states of consciousness, etc., and holds that this egoic human state is as good as it gets (lord help us, in that case! ;-) ). "The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World" by Owen Flanagan, is a good example of what I would be wanting to critique.

About why Aurobindo, Christ, etc. seem to be vastly superior to us spiritually (if at all), well, in Aurobindo's case, by his own admission, he started off being as normal and human and ignorant as anyone else (you really should look at Peter Heehs' new biography "The Lives of Sri Aurobindo"). Sri Aurobindo did not become enlightened overnight, it was through a harsh struggle with life's troubles that he managed. He says this himself many times, that there is nothing special about what he did, that he undertook a rigorous discipline and that it wasn't an overnight miracle. He insists that anyone else can do it as well, but it requires a lot of practice, sincerity and intensity of seeking, and I think the latter two things is where most people fall apart. Most of us do not realize that our human attachments are weighing us down spiritually and it usually takes a lot of suffering before one starts to become conscious of this and starts aspiring for something more.

Nevertheless, to be honest, personally I am quite inclined to believe in reincarnation as an ontological necessity. Simply because, each person comes into this world with a certain amount of karmic attachments to the past, and different people seem to have different types of karma. We do not all start off on an equal footing -- this is a fact that cannot be denied. So if this one life is all we have, then most of us are quite screwed. ;-)

For Sri Aurobindo, reincarnation itself is an evolutionary process. He critiques popular accounts of reincarnation as being kind of nonsensical; he says the only purpose of the soul reincarnating is for its evolutionary development. When it reaches a certain level of development it merges into the Supreme and is no longer subject to the laws of karma, liberated from the contingencies of time and space.

You could see reincarnation as the intervention of the "vertical" in the realm of the "horizontal". To be honest, my major spiritual awakening on February 12, 2005, which I talk about on my blog, was pretty much a death-rebirth experience for me. It was like I was given a second life that night, and my life's trajectory has completely changed since then. Things that looked impossible before that "death" seem very possible now. So I think these deaths and rebirths are happening all the time, whether within the same body, or between one mind-body-soul complex and another one.

Sean Kelly, a professor at CIIS and a scholar at Esalen, has actually been working on a theory of "integral time", which tries to incorporate reincarnation and is actually quite fascinating, to my mind:
http://www.esalenctr.org/display/confpage.cfm?confid=19&pageid=150&pgtype=1
http://integral-review.org/documents/Kelly,%20Integral%20Time,%20Vol.4%20No.1.pdf

About engaging with Gagdad, I've decided against it for now. Here's why.

In integral yoga terms, Gagdad is "vitally" very strong. The vital, in Sri Aurobindo's terminology, is the personal will. It is the aspect of being in which thoughts are transformed into *will*, which then becomes a dynamism for external actions. If you read philosophers like Foucault (who talks about the passions, etc.), Sartre, Lacan, and all the rest, they are basically tuning into the "vital-mind", the seat of the will, the emotions and the passions. The vital is also the aspect that gives rise to weaknesses like fear, anxiety, nausea, disgust, etc.

The vital is a very important instrument to develop spiritually in integral yoga. When made a servant of the soul, it's your musclepower, essentially. At the height of its development, the spiritualized vital is capable of great acts of chivalry, heroism and courage, empowering the weak, standing up to the oppressive. It is the hallmark of a true warrior to have a very highly developed vital, and everyone on the yogic path has to conquer this aspect of their being.

But when not conquered and spiritualized, the vital is also responsible for sadism, cruelty, abuse, barbarism, etc. Nietzsche's Ubermensch is actually based on this aspect of our being -- the vital -- which is why it was co-opted by the Nazis for their nefarious purposes (that's what Aurobindo was critiquing, he says that without bringing the vital in line with the soul's guidance, it will always become abusive).

Anyhow, back to Gagdad, and why I think it's best not to engage with him: he's vitally very strong, but I sense very little soul-level discernment in him (the psychic being, in Aurobindoan terms), and so he seems completely unconscious of his own shadow. And when vitally strong people are unconscious of their shadow and especially of the darkness in the vital, they become very abusive. Unless one is themselves a real warrior in the vital and has a strong soul-level presence, one ought to stay away from such people, or one can easily get dragged down into the mud of the vital -- fear, anxiety, anger, etc. So I'm staying away, personally, for now, till I have more control over myself.

But I agree it would be fun to see people deconstructing him, and in particularly his use of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. If I ever feel up to it spiritually, I might do it just as an exercise in spiritual discernment more than anything else.

ned said...

Also, as far as I can tell, Gagdad and his friends have a bias that pretty much *precedes* thought: individualism. This is the lens through which they're looking at everything, and so they distort everything they read because they have this emotional attachment to an individualist economic and political agenda.

And that's the sort of bias that people only consent to drop after considerable suffering.

Nagarjuna said...

Ned--
To me, naturalistic spirituality" seems oxymoronic. How can it be "spirituality" if it denies the existence of spirit? And I wonder if all pantheisms deny the existence of higher planes of reality or states of consciousness" or assert that egoic consciousness is as good as it gets.

I try to remain open to the possibility of reincarnation. However, I've never really understood just what it is of personal consciousness that survives or even could survive the death of the physical and biological body. It has always seemed to me that consciousness of any kind is an emergent property of matter and energy functioning at a certain level of structured complexity and that personal human consciousness emerges from a functioning human nervous system.

I think you are wise to stay away from Gagdad's blog for the time being, for the very reasons you state, along with the fact that he and his fellow Raccoons, with their biasing fixation on "rugged individualism" and their elitist "truth" are just not interested in the kind of open-minded and open-hearted discussion or dialogue that you rightfully desire. As for using Gagdad's blog as spiritual exercise, life affords us plenty of such exercise without us having to go out of our way to find it. :-)

But what you might do if you see Bob misrepresenting Aurobindo or the Mother on his blog and you want to address it is post an entry on your blog that addresses his misrepresentation and then link to his blog article. I can almost guarantee you that he and some of his fellow Coons will go to your blog to see what you have to say, and maybe they'll learn something. :-)

Thanks, Ned.

ned said...

Hey Nagarjuna,

Once again, I've got to thank you for letting me safely express myself on your blog. It's been a bit rambly because I'm such a neophyte myself and I don't know that much so I am just putting things together as they come to me, sometimes haphazardly.

About reincarnation: indeed, Sri Aurobindo describes it as an impersonal process that is quite disinterested in our personal situation (or perhaps nonpartisan is a better word). The way he describes it, it is not a personal transmigration of souls as it is described in the popular consciousness at all. You will not be reincarnated as an insect if you were a bad person. :-P It simply has to do with the evolution of consciousness according to Sri Aurobindo, so regressing to older forms of consciousness would defeat the purpose.

Personally I see the value in this doctrine but I also refrain from forming fixed beliefs, because it is one thing to spiritually "see" these things, and another to just mentally describe them. Yoga and having mental beliefs are totally different, they belong to different planes of reality. So I will also say that I am mentally agnostic on reincarnation, but that I have tremendous faith in Sri Aurobindo's vision, and since he seems to have gotten so many things right, I think (from my pov as a devotee), chances are good he's on the money on this subject as well.

But certainly enormous amounts of nonsense have been written about reincarnation and you are right to not believe in them.

A bit more to add on the vital (I hope I am not overwhelming you with integral yoga jargon): it is also the source of tremendous beauty, art, music, and so on. But it is the source of such mixture: pleasure co-exists with pain, beauty with great ugliness, and so on. Consider that incredibly talented musicians and artists can harbour the ugliest prejudices and be totally unconscious of them. Wagner was a raging anti-Semitic despite his many talents. Hitler was inspired by Wagner.

This is also why I really don't think debate has much to do with truth, debates are just power games. In a debate, the vitally stronger person just bullies and overpowers the vitally weaker person, that's it. Truth has very little to do with it; dialogues, I feel are a much better way of arriving at truth. Indeed this is what Sri Aurobindo says: "When, O eager disputant, thou hast prevailed in a debate, then art thou greatly to be pitied; for thou hast lost a chance of widening knowledge."

This is in stark contrast to the soul, which I perceive as being as quiet (making no distinctions) as the mind and vital are noisy and divisive, and which I perceive as being totally above these dualities and *equal* to all of them. Thus the soul can transmute both human beauty and human ugliness to Divine Beauty, human good and human evil to Divine Good, human pain and human pleasure to Divine Ananda, and so on. But most people confuse the vital and the soul -- it's a very dangerous source of human experience because it's so mixed. Foucault for example equates the passions with the soul, but this is a mistake. I think this is what Gagdad's done as well, he has confused the vital with the soul. And I have to admit that in my own spiritual experiences, I too have not had enough discrimination and the vital passions have been mixed with the soul's clear guiding light.

And whereas the soul encourages complete transparency so that the Divine power can act through you, the vital passions compel you to accumulate personal power, which is very dangerous spiritually. The person who accumulates personal power becomes his own first victim, spiritually, and is prone to all sorts of psychological disorders, possibly even psychosis, which is what happened to Sartre and Nietzsche. The former went into depression and the latter into psychosis -- again, vital strength, but little soul-level guidance, somehow they missed out on the Grace.

Ditto with Foucault: in his works he describes power relations and abuses of power exquisitely on the mental plane, but had no idea about how to put theory into practice -- how *do* we put a stop to these abuses of the vital once and for all? Foucault spent the last few years of his life obsessed with sadomasochism and a search for "limit" experiences -- and a fascination with death. To me it is obvious what this is: it is the vital seeking the Divine Ananda, but without an awareness of the soul, one has to resort to external means, crude means, trying to inflict oneself with severe sensations of pain and pleasure to sort of artificially create the experience of Ananda.

Seriously, working with the vital is a dangerous game, it's like playing with fire. All these spiritual gurus who wind up being abusive, it is the same story -- they have not conquered and transmuted the vital, and so they can't resist being abusive from time to time.

I guess I should thank Gagdad Bob, because the insights I've been getting about the vital lately have been directly inspired by the experience of revisiting his blog. ;-) And I've also realized there's tremendous vital arrogance and moral grandiosity in myself as well and it's high time I gave it proper attention from the level of the inner being.

Okay I better stop now, I think I am crossing the line over into self-indulgence. (In fact I think I've left the line long behind now. ;-) )