Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Relativity of Delusion (part 2)


     As was mentioned previously, deviations from so-called "normal" human psychology appear to be more common within the New Age subculture—or it may be more explanatory to say that New Age embraces these eccentric frames of mind more than does mainstream Western scientific materialism. Whereas a person with, say, certain "schizoid" tendencies might be marginalized and negated by the more extraverted, objective, rationalistic, and narrow-minded cultural mainstream, they may easily find a place in a New Ageish society where they are accepted, even valued, rather than being viewed as a lunatic. A person who may seem delusional by mainstream standards, and thus regarded as a burden on, or menace to, society, may be much more functional among members of such a subjective, even surreal, subculture. For example, I once knew a woman in California who had a classic, textbook case of schizophrenia (tangential thought, hearing voices, believing herself to be a Buddha and insisting that people treat her as such, freezing like a statue when she didn't like what was going on, failing to see any reason why she should actually cooperate with others, etc.), and was very difficult to accept patiently at times; yet she actually had a few followers and devotees, who considered her to have some genuine spiritual attainment, among the local New Age community. It does make good sense that people would gravitate toward an environment in which they "fit in." Sociopaths and other misfits gravitated toward the wild, wild western frontier of America during the 19th century, and, more recently, I gravitated toward Burma.
     It is also interesting, and significant, how the New Age mind compares with the mentality of certain traditional cultures, like those of American Indian tribes. There appear to be obvious similarities, especially with regard to spirits, "sacred geography," and the more animistic orientation to reality in general; and some American Indian shamanistic phenomena, like sweat lodges, vision quests, "medicine" ceremonies, and ritual burning of sage or tobacco for purposes of purification, have been readily incorporated into the New Age spectrum. One of the main guides of the author of the New Age manuscript sent to me was an American Indian—for example, it was he who advised our hero to pray outdoors in his underwear. He also instructed him with regard to spirits and fasting.
     In fact it seems to me that the New Age mentality—the manner if not all of the content—is not "New" at all. It seems actually to be very much older than mainstream scientific materialism, and probably more closely resembles THE predominant human mentality for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years; so it's probably not nearly so crazy as some people would like to think it, regardless of its embracing an orientation that is debatably a few cards shy of a full tarot deck. Consider popular Paganism as it existed in Europe during the Roman Empire (as can be seen, for example, in The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius, the earliest extant novel in Western literature): sorcery, fortune telling, omens, prodigies, communications from gods and spirits, prophetic dreams, gods controlling people's thoughts—all commonplace (not to mention orgiastic cults, sex slaves, and the occasional human sacrifice).
     It turns out that there are many versions of reality, and the "true" one almost always happens to be, through some fortunate coincidence, the one of our own culture. A "superstitious" Burmese villager who can see ghosts, a fundamentalist Christian who has felt the touch of God's finger, a fervently devout Hassidic Jew, a devoutly academic biologist who is the world's leading authority on some obscure family of nematode worms, a sociopathic business executive obsessed with money and power, a teenager obsessed with being fashionable, etc., are all living in very different worlds from each other, very different versions of reality. Our world is largely subjective, and each being's version is unique. Thus even a "delusional" world, even if only a single person partakes of it, still has its own sort of validity. We create our own reality, and there is no necessity for us all to create worlds which agree on all points, or even on most points. It's all relative. 
     Considering myself as a case history, there is no doubt that many would regard me as goofy as the proverbial pet coon. I live in a cave, and wear the same brownish toga every day. I have an irrational preference for odd numbers (for example, my alarm clock is set for 6:05, and I prefer to set out on journeys on odd-numbered days, although I did eat four tangerines this morning without difficulty). I am not a materialist; and I seriously favor the idea that, if a phone rings, my own mental states as I answer it help to determine who is at the other end of the line. The same goes for someone knocking at the door—my attitude as I open that door helps to determine who is knocking. For that matter, I sometimes soliloquize when I am alone; and on one memorable occasion I noticed a weed growing near the cave, squatted down before it, and said, "Who's a good little weed, eh? Who's a good weed? Yes, y-o-o-u-u-u! You're a good little weed!" Indulging in playful banter with weeds is not exactly normal. And to top it all off, I don't like money all that much, and turn it down even if it's offered to me. However, my own brand of eccentricity seems not particularly compatible with New Age. I've considered that I might be able to exist in America at some sort of New Ageish "intentional community," as people at such places tend to be openminded, accepting, generous, and sincere. I've considered the idea that I could serve the New Age community by providing it with some reasonable philosophical foundation. But New Age seems to place little value on reason and logic, or else they are unable to identify them precisely, and I might be climbing the walls of such a place within a matter of a few weeks. (A dear friend of mine, knowing of my considerations, showed me the movie Wanderlust as a warning of what I might encounter.) It would be nice, as a monk, to find a viable middle path in the West somehow, a middle path between dogmatic rationalism and complete disdain for reason in general. But maybe that's crazy.
     Well then. What is crazy? What is insanity? Does it simply mean that one's mind is too out of kilter for one to function in one's environment? That may amount to a good functional definition. If so, then the young man described in "A Strange Experience on the Street" (24 Aug 2012) might be just a borderline case: His mind was all fragmented, and he was clearly deeply troubled, "in disarray," as he called it, and he was definitely not "normal," yet still he was somehow functioning in the world, even if he happened to be sleeping under a bridge and eating handouts. If a person sees visions, hears voices, and believes that spirits are influencing his thoughts, so what? So long as he is not incapacitated by this, and still manages to be reasonably happy, then he is still doing okay. If these symptoms are "purified" and exalted, as in seeing the Blessed Virgin, hearing the voices of angels, and feeling one's mind being controlled by the Spirit of God, then one might even be a great saint. Many saints have exhibited such symptoms—people who in certain important respects are the sanest people in their culture.
     The Buddhist conception of delusion is rather more strict. Delusion (moha), and especially derangement or perversion (vipallāsa), is a matter of viewing what is impermanent as permanent, what is painful as pleasant, what is not self as self, and what is foul as beautiful. The reversal of these, viewing what is permanent as impermanent, etc., could also apply as "derangement." Consequently, according to Buddhism, everyone except for a fully enlightened being is deluded, and insane. It is true that Buddhism does distinguish between insanity in a philosophical sense, as explained just now, and the more conventional insanity of being out of one's mind to the point of being no longer responsible for one's actions; there's crazy, and then there's crazy. But overall it is safe to say that the closer to enlightenment one is, the fewer delusions one is laboring under (although this would not rule out mere il-lusions: a sage can see a mirage as easily as the next person, even though he or she is not misled by it), the fewer desires and attachments one has, and the more sane one is—regardless of the content of one's perceptions, or even of visions and voices. Neem Karoli Baba and Ramana Maharshi were practically superhuman beings with regard to wisdom, regardless of their outlandish behavior and the fact that one of them worshipped a mythological monkey, and the other one worshipped a hill. In short, sanity equals wisdom
     While I'm still on the subject, pretty much, of Theravada Buddhist philosophy, I may as well mention in passing that Buddhism speaks of the five faculties, or powers, in which the two faculties/powers of faith (saddhā) and reason (paññā—here not meaning "wisdom" or anything transcendental) should be kept in balance. Too much faith, and you believe whatever people tell you, no matter how ridiculous; too much reason, and nobody can tell you anything you are not already predisposed to hear, no matter how wise. In this dichotomy New Age favors the faith side and Scientism favors the reason side (although Scientism is by no means the only possible reason orientation, just as New Age is not the only possible faith orientation). A middle path between the two, if it could be found, would be most conducive to wisdom. 
     I may as well also mention in passing an idea that occurred to me not long ago which may be applicable to New Age. People with a faith orientation, which is about the same as saying people with a heart orientation, identify more with their feelings than with their thoughts. Thus, to people of this temperament, having a belief system that makes water-tight logical sense is not nearly so important as it would be to a top-heavy intellectual. And identifying more with feelings than with thoughts is, in its own way, just as valid, or invalid, as the reason/head orientation. (Conversely, intellectual types may appear to have infantile, insensitive, shallow, very fragmentary, or otherwise dysfunctional emotional natures, and thus to be divorced from Reality, when regarded by those of the heart orientation.) This may also explain to some degree an observation I've made before, that some heart-oriented people may use certain words as though they are quite familiar with them, yet if they are asked to define those words, they are at a loss. When the meaning of their universe manifests mainly as feelings, the meaning of a word is predominantly affective, with the actual dictionary denotation being only a kind of outward form, the extraneous clothing of the word, so to speak. What they feel when they use or hear the word is really what the word means for them, and they may not be able to communicate that feeling adequately, especially when communicating with a head-oriented person who is asking what they mean. Yet they may, some of them, have a wise, elegant emotional logic, despite the fact that their intellectual logic seems like flagrant rubbish to a logician.
     The cultural mainstream of hardheaded scientific Western materialism is "sane" (in the sense of undeluded) only in a conventional, democratic sense, regardless of how comprehensive and mutually interlocking its beliefs are. Western society still serves as a model for H. G. Wells' story "The Country of the Blind"; and as Wells points out in the story, in the Country of the Blind the one-eyed man is not king—in the Country of the Blind the one-eyed man is commonly judged to be an insane idiot. And some of our blindness may be to some of the "metaphysics" acknowledged, if only semi-coherently, by New Age. (This particular situation reminds me of René Guénon's claims that people of the modern West have locked themselves into a kind of shallow intellectual shell which prevents them from seeing most of Reality. His ghost haunts me sometimes.) Westernized culture is not necessarily even the sanest system available, especially if one considers its tendency toward one-sided objectification and the consequent alienation of its members, not to mention the rather intolerant, exclusive philosophical monoculture. Then again, I am a bit intolerant of "soft-headed" irrationality also. Not enough saddhā, I suppose.
     A potentially useful and non-complicated way of looking at the issue is that sanity is more a matter of happiness than of beliefs. Buddhist philosophy asserts that delusion is the cause of desire and attachment, which in turn are the causes of all suffering; and it simply stands to reason that if we have less delusion we are bound to have less friction in our lives, and consequently less unhappiness. Thus the sanest person is the happiest person. But I'm not implying that a person who laughs maniacally all day, every day (and I'm pretty sure there are people like this in mental hospitals) is deeply happy; in all likelihood such people are not very happy at all, once one gets past the surface. Even someone who is smiling whenever someone else is looking is not necessarily happy. Genuine happiness is more a matter of consciously accepting the way things are, even though "the way things are" is an illusion. The sanest person is the wisest person is the happiest person. Sane is wise is happy. Happiness is closer to Reality than unhappiness.
     Here is another angle for tackling the issue: Dharma teaches that it is not the physical action of a person that really counts from an ethical point of view, but rather the associated volitions; similarly, it is not a person's belief system that is of key importance with regard to their wisdom and happiness, but rather the volitions associated with that system, including their responses and reactions to it. However, just as it is virtually impossible to have positive volitions while performing some physical acts, like axe-murdering somebody, so it is very difficult to have positive volitions while harboring certain beliefs, for example that demons, sorcerers, and/or the CIA are controlling one's thoughts, or that one deserves to be beaten senseless, while tied up naked, by a violent psychopath.
     So, again, a person may believe all sorts of problematic notions (for example, that she can remember a past life as Queen of the Lumanians, or that she can fly in her astral body to the Egyptian pyramids, or that she can communicate with rocks, or that she is a sotapanna, or that the American Indians are a race of degenerate Jews, or that God is one God and Muhammad is His prophet, or that consciousness is nothing more than a side effect of brain chemistry, or…), yet if she is deeply happy, and is not incapacitated by the uniqueness of her beliefs, then she is doing all right. Perceptual beliefs may be almost totally irrelevant with regard to one's approach to Reality. In this respect of happiness also, mainstream Western culture is evidently not the system most conducive to wisdom or highest truth. Even if you have been fortunate enough to have been born into the society that has finally found The Truth, or the next best thing to it with only a few stray gaps to be filled in, if you are not happy, then so what? What good is that so-called Truth doing you? Well? Are you deeply happy? That is really the test question. 
     Every person's perceived world is relatively real, but not ultimately so. Each person's world is relatively valid, regardless of what the majority believes. Thus in the world of the hero of that New Age manuscript people did control his mind, and the slave woman could drive a car more easily with her eyes closed than with them open, and the demonic Gorm did give the immature loudmouth punk boyfriend psychic powers for the purpose of providing him with souls to devour. His world is just as much a "real" world as anyone else's. Whether he could accept his world happily or not, though, is a whole different ball of fish.
     This whole idea that belief systems are irrelevant to enlightenment used to be very difficult for me to accept, damned provoking in fact, and I would guess that some people who read this also find it very difficult, or extremely difficult, to stomach. I used to think that, if an enlightened being can still endorse what appears clearly to be superstitious hogwash, then what good is enlightenment? What good is being free of suffering if one is still delusional? Some relatively wise form of rational philosophy might actually be preferable. But when one starts to realize that Reality is Emptiness, or Void, the trouble is greatly reduced. I used to go with the slogan "Truth before happiness" until it dawned on me that ultimate happiness, Nirvana, sat-cit-ananda, "the peace that passeth all understanding," love, is the only ultimate truth.
     I used to use the word "postmodern" in the vague sense of something like "very modern" or "nowadays" without realizing that it means something specific. I discovered just last year that Postmodernism is an intellectual, artistic, and religious movement which emphasizes the idea that human truth and "rightness" are subjective and culturally conditioned; that, in Samsara at least, there is no highest or absolute truth. So it turns out that I've unwittingly been a Postmodernist for years (with the qualification that there is an Absolute, but that it is indeterminate and cannot be successfully symbolized). But most of Western society isn't Postmodern yet, and is still only Modern, or modern with a little "m." At any rate, it presents all the more reason for empathy and mutual acceptance.
     What it all boils down to is: Be careful of what you believe, because your believing it makes it true for you, and also helps to make it at least a little true for everyone around you, since mental states can be contagious. Believing something that you can't be happy with is hell. If you believe something terrible and can't let it go, then observe it with mindful detachment, like an ichthyologist observes a dead fish. And if you can't manage that, then purify and uplift it, like by seeing it in a more universal context. ("What happened to me was the payment of a great karmic debt." "The Universe is intensively purifying me by giving me just as much as I can possibly handle." "Man's extremity is God's opportunity.") But ultimately it isn't true anyway. 
     In conclusion, I would like to advise the author of the controversial manuscript, if he reads this, either to steer clear of the "novel" form and emphasize the documentary New Age training aspect, or else make the story more fictional, with much more objective, tangible conflict; and in either case, weed out most or all of the unnecessary distractions—like the attractiveness of the waitress at the Greek restaurant, the salmon carcass episode, the reactions to the new chicken coop, etc.—which appear to make up as much as 20% of the book. And try, in so-called "real life," to accept the Way Things Are. The way things are may require decisive, James Bond-like action, but the situation itself is totally, consciously acceptable in the present moment nevertheless, without unnecessary worry, hunched shoulders, choked voice, and blurry vision. Oh, and use more commas, man (not "commas man"). 




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