Becoming Still in America: Thoreau vs. Rand

I recently encountered a sentence that struck me as perfect un-wisdom. It was perfect because, if you turned it completely inside out, it became true: it wasn’t a mixture of wrong and right, but a pure crystal of error. This made it usefully illustrative.

The sentence in question came from Ayn Rand: “In a fundamental sense, stillness is the antithesis of life.” What statement could be more aligned with the ethos of our world, in which all that distracts and provokes the mind into new contortions is hailed as advancement? Apologies to Rand’s worshippers, but the testimony of the world’s greatest mystics indicates the precise contrary: stillness is true life, the core of silence we carry in the midst of noise. (Rand hated mysticism). The busy-ness of the world, the constant hue and cry, are peripheral matters, constantly sweeping us out to the fringes of the universe, away from the still center of our being. As Meister Eckhart put it, “We are all asleep in the outer life”—implying that we are all awake in the inner life.

In America today, the Rand perspective is dominant. Her endless rhapsody to selfishness, Atlas Shrugged, is apparently America’s second favorite book, after (of course) The Bible. Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio have all cited Rand’s opus as though it were holy writ, awkwardly balancing themselves between chestnuts like Rand’s “Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your products by tears” and Jesus Christ’s identification with the poor of the world: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Yet, in the eyes of many Americans, the chasm between these two worldviews seems strangely obscure.

Many of us assume with Rand, on little evidence beyond the worried mutterings of our digitally-stoked anxiety, that the soul is like a shark, which dies when it ceases to move. The prospect of becoming mindful or developing a contemplative life seems like a prison sentence rather than freedom. But when Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond and sought out stillness, he found an infinitely more precious form of freedom, experiencing an intoxicating feeling of identity with all things and all people—which perhaps was part of the reason he supported the Underground Railroad, while Rand supported Barry Goldwater’s segregation-friendly presidential campaign in 1964.

To be clear—Rand opposed slavery, but objected to altruism, writing, “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake.” This statement grants little basis for one to become an abolitionist like Thoreau, and I think it ties into the stillness question. You can’t be empathetic if you’re constantly agitating your mind and treating life as a contest—it doesn’t provide any space for empathy and humanity to emerge. Rand supported Goldwater’s lenience towards segregation, based on the individual’s presumed right to only serve clients and customers of his or her choosing—not, she claimed, racism. Given the brutal images of violence against Civil Rights marchers, which were broadcast daily on TV and which Rand certainly saw, this constitutes a radical failure of empathy and understanding. Even if Rand technically was not a racist, hers was a woeful misreading of the times, not to mention permanently discrediting! On the other hand, Thoreau’s Underground Railroad work demonstrates an exceptional soul, transcending the typically racist views of the era, and actually doing something radical to counteract those views.

In light of this, is it sane and healthy to cultivate a state of mind in which one rails against moochers and fetishizes tycoons?  Are altruism and empathy dirty words? We rightly admire people who manage to create successful and socially-conscious businesses, but part of our admiration stems from the benevolence those businesses contribute to the world. We admire talent and self-reliance, and we admire natural expressions of human goodness: the choice Rand offers in her books, between an insidious life-hating socialism and capitalism-as-religion, is so transparently bogus. At any rate, those who stare with gape-mouthed admiration at the gold-plated seatbelts on “Trump Force One” (Donald Trump’s private jet), but cannot value the altruism of MLK or St. Francis, do not provide a compelling example of human flourishing.

Fortunately, there’s another side to the American experience—what you might call the underground or esoteric side of the American character. Consider Thoreau’s description of his condition during a summer on Walden, and feel free to measure this against any supposedly eloquent passages from Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead:  “Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.”

Which perspective offers water in the desert, Rand’s or Thoreau’s?   Is America packed with too many freeloading woodland sages at present—mere “moochers” purchasing sympathy with tears—or do we have too much of the contrary perspective, the Reptilian impulse to serve only the self? To any non-muddled observer—to anyone who has found at least a sliver of stillness within—the answer should be clear.

If we look at the life of Steve Jobs, we see how stillness can be the antidote, the necessary support system, to a life of action. (The fact that I use the most famous capitalist of our time to highlight my point should show that I’m not hostile to business and human desire—just that I think stillness can add proportion, humanity, and beauty to capitalist endeavors). Negative anecdotes about Jobs are commonplace, but there is something moving about how he turned to Zen meditation to cultivate a space in which his mind might settle. This didn’t kill his mind—wasn’t “the antithesis of life”—but refreshed him in the midst of battle, and evidently influenced the design of his most famous creations. Creativity doesn’t emerge from white-knuckled grasping, but from a state of relaxation and receptivity; as William Blake put it, “Damn braces, bless relaxes.”

Likewise, although Thoreau’s pond-side idyll seemed peculiar and worthless to his neighbors, it gave him the resources he needed to write Walden and to pursue his greater humanitarian project, working on the Underground Railroad and extending his sympathies towards the whole of life. After all, life—real life—is found not where we expected to find it, in the most ardent business maneuverings and political power games, but in the silent awareness of a soul at peace.

Celebrity Smackdown: Thoreau vs. Marx

by Sam Buntz

I’ve never felt the attraction of socialism—although I think I understand what makes it appealing.  For a while, I admit, I was interested in non-Marxist forms of socialism and communal forms of living—like the Christian anarchism of Leo Tolstoy— but this was mainly because those paths made individual development a priority, and they were voluntary associations.  Their existence wasn’t compelled from above by the state, and the thinkers who inspired those movements didn’t say the kinds of things that Karl Marx said— for instance, that “The smallest human unit is two people.”  Although many people find this statement to be a beautiful condensation of the idea that we ought to live for others, it never resonated with me.  In fact, it repelled me.  I do believe we ought to help other people—not that we should be forced to help them, though, since this usually proves to be self-defeating enough.  The idealists who devoutly espouse this principle often seem to think a bit too narrowly about what it means to help other people.  They end up becoming the flip-side of the Ayn Rand worshippers, who make it a moral imperative to live selfishly and not to help others.  That is, they seem to think about charity in primarily material terms—curing hunger and sickness, for example.  But every socialist or communist country that has ever come into existence—and I mean the nations which enforced complete government ownership of all industries and the abolition of most private property, and not the Scandinavian countries, where private property and private enterprise both still exist—seems to have ended by reducing the concerns of humanity to the base material level.  The greatest artists and spiritual figureheads the Soviet Union produced were its dissenters and undertakers—people like Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak—and not the various Stalinist lackeys whose artistic and architectural monstrosities now seem as dead as the empire that funded them.

Undoubtedly, hunger and sickness are enemies we need to fight—but if I insisted that everyone commit themselves to a Marxist notion of what it means to fight them, I would never have allowed Thoreau to spend so much time idling on Walden Pond and in Concord, Mass., taking eight slow years to finally revise and self-publish a book about his often solitary life-experiences. A committed Marxist would’ve seen what many of Thoreau’s more materially-minded contemporaries saw—a lay-about who wanted to “hoard his virtue for himself”, to collect nature-lore and observe the passage of the seasons without ever lifting a finger for others (aside, of course, from sheltering slaves on the Underground Railroad and performing the occasional act of civil disobedience—which are, admittedly, pretty significant instances of Thoreau’s social-conscience.)  All of Thoreau’s contemporaries (except Emerson) were blind to the great gift of Walden—and it failed to find its full audience until the Great Depression clued people into the virtues of simplicity, and again, with a resurgence in the 1960s.  It did eventually have an impact on tens of thousands of people—yet essential to its eventual success was the fact that it had been produced by a man, who, in his lifetime, shirked the idea that we ought to live overtly and materially for others.  He criticized this idea in a passage from Walden:

“I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their lives and works are a blessing to mankind. I do not value chiefly a man’s uprightness and benevolence, which are, as it were, his stem and leaves. Those plants of whose greenness withered we make herb tea for the sick serve but a humble use, and are most employed by quacks. I want the flower and fruit of a man… His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious. This is a charity that hides a multitude of sins. The philanthropist too often surrounds mankind with the remembrance of his own castoff griefs as an atmosphere, and calls it sympathy. We should impart our courage, and not our despair, our health and ease, and not our disease, and take care that this does not spread by contagion.”

This is perfectly balanced wisdom.  But if Thoreau had lived in the Soviet Union, he would’ve been prime fodder for the Gulag.  Of course, post-modern Marxists will argue that the Soviet Union failed to realize Marx’s ideal—which, I would submit, is due to the fact that no one can realize it.  (And besides, the authoritarian state endorsed by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and Mao didn’t depart significantly from Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat”, anyway.)  And I don’t mean to argue that, since Walden never would’ve been written if Thoreau had lived in a communist state, the Marxist idea is totally bankrupt.  I mean to argue that since thousands upon thousands of meaningful achievements, attained by people known and unknown to the world-at-large, would never have happened if they had been circumscribed by Marx’s rigidly material notion of human-development, the Marxist ideal is totally bankrupt.

The American Transcendentalist tradition—which is fairly close to enlightened Libertarianism—is not an enemy of charity, but only of a materialistic notion of charity.  Emerson did say that he thought a dollar given to the philanthropist was a wicked dollar, although he sometimes indulged in it himself, but his meaning was evidently that real charity isn’t second-hand, but something we produce with our own energy and through the use of our own talents.  I used to think Steve Jobs was a bit selfish for saying that he thought he could due more good for the world by investing his money in Apple, rather than trying to set up a massive charitable foundation like Bill Gates, but ultimately I think that both paths are valid.  The Socialist tendency to condemn all private enterprise jars irreconcilably with this fact.  It would be better to start competing, and marketing good and ethically-responsible products against the constant flow of crappy products that don’t improve life, and in fact damage or lessen it, rather than attempting to destroy those wasteful or value-less products through management from above.  Too often we try to combat those products—like the Kardashian shows or whatever cliché object of derision you want to use for demonstration—by railing against the stupidity of the consumer and attempting to get the government or society to somehow protect the consumer from his or her own negative propensities.  But did it ever occur to anyone that the consumer’s attention might actually be more effectively diverted by the production of quality alternatives—by great ideas and slick marketing?  One might need to wait for some time to see the final fruition of the goal (like Thoreau’s ghost had to), but it is important to consider Time as an ally.  Emerson urged people to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness—such advice would’ve probably diverted the energy that was wasted in things like the Occupy Movement into infinitely more effective channels.  Individualism and Libertarianism are not for people who want to manipulate the public interest without creating anything real—they’re for people who believe that the latent powers of mind and will in humanity-at-large will respond when provoked by a true act of creation.

“Last Chance”

by Sam Buntz

[Note: When I first started writing articles for this blog, I swore I would only write about literary, philosophical, cultural, and religious subjects and would completely avoid politics.  Aside from one article about forms of socialism different from Marxism, I have more or less kept this vow.  But now I’m going to break it—not to endorse any candidates or offer up any rant or cant about one political party or another.  I’m writing on just one issue: assisted suicide.  A “Right to Die” bill is on the ballot in Massachusetts, and I feel pressured to express my opposition to it (which I hold for no partisan reasons.)]

In America, people often live their entire lives not only without seeking to understand themselves—to understand the pattern of their lives and their relation to the universe—but without being allowed to understand themselves.  That is to say, their surrounding environment never provided them with a hint as to what the fundamental grounding of their existence might be, could be, or should be.  The press and rush and worry of American existence goads the harried soul on from one exasperated state to the next—the bright minute of enjoyment and the prolonged hour of dullness exchanging places continually.   But when life is coming to an end, and pain and despair—the very things people cite to advocate assisted suicide—are at their most intense, the moment is ripe for the contemplation of these very questions and for the final settling of accounts.  An example of noble dying might be found in the death of Henry David Thoreau, who, when asked on his death bed whether he had made his “peace with God,” said, “I don’t believe we ever quarreled.”  Thoreau was a special case—and for most of us, death is the moment wherein we resolve our quarrel with the universe, or God, or Fate, or Time, or Nature, or whatever we consider the big, basic underlying reality to be.  You could say that the quarrel is the individual life’s struggle with the greater flow of Life onwards, which eliminates the tiny mortal atoms that comprise it as it makes room for new ones.

Death is the moment when the individual’s life can reach an understanding with that greater Life—with Life Itself, in other words.  But death is not just an occasion where this can happen—it is the occasion of occasions.  Read Tolstoy’s short story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” to see how the despair of an average person facing death—which translates easily into our own despair in the face of our mortality—finally resolves itself beautifully.  Ivan Ilyich is able to sign out with no small amount of grace.  But he doesn’t figure himself out, doesn’t figure out the people around him and his relations to them—the ways in which he appreciated and failed to appreciate them, the ways in which they related to him in turn—until he needs to deal with the process of natural death, with the agony and final dissolution of his mortal self.  But he does come to an understanding with Life—and the pain he suffers (representative of the pain we all suffer and will suffer) does not prove to be something that aught to be avoided or violently abridged—though certainly no one would object to massive doses of painkillers.  I’m speaking of mental pain, of the conflict a mind has with itself when faced with the prospect of a great leap in the dark.  This pain presses it toward self-contemplation—toward self-knowledge and, ultimately—what’s greater—toward God-knowledge (though I think if an atheist subs in “Life” for “God,” he or she can understand what I mean just as well—I want this to be accessible.)

A New York Times article recently demonstrated that it is not physical pain that drives most people to commit physician-assisted suicide, but mental pain (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/27/four-myths-about-doctor-assisted-suicide/).  Most people who commit assisted suicide actually are suffering from depression, rather than from unbearable physical agony.  And as the doctor who authored the article observed, most of those people are upper-middle-class or upper-class citizens, used to controlling all aspects of their lives.  When faced with that bright blank called death—you shiver.   It blots out everything you know, eating you up, making you its own child.  And the impulse is then to run away from it, for the ego to assert its own pitiful “I am” one last time in the face of possible annihilation—and make an end itself.  But this is to avoid the last opportunity to look the Beast straight in the eyes—to reach that full self-knowledge and Life-knowledge that few of us ever are lucky enough to attain.  Now, I recognize that we can’t really judge the impulse that a dying person might have to voluntarily blot his or her self out of the ever-unfolding script of life.  I think I actually understand that impulse – but the issue isn’t whether the person’s impulse is right (and I certainly don’t think it is right.) The issue is whether we as a society should approve that impulse, should say that this fear and this despair is ultimately the way to go – that death can only be utter misery, better experienced as caused by your own desperate, tiny fingers, picking up one last bitter pill.

By voting for assisted suicide, we would be saying that the way death all-too-often happens in America—confused and scared, full of dread and despair, and probably in a nursing home, and quite likely totally alone—is how it inevitably should happen.  And your best alternative is just to cut it short.  Taken in this sense, assisted suicide is not a liberal solution – it is a false solution forced on people who have no liberty in the first place, whose choices regarding death are bad because we’ve given them only bad choices.  We have no concept of what used to be called “holy dying,” of the idea that death is the moment when our self-understanding can be at its most fiercely intense and graceful.  I know that this positive mode of death isn’t a delusion – because I have been in rooms where it was happening, where something painful and terrible, yet necessary and meaningful was taking its course.  I was there – this isn’t knowledge brought second-hand or from books.

The idea that life should be about the ego’s right to its own priorities, regardless of what those priorities are or how they interact with the wider ethical obligations of a society, is an absurd concoction of American and Western European derivation.  In parts of India and Tibet (and, I’m sure, in many other places throughout the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim—and even Christian—world), there is still such a thing as “holy dying.”  Death is not something to be so disdained as it is in America, where it is hidden away and left to devour aging and lonely people whose lives go out in ultimate despair.  It is the last chance you really get to understand yourself – and some of the people around you, believe it or not, can actually help you do this.  To vote for assisted suicide is not to cast a ballot for freedom, choice, and all the rest—it is to cast a vote for despair, and to affirm that society should sign off on the despair of its own citizens, provide them with poison, and flush them down to oblivion or worse.  To suggest that the only solution to the problems of the aging elderly is to offer them the option of terminating their own mental anguish with the (false) promise of swift nothingness, is not to stand up for “freedom of choice”—it is to make an ugly assertion.  It is to say that despair is inevitably the way it needs to end, and that the only remedy we can reasonably afford those suffering from that affliction is a quick and artificial death.  Never having known themselves or the world around them—without having seen the richness of their own folly and grief and tenderness, of everything they brought to bear in life and everything they couldn’t bring to bear, brought into the light—the person who commits assisted suicide dies.  They go “from the nothing of life to the nothing of death.”  But neither life nor death should be “nothing.”  And we have no right to sweetly license that “nothing,” with a typical orange plastic tube of pills, all loaded with death, ready at hand.

Now, this issue has nothing to do with the right to refuse medical care or to refuse potentially life-prolonging healthcare.  I totally support that right, and have seen it exercised in my own family.  It has nothing to do with the merits of this argument, which relates to one issue alone—prescribing someone poison, and effectively telling them that they should be in despair and should disintegrate their own souls as speedily as they might.  Yes, it would be a shame to die a natural death alone, in fear, in pain and agony, scared and witless, never really knowing what’s going on.  But it would be an even greater shame to die intentionally without having realized your birthright—without knowing who you are, without having “made your soul.”  It would be the ultimate shame to consciously refuse that due completion.  Assisted suicide is no part of soul-making, or human-making, or “holy dying” – it is oblivion prescribed as a cure-all.  It is a society’s curse on its frailest members.  It is the affirmation of a death in ignorance, hanging on to the ego’s understandable—but terribly misguided—attempt to control its situation.  It is the mark of a society that has forgotten what death actually is—and, therefore, of a society that has forgotten what life is.  It is to snatch away what is literally someone’s last chance.

Skepticism and Mysticism

by Sam Buntz

“The universe is wider than our views of it.” –Thoreau

There are two kinds of skepticism: the first is sandbox skepticism, or skepticism-on-training-wheels.  This is the popular variety, to which we are most often exposed, and even though it isn’t anything like the truly terrifying and comprehensive form of skepticism (which I will discuss presently), it is sometimes useful.  It may serve to discredit the efficacy of power crystals for curing cancer (for instance) or expose the fraudulence of certain claims about aliens being involved in the construction of the Mayan pyramids and other topics that seem to form the bread and butter of the History Channel’s usual mental supper, these days.  The two magician-comedians, Penn and Teller, are adept at this more widespread form of skepticism, which usually ends up wearing thin when its practitioners attempt to stretch it over certain issues.  I recall Penn denouncing psychoanalysis on the basis of the Freud’s alleged cocaine use – despite the fact that Freud gave up coke long before he authored any of his famous works.  It’s a cheap and easy way of discrediting things, usually by making even silly things seem sillier than they really are.  But, I’ll leave this digression, since I’m actually concerned with real, philosophical skepticism, which seems to often be out of the reach of even the most brilliant scientists and physicists currently among us (as I will demonstrate), from Einstein to Hawking to Newton.  I will chart the natural consequences of this pure skepticism, before trying to salvage my own hopes and dreams from the wreckage it has created—discussing how mysticism can overcome some of the limitations to which philosophical skepticism says that we are eternally subject.

The greatest apostle of this gospel of Total Doubt and utter empiricism was David Hume.   Hume reached the stunning realization—seemingly obvious, once you understand it—that using our five senses and our reason, we can gain no real, permanent knowledge of the world around us or even of ourselves.  We think we are describing a universal law or rule when we say that “objects at rest tend to stay at rest until acted on by some outside force” or when we observe that water always flows downhill, but what we are really observing, in Hume’s view, is never an unshakeable and definite law, but a “custom.” We only need to see such a custom once violated, definitely, in order for us to see how it is nothing absolute.  This may have occurred recently, when a group of scientists observed neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light, something that is thought to be impossible.

As Hume said, “Custom is the great guide of human life.”  Not only will he allow us no certain knowledge of the real laws of physics, but he will grant us no absolute, and super-confident trust in any of our senses and perceptions—including in the perception of a self (as Buddhists have been observing for a long time, you can observe your thoughts, but it is seemingly impossible to observe the ego that is apparently having those thoughts.)  The universe, as envisioned by Hume, is distinct from both the cosmos of the religious person and that of the ostensibly skeptical atheist (like that of Penn and Teller or Richard Dawkins.)  There is, for Hume, no way of accessing the real world that exists outside of ourselves (if there is one) or of creating an accurate map of that world—something Christians and Muslims attempt to draw just as Einstein and Newton attempted it in their respective eras.  We cannot figure out with what degree of accuracy we perceive the world around us.  We only have access to a bubbling stream of thoughts and impressions—our brains happen to infer connections and associations between the bubbles in this phenomenal froth, we live awhile as best we can, and then “our place knows us no more.”  What is really out there is, for Hume, always unknowable.  We experience this fleeting world of appearances in solitude, through no source but our own sensations and ideas formed from those sensations, with only secondhand access to those of others.

This skepticism expands into monstrous proportions.  Shelley, the poet—a devoted reader of Hume—wrote in his poem “Mont Blanc”: “Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled / The veil of life and death? Or do I lie, / In dream, and does the mighty world of sleep / Spread far and inaccessibly / Its circles?” Shelley’s unanswered questions get at the horrifying uncertainty that the skeptical realization of our own intellect’s insufficiency makes available to us: we may be living in a castle of dream, surrounded by an infinite number of walls, which only enclose another circle of dreaming.   We may not be capable of a proper adjustment to the greater Nature that lies around us—that is the darkest doubt, to wit, that our own senses may be finally insufficient.  It makes me think of the current controversy in astrophysics as to the nature of “dark matter” and “dark energy.”  Our experiments continually dictate that there must be far more mass and matter in the universe than we can observe because of the gravitational pull exerted by galaxies (far greater than the amount of matter we seem to be detecting), and we also sense that some unseen energy must be causing the universe’s expansion to accelerate.  We have no idea what either of these things could be: every theoretical object so far proposed and probed has proved to be a phantasm.  And what reason is there that we should be able to see these hidden features of our world?  Not that we shouldn’t try to—but there is no reason that we won’t eventually hit a brick wall.  Unless God has intentionally designed human beings to perceive the entirety of physical reality, or evolution accidentally designed us to the same end, some problems posed by the existence of the universe may simply remain beyond our ken.  In fact, I would say that—speaking only from a purely rationalistic perspective, and not from my own convictions and experiences—this is a more likely version of events.  When we look at the other creatures who inhabit our world, we realize that these other creatures have a more limited perspective on reality than we do, though perhaps they also perceive things we cannot perceive—think of a dog’s sense of smell.  But just as a dog’s inability to see color strikes us as a severe limitation, so might our own sensory limits seem to a hypothetical higher life-form.  The German aphorist, Lichtenberg, wrote, “Can there not exist beings who would admire us on account of our ideas of God and immortality in just the way we admire the spider and the silkworm [for their threads]?” And, again, Ludwig Feuerbach said, ““For the caterpillar, the leaf on which it sits is an infinite world.” Taking that quote and applying it to our own situation, we can say that this universe, which we perceive as though it were a vast, possibly infinite space, maybe little more than another leaf, dangling on a shrub at the back of some garden.

Yet scientists like Hawking and Einstein assumed that we were designed—somehow, despite their avowed belief in the lack of a non-material component to existence!—to perceive through all of nature’s mysteries and reach final and total awareness of the complete laws of the physical universe, using only our reason and five senses.  That is as spurious of an intellectual assumption as any.  At least the Catholic assumption that human reason is sufficient to comprehend certain things about the universe (ascertain moral law, for instance) is grounded in the idea that the benevolent God who designed us wouldn’t make our minds and senses play tricks on us (which is itself a problematic assumption, because it claims that a benevolent God’s motives would somehow intersect with our own limited awareness of reality).   But without a spiritual purpose or design, what right has Einstein or Hawking to assume that we can comprehend even more than the smallest fraction of what’s really out there?  Sure, we may be able to construct a working theory which explains all of the things we see, but that may be no more of an accomplishment than that of a frog successfully mapping the bottom of the well in which he lives.

Some scientists hunting for a materialistic explanation for why we can observe everything in the universe—and the idea that we can observe everything is a totally faulty assumption in the first place, as I have been arguing—have posited the idea of a multi-verse, in which all-possible-universes exist, and we happen to live in the one were beings evolved who could perceive everything.  One hopefully sees that this theory only evolved to justify an assumption founded on nothing but humanity’s overconfidence in its own mental capacity.   If we were color-blind and had still made all the same observations about the physical working of the universe, we would still celebrate our scientific conquests with the same degree of confidence that we now possess, not realizing how much we are failing to perceive—and if anyone did show up talking about color, he or she would be locked up or forced to recant.   No doubt, if an ant could think discursively, it would probably believe that it comprehended the sum of all things, just as we do.  And yet there is no reason to believe that our theories and models of how the universe works are anything more than ad hoc attempts to carve a semblance of order out of the shambles.

Thus far, we have successfully pursued the most serious and all-encompassing form of skepticism straight to the bottom, suffering its direst conclusions without fear.  Ultimately, it either leads to a Hamlet-like indecision, constantly thinking and re-thinking over our inability to know, or to a kind of nihilism, in which we live carelessly, with only a shrug for explanation.  This is not the nihilism of serial-killers and sociopaths, but that of an intellectual who, because he or she “thinks too well,” can find faith “neither in God nor in himself nor herself.”  Thankfully, I was only trying to break everything down in order to try to build it back up—but I have only the prospect of a leap in the dark to offer any readers.  If they don’t feel any affinity for the means that I try to use to crawl up this tunnel of infinite doubt back into the light, I can only shrug my shoulders, helplessly.  I mean to talk about mysticism.

For the record, David Hume would not at all follow me into mystical territory.  His own smart and shallow view was that we should simply follow the customs—whether physical, social, or moral—regnant in our time and place, and let our passions, within moderation, dictate our conduct.  These are the conclusions of someone who you could call a brilliant Philistine—someone with as much intellect as you could imagine, but no imagination or aspiration of any sort.  This would be the only conclusion if reason and the five senses were—as many think they are—all we have.  But I prefer G.K. Chesterton—a personal favorite—who called mysticism “a transcendent form of common sense,” and went on to say: “Mysticism and common sense alike consist in a sense of the dominance of certain truths and tendencies which cannot be formally demonstrated or even formally named. Mysticism and common sense are alike appeals to realities that we all know to be real, but which have no place in argument except as postulates.”

George Harrison (he, of the Beatles) said that when he travelled to India for the first time, he would get into discussions about spirituality with certain intellectuals he encountered there.  When they asked him the question, “Do you believe in God?” Harrison would say, “Yes,” to which they replied, “How can you believe in God until you see God?”  This was one of the factors that kindled Harrison’s interest in meditation, and his life-long involvement with Hinduism—the realization that belief in God did not need to be a matter of blind-faith, requiring one to check one’s common sense in at threshold of any old creed.  The response offered by Harrison’s interlocutors is the same as the more blunt assessment offered by Swami Vivekananda: “You see Christ, then you’re a Christian.  All else is just talk.”  Mysticism overthrows skepticism by helping us to get beyond the limitations of the faculties which skepticism discerns—it allows that perception of Christ or God or Brahman or Whom or What you will.

The diverse forms of mysticism all aim to allow one into a direct apprehension of Deity.  We escape the limitations of our five senses and our reason simply by moving beyond them and learning to use other modes of perception of which we are normally unconscious.  Our will and desire can expand our reach beyond our current grasp.  Refuse to believe this if you will—it’s not a matter of belief, anyway, but of verification through practice and experiment.  My encounters with several remarkable persons and continued study of the topic have demonstrated to me that there are human beings—maybe even more commonly to be found than we suppose—who have so cultivated their will and desire that they can actually expand their awareness of reality beyond the crude circle pressed down by the cookie-cutter circumference of the five senses.  William Blake spoke of expanding the senses from their currently limited angle of vision into an unlimited awareness—to perception of the infinite—using (in his case) the reading and writing of visionary poetry as a spiritual discipline.

My own determination is that this is no idle fantasy.  Plenty of Hindu yogis and Buddhists monks throughout the ages seem to have attained such a wider perception to some degree, and a chosen number seem to have attained to the infinite perception—union with Brahman or the Godhead—of which Blake spoke.  The great Christian mystics, Sufis, and Kabbalists seem to have also had many powerful experiences and produced many great saints, though I venture to say that the world outside of India and the Far East does not seem to have bothered to cultivate this pursuit to the same degree or give it the room it needs to grow and flourish or to acknowledge that it alone can give us the knowledge that we really need to orient ourselves in the universe.  So far as a religion encourages the aspiration toward such knowledge, it seems to me a good thing—as the Eastern Orthodox Church did when it affirmed the practice of the “hesychasm” (mystical prayer) over critics who attacked it as heretical.  Insofar as a religion stifles or ignores it, it must be a hindrance—as the Catholic Church was when it persecuted the great mystic, Meister Eckhart, or as the Lutheran Church was when it persecuted the cobbler-saint, Jacob Boehme (perhaps the greatest spiritual genius Europe has produced.)

Mysticism, properly understood, should not be considered a subset of occultism and New Age eccentricities, but rather the only practice—whether pursued through Raja Yoga or the Eastern Orthodox “Jesus prayer” or whatever other sincere and authentic forms of mystical practice still exist in the world—that can liberate us from our current prison of skepticism, which highlights the inadequacy of our own sensory apparatus, and demonstrates that our situation is precisely that of the prisoners stuck in Plato’s cave.  Our average religions and scientific models all too often prove to be only theories of shadows—analyzing the patterns of motion they cast along the cavern walls—and the little light they manage to shine seems artificial.  But the writings of the mystics and the poetic visionaries suggest the existence of something else, a world which we may, in the fullness of time, experience—the world of real forms, illuminated by real light, shining down from a real sun.  We will enter this world, as Emerson wrote, “without more wonder than the blind man feels who is gradually restored to perfect sight.”

It is this hope that gives me the strength I need—not only to write, but to live.