Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Reader Writes...

I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, but today I’m going to post nothing more than a response to a single reader comment, Sacred Slut’s response to yesterday’s post.

Among the items in her well reasoned discussion, Slut notes that many atheists do feel the draw of a spiritual component, but prefer a non-theistic approach. I’m heartened by this, though I don’t see such an attitude as all that widespread. She then suggests that we define the emotional, feeling side of experience as “spirit” and says this is the aspect to which we should give rightful attention. And finally, she asks for further discussion of the premise that “spirit” is energy, and for an argument that consciousness may survive after death.

First of all, I have to say that I do not subscribe to the hindu-buddhist notion of a literal transmutation of individual human consciousness. I see this as a remnant of eastern folk-lore religion, not a component of the modern eastern philosophy. Reincarnation itself is for me and for many modern Buddhists a symbol of the cyclical nature of all existence. It’s the folklore equivalent of astrophysics concept of an oscillating cosmos.

(Slut asked for a reading list; I would point out anything by Chogham Trungpa, particularly The Lion’s Roar, for evidence of how modern Buddhist scholars view the idea of different “realms” of reincarnation. In this book, Trungpa states that we should think of these different realms as psychological states, not literal rebirths.)

Slut makes a couple of premises, though, that violate my own assumptions. First of all, I don’t believe that true spirit or consciousness is the “emotional-feeling” part of us at all. What we aim for is well past that. Much of what commonly thought of as mind is not mind in the Buddhist sense, but simply another manifestation of body.

This includes thought, which is not considered special or spiritual in any way. Nor is emotion, even pleasant ones, thought to be evidence of some divine state. These things are considered aggregates—temporary assemblies of matter that will arise and fall away like everything else. They are not particularly important. Eastern mysticism points at something beyond and antecedant to thought and emotion. Although perception of the mystical may well stimulate intensely pleasurable feelings, the feelings are a byproduct, not the goal.

Where this leads us to is that consciousness itself is defined much differently in many eastern philosophies than it is in the west.

What westernerns call consciousness is not the thing that Buddhists believe travels on after death. At best, the thing we call human consciousness is nothing much more than a very rudimentary, vestigal form of the universal consciousness we believe exists. Consciousness is not the condition of being awake-and-out-of-bed. It refers to much more rarified condition.

So most Buddhists wouldn’t argue with the premise that mundane human consiousness is extinguished at death. This is somewhat like saying that, although twilight marks the death of a single day, it doesn’t mark the end of the sun itself.

The goal of Buddhist mysticism is stop dwelling on the day (small individual consciousness) in order to have experience of the sun (universal consciousness).

Next, I would say to Slut that I sense that she wants me to present some kind of scientific evidence of the truth of this. Alas, it can’t really work that way, since these are truths that use entirely different vocabularies. I can’t describe mystical truth using the language of science, anymore than I could write a sonnet using decimal mathematic language. It doesn’t translate that way. Nor could you translate a sonnet from English to Russian, because the rhyme schemes simply couldn’t work.

But there is perhaps a form of logical thought that might be followed.

If you read the biographies of Newton, Albert Einstein and a host of other scientific minds, you begin to see a pattern. Many of the most startling scientific discoveries seem not to be the product of reason at all, but often arrive at moments of utter detached receptivity. The Law of Specific Gravity, for example, is said to have simply popped into Archimedes head at a moment of utter rest. And Einstein was fabled for the fact that his insights were not products of reasoning at all, but products of inspiration. The literature is full of examples like this. Although there is a good deal of reason and logic that goes into the utililization of scientific insight in applied science, the insight itself—the theoretical science-- seems quite divorced from reason, and much more closely resembles the insight of the mysticism. Perhaps its not power of intellect at all, but mental receptivity that is most important.

What this suggests to some of us is the presence of a larger consciousness which gifted or skilled individuals may be privileged to tap into. What we suspect is that science discovers nothing; it simply sees, at long last, what is already there. Cutting edge minds in both science and mystical pursuit often have exactly the same experience in the throes of insight—they report simply coming upon an understanding that is already present.

The “already there” is what we Buddhists would call universal consciousness. We believe that death probably simply involves the return of puny human consiousness to the universal pool. And for some people particularly advanced in the pursuit of consciousness, we don’t discount the possibility that a perception of universal consciousness, once achieved, could be maintained through a death cycle. For an astronaut circling the earth at the right speed, there would be no night and day—only day.

It’s for this reason, I think, that many Eastern thinkers have no quarrel with science at all. They don’t see science at odds with mysticism. The Dalai Lama, for example, is fascinated by scientific study, and keeps quite current on all research pertaining to the study of human happiness. This fact often surprises western scientists when they first are confronted with Buddhism. We really don’t see that science and religion are at war at all. The goal of both, we feel, is an understanding of the mechanics of human happiness.

So perhaps it is the case that Buddhism, next to genuine humanism, most closely approximates the non-theistic approach to spirituality that Slut describes.

What will we do, without something to argue about?


Glamourpuss said...

I aggre with Slut - many people have spiritual leanings but eschew religion for all the reaons cited in your previous post.


Shimmerrings said...

This is an excellan post. And I think I agree with nearly everything that you said. Nearly. I've always seen Spirit, that living breath, as like a big swirling, boiling pot of "stuff" in the sky... and when we are created, or "come to be" some of that stuff is taken from the pot and we are born... and when we die, that majical, swirling stuff goes back into the pot, and is mixed with all the rest of what is... and it repeats itself, over and over. No wonder so many people think they used to be Cleopatra, in a past life? Universal consciousness? Cellular memory on a fantastic level?

A lot of what I always believed has been refined and refined again. And it's hard to let go of ideas that give us security, or bring us some form of peace. I'm not so sure of how I feel about the survival of an individual human consciousness. Having lost a loved one to death, I've experienced things that are hard to deny and let go of... but, the further away those events became, the less I feel what I felt then. However, to let go of what was my reality, then, is like denying so much of what seems to make sense... and to have happened. The mind and the human psyche are wonderous and curious things. It's a hard thing to do, let go and make room for the truth (which is very individual, on some levels)... and I can be stubborn that way. I'm not sure that I believe that the mind and spirit/soul are the same thing.

I agree, science and religion don't have to be at odds with one another. On the other hand, when you are aware, as you shared, that these geniuses of science... even artists... somehow gain their information or insight "in a moment" then it's hard to believe that they aren't getting this information from someplace on "the other side." Then again, I am in full agreement that it's not so much how smart one is, as how open one's mind is... which is why we spend so much time meditating, trying to unclog things, eh. I've had moments in my own life when things just came so much more easily than other times... and I've read things that I wrote long ago, that didn't sound as if they could possibly have come from me, having read them years later, because I retained hardly any memory of what I had written, much less understand it, when reading it now.

Shimmerrings said...

p.s. sometimes it seems as if we are merely puppets in this universe... but, the irony of that is that we are also the puppeteer... and that brings me back to the same spot as before... that we create our own realities. It's almost as if the swirling mix is there at our disposal, to form what we will of it.

Jerri said...

I've never seen it described better: "The goal of Buddhist mysticism is stop dwelling on the day (small individual consciousness) in order to have experience of the sun (universal consciousness)."

Remember the monkey experiment? The one where monkeys on one island were taught to wash their bananas and monkeys on another (disconnected) island started to do it, too. And we've read and discussed the evolution of intelligence.

Fascinating stuff, Merc.

August said...

What a beautiful & lucid description of the "already-there" belief.

Personally, in moments of profound inspiration I've felt literally out of my mind, that is, outside of my thoughts -- as if I were riding the wave of something larger... For someone who holds the mind in high esteem, it was a stunning discovery.


sacred slut said...

Mercurious, thank you for your answer. I think your belief system is lovely.

I agree with your comments about consciousness having no reality. I've read a little bit about it and find it rather overwhelming to think that "I" am just some kind of mental construct. If I think about it too much, it's hard to function.

As to the universal consciousness idea, I'm a materialist kind of girl. In the absence of evidence, I don't think one can know anything. Then we are in the realm of relying on emotion and feelings, IMO, to "intuit" things.

The fact that a few extremely talented individuals on the far end of the bell curve could "tap into" advanced insights (based on their previous research and knowledge anyway) doesn't seem to be evidence of any external intelligence that would be communicating with all of us, but instead a testament to the ingenious human brain.

What would be the nature of this intelligence? Doesn't saying that we can't know put this intelligence in the same category as the other gods. Either it's real and knowable or it's not.

I'm going to quit now because I don't see any upside in trying to poke holes in your beliefs. I think you've given this a lot of thought and it works for you. I even like it pretty well - I just can't buy it, unfortunately.

Pleasance said...

Great work.