The question I ask in this long form essay is: “Why are people not kinder to one another and to all sentient beings? Why, indeed, is not kindness the default mode?”
And the answer I come to is this one: we are not clear and we are not wise.
I’d like to take you on the path that brought me here.
“Man is immersed in dreams… He lives in sleep… He is a machine.”
I. Living in a Dream
Until the age of 29, I had been living in a dream. Indeed, I had been immersed in one. It told me: “You are here to think about humans in the objective world. You can do this through an institution called ‘a university.’ Go and devote yourself to this pursuit by finishing a Ph.D. and by getting an academic job.”
After all those years of living in this dream, I unexpectedly swerved. I finished a Ph.D. and knew something was wrong.
In January 2009, I spent countless hours looking out of my kitchen window into the backyard. There, hanging from the eaves was a bird feeder. The bird feeder had–presumably by past tenants of this house–been attached to the eaves via a coat hanger that had been pulled apart and subsequently MacGyvered.
It was a precarious affair. Since it was a very cold, snowy winter, the bird feeder had been wrapped in layer upon layer of ice. So freighted, it hung–let’s say, for dear life–dangling fatefully above the ground.
I looked at it. I stared at it. I lost myself in the staring. Why did I do this?
Because, in hindsight, it could be said that it was what the poet T.S. Eliot once called an “objective correlative”: that is, an object that seems to correspond to one’s mental state. What I could not yet put into words–how distant I felt from everything, how quietly despairing and utterly lost I really was–was nonetheless represented in the bird feeder. It said, painfully: “Wake up, man. The dream is over. ”
II. Existential Opening
What I experienced then could be called an “existential opening.” By the latter, I mean whatever it is that breaks one open in such a way that the questioner is turned back on herself. That is, an existential opening is, well, what opens me to my existence. Rattled, shaken, partially awakened, I look at my face, my hands, the world, and wonder–maybe–whether it is all just a dream. All this, yes. But, even more, once I’m existentially opened, I bend each question I ask back on myself because, if only dimly or inchoately, I know that I am implicated in what it is I seek. In the beginning and in the end, the one I seek is myself. Henceforth, I cannot bracket myself from my investigations.
I learned this, also around January 2009, in no uncertain terms upon reading the beautiful and life-changing writings of the French philosopher Pierre Hadot. What Hadot showed me was that philosophy is, in essence, not a theoretical discourse but rather a series of exercises–those he called ascesis or “spiritual exercises”–whose point is to utterly transform the practitioner’s way of being.
In Classical Greece and also in the Hellenistic period, philosophical schools arose, each of these (Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoical, etc.) being like an ashram or a Zen monastery and all of them being committed to more than mere intellectual pursuits in the art of living. The point of these schools, to put it all too quickly, is to be living wisdom. Here’s how Hadot describes spiritual exercises in his book Philosophy as a Way of Life:
Above all, the word “spiritual” reveals the true dimensions of these exercises. By means of them, the individual raises himself up to the life of the objective Spirit; that is to say, he re-places himself within the perspective of the Whole.
Here as elsewhere, Hadot describes in considerable detail exercises focused on the art of attention, those of a meditative nature, those on learning to dialogue (Socratic dialogue most especially), and, of course, those exercises in dying. For Cicero once observed of Socrates as he’s depicted in Plato’s dialogue the Phaedo: “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”
I was hooked. I resolved to devote myself to certain of these spiritual exercises–most notably, to the art of dialogue–with the goal of becoming wise.
III. Psychotechnologies Wildman
That was from 2009 until 2012. And now I have a confession to make: I’ve since become a psychotechnologies wildman.
Hold onto your seat: Each day I meditate, in a pretzel position, three times for over three hours in all. The meditations, varied in nature but coming out of Rinzai Zen, are contemplations of the nature of ultimate reality. Additionally, my wife Alexandra and I have gone on meditation retreats, which can involve sitting in meditation for 12 or more hours a day as well as sitting through part of the night. And since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we’ve been doing weekly zazenkai and, in the past three months, monthly sesshin.
What’s more, we’ve begun exploring other non- or more-than-cognitive exercises, including Zen chanting and recitations of, for instance, the 10 Cardinal Ethical Precepts in Buddhism; energetics in hopes of understanding, in an experiential way, how energy flows; Tantric yoga and Focusing with a view to dissolving pain bodies; dream yoga to expand our conscious awareness into the dream and dreamless states; and others besides. While it would be hard to describe any of these in great detail, let alone to demonstrate them, here’s one that may give you a taste of what I mean:
“The Five Remembrances”
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my own belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
Granted, to the uninitiated, these psychotechnologies and countless others may seem odd, or pointless, or just downright woo woo. Why on earth, it could be asked, would one do all this, let alone, outside of a monastic setting, devote one’s life to these sorts of things?
Well, answering this question will take me to the very heart of this piece.
IV. Chief Claims
I come straightaway to my four chief claims:
- To begin with, we — collectively, I mean — are neither clear nor wise. That is, we are not embodying living wisdom.
- Secondly, because we are neither clear nor wise, we modern human beings, as we are, are not just suffering (where “suffering” is understood here in a Buddhist key); we are also not up to the task of facing certain existential predicaments as I’ll explain shortly.
- Thirdly, the source of our collective dis-ease, I’ll seek to show, is Humanism (otherwise known as anthropomorphism).
- And lastly: What I’m calling “psychotechnologies,” exercises whose central point is to transform our entire being, will be necessary if we’re going to stand a chance of tasting eudaimonia, that is, of experiencing genuine human flourishing and of reconstituting the cosmotheandric Whole.
Part 1: Context
We face a number of predicaments today. Here are five that come to mind:
- One: Total Work has been transforming human beings into Workers over the slow course of modernity. The consequences are needless misery and the near-loss of our capacity for deep contemplation.
- Two: Nation-states really only became prominent in the nineteenth century, liberal democracy only, for Francis Fukuyama anyway, a foregone conclusion in the twentieth century. Yet are we witnessing significant challenges to the legitimacy of liberal democracy and to the organization of geopolitics into nation-states?
- Three: It doesn’t require reading reams of sociological literature to conclude that social atomism, the view according to which each individual is a “separate atom” that additively makes up the social whole, and a profound sense of loneliness are both on the rise today. We might make a chart which would show an inverse relationship between the rise of bullshit talk of community, especially evident among technologists like Mark Zuckerberg, and the decline of actual communities.
- Four: The cognitive scientist John Vervaeke has recently argued that we are in the midst of a “meaning crisis.” Nietzsche already saw the march of nihilism in the nineteenth century, and I can confirm the prevalence of nihilism among a number of conversation partners with whom I speak. Being functional–indeed, very functional–in our society does not entail experiencing meaning in one’s life, let alone knowing what meaning is.
- And five: We are living in the midst of what the journalist Elizabeth Kolbert calls “the sixth extinction.”
On that score, indulge me for a moment as I read the opening pages of James Gustav Speth’s book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, a book published over a decade ago now:
Half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are now gone. The rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at about an acre a second, and has for decades. Half the planet’s wetlands are gone. An estimated 90 percent of the large predator fish are gone, and 75 percent of marine fisheries are now overfished or fished to capacity. Almost half of the corals are gone or are seriously threatened. Species are disappearing at rates about 1,000 times faster than normal. The planet has not seen such a spasm of extinction in sixty-five million years, since the dinosaurs disappeared. Desertification claims a Nebraska-sized area of productive capacity each year globally. Persistent toxic chemicals can now be found by the dozens in essentially each and every one of us.
[The United States] is losing 6,000 acres of open space every day, and 100,000 acres of wetlands every year. About a third of U.S. plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. Half of U.S. lakes and a third of its rivers still fail to meet the standards that by law should have been met by 1983. And we have done little to curb our wasteful energy habits or our huge population growth…. All we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in human population or the world economy. Just continue to generate greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in. But human activities are not holding at current levels–they are accelerating, dramatically.
OK, you heard what the man said, and yet you’re not shocked out of your office chair. Why not? Why doesn’t this piece of prose inspire action? Why doesn’t it go straight to our heart, piercing it while transforming our entire being?
Without trying to answer these questions just yet, let me propose that we allow them to hang in the air for a while. Let this be a mystery.
First clues to solving this riddle can be found in Ken Wilber’s discussion of memes. Wilber is a pretty unorthodox thinker, someone who has argued that individual and collective history can be regarded as conforming to large developmental patterns. Key to these patterns are certain forms, or stages, of consciousness he calls “memes.”
I believe, of all the memes he describes, that three in particular shape our current cultural moment:
- The blue meme refers to organized religions–specifically to believers’ adherence to certain doctrines, rules, and an order contained within them.
- The orange meme is a tent of sorts, under which can be found scientific rationalism, materialism (in the sense that reality is made of matter, or matter and energy, alone), sovereign individuality, and secularism. All this defines our post-Enlightenment heritage.
- The green meme, for its part, yokes together postmodernism and cultural relativism with a commitment to social justice.
If what you’re thinking now is that the ongoing conflicts between these memes make up a good deal of our culture wars, then I think you’re on the right track. You can see why religious conservatives could, with good reason, be skeptical of higher education (that is, because of their blue meme commitments); what someone who goes into STEM will learn above the curriculum he or she follows (namely, orange meme commitments); and what someone steeped in the humanities will most likely come out like (that is, he or she will probably be a green memer).
Beyond these observations, however, what strikes me is that all three can be nested within a larger paradigm called Humanism (which I’ll discuss later on) and that they contribute to our sense of being stuck–to our inability to face the predicaments I described above and to our impasse when it comes to the process of becoming wise:
- Is regular church-going sufficient for helping one to fully and completely “love thy neighbor as thyself”? Highly unlikely.
- Can science on its own quell the meaning crisis? I don’t think so.
- Can a commitment to social justice help us overcome Total Work? Certainly not.
- And can any of these, really and truly, provide us with an art of living, one that would, among other things, dissolve entirely our deep-seated fear of death? My conclusion is that they cannot.
IV. Educational System
What we need, I submit, is living wisdom. Yet what is taught in modern schools bears very little resemblance to this.
Instead, what is learned here is a melange of ideas and approaches, ranging from competence (or know how–say, knowing how to code or how to write a research paper) to theoretical knowledge (say, about the laws of quantum mechanics) to green meme ideas about diversity and inclusion.
While all of these might, in Wilber’s terms, be “partially true,” none of them gets us to where we need to go today. And so, if living wisdom is what we need, then where could we turn in hopes of becoming wise?
I suggest that we turn first to history to see how Humanism arose and thus how our dominant worldview took shape. After that, I’ll come back to discuss various psychotechnologies.
Part 2: History
Raimon Panikkar–a mystic with Ph.D.’s in chemistry, philosophy, and theology–suggests in his book The Cosmotheandric Experience that the slogan for anthropocentrism could be Protagoras’s: “Man is the measure of all things.” In modernity, Panikkar goes on, “Man is the center of everything and measure is at the very core of Man.” In this respect, Man is, for the first time, a historical being, a scientific being, and an autonomous being. As such, humankind is above Nature and without the divine.
Here, let me make a slight detour to pause for just a moment in order to consider Alfred North Whitehead’s reflections pertaining to what, in and of an epoch, often goes unnoticed:
When you are criticizing the philosophy of an epoch, do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents to all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible, and this group of systems constitutes the philosophy of the epoch.
Our unquestioned philosophy is Humanism: It is what shapes and structures much of what we imagine and conceive of. Indeed, we forget that Humanism, which we take for granted because it is so intimately entwined with and within us, may only have emerged at the end of the Renaissance. Before then, according to Panikkar as well as many other historians, some form or another of cosmocentrism obtained.
II. What is a Cosmos?
The central term in cosmocentrism is the word “cosmos,” something with which you and I have no direct experience. A kosmos, as the Pythagorean scholar David Fideler nicely describes it, is “a living organism with which we are bound in vital participation,” and, I might add, without which we would not be or be intelligible to ourselves. A kosmos is a beautiful order with everything–and every being–fitting into it just so. It is an intelligence, a vital, animating spirit, and an ordered structure, one that leaves nothing out. The Hermetic slogan–”As above, so below”–alludes to how the human being was a microcosm that, in essence, mirrored the reality of the macrocosm. The Jewish mystical book Zohar put it thus:
There is not a member in the human body that does not have its counterpart in the world as a whole. For as a man’s body consists of members and parts of varying rank, all acting and reacting upon one another so as to form one organism, so it is with the world at large: it consists of a hierarchy of created things, which, when they properly act and react upon one another, together form one organic body. (Quoted in Fideler, Restoring the Soul of the World)
III. The Ptolemaic Cosmos and Its Disappearance
To put some flesh on the bones, so to say, let me turn to the particular model of the cosmos that reigned throughout much of the medieval world. The Ptolemaic Cosmos was a finite, spherical, harmonious order in which everything and every body had its rightful place. Listen to C.S. Lewis describe this cosmos as it was understood by medievals:
The central (and spherical) Earth is surrounded by a series of hollow and transparent globes, one above the other, and each of course larger than the one below. These are the ‘spheres,’ ‘heavens,’ and (sometimes) ‘elements.’ Fixed in each of the first seven spheres is one luminous body. Starting from Earth, the order is the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn; the ‘seven planets.’ Beyond the sphere of Saturn is the Stellatum, to which belong all those stars that we still call ‘fixed’ because their positions relative to one another are, unlike those of the planets, invariable. Beyond the Stellatum there is a sphere called the First Movable or Primum Mobile.
And what is beyond the First Movable dwells Heaven wherein God resides. What may not be clear from Lewis’s description is that humans are not just situated within this Ptolemaic Cosmos but are also, we might say, “cut from the same cloth” as the rest of reality. The cosmos conception suggests that human beings are at home in the world and hence that everything is drenched in, and saturated with, meaning.
But then somehow the whole thing came crashing down. The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer summarizes the end of cosmocentrism:
The clear-cut form of the classical and medieval conception of the world crumbles, [he writes] and the world ceases to be a “cosmos” in the sense of an immediately accessible order of things. Space and time are extended indefinitely; they can no longer be comprehended within that clearly defined scheme which classical cosmology possessed in Plato’s doctrine of the five regular heavenly bodies or in Aristotle’s hierarchical cosmos, nor can they be represented by finite measures and numbers. One world and one Being are replaced by an infinity of worlds constantly springing from the womb of becoming, each one of which embodies but a single transitory phase of the inexhaustible vital process of the universe.
This, in brief, is what the French historian Alexandre Koyre once described as the shift from the “closed world” to the “open universe.” What Cassirer hints at here but does not actually say is that the emergence of the universe conception coincides with the severance of human as microcosm from the animate world as macrocosm. In other words, our intimate relationship to nature within and without is no more.
How cosmocentrism collapsed and, in turn, opened the door to anthropocentrism, or Humanism, is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say, historians tend to explain the disappearance in terms of certain tendencies within Christianity (be that man’s dominion over the earth as explained in the Book of Genesis or be that the nominalist theological emphasis on God’s infinite potency) and in terms of the new science that, in sociologist Max Weber’s famous terms, “disenchanted” the world.
Humanism, then, is the name we can give to the time in which we’ve been living. And what are the chief characteristics of our time?
- One: The de-animation of Nature such that Nature is understood in mechanistic terms. Nature is that which is amenable to use (for industry), to recreation, or to the disinterested aesthetic gaze.
- Two: The withdrawal of God from the world–the sounds of the retreating “Sea of Faith” that the poet Matthew Arnold heard in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
- Three: The ascendency and autonomy of Humankind, the latter being subject only to whatever is rationally binding upon individual and collective human interests.
Let me be clear: My (so far unstated) axiom is that any flourishing civilization requires some understanding of, and harmonious connection between, anthropos, theos, and cosmos. For where otherwise shall we find humility? Where shall come our ideas of the sacred? What, for us, cannot be trespassed? Whence our reverence? Our sense of meaning? Our willingness to die with grace and dignity and love? French existentialist philosophy, which presumes that humans are alone in a cold, infinite universe and that we had better accept courageously the cost of our freedom, seems to me like a civilizational endgame.
In this broader sense, it could be said that our fundamental predicament is spiritual in nature.
Part 3: Clearing and Wising
I. Psychotechnologies and the Case of Joshu Sasaki Roshi
If, then, Humanism is the name we may give to what, at bottom, ails us, then how might we dissolve Humanism in the light of greater understanding?
It’s here that I come back to psychotechnologies, for these are more-than-cognitive exercises, practices, and meditations whose aim is to transform our entire being, our way of being in the world, and with it our placement in the more-than-human world. To be beyond Humanism is, at one and the same time, to get beyond our presumed egoic identity as well as our conception of the universe.
As you know, I first learned about spiritual exercises from Pierre Hadot. This led me, some years later, to practice Zen Buddhism, which is, to a large degree, centered on zazen, the Japanese term for what Dogen, a 13th century Zen master, once described as “sitting immovable like a bold mountain.” For a while, I believed that seated meditation could be the alpha and omega of practice. It would be enough; perhaps it could be everything.
That is, until I heard more about cases such as that of Joshu Sasaki Roshi. Joshu was an influential 20th century Zen teacher, having founded a number of important Zen centers in the US such as Mount Baldy Zen Center (which is just outside of LA) before dying at age 107. To many of his male students, Joshu was a deeply insightful teacher, someone very attuned to sunyata, or the boundless nature of ultimate reality. Yet according to one student and Zen priest Eshu Martin:
Joshu’s career of misconduct has run the gamut from frequent and repeated non-consensual groping of female students during interviews, to sexually coercive after hours ‘tea’ meetings, to affairs and sexual interference in the marriages and relationships of his students.
Google “Joshu sexual misconduct” and you’ll learn much, much more. How, I wonder, can it be that someone can be enlightened and yet also be morally vicious?
Talk of clearing can open the way for an answer to this salient question about spiritual bypassing.
Clearing is a term of art that refers to the process of ceasing to take things personally. To take things personally is to presume that there is an ego-self at stake in this situation. While, prima facie, it can seem as if what was said or done is the cause of one’s gross suffering, it turns out that the reactivation of the ego-self is what is at the heart of one’s gross suffering.
When I take something personally, I (i) experience strong negative emotions (e.g., anger, deep sadness, etc.), (ii) feel contractions in the body (e.g., tightness in the chest, a stone-like pain in the stomach, etc.), and (iii) get involved in “thought loops” (papanca in Buddhism).
As I get clear about these residual ego-selves, I open up a clearing. To get clear is to be clear as well as to be in the clearing.
To become very clear is to clear up the bodily contractions, the unresolved feelings, and the mental proliferations. When the body and mind are both utterly clear, there is simply quietness, suppleness, and openness in the presence or absence of whatever phenomenal arising seemed, perhaps for many years, to activate this process. To be clear, in this sense, is to slowly let go of whichever ego self-views are causing you suffering–gross suffering in particular and thus to drop craving/clinging.
In other words, clearing means releasing certain ego-selves. On this understanding, Joshu Roshi had woken up yet was not clear.
And now to wisdom. In 1993, Raimon Panikkar wrote: “It has always been the function of the wise to remind their contemporaries of the whole.” Yes, yes, and today we need more than reminders; we need collective living wisdom.
What, then, is living wisdom? I define the term here as the highest conduct for Human Beings, one that flows directly from the highest understanding of Being Human, of the Cosmos, and of the Divine. Wisdom emerges from understanding the Whole–the very whole that we have lost in modernity.
Therefore, the part of my inquiry that goes beyond the bounds of this piece is: “What would constitute a new cosmotheandric vision, one that coherently ordered our best understanding of the cosmos, an understanding that is consistent with modern science; our best understanding of what is ultimate in nature; and our best understanding of sentient, intelligent life such as ours? What would this Whole be?”
In lieu of undertaking that inquiry here, I would like to conclude by discussing how human beings can begin to go beyond Humanism if we choose to cultivate our part of living wisdom.
As I see it, there are at least five features of the kind of wisdom I have in mind:
The first is perceptiveness. To be very perceptive is to pick up on things–salient facts otherwise overlooked, shifts in the temperature of a room, minor or dramatic changes in people’s moods, and so on–that are very significant to our overall understanding of what is actually going on here. Perceptiveness, a keen observational virtue, is a skillful art of attention. With a quiet mind and highly attuned senses, the perceptive person notices much more than she can possibly say (or need to say), with this “noticing more” figuring prominently in her overall understanding of the situation and of whatever or whoever is present in that situation.
Secondly, considerateness. Being considerate–that is, giving oneself over to considering a matter–is rather like taking a stone or a pebble in one’s hand and turning it over time and again between one’s fingers. The more one turns it over and the more one passes the stone from one finger to the next, the more is one able to assimilate relevant complexity or to come to pristine simplicity. One has not simply touched the soil of the matter at hand. No, one has turned the soil over and over until its richness sings. Being filled up with genuine considerateness is rather like both of these things.
Thirdly, thoughtfulness. Being all filled up with thoughtfulness means seeing something through to the very end. One’s thoughts seem to reach out toward their implications and, in turn, toward those implications until thought, in virtue of its having ranged from the first proposal to all the foreseeable things that follow therefrom, is sated. Exceptionally thoughtful people seem to keep asking, “Whence?” and “Where does this go?” They are soberly drunk on depth.
Fourthly, non-attachment to results. Many wisdom traditions such as Hinduism, Daoism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Roman Stoicism underscore the importance of acting to the full while being equanimous about the outcome. “The awakened sages call a person wise,” Krishna tells Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita, “when all his undertakings are free from anxiety about results.” And the Lojong training in Tibetan Buddhism advises the practitioner to “Abandon all hope of results,” a slogan to be repeated over and over again until it becomes second nature. Seemingly paradoxically, then, a wise person is able to throw herself completely into whatever it is she is doing without getting all tied up in things having to go this way or that way. This is why The Daodejing says that the Daoist sage is able to create and then forget.
Finally, the ineffable. It seems fitting to this long form essay to a close by returning to Pierre Hadot. If what I have said about psychotechnologies and about living wisdom is correct, then what is most essential cannot be put into words.
Hadot, who died, in 2010, in fact one year after I discovered his writings, once confided to an interviewer, when asked about whether he was a pious child, in the following stunningly poetic manner:
[F]or a long time I have had the impression of having been in the world only from the time of my adolescence. I will always regret having thrown away–out of Christian humility–the first notes written that were like the echo of my personality, for it is very difficult for me now to rediscover the psychological content of the overwhelming discoveries I made then. I do remember their framework. One happened on rue Ruinart, on the path I took home to my parents’ house every day from the Petit Seminaire. Night had fallen. The stars were shining in the immense sky. At this time one could still see them.
Another took place in a room of our house. In both cases I was filled with an anxiety that was both terrifying and delicious, provoked by the sentiment of the presence of the world, or of the Whole, and of me in that world. In fact, I was incapable of formulating my experience, but after the fact I felt that it might correspond to questions such as What am I? Why am I here? What is this world I am in? I experienced a sentiment of strangeness, of astonishment, and of wonder at being there. At the same time I had the sentiment of being immersed in the world, of being a part of it, the world extending from the smallest blade of grass to the stars. This world was present to me, immensely present. Much later I would discover that this awareness of belonging to the Whole was what Romain Rolland called the “oceanic sentiment.”
I believe that I have been a philosopher since that time….
He leans in at the end:
I did not dare tell anyone what I had experienced: I felt for the first time that there are things that cannot be said…. What was most essential for us could not be expressed.