Friday, 15 May 2015

What Is This Thing Called 'Spirit'?

Trying to define ‘spirit’ comes down to an interpretation of Existence itself – does it even exist or is it an invention and, if it exists, is it based within matter or does it arise from consciousness? These are probably non-questions if we start from the existentialist position of accepting Existence’s ultimate un-knowability and then make the nature of spirit a matter of choice and so of belief.

That would be easier all round. If it is a choice made without any associated ability to know the truth of the matter (full knowledge that is), this must suggest an attitude of tolerance to those who make another choice than ours. We cannot know. They cannot know. And so we each choose in our own way. Where do we go from here?

The Investigative Project

If we choose the primacy of matter, then we choose either a creator of matter as (at the least) implicit (against which spirit is to be judged and by whom spirit is judged) or we choose no creator at all but just pure eternal and boundless materiality. If we choose the principle of consciousness, we choose an implicit immanent consciousness within Existence (even if it is ultimately unknowable) or we choose our own integration into an unknowable Existence as its own creator through our belief and action.

In simplistic terms, we have the theocratic systems, scientific materialist systems, systems of immanence or systems of existential or magical engagement. The choice for exploration in this text is the last of these. A belief that might sustain us here is that we create ourselves and our world even if we know that there are material limits to that creation, ones that ultimately derive from the very unknowability of Being.

That we can describe and even utilise matter does not mean that we can know matter and in perceiving, ordering, filtering and manipulating matter, we and not some outside party are the creators of its use-value, even when and as we use the creations of similar others for our own purposes. So, those who believe in a God, those who believe only in scientific materialism and those who believe that consciousness exists outside ourselves in Being need not read on - except out of curiosity as to how other minds than theirs might think.

What we offer is a concept of Being grounded in the expansion of our own day-to-day consciousness to encompass itself and what it can grasp through itself – and through the mystery of its engagement with other consciousnesses that strive in similar ways to live and thrive. Human, alien, machine, animal, plant or, in the spirit of open-mindedness to possibility, brute matter without apparent life or source of creation (whether from procreation or invention), the unknowability but potential equality of other components of existence remains a nagging constraint on us.

This expansion of our own consciousness is a constant revelation based on a permanent struggle with Being in all its manifestations. Liberation is existential yet acquired through perception and cognition. Whether fully achievable or not within actually experienced social reality, an individual reality can be developed in which, even if momentary, an irrational and profound altered state of consciousness can express a true will of sorts.

This, in turn, may point to an existentially constructed nature that may become, for a moment, apparently all consciousness, boundless and without object. These moments may be less interesting (certainly no cause for the abnegation implicit in such searching within systems of immanence) than the transformation that takes place within the person from before to after a moment of heightened experience. The moment is, in this sense, far less interesting than the state of 'being' afterwards and its contrast with that state of 'being' that existed before. The project may thus be four-fold:-
  • To explore how subjectivity (the sense of self) can expand to levels that can encompass a perception of the non-self of existence;
  • To explore how external representations and archetypes outside both mind and body can be brought into the self in order to create a willed internal order that unites body and mind in a wholeness in its relation to the world;
  • To explore how the body itself can represent the self (the mind) in its journey to existential wilfulness;
  • To explore the role of ecstasy in particular (any form of ecstatic state) in engaging the body and mind as one whole in the non-self of existence.
As we noted above, the issue is not the subjective state or the reality or otherwise of the objects or persons used or engaged with to change mental states but the transformed individual after such states. Ecstasy (the Dionysiac impulse), for example, is a tool towards a subsequent state of being. Concentration on the ecstasy itself to the exclusion of the transformation is mere sensory play, a pleasure and an entertainment or even a therapy of sorts but not an enhancement of one’s life in the face of raw existence.

Some Notes on Method

A central issue in the history of exploring consciousness has been the recognition that some personalities (without disrespect to others) have a powerful internal drive towards engagement with these questions. A second has been the attempt, often for apparently noble reasons, by some who have followed this searching path to keep their findings secret, to be transmitted only in a certain form to certain people as a ‘tradition’.

The first is a fact of nature, applicable only to some and not all, and in itself certainly argues against religious universalism. The attempt to create a way of relating consciousness to reality that all can understand not only requires excessive simplification but it demands institutionalization and, in the end, the oppression of the minority of those who could continue their exploration beyond tradition.

This has been the way of the great institutionalized religions of the West, especially Christianity, Judaism and Islam, where the necessity of a universal or ethnic message has perforce ‘dumbed down’ the spiritual. The searching mind is only permitted to explore within the ethical and intellectual framework permitted it by priests and elders. Mystical traditions - whether Sufi or Qabbalistic or that of, say, Boehme - have got around this but in a very unsatisfactory way, spirit operating at half-cock so to speak.

Today, the clash of institutional norms with genuine personal engagement in moral questions has never been clearer than in the mishandling of recent child abuse scandals within the Catholic Church. On the other hand, the secret society or the romantic belief in Hidden Masters might charitably be regarded as a response to the institutionalization of spirituality but this is being far too generous about what is a process of exclusion rather than inclusion of the searching mentality. It suggests that a few give themselves the right to the resources to explore their individual spirituality without any recognition of all those searchers who they leave behind.

Here is the Scylla of spiritual conformity where the search is curtailed by custom (with perhaps various mystics or Swedenborg representing the limits of what might be achieved by someone under such circumstances).  There is the Charybdis of introverted tradition where the search is limited by the very forms required to build a system that can maintain a few adherents over many generations. The answer lies only in part in the tolerance and respect for others outlined at the beginning of this introduction.

For example, we might accept that sincere Catholicism is greater than the monstrous and sclerotic clericalism of the Vatican while the need for ritual and secrecy is a legitimate one for those seeking immanence, even if it may be a block to a direct relationship with Being. The recognition that ‘searchers’ are a substantial (rather than a small) minority but still a minority suggests that the searcher paradigm does not seek to create an institutional structure that will compete with or universalise its discoveries.

The process of 'searching' is also driven ineluctably towards a free and open society (though not necessarily in its current kleptocratic form) in which the rights of other types of minds are respected so long as they permit the full freedom to search – in other words that tolerance and respect are reciprocal throughout society. The freedom to search is also implicitly a total freedom of thought and expression, to transgress without harming others … in other words, it is, necessarily and both despite and because of its minority status, a liberal or rather libertarian attitude to life and to the lives of others.

At the same time, the search is private so that the right to micro-institutionalise the search into social forms, whether secret or not, must be recognized wherever other like minds are found, especially where such like minds may feel that they will face prejudice and social or economic disadvantage. But the position that the search must be constructed and passed on in forms that are necessarily secret is untenable.

This position represents the triumph of form over content, the error that because something has been authorised then it is true – indeed, this in itself expresses the essential spiritual failure of institutionalized structures of religion. Authority is never truth because the truth shifts with new facts. Moreover, there comes a point where the safety of searchers will require radical public expression as a defence against attack especially if the search involves transgressions that harm no-one and that require that ‘norms’ be questioned. Secrecy isolates and the isolated person is the most vulnerable to destruction - as trades unions have showen us, there is strength in collaboration.

The path of self exploration and of calculated transgression can learn from other spiritual approaches in both method and content but each search will be personal and individual. Social engagement in spiritual matters will be precisely linked to the degree to which a person, without value judgement from others, can find their path alone or not. For some, indeed, there may be a return to an institutionalized religious structure in the long run because, in fact, this best fits their spiritual needs. Imagine Catholicism (for example) thus invigorated!

So, to conclude, searching must start as anti-traditional and eclectic even if it leads back to paths that are ultimately existentially chosen as a tradition. The only tragedy in this would be if the searcher, having discovered a traditional or very particular destiny, pulled up the ladder behind them, as that intellectual monster Augustine did, and deny others the free right of search in subsequent generations. Such institutional sclerosis must always push us back to that form of spiritual liberalism in which all are free to follow their True Will in relation to Being.

The Starting Point – Structures of Reality

For the search to begin, it must be made axiomatic that material reality exists as something that can be analysed and made useful for the individual and social will. We extend our mind-bodies outwards to make Matter work for us. Interconnected in society over time, there is a continuum between our social and historical selves, our extended bodies, our dependence on and constraints from other selves (as social reality) and the utile Matter in which selves are embedded. To deny Matter as real is to complicate things unnecessarily.

Where the zone of doubt lies is at the extremes that are to be found in the vortex of this reality – both at the smallest and broadest (in space and time) limits of what our minds can comprehend and in the mystery of our inner Being which we intuitively understand to be interconnected with Matter. This inner sense of Being, in reality, cannot be understood in analytical terms, neither by us as thinking selves nor by society at large.

The reason for this profound ignorance is two-fold: the limits of perception (even extended through technology and through mathematics); and our inability to fix the movement of matter in the mind. We see a complex self awareness, uncommunicable to others and played out in a real time that is not always the same as perceived time.

Even if we could match brain states to mind states with considerable accuracy, any attempt to reduce the mind to assumptions based on pure materialism would be as presumptuous and absurd as assuming that the limits of our perception in the wider universe must necessarily relate to some omniscient God.

Thus, we have expressions of faith at both ends of the spectrum – from one party in believing that what cannot be known necessarily leads to deity because of ‘intelligent design’ and from the other that what cannot be known in the brain must be purely material in nature and structure. Theists and materialists merely direct their faith in different directions but with the same arrogant purpose of claiming more knowledge that the evidence permits, one filling the vacuum at the macro-level and the other at the micro-level.

Why should it not be equally true that there is nothing beyond our perception or that there is a soul within existence or that an inner soul is embedded in the body or that soul is embedded within social as well as material reality? Whatever is true, the functioning of whatever truth we choose operates beyond any possible human knowledge.

Perhaps (as much a matter of faith as that offered by the materialists for the non-existence of spirit and soul or the deists for the existence of God) we can take what we can experience of Being within ourselves as the spiritual starting point (especially since we cannot cognitively manage the universe!) We can then explore non-rational and non-materialist models for entering into a relationship with Being or at least with that unknowable reality that lies beyond perception and beyond mathematics.

Cultural Perspectives

Engagement with these issues may well reshape reality as we humans experience it (which is partly social and partly perceptual as well as objectively malleable) in a way that is precisely magical, that is concerning the use of the Will (which has to be defined further) to effect change in the world. Drawing down a very imperfect but transcendental perception of inner non-material reality might well recast both man and society in ways that we cannot yet predict - and which might cause fear as well as awe and joy.

We might reasonably postulate that, in the brain, is material energy (the electrical operations of the brain) but, beyond that, a transcendent scarcely knowable energy (the consequent connections and awarenesses). We (as ‘searchers’) in both worlds, ‘scientific’ and ‘spiritual’, draw down from the last to the first as ‘searchers’ and, through technological innovation, from the first to the last as ‘users’ – just as we might if we created an AI that could tap into that same transcendent energy on its own terms.

This changes our perspective on what it means to be conscious with some potentially frightening conclusions that require caution and compassion, given that each person lies somewhere different on the flow of experience between matter and spirit. The double danger is that moral value is given to those higher in the cosmic evolutionary scale over those who prefer to live in a world that is given and that we fail to recognize as equal those new consciousnesses, machine or alien or evolved, that come to match our position on the scale.

The first creates the danger of elitism, the weakness of many followers of both Eastern and new traditions. The second creates dangers of species-ism and the limitation of the good only to the human species under circumstances where much human behavior is vile - to its own type let alone to others. These are serious moral issues but they cannot be swept under the table as they are by the great universal religions, which include socialism and liberalism in this respect.

Other than compassion, the guard against elitism is that no person can know the spiritual nature of another. No outward forms or right conduct or right language can state that this person or that person to be ‘better’ than another, certainly not the observer over any observed. In this sense, Christ was right that all persons might enter his Kingdom of Heaven. No-one could say that they were ‘without sin’ and could judge another.

The point here is that the lowliest Indian peasant might be more advanced in this respect than a top cosmologist at an American University or the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. None can know. All must be regarded as equal in potential for lack of any possible evidence to the contrary. Equality is the default position so long as other minds are unknowable. Fortunately, sensible public policy in the modern world militates against the arrogance of superiority amongst those who believe themselves to be uniquely blessed.

The second drives us in the other direction. It must be a fear to many that some may transcend the human condition through evolution, that machines may transcend humans or that we may find aliens who do so. This may be hypothetical and not require too much practical concern today. However, this may arise, in some far distant future, and we must then embrace such change and understand that the ‘rights’ accruing to the less conscious (like animals) stand under the twin rules of compassion and equity precisely because we may be in that place ourselves some day.

Further Lines of Research

We have laid out the four-fold project but the pathway to understanding the new consciousness are very similar to those of traditional philosophy but with this one difference, that the analytical takes us only so far. The analytical and the experimental limits us by suggesting what cannot be so in the present but it cannot tell us what might not be so in the future. These are some of the central questions for us:-
  • What language is best suited to describing the moments of transformation which might involve both a perception of personal transcendence in a context of immanence?
  • What precisely is our True Will when actions based on cause and effect appear buried in our history and in instinct? How do we exist as actors in a drama in which the playwright is history and we may wish to get off the stage at any time to make our own life choices?
  • How can we know anything when all knowledge is based on sensory inputs that are biologically determined? What is behind our perception of Being that would permit us to experience a relationship to it without recourse to the abstractions of mathematics?
  • What is our relationship as conscious beings not merely to the reality ‘out there’ but to the many varieties of consciousness, semi-consciousness, altered states and non-consciousness (including death) and to time?
  • How do we regard the biological drives within our body and their relationship to mind? (Religions have been afraid of the flow of chemicals that shift and change our perception and cause deep distress as well as great pleasure: will engaging with these material aspects of the self be far more fruitful in their potential for our True Will than seeking to crush or deny our animal natures?)
  • What is the relationship between analytical thinking, the management of the body and the use of images, sounds and other sensory inputs from the outer world in constructing our own True Will?
  • How do we connect with the unconscious mind and body, our autonomic system, so that we can learn to see things as our body sees them and not just as our mind collates sensory information into a simulacrum of reality?
  • Can we have a concept of evil even as we consciously seek new states of consciousness and alterations of reality? Can we take responsibility for consequences without avoiding necessary and creative risks?

Even that philosophy of the East that has (arguably) the most positive attitude to the world and is most tolerant of difference, Kashmiri Shaivism, still holds to the illusion that an individual can ‘rise’ from individuality to ‘universality’ through knowing their innermost Self. The illusion lies not only in the error that absolute knowledge of the innermost Self is possible but in the equal error that such a Self could ever be like other Selves and some Higher Consciousness i.e. be part of something universal. If the Self was known, it would not be universal and if it became universal, then it ceases to be the Self. However, once the illusion is removed, there are insights to be had from three of the four theories of Trika –
  • There is the attempt to understand the totality of the universe (or our relation to the absolute nature of Existence) which is not to be confused with understanding the universe;
  • There is the realisation of the individual but as individual (interpreted in Western terms as True Will);
  • There is the recognition that all Existence depends on vibration (which might recast as the recognition that all Existence is a matter of waves and particles that we may never understand in full but which offer theories of reality that we can seize upon to build a theory of our relationship to Existence).
If we break this down further as tools for the four-fold project, with the illusion stripped out, then we have:
  • The tool of perceptual transcendence by which we alter our consciousness periodically to bring massivity and scale to our thinking, placing immediate and sensory concerns in their proper proportion as units to be shuffled in alignment with our True Will;
  • The tool of constant self-questioning as to our own inner true nature, notably the correct balance between our body, our history, our environment and that powerful residual core of True Will, a personality that rises beyond socially constructed reality;
  • The tool of science, directed both to the material base of mind and universe, insufficient to tell us how things are in the absolute but able to improve our own ability to align who we are with the structures of matter into which we are embedded.
In this context, the aims of many religions may be illusory but their methods, as technical operations (body manipulation, breath manipulation, meditation, ecstatic practice, advanced visualization linking body and mind), may be of value ... and the exploration of these ideas is one of the reasons why this blog exists.