Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Reality vs. Values

The modern world is shot through with the sense that one’s inner life is by definition subjective, personal, vague, autonomous, and inviolate. At the same time, it is proportionally conditioned by the sense that ethical and spiritual knowledge is constituted by a rich diversity of religious and philosophical traditions. The combination of the these factors produces a fundamentally confused and in a sense schizophrenic situation in which the apprehension of moral and spiritual truths is corrupted by the belief in the unspoken postulates, contrary to the nature of apprehension itself, that opinion is law and that law is opinion. The first, exemplified by the relativist, corresponds to the person for whom moral and spiritual insight is radically devalued as something less than knowledge, as mere thought or opinion, a mere representation. The second, exemplified by the fundamentalist, corresponds to the person whose thinking on these matters is dictated by external, received representations. Both impulses, relativist (opinion is law) and fundamentalist (law is opinion), operate by supplanting the living knowledge of the individual, his direct apprehension of what is real, with assent to authority, whether the authority of the subject or the authority of tradition. Accordingly, both impulses express a situation in which the concept of truth has been hollowed out, where judgements as to what is true are made with respect more to what is believed to be right than what is perceived to be real. Although this situation may seem characteristically modern, in the sense that it seems related to the hollowing out of spiritual, philosophical, and religious realties by experimental science, there is no reason to assume that it is uniquely or necessarily modern. For the essential mechanism of this alienation of the real is not conviction in the absolute reality of the material world, the reality of which is always obvious, or a lack of conviction in the immaterial world of the self, the reality of which is equally obvious, but a kind of mass addiction of humanity to values, according to which the upholding of various truths via the multifarious forms of representation that structure human life operates insidiously as an alternative to expressing them truly and more helpfully through real practice.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Jump in the Fire

“Without avoiding contact with the different forms of life, a perfect man functions with complete detachment in the midst of intense activity” (Meher Baba, Discourses, I.33).

What exactly what is being said here? I am suspicious that this idea of perfection is attractive in ways that may distract us from its truth.

Doesn’t this perfection sound lovely? Think of how much one would accomplish, and without any anxiety. A true marriage of spiritual freedom and significant action. What efficiency and poise. And how deep and powerful the inner powers of such a person must be, simultaneously to flow out in constant accomplishment and to remain above it in unshakable serenity.

The image may attract our imitation. Let us try to be like that. Let us throw ourselves into action yet focus on remaining detached. Let us work hard without worrying about the consequences. Let us remember the transitoriness of all that we make. Let us be in the world but not of it. Let us hold our water pitchers perfectly still while walking and gossiping. And so on.

There may be wisdom in these familiar impulses but none of them take us into what I think may be the secret implication of this image of perfection, namely, that there are deep links between activity and detachment. If we think of detachment as something that must be applied to action, as a kind of spiritual counteragent to the entanglements of matter, or of activity as something that must be pursued to protect detachment from indolence and indifference, we have lost this implication.

Is not action itself a means to detachment, and detachment itself a means to action? To be detached in the midst of intense activity is not to be detached from action per se but from the worry of action. Action itself is not an entanglement. Rather, commitment to intense action leads one to detachment.

Action and detachment may be understood as expressions of the same impulse, as expressions of each other. Action is detachment, in the sense that to act is to step out and away from the mental and physical inertias that structure the possibility of action. Similarly, detachment is action, in the sense that to detach is to step into a state of present movement in which there is no opportunity, no time, no scope, for attachment. Action is itself a release and detachment is itself a focussing.

Detached activity is best represented by the playground, where the only attachment is to the play itself. Play being its own end, nothing else is really at stake. Play is detached from life.

Attached activity is best represented by the battlefield, which expresses and is structured by attachment to life. On the battlefield everything is at stake and action is therefore under the utmost threat of futility.

But at their most intense, these fundamentally opposed types of action start to resemble each other. This suggests that perfect action, or the intense detached activity of the perfect man, though possible in the context of all sorts of action, is most proper, not to the “aristocratic” pursuits of play and war, but to the form of action that is characterologically between them, i.e. work, in the satisfaction of necessity, the category of natural and fundamental attachment to life, paradoxically requires self-detachment. Cf. "Consider how, even in the meanest sorts of Labour, the whole soul of man is composed into a kind of real harmony, the instant he sets himself to work! Doubt, Desire, Sorrow, Remorse, Indignation, Despair itself, all these like hell-dogs lie beleaguering the soul of the poor dayworker, as of every man: but he bends himself with free valour against his task, and all these are stilled, all these shrink mumuring far off into their caves. The man is now a man" (Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present, Chapter XI).