Thursday, February 28, 2013

Foregoing Reason For Enlightenment

To keep an open mind is the standard adage of a society in desperate need to appear as if at the cutting-edge of ideological development but scared of standing for anything. In my search for a spiritual community I have plumbed the depths of Christian fundamentalism, delved shortly into studies of Catholicism, raged for a while in adolescent-like ranting within the auspices of atheism and along the way stumbled into Unitarian Universalism and most recently Science of Mind or New Thought. The latter two movements eschew the dogmatic idealism of their religious counterparts, focusing instead on a profound love of humanity and a willingness to pursue truth whatever it may lead.

Truth here is for the growing awareness of a conscious grasp of the universe, abundant in its demonstrable creative possibilities and brimming with sources for further inquiry and study. Like any movement created by people there are elements which can be problematic in the thinking as ideas are hashed out and numbers grow, creating a soup of variegated elements that by and large is truly delicious though at times may become a tad bitter. There is a tendency here as there is in any religious or spiritual movement, particularly those unfortunately labeled “new age,” to be so open to new ideas that, as one humorist declared: “an open mind is great but be careful that your brain doesn’t fall out.”

When facing a world that gives religion carte blanche in avoiding criticism and shielding it from all manner of ethical judgment, some find taking the polar opposite position that all religion is inherently evil to be the only recourse. Whatever the truth of such a position, the core of it possesses a valid point concerning epistemic validity and truth claims. The shield from inquiry often attached to religions, taken on with what should be self-mockery by the scandal-plagued Catholic Church and with rueful smiles by many in the new age movement, is that of being beholden only to their own form of internal self-check, removed from a social dialogue despite their fervent desire to still then be a part of and often an influential part of that very society.

Whenever a person or movement declares an internal-only source for truth there should be an immediate query as to where the surprise is or even perhaps what flavor of kool-aid is being asked to drink. This is not to gainsay the legitimacy of intuition as there are truth-claims wholly of a private nature, one’s tastes or preferences for instance and even a privately held opinion on a personal experience which, not open to criticism, is held as a cherished emotional position. People can believe all manner of things privately and there be little in the way of consequences. It is when such beliefs effect the behavior of a person towards others in any causal sense and/or when such beliefs are promoted as being legitimate for others beside that individual, there it is that we have gone beyond intuitive sense and into the realm of science in general.

There is a difference between what I refer to as science-proper, e.g. the method of science or experimental science, and science-general which is more of a philosophical position concerning humanity’s epistemic relation to the cosmos. Science-general concerns itself with the analysis of experience and operates by the principle that all experience is capable of being understood though the particular procedure for certain knowledge may need to be created (i.e. microscopes created to see cells or the theory of gravity required to grasp that central force in the universe) and all is ultimately shareable within the nest of humanity’s shared biological ontology. In other words, knowledge is infinitely expanding and by being knowable it must be capable of being shared with others. Knowledge is a public domain.

This stance of science effectively negates both the proposition that there are elements of the universe forever outside of human understanding and that truth is only a private enterprise, essentially denying both a supernatural aspect of reality and moral subjectivism. Here we return to where we began, with the difficulties of the so-called new age movement and at times that which is found in New Thought or Unitarianism circles. In the search for enlightenment it is fairly easy to rush head-long into the farcical simply because of the emotional weight given to an increase in profundity being synonymous with a greater truth. Deepak Chopra is quite rightly famous for this, for however good some of his points very well may be, there is a tendency to display greater degrees of confusing language in an attempt at sounding wise with the result being anything but.

While certainly there is a level of truth that is identified with the acceptance of it by each person, this is at the level of acknowledgment, the opposite of which does not remove its continued accuracy. Science-general reminds us that as we share our existence with each other and determine who we are individually through the necessity of creating relationships so truth is not wholly residing within an individual. Claims regarding any of the near-infinite facets of existence must all be brought into the light of discourse and critique.


Connected thoughts to this can be found in this entry.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Darkness Within Light

Ever stare at a candle-flame, focus on the wavering and flickering quality of its nature? There comes a point when the flame is all you see, everything around you fades away into darkness and there’s a feeling of centeredness in which the attachment or association your thoughts have with the so-called external reality is reduced to a fraction of its normal energy-draining experience. There has been thrown around for decades ideas, often associated with the self-help movement and various forms of spirituality, in which positive thinking or positive appraisal gets thrust front and center in what is at times declared a war against negativity and the feeling of smallness or disempowerment. Often connected with the fight against cancer in which negativity lets the cancer win and even more simplistically with attracting monetary wealth, positive thinking has a long history of running up against the difficulties of life and positing that a smile and a chuckle will do what a dedication to work often won’t.

I am not removing the power of looking at life through the lens of a more positive framing, our experiences are shaped and the particulars of them focused on through the emotional lens applied. How many of us, having decided to force a smile and view things from a different perspective, find our anger and negativity waning and opportunities that were unseen suddenly becoming noticed? There is not so much a creation going on here as the opportunities were always there in potential, but until our minds changed to hold a space for them, they might as well have been non-existent. This sense of positive thinking is essentially the positive side of it, but like all good ideas the attempt to frame the whole of existence through only one lens gets us into trouble. What ends up happening in this myopic view is not so much a renewal of positive thinking but the erasure of all other kind of thought, all for the purpose of ensuring the continued forward-moving power of positivity. The exclusion of all else ignores the multiplicity of which life can and should be viewed. Anymore than a continued focus on depression and negativity and worthlessness closes a person off to the very real facets of life that are important, beautiful and ecstatic so a simplistic willful focus only on positivity can blind one to very real difficulties that are nipping at our heels and sometimes beating on our back. This is, what Ken Wilber notes, a refusal to see life as a system of interlocking nests within nests or contexts within contexts all the way down, in which one method of inquiry within one context is broadened to all, losing nuance and the acknowledgment of a differentiated reality.

So why the candle example? A flame is beautiful, giving light, giving warmth, associated with the crackling flames of a roaring fire and the tenderness of a romantic dinner. If focused on too long however, everything else disappears and becomes ignored eventually leading even this singular vision to delve an absence. A flame does not exist without fuel, without a context through and by which it exists and has being. To focus solely on the flame is to ignore the multi-faceted reality which gives it form and forget the thought and intent which brought it into existence. The flame that began as warmth and object of focus becomes a consuming and destructive fire. I remember learning to drive and getting my first car, a rather horrible vehicle that signified so much of the journey through adolescence. If I were to focus only on the vehicle itself I’d lose the context of its associated goodness, the laughter among friends, transporting nine people at a time all piled in, and the freedom of travel. If I focused solely on the associated good times I’d lose track of the terrible gas mileage and the way the brakes seized up and almost ran me off the road. There is no singular view that encapsulates the totality of the experience owning that vehicle and I do my life a disservice by focusing on one to the exclusion of the others. Good and bad here are less important, if even possible to be objectively determined, than the meaning and lessons learned from noting the whole of that time.

I want to posit a slightly different framing here, that sometimes the “dark” is actually truth under a false light. The desire within positive thinking is, I believe, reactionary, an offering to counter the supposed negative or mechanistic soul-denying view of a purely scientific/technological reality. While there is legitimacy in this framing of the scientific view of reality, it is itself a reactionary position against the ideological context that science grew out of. In a time where truth was dictated by religious fiat and those who questioned the divine nature of these declarations were killed, it is little wonder that science began and was fueled by an abject denial of the spiritual and sought to boil everything down to a flatland of mechanisms, or as Wilber says, “its.” This is not the world of science today however, as specialists recognize the interconnection of various disciplines and there is a willingness not blindly to accept the mystical but to account it a space of meaning. Science has always been constrained and found freedom within the principle of contextual-criticism, where one’s ideas are noted for their particular placement in the sea of understanding and critically analyzed for their ability to account for the information available to a greater or lesser degree than so far offered by others. Indeed, it is here in this “darkness” of critical uncertainty that truth is so often sought and found. Light being light is already illuminated and serves not to broaden our vision but to showcase where we have yet to look.

As a flame flickers we can notice the illumination even as we note the presence of a dark inner aspect of its existence. The exclusion of all else, such as is found in an over-reliance on intuition or the emotionally monumental quality of phenomenological experience, make the flames become only absence and therefore leads to the loss of the whole. Our perspective does indeed help shape our world but it is not the only act in town as even that perspective is given shape and nuance via variables of which we have no control over. We can and should burn with the fervor of constantly seeking truth, the universe is a life-giving spectrum of possibility becoming actuality, though a responsible traveler will do so with an eye towards the dark of an uncertainty asking for light.

Physical copies of "Journeys of a Spiritual Atheist" are now available through CreateSpace.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Hierarchy Of Separation

If you’ve been living under a rock lately there may have been missed the announcement that the Pope, yes the Holy Roman Pontiff, is resigning his post as the vicar of Christ on Earth. Pope Benedict leaves amidst a great many scandals, from the not nearly reported on enough problem of hiding pedophiles from prosecution to the barely reported at all information that he was a member of the Hitler Youth and also presided personally over the relocation of priests accused of molesting children. This is not, however, an expose on the ethical practices of either the pontiff or the Catholic Church. Greater investigative minds than I have spent the requisite time to unearth information pertaining to these and other problems, not least of which was Christopher Hitchens, and large tomes have been written on the history of the Church and its association with so many historical evils. I am not giving a pass here so much as dealing with an issue that I think more pertinent to my own writing, that being the hierarchical nature of spirituality, a systematized feudalism of spirit at the heart of Catholicism and for that matter so much of modern thinking. The resignation that has shook the world leaders into abject self-serving protestations of the Pope’s magnificence usually reserved for a funeral announcement has simply inspired these thoughts, however much a part of me wants to delve into a diatribe.

Before Martin Luther nailed his theses in a piece of carpentry heard round the known world, calling for reform and ushering in a period of incredibly self-serving governmental riding of ideological coat-tails as they thrust off the so-called tyranny of Roman rule, the notion of a hierarchy of spiritual placement was standard for most people. One simply lived their life knowing the means of salvation and talking to god residing within the religious office of priest, friar, monk, bishop and ultimately that of Pope. Resembling the political system of feudalism, this spiritual reality was not a foreign conceptualization to most being as it mirrored the experience of life on earth so therefore must be a reflection of a divine plan, a rather horrid example of Plato’s ideas.

The notion of going to someone else to talk to god, to receive forgiveness and a washing of sin strikes most of us, particularly Americans, as absurd to the point of silliness. We pride ourselves on our individuality and the abject worship of our own autonomous egos, believing in a democracy of social strata where hard work and determination can lift anyone by the power of gravity-defying bootstraps. Within these protests, however, lies a hidden (to those at the bottom of social class it is not so hidden) adherence to the idea of social placement as reflecting some inherent qualitative difference in a person. There is talk of “lifting your eyes to the prize” and “keeping your nose to the grindstone” as if recompense for trials and tribulations exist above one’s current station, allocating to those with more an automatic infusion of greatness those with less don’t have.

Lest it be assumed I am dismissing hard work and determination let me be clear that I am not. For all my belief in certain spiritual percepts I do not find legitimacy in mystical hocus-pocus where thought immediately brings form in some type of magical ritual. As even Ernest Holmes notes: “We should not separate life from living, Spirit from matter…” (Can We Talk to God?) There is a correspondence between action and effect however much action first resonated and was created in mind. Amusingly or not, it is precisely the conservative mind, spouting the rhetoric of Weber’s protestant work ethic, which seems to bring about this magical link between work and reward, leading one to the assumption that reward then must allude to an inherent quality of the person. What I am noting here is that while hard work and so on are aspects of a life being lived they do not inhere any particular quality to the person, they rather emerge from the existence of qualities already in place. So it is then there exists no derivation of extra internal substance to the person. Work and action do not bring about new qualities, they are instantiations of a growing awareness of those qualities one already possesses.

Notice the reversal of the structure here as hierarchy is turned on its head, with the divine singularity residing in us all and in an infinite universe of creative potential through growing conscious awareness we can instantiate this spark in ever-increasing possibilities of behavior. As well, there is now room for context, for those variables that are outside of individual control or conscious contemplation. Circumstance no longer shows us who we are in some form of reverse-identity but is the evolutionary soup within which we grow and have our being. As Holmes declared: “The greatest good that can come to us is the forming of an absolute certainty of ourselves and of our relationship to the Universe, forever removing the sense of heaven as being outside ourselves, the fear of hell or any future state of uncertainty.”

A hierarchy of spirituality is one of separation, of constant existential angst where one is pitted against the limitations of their own creation with circumstance giving meaning rather than the one giving meaning to experience. In this separation is all manner of psychosis and a focus on lack. Here is found the feudalism of spirituality in Catholicism, where another by virtue of holding a particular office is somehow possessed of a greater degree of divine form. If the construct of god as all is used, then divinity as singularity does not inhere within one form more than another, it simply is all.

When one owns the spiritual ground of their incarnation there is an acknowledgment of interconnection such that real power over effect is grasped, similar to when one learns a new skill or is enlightened to a new idea, that light being one of awakening from slumber. Our potential action is not infinite in the sense of being free from context, but it is only individually bound by our ignorance to a greater good. Imagination is the stuff of creation and it is supplied by a constant infusion of one’s recognition of spiritual union with all.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Being Completed By Romance

In contemplating the nature of love and the many forms the word is associated with, I’m reminded of the movie Matrix: Revolutions in which Neo confronts a computer program who declares his ability to love another program who he calls his daughter. When asked by Neo how a program can love the gentleman and father notes the word has no inherent meaning, rather only referencing the felt connection that exists by virtue of declaring it so.

While the love noted by the movie character is that associated with the love of a father for his daughter, it is the “connection” piece that I want to focus on, primarily as it is associated with romantic love (other forms or love in general can wait for another entry). I think it can be noted without too much in the way of protest that if there were no people to express a romantic love, then such would not exist, at least in so far as we understand the term. It is, like all emotions and their physiological instantiation, something that at least at some level must take into consideration the referential point of the creature expressing it. This is not to indicate that love of all kinds is completely encapsulated by referencing only the person(s) expressing it, creating as it were some love-flatland, but without this reference there is a distinct loss in contemplating its nature. Therefore, to understand romantic love it is best to figure out what this connection is usually exemplified within.

Romantic love seems to come in two stages: the first and easiest is that associated with the intense and often immediate infatuation or interest between two (or more) people, its grand energy derived from the newness of the situation allowing the explosive projection of hopes, dreams and fantasies; the second stage is close to this as it is often felt during periods of intense emotional energy and the creation of some event, often a trip or special experience. The first stage in polyamorous circles is that often described as New Relationship Energy (NRE) and is the stuff of rueful amusement and joy, but also wariness because of its tendency to drive people towards bad decisions. The second stage is usually found in established relationship connections both positively in those special shared moments or negatively where the parties involved want to "rekindle the fire" or in some situations create an experience so as not to look at the bad lying around at their feet.

The connection, particularly in stage one, is almost entirely one of projected intent, where each person is hoping the other fulfills their poetically impressive desires to be “fulfilled” or “made whole.” The metaphorical language here is illuminating. When someone operates under the notion that they are trying to be “made whole” it infers the notion that they are not currently of one piece or are lacking in some vital aspect, leaving themselves not quite fully alive. The usage of fire as a metaphor for the passions can easily here be connected to the fires underlying creativity or creation and therefore of building a "new life together" (notably in romance novels where this seems the only legitimate form of love the author feels their readers need or want).

Quite often, however, the piece found does not in fact “complete” anything or even fit properly, except of course during the first stage of romantic love when, let's face, the frontal lobes have been dumped like a broken transmission in a car. That this is the stage where the intent is focused less on the other party involved and more on the projection of a need being met is no doubt why being “made whole” is so often replaced later on with “falling to pieces.”

Response: I agree with everything you say with one exception. Not all people enter romantic love with the intention of being made whole. I would say that, unless the one is fairly stable to begin with an entrance to any romantic love will only hinder stability as one person grows to depend more on another. In a more mature romantic relationship (where both parties feel basically complete and are looking for a partner to enjoy life and fulfill more long term goals with) I believe there is a great deal more longevity possible.

You may be right that in particular cases, romantic love is not considered in the context of being “made whole.” As with any generality there are always exceptions. However, I still think the general principle holds.

The reason I say this is due to the particular ways in which love in the romantic sense is typically discussed. Phrases such as being “completed” and “made whole” are more typical when romantic love is the context. It would be very peculiar for a father to express the love he has for his child as “completing” him or “making him whole.” I hazard to guess that such language is not used because the form of love a parent has for a child is like what one has for a subordinate. I don’t mean to belittle the experience, on the contrary, I don't consider any form of love to be more special than any other though certainly particular forms of it, like the one in question here, are prone to more poetic license and irrationality than others. What I'm expressing is the fact that a child is in no way capable of meeting the full needs of an adult and thus love is expressed more in terms of protection and concern.

True, if a person enters a relationship with a less than moderately stable mentality, what often occurs is a relational dependency. Now, I have spoken before about attachments and how dependency is an inevitable aspect of existence, though like before notice here that I am using the term dependence not slavery. It is the latter term where the person does not find fruition of self but abject subservience or sublimation of self to the other. Consider how the term is used in other contexts, like in the case of “he’s a hopeless romantic” or even in describing the historical period after the enlightenment as “romantic.” The similarity of these two examples is one of being beyond reason, delving almost into delusion, where it is assumed that reality simply doesn’t allow for certain thoughts to be actualized, thus being thought to be classified as “romantic.”

Now take this information and apply it back to the notion of romantic love as so far discussed. As I explained earlier, romantic love is typically used to describe the beginning of a relationship and later on into longer-term relationships though more about situations rather than a mode of being. Romantic love is what is typically meant when someone says that the couple has “kept the love alive.” (Forgive my mono-centered wording here as there are a vast number of variations in romantic entanglements which can involve more than two people.) There is usually a sense of euphoria and a significantly reduced sense of individuality when the thought is dwelled upon. Here then is the continuation of the notion of “being completed” and a sense of being absent a piece that has now been given, it is the very loss of individualness which drives the metaphoric principle in a form of the snake biting its own tail. Incidentally, it's little wonder that we often use the phrase “crazy in love.” Love at this level is a little form of madness, not in the frothing at the mouth sense (though hey there's always whip-cream fun), but in the sense of lacking something and therefore placing us in the position of promoting ourselves as puzzles missing pieces.

I’m not saying that any of this makes romantic love wrong. On the contrary, it is not romantic love that is the problem but our worship of it as a society and the concomitant belief that there is an essential part of ourselves that is lacking, putting us always in a position of want rather than growth. There are many notions concerning our emotions packed with metaphorical entailments we are not aware of, romantic love is but one of them. When we take these ideas apart we are not doing so to get rid of them, romantic love in particular is a glorious and fun-filled adventure that I have experienced before and enjoy going through as it continues to happen.

To live a life of romance where "wholeness" is already experienced from each one of our existential places can keep us from later "falling to pieces." We are not trying to fill a lack but find new ways of expressing the human ability to love in many forms and in an ever-expanding way.


The preceding is an exchange I had online discussing the nature of romantic love. The section in bold is a point made by the person I was engaging with. As is the nature of online discussions, initial written points are not always so polished and with that in mind I have gone through and redone my thoughts to reflect my current thinking and help with flow of information. I say this to be upfront and honest about the nature of this entry as I don't want to give a false impression as to either my writing or the conversation that occurred.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Self Grounded In Relationship

In the previous entry I made much ado about the self and using it in the context of relationships as a means of being created from within and by those connections. I can only imagine that some may have been confused by this and from several conversations I’ve had in various community groups I realized perhaps it’d be a good idea to flesh this out a bit more. That a transcendent self, somehow disconnected from physical law and social variables (often religiously referred to as a soul though clearly soul need not be defined this way) is the basis for a context-free notion of free will and choice is only the largest consequence, providing a basis for the American system of justice/law and giving people the space to judge others with nary a reference to mitigating effects like upbringing, social influences and biology. There does seem to be an increasing sense in which this view of free will is inadequate and I look forward to the day when we as a society can look upon life-destructive behavior from a perspective of compassion rather than judgment. A step in that direction is to remove from the immediate lexicon of assumed ideas a notion of the monolithic singular self that interacts with circumstances.

One of my favorite thinkers who has had a major influence on the evolution of my ideas is Owen Flanagan, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University. All subsequent quotes are taken from his book The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them.

First let me point out my usage of the term “mind.” By mind is meant the interactive system of being derived from the complete biological systems of the body and the relationships those system have with all other entities, providing the means by which we relate to the world as one natural ontological entity to another. Ontology is a branch of metaphysics that notes the qualities or properties of what makes something what it is or its being-ness. We can speak of a universal substance and thus be discussing metaphysics generally, but when we get to particular instantiations and how to differentiate them and whether they exist at all we are then discussing ontology.

A central difficulty in discussing the nature of mind/self (the hash noting already where I’m going with this) is our language system, given its subject-object form inherently providing a space for assuming a dissociation between the two. This is likely due to our biological need for differentiating what is our flesh from what is other flesh for purposes of procreation and eating. The reciprocal nature of our brains as it constantly interacts in a loop of input/output then gives us the feeling of having a self-knowledge of the mind. As Flanagan notes: “What we think of as our unique individual selves consist of the integrated set of traits we reliably express and embody, the dispositions of feeling, thought, and behavior we reliably display, as well as a certain kind of psychological continuity and connectedness that accrues to embodied beings by virtue of being-in-the-world over time.” Also, “The subjective feel is produced and realized in an organism by virtue of the relevant objective state of affairs obtaining in that organism.” In other words, the self exists not as a thing in itself, it has no separate ontology outside of the context from which it is derived, if you remove or change the extant variables you will remove or change the feel of which the self seems to possess all on its own. “What we call ‘the self’ is an abstract theoretical entity in the same way that force, mass, and energy are abstract theoretical entities.” We do not describe force outside of noting the interaction between two objects, no more than we describe mass except by the interaction between atoms and energy as the form it takes.

The problem here is one of inflation, of making more out of a feeling than what is actually there. To be self-aware is not a divorcing or dissociating concept but one that allows us to differentiate within experience what is our particular biological relation to everything else. “The self is an abstraction designed to do, in interpersonal and intrapersonal commerce, the work of explanation, prediction, and control.” The conceptualization of the self should be one of greater joining, in the sense that knowledge of how one is related can create a greater sense of being connected, even if such a feeling is initially felt within the seemingly necessary starting point of a separated self-awareness. We are not separated from anything else though as we all belong to an essential metaphysic, we all partake of and are created out of the same substance, the energy that manifests in form.

While largely poetic, to say ‘we are the universe thinking of itself’ is not merely grandiose, though I admit it can certainly be used as such. Rather, it is a recognition that despite our differentiated ontology, we are of the same metaphysical substance that is no different than that which makes up the universe. As such, the action that arises out of the mind/self referred to as awareness is not just an individual enterprise but has cosmic connections.

Viewing the self as an abstract term given to the relational space created by the interaction between the brain and the universe allows us to see intentionality in a whole new light, one that is not about shame-filled judgment but a recognition of how we as the creatures we are interact in particular ways. It is an intentionality and an ethic derived from our particular ontology, not from a moral dictate separated and distant from the means by which we experience reality. All objects intend upon another in a broad sense of defining or giving structure to what the other is, each object not existing by itself but rather in relation to all else. For instance, to think of a rock only, disconnected from anything and everything else is impossible, for even in thinking of it within a dark expanse is to think of it in relation to that dark expanse. I have spoken of this in other entries when referring to the self as well, noting that to consider our individuality is to always do so from a place of relational dynamics, always in connection with something else. Here it simply points out that again we are not of a completely different nature then the universe and thus are not separate from the poetically-noted creative power of that universe.

Consciousness or the awareness of self, as it relates to intentionality, is the ability to ‘see’ what is this intrinsic nature of all things, to imaginatively construct the relations of one to another. This imagination stems often from within the felt experience of an “I” participating from a place of declarative power, in no small way reminiscent of the Jewish and Christian myth of Adam and Eve naming the animals in the Garden. As Flanagan puts it: “What was this ‘I’ that is having the thought? ‘I’ is how we denote the biological and psychological continuity of our unique first-person stream of consciousness.” It is a linguistic notation of the centrality of the subject doing the action, not an expression inflated to a separate being.

“The self that is the center of narrative gravity is constructed not only out of real-life materials; it is also organized around a set of aims, ideals, and aspirations of the self.” There is no relevant loss to ethics, meaning or purpose in removing the notion of a monolithic separated self. All these still exist and perhaps even more strongly as they are now acknowledged as being bound within interactional and inter-relational reality, providing us with a clear image that we are not lonely creatures striving blindly into a cold dark night, but alive and existing in a fullness the awareness of which is a constant path of further enlightenment.

To wax poetic for another moment, “I and the Father are one” is not then simply a mystic declaration of Jesus but one which we can all make, partaking as we do from our own locus of experience we call self and yet always within the reality of a single non-separated universe.

© David Teachout

Monday, February 4, 2013

Relationships: The Expression of the Self

Recently I was asked by my amused and curious girlfriend just what my strategy is in pursuing other relationships (yes we’re poly, as I’ve noted before so this is a perfectly reasonable and wonderful question to ask within the space of open communication) considering that I don’t seem to do the same thing beyond one person. Coming as this question did upon the heels of conversations I’ve recently had in online groups concerning the nature of social bonding and the feeling of loneliness or lack that can sometimes occur in seeing other people who’s lives seem so much more special than ours, I now find myself returning to a theme of entries I’d left behind a while ago entitled “relationships.” As seems often the case I likely will be presenting something slightly different than the usual understanding but I do have my own projected reputation to uphold of being a dissenter possessed of an increasingly healthy ego.

Polyamorous circles or not, relationships are almost all anyone often talks about, with ridiculous amounts of books being written on the subject and research constantly being conducted as to the how of their working, the why of their existence and how to deal with the numerous difficulties that arise within them. This frankly is not an odd thing considering the central means of relating to the world is from the locus of an internalized ‘I.’ Try for a moment to think of or interact with anything or anyone without keeping in mind one’s interconnection with it. Don’t try too hard though as it is when we cease noticing our surroundings and therefore our connection with other objects that we start harming ourselves, either by stubbing one’s toe by running into something we didn’t see or having hurt feelings because we weren’t keeping aware of how another was relating to us. Noting this raises my point, that relationships, and by that term I mean any and all interactive connections, are the means by which we express our selves or the various ‘I’s’ that provide the focus of all our narratives.

I am aware and have written about this several times in the past, though undoubtedly will continue to do so again and again in the future, that the self as commonly understood is of quite a different nature than what I am discussing here. In a New York magazine article on The Self in Self-Help, it is noted that the common definition of the self in self-help literature is: “Somewhere below or above or beyond the part of you that is struggling with weight loss or procrastination or whatever your particular problem might be, there is another part of you that is immune to that problem and capable of solving it for the rest of you. In other words, this master theory is fundamentally dualist. It posits, at a minimum, two selves: one that needs a kick in the ass and one that is capable of kicking.” With this in mind it is easy to consider relationships, especially when difficulties in them arise, as instantiations of behavior stemming out of the false self in need of correction from the intuitive genius found in our other self. This is most easily seen whenever someone declares “I’m better than that” or “I don’t know what came over me” or “deep down I knew it was wrong.” Other examples abound and I won’t annoy the reader by attempting to note all of them. However, there is no such thing as this other self, this fount of wisdom just waiting like a blind yogi to expel pithy sayings in a breath of holy power. What this thinking seems to carry over from, though with less nuance, is Freud’s notion of the Id, Ego and Superego, with the Id being the self in need of a good kick in the pants and the Superego residing as the pontifical yogi.

While there is some truth to Freud’s notion it is not important to go into here, I merely point it out as a means of reference and noting how even great ideas (though I’m aware not everyone considers Freud’s notions as great) are used in an often simplified form leading to problems in relating to the world. I have written before how the monolithic transcendent self is an illusion and I plan to write more about it in an upcoming entry using Owen Flannagan as a primary source. However, related to that I want here to deal with the false notion of dualism in the sense of the two-self model found in self-help. Rather than two I want us to ponder the idea that there are in fact multitudes of selves, all with their own narratives, all with their own way of interacting with the world and providing a perspective through which experience is generated as a phenomenological feeling. We speak of it colloquially in our American culture as “putting on a different hat” when discussing work or being a parent or hanging out with friends (though curiously the latter is often depicted as being the most authentic, more on that later). What is often meant though is that the central ‘I’ chooses various aspects of itself for dealing with different circumstances and I want us to do away with that entirely, or at least as much as we’re able. Instead of “hats” I want to posit the idea that we put on entirely different “heads” and none of them contradict any of the others though the behavior that may result from these different selves certainly often appears to, hence the previous notation of people declaring they “weren’t themselves” when they acted poorly or not in line with what they now feel to be their true self. Looked at this way, the self becomes less about possessing a centralized clearing house to organize potential behavior and more about relating to an ever-changing world. From this perspective we no longer should look upon ourselves with disassociating shame when having committed a wrong act but with an understanding that like everything our selves are context-bound manifestations of relationships. While this makes us more responsible for our behavior in the sense that we can no longer call it “other,” it also should help us reconcile the flights of angst and condemnation when we do not do what we would like to do. Reality is we always do what we would like to do, it’s just that there are many sources for the creation of those wants.

None of this absolves us of the desire to strive towards consistency, in fact it frees us to pursue it from a better ground. Rather than fighting in a soul-searing tumultuous internal battlefield we can see our relationships as manifesting various selves and through the means of guiding awareness, focus on those relationships that bring about the self which contributes the most towards well-being and joy and the expression of values held dear. In discussing the creation of romantic relationships, an article from the National Institute of Health (NIH) discusses the role of various neurotransmitters in facilitating relationship bonding, noting that “Oxytocin does more than make us feel good. It lowers the levels of stress hormones in the body, reducing blood pressure, improving mood, increasing tolerance for pain and perhaps even speeding how fast wounds heal. It also seems to play an important role in our relationships. It’s been linked, for example, to how much we trust others.” This is more than just a reflection on romantic relationships but the bonding associated with any and all relational attachments with other people, from those able to of holding a space for the most casual of touch to the wildest of passionate intimacies. This is likely, as noted above, why we often think of time with our friends as being the most authentic, because we are busy interacting in a way that involves more touch and personalized bonding. Our bodies and the minds which are instantiated by and through them have an innate predilection and desire to form relationships, not just because we live in an interactive world though we do but as it is the source by which the universe finds intentional expression, meaning and purpose beyond (though still tied to) the merely mechanical. Who we are is not a lonely enterprise, it is a profoundly relational one.


“Journeys Of A Spiritual Atheist” is a collection of entries from 2012 categorized and organized to help with the integrating the flow of information. It is available on Kindle and Nook.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Thoughts On Metaphysics and Social Implications

There are times when I get ahold of something and like a dog with a bone, need to bite down and shake it about until the juicy truth within is cracked open. So much of my studies have centered on not merely understanding reality but in a growing recognition of how relationship of any and all kinds is a fundamental quality of existence. With this in mind I found a series of points I’d created years ago and, with an eye towards filling it out with what I had learned since, came up with ten statements that grow on one another to describe what I take to be the human relation with reality. Food for thought perhaps, articulations of frustratingly confusing points possibly, but in the end I hope at least it inspires some reflection within each of us of just how it is we view ourselves and this crazy wonderful thing we call life.

  1. The term “reality” is universal in application as it pertains to all things, concepts, etc. both known and unknown. As such, when using the term it is best to keep in mind during discussion what precisely is being referenced to determine precisely what aspect of reality is being considered. This concerns in particular Ken Wilber’s notion of nested reality, noting that everything is context within context all the way down.
  2. Language as it concerns existential reference instantiated in words, reference or point to something specific. Whether what is being referenced is simply a particular mental status of someone and as such has no more context or truth-claim than that, or is part of another nest within broader reality is why reference is so important to be delineated, since what one references will determine what aspects of reality is being considered.
  3. Perspective is the conceptual formation of the particular frame of reference other aspects of reality are then subjectively known or understood. It is not of a dissimilar metaphysic since all is of one reality, rather it is the specific way in which the entity relates to reality universal. The very idea of perspective is only possible if there exists more than the subject, otherwise everything would be merely extensions of the individual and not be capable of existence as things or objects in themselves nor understood by any other person in a different manner.
  4. Subjectivity is not a creative enterprise, but an interpretive one. One does not create a new reality, since all belongs to a singularity, but rather one relates to it differently based on the interpretive devices utilized. These devices, from sense experience to critical rationality, subjection to authority, etc. are not perfect and can be error-prone though the particular error may belong only to a specific aspect of the interpretation, not the entirety. This non-absolute nature of knowledge in no way makes impossible the acquisition of truth in so far as truth is acceptable, as it seems it is required to be, as one of increasing certainty or probabilistic knowledge.
  5. The interpretive dimension of experience is and only can be known when brought into public discourse via description, i.e. the usage of language. Until this is done, interpretation is merely an imaginative construct, still a part of reality universal but not something that has been demonstrated as being accurate or inaccurate in its depiction of it, hence the need as noted previously of noting whether said opinion is referencing merely a cognitive state or has repercussions beyond the subjective experience.
  6. The relation a person has to reality can be mistaken as being that of a cause-effect relationship or of a separate disposition in so far as the reality one relates to is seen as somehow fundamentally different than the one relating. This tendency in thought is unavoidable given two issues: one, the nature of perception which requires a biological separation of subject and object to maintain a relational narrative and two, the nature of language as it exists in the form of subject/object/predicate. This gives rise to the phenomenological “I” that western philosophy is obsessed with and is found socially to be instantiated in ego-based individuality and the attachment to things.
  7. This obsession with separateness and individuality has created a social paradigm surrounding subjectivity that is without warrant, centrally that it is not beholden to any truth standards beyond the mere articulation of one’s point of view. There is no such thing as an “I’ other than as a reference to a particular contextual instantiation of reality. Social practicality may make this impossible to put into every-day practice, at least not without a complete overhaul of our social systems (especially that of the criminological), but that is not to ignore that in discussion of consciousness and related topics, it should be kept in mind in order to maintain an acknowledged relationship with more than mere ego.
  8. Hence, given the fact that existence exists and that subjectivity is only the interpretation of that reality, not a creative enterprise (at least as previously defined), interpretation is capable of being critically analyzed as either correct or incorrect based as it is in a declaration of what the shared reality is. That the interpretation is felt to be correct by the interpreter is a non-issue, nobody believes something of which they are not convinced or accept to some degree. However, as there are many particular physical manifestations and nests of reality, each one capable of being known in increasing probability, so any particular interpretations can be noted as either more or less accurate than others.
  9. While it is true that “society” is largely responsible for the definition of words and thus could fall prey to the frustration of a majority rule, this is more a warning to be careful of defining and articulating what is being referenced in any conversation of which the result has multiple ramifications. It is a warning against stopping the continuation of rational discourse, not against the seeming arbitrariness of verbal construction. Care taken in determining the particular reference allows for an identification of just what field or nest of reality is under discussion. A problem arises when a single definition or usage is indicated as enveloping all possible contexts, flattening reality to only one plane.
  10. The multi-contextual nature of reality requires a multi-perspectival means of relating to it, a power we have in abundance as indicated by the many variations in meaning we may ascribe to any single experience. Recognizing this is not to fall into subjectivism as that would make every manifestation of reality a single flatted plane all on its own, but to take the time to determine and appreciate the web that is of us, in us, and has made us conscious of it.

There is is so much more than these ten points, delving as it could into morality, just what relationships are and so on, of which I will no doubt continue to articulate and share. I hope these thoughts are not considered binding but a starting point brought out of the joy found in continually exploring. Life is not stagnant and neither should we be in living it or knowing it.

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