The unattainability of spiritual freedom

Old Woman Smiling. As yet unattributed.

Some have referred to it as The Master Game, that grandest of all pursuits which rests upon winning or losing, that is to say, attaining or failing to attain, a mysterious state conceived of as spiritual freedom, and which goes by many names. Whilst the spiritual fainéant plays the game less intensely, casually group-thinking or timidly timing yoga minutes early each morning, others of a thirstier nature may make of it a lifelong contest of quite epic proportions. The gambits and stratagems of the spiritual aspirant are variously natured, being adopted as befits the character, with artifice and sophistry deployed pragmatically in subconsciousness so as to procure or sustain advantage over the player’s occasionally contrarian or doubt-inducing reflections. Stakes are high, and with each earnest investment of personal identity, emotional capital, and inner resolve, can only escalate. It is a contest without frontiers; a test of self-contra-self: The Master Game.

In a bid to escape their emotional and existential lacuna, the participant may devour the pabulum of self-help writings, or strain at obscurantist commentaries upon the alleged utterances of long-dead sages. They may cultivate a sapient and sciolistic presence which infrequently matches its promise in action, humility or compassion. Each of these, though the worst of the matter, are game strategies thought eventually to deliver a certain freedom of the psyche, something beyond the ordinariness of the world-perceiving mind, and which hence is often characterised as being spiritual in nature, whatever that means. The prize is imagined as an object acquired by a subject, or as the subject absorbing into an object. The game player may speak of enlightenment, self-realization, perhaps even God-realization, as if these were objects that could somehow be absorbed by the self, or vice versa, and The Master Game concludes only once such fallacies are realised.

Given these seemingly intractable and specious predispositions, then it’s understandable that some should conclude this can only be a losing game, which it is. That which is lost will not be mourned though, no more than one would grieve over the ending of a perpetually deceitful relationship.  Although finally revealed as ill-conceived, one’s approach to playing the game, if earnestly pursued, will yield many boons, and may yet result in victory, even though paradoxically, it will be known that there is no victor. That is why this is The Master Game; it can never itself be mastered by any, and instead will vanquish all contestants. The aspirant accepts this intellectually, freely entertaining ideas of non-duality, or the dissolution of enduring identity, intensively ploughing their phenomenological reductions as if beneath lay proof that the self was only ever a mythogenic cauldron. Yet the intellect has no capacity beyond thought, no real freedom.

The problem here is not so much that this spiritual freedom, however vaguely conceived, is being sought, rather that we presuppose the found freedom will attach to us, will be acquired and thus become ‘mine’. In other words, we imagine this freedom to in effect become enslaved to the self, which is no kind of freedom at all. Intellectually, we can accept the loss of the self, whilst emotionally, we still yearn for possession. Saying that we do not wish to acquire such liberty solves nothing, because the root of the problem remains, and the self has simply morphed desire into aversion. Besides, a psychological and emotional freedom – abandoning the adjunctive ‘spiritual’ – is far preferable to its opposite. We need to remain earnestly in play, whilst abandoning hope of gaining freedom. This is not to reject the liberation of the psyche, but to accept that by definition freedom cannot be possessed, acquired, forged, or accumulated, by any self-entity.

The Master Game finds its end in the realisation that it was played by the wrong set of rules all along. Issuing its stratagems from inside the self, the imagined subject-entity could not conceive it was no more than a mind-creation. Further, and due to its own presence, the subject-entity knew only of an isolative consciousness which enduringly apprehended awareness as if appearing here not there, as knowing all phenomena as internally possessed or as objectivised and thus forever apart. Then one day, the subject-entity forgot all about The Master Game; in a flash what was an impossible outcome was made possible; awareness realised and released itself; the world realised and released itself, and the futile contest was over. This came as a laughable surprise to the ghost-player left behind, who tried and failed to make sense of it all. Now and again, the phantasm may wander into the deserted arena, scratch its head, and wonder why it ever existed.

Gang culture

Photography: Stephan Rebernik, Vienna

Photography: Stephan Rebernik, Vienna

I am sipping tea in the library, gazing with a mild, disengaged curiosity through a large timber framed window which is set into a limestone Gothic arch. The manicured monastery gardens exhibit a balance of the feminine sense of profusion with masculine order and precision. A path formed of naturally riven and misshapen local stone winds through the middle and leads down to the water gardens below. Two blackbirds dance erratically across it, as if pretending not to follow each the other.

My attention turns to the collective chatter that permeates the room with a respectfully suppressed energy, and a thought arises that I really ought to engage with someone. Such is the done thing here; the accepted etiquette that one signs up for when electing to participate in communities such as this. A moment of resistance comes as I anticipate a contrivance of dull intercourse with my chosen victim. A groupthink mentality persists, healthily so perhaps; it’s just Buddhist gang culture.

None of this sat well with me; I’m not a sequacious sort; I incline not to follow, being something of an autocrat for the most part. Forcing myself to exchange verbal notes of agreement with other gang members felt, to me, a painfully deadening trial. Ensconced in meditation cells as a habituated retreatant, I mercifully escaped the worst. Still, this lengthy period of my life, now long since having passed, was invaluable and taught me a great deal about myself, not all of which overly flattered.

So, being a gang member can have its uses, even to loners of my ilk who may once have inclined to trust guidance by their own dim lights alone. What an arrogant notion! Though how to break free of it? Rarely does escape come through an initial seeing of one’s own misguided assumptions of correctness. Quite often the approach is more tangential; connections mysteriously attract us; we may sense a bruising battle, yet intuit an awaiting victory. As gloved pugilists, we warily enter the ring.

Now we are gang members, in earnest pursuit of knowledge, or inner tranquillity, or perhaps a little saintliness to nourish our delicate ego. We’ve joined a yoga gang, a Jesus gang, a Flying Spaghetti Monster gang – all offer a supportive sense of communal endeavour. Buddhists regard such gangs as one of three vital refuges, along with the doctrine and its apotheosis. And yet whichever spiritual gang we join, variants of these three refuges manifest as necessary aids for the spiritual aspirant.

If we’re fortunate, then the gang we first choose may have the potential to facilitate fulfilment of our innermost callings; they may ultimately help deliver the knowledge or tranquillity we sought. For most though, a self-imposed probationary spell ends as new allegiances are forged with some more suitable gang. It may be that our bodies finally rebel at more torturous Ashtanga postures, or we sense that dead teachers can’t truly speak to us, or that Pastafarianism was our spiritual hors d’oeuvre.

Our gangs may offer up a mirror to our psyche; certainly, an authentic teacher will do so. In the immediate presence of a truly clear mind, our shadow nature is reflected back at us with unerring accuracy and, if necessary, with an excoriating compassion. The authentic teacher will only ever do this if the student is capable of absorbing such a blow; and until this point of maturation is reached, the gang member will be left choreographing their egoic dance to the strains of Leonard Bernstein.

It’s time to find a partner who will dance with me in mimicking the coyly playful birds outside on the lawns. Turning, my eyes, seemingly of their own accord, fix upon the piercing gaze of a figure on the far side of the library, one seemingly intent on a visual embrace. Now facing each other, our words sound eccentrically melodious, like those of blackbirds. Smiles form upon two ownerless faces in an unbounded awareness; the books are talking; the room is seeing me; the Gothic arch listens intently.

Such are spiritual experiences – transient, paradoxical, mystical yet mundane, holding a perfect ordinariness as demanded by unrelenting sentience. They occur in the intimate embrace of the unknown, in solitude as well as in company. For some, gang membership may conduce, if not to such experiences, then at least to a stripping away of the monoculture of egoical becoming. The collective endeavour, with gentle guidance from noble friends, may share in the birth of great gifts.

Tartuffe

Molière by Pièrre Mignard. Photography: Jebulon, Paris

Molière by Pièrre Mignard. Photography: Jebulon, Paris

In 1664, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, or Molière as he was better known by his stage name, wrote a theatrical comedy which dealt with the themes of hypocrisy and charlatanism. In 1984, I had the pleasure of watching Anthony Sher perform the lead role, which he did with his customary brilliance and panache. Had I been alive when Tartuffe was written, I would have had little opportunity to see the play before King Louis XIV censored it – a state in which the play remained for a further five years.

So convinced was he that the play drew parallels between religious devotion and those unsavoury traits just previously mentioned – the apparent links between vice and virtue – that at the suggestion of the Archbishop of Paris, the king forbade all further performances of Tartuffe under threats of excommunication from the Catholic Church. Interestingly, the king did not ban private performances for the French aristocracy. The privileged, as we all know, are immune from hypocrisy.

So this article is about similar associations to those epitomised so dazzlingly well on that night I watched enthralled by Mr. Sher’s depiction of the impostor Tartuffe. I have chosen to do this as there are so many such charlatans around today in the world of spiritual endeavour. Much of this terrain has been commoditized, and with but a tenth of Mr. Sher’s dramaturgical capacity, the deluded spiritual pedagogue, armed with all the right words, makes for themselves a semblance of a living.

Tartuffe. 1739 English Edition

One need not turn professional though, for one may just as well dwell in the amateur dramatics of one’s own social circles, and there too give vent to a spiritual hypocrisy. The phenomenon of holier-than-thou-ness, or the feigned physiognomy of the supposed spiritual visionary, may at times be seen portrayed in the congregations of our local churches, yoga studios and meditation halls. So from what psychological tendencies do such spiritual hypocrisies derive, beyond any egocentric imperatives?

Here, we enter the enchanting world of self-deception, in which the psyche’s hall of mirrors may succeed not only in hoodwinking its own self-construct, but possibly the uninformed observer too. The process subsists in post-hoc fabrications of the mind which lend credence to the adoption of assumptions as to our spiritual progress. The desperation to receive a pay-off for our devotion and practices, leads us to fabricate pseudo-evidence that serves to satiate this otherwise oppressive need.

The whole of this construct is perpetuated and sustained by means of what psychologists call ‘confirmation biases’. Here, the deluded spiritual aspirant interprets experience falsely in an unconscious bid to support both their wishes and any imagined signposts as to their state of advancement. Further, there’s an overt pursuance of what could be, though seldom is, evidence as to the level of their insight or knowledge, the entirety of the biasing being held in all such spurious validations.

This is far from being a universal situation, and many aspirants with humility content themselves in the knowledge that devotion and endless hours of practice may only find reward in realms beyond their ken, or perhaps at best, in brief glimpses of self transcendence. In such a person, the balance of accumulated knowledge leads to the recognition that truth has a sliding floor, and that to seize upon this or that experience as indicative of spiritual terra firma is simply desire hedging its bets again.

Returning to those cleaving to a station not rightfully inherited, she or he will face their comeuppance in time should the biases persist unabated. Wisdom prevails in a tremor of the psyche, the floor slides, and though a freefalling is sensed, in fact a higher ground is reached. The alternative, if pursued in defiance of gravity, makes of the seeker another in the mould of Tartuffe – a hypocritical imposter, an ass of a charlatan. And just as with Molière’s creation, the ass must be revealed.

Romantic spirituality

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Religion and supernatural ideas in general have proved remarkably durable across the totality of global society. The elevation of scientism and human reasoning which began over 300 years ago has far from disinclined us to the unreasonable. The particle physicist may still attend evensong, the neurophysicist continue to ponder an afterlife, and the philosopher forever cogitate on transcendent abodes of mind. So reason appears to have its limits in the face of our more intuitive inclinations.

Human reason does of course have limits in any case; it’s always constrained by the cranial organ we possess as a species of Great Ape. There’s a tendency to regard reason as limitless, at least in theory, and we readily grant faith in those few intellectual giants who occasionally appear in the world. We may come to regard them almost as demigods, taking their every utterance as somehow sacrosanct and inarguable – until the next appears, and perhaps reveals the firsts’ feet of clay.

And yet religious and supernatural beliefs have this durability that, as history has shown, eludes the products of reasoning itself. There’s something immutable in our species’ desire to hold to ideas of the transcendent, as if we sense the limits of reason. Our notions of spiritual dimensions barely lend themselves to any detailed examination; they’re largely allusions to a metaphysical beyond that remain susceptible only to retention as opaque, frequently vacillating and wish-laden beliefs.

So what is it that inclines us to these unprovable notions, these rather clouded and at times hesitant bundles of unreason? Perhaps we can say that we fall in love with them as projective ideas – the heaven that awaits us, or the nirvana we seek one day to possess. Adopting beliefs such as these is highly seductive to us as spiritual materialists; they’re quite easy to relate lovingly to as we form relationships with our imagined futures, romanticising our becoming selves in the process.

Now of course, huge emotional solace can be granted as a result of our adherence to these beliefs. This is not insignificant, despite the objections of anti-theists who, sardonically dismissing those unable to substantiate their beliefs evidentially, miss the point. To them, it’s as if subjectivity is utterly illusory and has no pragmatic value; whereas to the believer, their subjective world is largely paramount. William James writes eloquently on this in his great work The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Continuing with this theme, we might say the ardent materialist can be romantically diminished – at least as regards much of their inner world. Such an allegation may not disturb them in the least; they may even take pride in agreeing. Yet simultaneously they fail to acknowledge within a romantic attachment to their own self-entity, their own love of themselves beyond the measurable flesh and bone. Ask them to describe the self they believe in, and a hesitancy appears – so is that too ineffable?

It seems then, that we all have romantic attachments to things that, whilst they remain indescribable, we find difficulty in relinquishing. Whether it be an unwavering cleaving to our present self-construct, or more projective ideas about the future of our immortal self, these are all notions we cling to and lovingly identify with. There’s a need to believe in something beyond the mind and matter – a super-construct of a heaven, a transcendent psychical realm, or an enduring, changeless self.

Whilst much of this readiness to believe is harmful, elements of it can serve an important purpose. Not only does it provide some with the emotional solace already spoken of, it may also create a conduit for higher understandings. The problem is in distinguishing what may prove a healthy faith, from pernicious and misplaced beliefs. In the end, it comes down to instinct and intuition; we feel a gut reaction that grants sufficient faith so as to allow the leap towards ground as yet unseen.

We can always play safe of course, demanding verifications as to what lies ahead before proceeding. And sometimes this is wise, particularly so in matters of the material world where empirical proofs may exist. But in the world of subjectivity, there simply are no such proofs. In the subjective world, the unknown is just that, and there can be no evidence beyond hearsay. So faith is the only option if we want to explore this speculative unknown, and we come back to our intuitive inclinations.

This means being more liberal with our romantic indulgencies. I don’t argue for a love of the spiritual, because for me the word is meaningless. The spiritual is generally considered as an immaterial counterpart to, or issuance of, a substantive self. And yet the self is not substantive; it’s no more than a narrative construct; it is already immaterial and issued beyond the body, existing only and ever as a recurrent idea. So the romantic indulgence I advocate is to befriend this same understanding.

It’s to have faith that we ourselves must go beyond idea and narration to understand the true ground of our being. Contemplatively exploring the mind and senses, we fall out of love with selfhood, and into loving only the presence of being. We embrace this possibility not as any romantic spirituality, but instead as a lover of knowledge. We come to know that the dualistic play of self and otherness are but entrancements, the romance of self-love but fakery, and in such knowledge find well-being.

A friend seeks contentment the heavenly way

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

She was an oddly attractive young woman, gregarious and vivacious, amusingly unpredictable in her scatter-brained thought processes. Yet to chat with her could feel like being spun in a cement mixer, never certain which way was up or ever knowing when you might be disgorged to go off in a nonplussed silence – like her, mixed up, but not unpleasantly so.

At other times it was like trying to read Ulysses in a hurricane, or after a few too many gin and tonics, her monologue a flight of consciousness borne on a slipstream of vacuity. She’d rarely be able to end sentences; there was always something vital to add; and whilst meaning seemed promised, her turbulent fervour meant it was always lost along the way.

And getting lost was very much her thing. When she wasn’t adrift churning your brain with her vapid and vacuous inanities, she’d seek to lose herself in other ways. It was as if she was running away from the possibility of simplicity, instead losing herself in rabid mindlessness and scared she may be forced to face directly her own simple, alive presence.

Sex was another of her favoured routes to losing herself. Here, once again, she clambered into the cement mixer – churning, enfolding, collapsing, resurfacing, over and over. And once again she would find herself at last setting in silence – the emptiness of alienation and self-loathing. Powerless to dispel these feelings, she settled for God’s Plan B:

Get to heaven; not now of course, but when God chose. Only there might she finally rest content as the soul she was sure she possessed. There’d be no need to get lost any more; in heaven she’d finally dispel her fears, safely in God’s presence. All else had failed; that was her proof that this world was just a staging post, a stop-over to a final destination.

It’s was a great plan for her, because she could carry on pretty much as before, knowing that eventually all would be well. All it took was belief and a few minor behavioural adjustments. She got into a circle of believers whose groupthink was policed and bonded by a prayer leader cum show master. And there she relaxed in God’s merciful hands.

I could guess at my friend’s thinking, though it wouldn’t have been consciously known to her. She was fearful of the world, so she tried to lose herself in it. The mind is a great place to get lost – lost in thought. It needn’t be prayerful thinking – just words, imagery, sounds; anything will do. Keep churning it out and you’ll lose all sense of your own being.

And then you simply wait; lost to your own reality, yet in God’s waiting room. It doesn’t have to be Eastbourne or Palm Beach. You just do it in your own mind and body. Contentment must wait too as you’ve found you couldn’t will it into being. All you need is the belief that one day the waiting room vacates as your soul steps through the doors of heaven.

At some level, we all do this. We all have our own version of God’s Plan B. If we’re rational and not given to such flights of fancy, we invent our own little piece of heaven that’s somewhere along our chosen path. Like my friend, we too seek contentment. We may conceive of it differently – happiness, wealth, status, relationships – but it’s the same final objective.

And if like my friend, we find our plan isn’t working, we either come up with another one or seek to lose ourselves in the world. There’s a million ways to get lost, most of which come down to an incessant distraction. Industries exist to feed this need to get lost in distractedness: drugs, drink, sex, entertainment and a whole host of anodyne consumerist fads.

Whether we choose to get lost in distractedness, or plan a route to contentment, we’re always putting things off. We’re always saying that the immediacy of being present in life is not sufficient; it’s not going to bring contentment. Yet contentment is accepting what is, as what is. It’s accepting our own presence in any and all circumstances. That is all it is.

Do you see how simple that is? Nothing has to change, to ‘get better’, to ‘be more than’, or to ‘become other than’. It’s incredibly simple and immediate. It’s nothing to do with plans or Gods, with projections or heavens. It isn’t about seeking or believing. It isn’t ‘about’ anything other than the vital immediacy of your own undeniable presence as you.