This piece is longer than the average post. Written in a few sittings over several months, it contains that which I have been attempting to find expression for over the course of nearly a year; an exercise in trying to give coherence to a period of rapid change. It is incomplete and unfixed, as it should be. As I am currently beginning a new endeavor, this seems as good a time as any to post it as a personal trail marker. I don’t expect many people to trudge all the way through, but regardless of how much you read, your feedback is welcomed. As a final introductory thought, I would like to note and problematize my heavy reliance on white men as sources for this piece. While not my conscious intention, it was an end result. This speaks to both my personal and the institutional prejudices that exist when it comes to determining what constitutes knowledge and who is permitted to produce it. Ones I plan to address in my work moving forward.
For about a year, up until recently, I had a regular meditation practice, sitting every morning for 20 to 30 minutes. For the initial part of that year, I met frequently with a teacher who, having spent years in contemplative practice both as a Christian and a Buddhist monk, came to develop his own approach to meditation and spirituality more generally. I am deeply indebted to him, as the way in which he explained spirituality appealed to my then-militantly atheist worldview. His approach helped nudge open the door which I had so emphatically kept shut at all costs, allowing in the slightest of possibilities that perhaps, just perhaps, there was something greater going on and that a reconsideration of my perspective might be merited.
The two of us would have lengthy discussions about life, the universe and everything, never arriving at an answer, 42 or otherwise. A point I kept returning to was where does spirituality leave us regarding social justice and collective liberation? I can concede the benefits to my personal life of meditation, mindfulness, and being in the present moment. I can even appreciate, though philosophically disagree with, ideas such as Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Yet these all seem to be individual, subjective and inward-looking practices that when taken to the extreme encourage a retreat from the world in the name of spirituality. We cannot meditate capitalism out of existence, we must act. He assured me that working for social justice was the natural end result of spirituality as it leads to right action. This assurance did not satisfy me and I asked him to explain it further.
As means of an example, he posed to me this question: “You walk down the street and each day you pass a 12-year-old boy chained in place who for 16 hours a day must hammer away at stones. What do you do?”
“I break his chains so he may go free,” I said.
“If you do this, then his family will suffer as they will have lost the income he made breaking stones. And anyway, the next day you walk down the street you will see another 12-year-old boy in his place, hammering away at the same stones,” he replied.
“That’s why we need to do away with the whole damn system!” I retorted. “We need a world in which it is not acceptable to exploit children.”
“And how’s that worked out so far? What have been the results of human-devised attempts to make the world a better place?”
I saw his point, but argued that most attempts have resulted in harm given that they do not emanate from a truly liberatory framework. That liberation movements have always been crushed by more powerful adversaries, muttering something about Barcelona during the Spanish Revolution and anarchists being attacked by both Stalinists and fascists. “Well, if freeing him is pointless and trying to make systemic change is pointless, what do I do?” I asked.
With a straight face he replied, “You hold him in lovingkindness. That’s all you can do.”
At that point, I almost lost it. “That’s preposterous!” I exclaimed. “Walk past him, hold him in lovingkindness and just go on about my day? That’s completely unacceptable!”
“Therein lies your problem,” he calmly responded. “Lack of acceptance and the idea that you know what is best for this world.”
Needless to say, if I wasn’t satisfied before, I was even less satisfied then. In my book, going through life spreading lovingkindness was not a sound model for creating social change. It still isn’t. But as I’ve found with most lessons worth learning, the wisdom contained in that exchange did not immediately become apparent to me.
Acquiescing to acceptance
The first insight, having to do with acceptance, came to me shortly after that conversation. As someone with a vision for the world that is radically at odds with how the world currently is, I used to find much in this world to be unacceptable. To me, acceptance was synonymous with acquiescence. If I accepted conditions of injustice, then I became complicit in them, as through acceptance I forsook my outrage and my motivation to try and change things. I realize now that acceptance and acquiescence are not at all the same thing. I can accept things as they are, but still be motivated to change them.
It may seem a matter of semantics to some, but for me it was much bigger than that. My past inability to accept the world as it was caused me immense suffering. A consequence of reality clashing with my perspective of how the world should be, and my insistence that reality was unacceptable, led me to take injustices committed against others very personally. The occupation of Palestine was a personal affront. The invasion of Iraq was an intimate indignity. Every horror that reached my inbox, newspaper or street corner was individualized abuse directed against me. Because if it wasn’t, I feared, then I would become like others who could casually flip channels between famine, genocide, WWE and American Idol, each merely a different manifestation of the spectacle.
Within a certain interpretation this construct was clearly pathological and as such, extremely uncomfortable. Taking the horrors of the world personally and feeling incapable of effecting any change led me to often lash out at those closest to me whose behaviors I construed as part of the problem. In projecting my own hurt and sense of inadequacy onto others, I ended up causing harm to those around me, further compounding my sense of isolation and alienation.
Borrowing from Buddhism, I can now see that my lack of acceptance was a form of attachment. I was attached to a version of the world that did not exist. By holding onto that attachment in the face of evidence to the contrary, I experienced suffering. And I attempted to process or escape that suffering in a variety of destructive ways. Ultimately, the only healthy way I’ve found has been acceptance. Pain exists in this world and always will. Suffering occurs due to the inability or unwillingness to accept pain. I can now accept that injustice exists and also realize the vast majority of it has nothing to do with me personally. George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon didn’t get together to figure out how to offend my sensibilities. That distancing and coming to terms with the world as is via acceptance not only gave me a shot of (clearly much-needed) humility, but renders the work I do more effective and in general makes me a more pleasant person for myself and others to be around.
To love and to be loved
The second insight was around the idea of lovingkindness. I used to believe my suffering was a result of my being sensitive and empathic, and as such, was my cross to bear – even somehow noble. When I read Parable of the Sower, I immediately identified with Lauren Olamina – the fact that I’m not a Black teenage woman in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles notwithstanding – who suffered from hyperempathy syndrome. “I can’t do a thing about my hyperempathy…I feel what I see others feeling or what I believe they feel. Hyperempathy is what the doctors call an ‘organic delusional syndrome.’ Big shit. It hurts, that’s all I know…I get a lot of grief that doesn’t belong to me, and that isn’t real. But it hurts.” Originally, I thought Octavia Butler made it up, but it turns out that hyper-empathy syndrome is classified as an “unspecified personality disorder” in the DSM-5.
I don’t believe my empathy is pathological, nor is it as intense as Lauren Olamina’s. It did, however, act in concert with my lack of acceptance to increase suffering. When my teacher told me to hold someone in lovingkindness, I thought I was already doing that by being empathic and it was only causing distress. In fact, lovingkindness goes beyond empathy into compassion. Thupten Jinpa, in a conversation with Jack Kornfield, explains the distinction as follows:
Empathy is more about feeling with, or feeling for. So you can feel a sense of concern for someone or you can feel with that person who is suffering. So it’s really dominated by the experience of the emotion, some kind of distress or concern for the other person. But compassion is more than that, because by the time compassion arises there is that added dimension which has more to do with our motivation system. You want to do something about this, or you wish to see the relief of that situation. So I would argue that when you are in empathy, the focus is more on the pain or the problem. When you are in compassion the focus is more on what can be done. It’s a more empowered state.
Empathy is along the lines of “I feel your pain”, while compassion takes it further, requesting, “May you be free from suffering”, a phrase often used in the Buddhist meditation practice of cultivating mettā, or lovingkindness. To hold that boy hammering stones in lovingkindness is not just to share his suffering, but to seek that it be alleviated, a seeking that comes from a place of love. Compassion offers an outlet to the suffering caused by empathy, providing motivation to act to change the condition of suffering, however ill-defined the impulse to act may be at that initial phase.
Progression through unlearning
So perhaps my teacher was right in a way, that at least the first step to addressing suffering is to respond to it with lovingkindness. But if lovingkindness moves us to act, then the question arises, how do we act and what is the goal of our action? Here is the third insight, involving what I feel is best or desirable in this world.
When I knew less but thought I knew more, I was certain that anarchism held the road map to the future. I would go around drawing concentric and overlapping circles to depict the functioning of an anarchist society, inspired by the “interwoven network” described by Peter Kropotkin in his entry on Anarchism in the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica. I feel less stridently about anarchism as the solution, though I still feel it is the most useful socio-political philosophy from which to critique the current construction of society and to propose a framework for alternatives.
When it comes to thinking about what the world should look like, I am inclined to agree with Michel Foucault that there is a danger is putting forward specific solutions, as they are bound to emanate from within the contemporary paradigm and as such be restricted by its conceptual limits, even if we are unaware that they are or even if they appear to be liberatory in intention and construction. As Foucault explained in his 1971 debate with Noam Chomsky:
And contrary to what you think, you can’t prevent me from believing that these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realisation of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilisation, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system; and one can’t, however regrettable it may be, put forward these notions to describe or justify a fight which should – and shall in principle – overthrow the very fundaments of our society. This is an extrapolation for which I can’t find the historical justification.
Postulating visions for the future requires an understanding of the present, especially an understanding of the limitations of present knowledge and wisdom. Foucault points to some of those limitations. Similarly, in my second piece on anarchism with principles, an exchange published on the Institute for Anarchist Studies’ website, I referenced Immanuel Kant and his argument that humans cannot experience actual reality, but merely create a construction that they then label reality. This construction is assembled into a whole based on the input and data provided by filters which mediate between the human construct of reality and reality itself. While I take issue with the dualism implicit in Kant, I find it helpful to remind myself of our ignorance of transcendental reality. That which we do not have the capacity to fully grasp cannot be explained by us or our theories. The best we can do is make educated guesses based off of incomplete information. Therefore any proposal put forward for how the world should be will be flawed due to its emergence from within modernity (per Foucault) and based off incomplete and inaccurate knowledge (per Kant).
A third perspective which has influenced my thinking around reality and humanity’s place in it can be found in the work of anthropologist Loren Eiseley. Eiseley carried with him in his present a deep time perspective of the past and future, a perspective that left him isolated and alienated, yet led to the creation of hauntingly poignant prose. In his autobiography, if one could call it that, All the Strange Hours, Eiseley writes of the moment reality shifted for him in a way that he could not unsee. Deep underground in Carlsbad, New Mexico, Eiseley and others were searching for the bones of an extinct camel. Accessing an area of the cavern not visited by humans for thousands of years, their flashlight started to go out. Never encountering the bones, they finally found their way out.
By the time I stood at the cave entrance I was looking at life, at my companions, at the traffic below on the road, as though I had just arisen, a frozen man, from a torrent of melting ice. I wiped a muddy hand across my brow. The hand was ten thousand years away. So were my eyes, so would they always be, and still, like Winlock, I did not find a way to speak. The modern world was small, I thought, tiny, constricted beyond belief. A little lost century, a toy, I saw suddenly…and here I looked curiously and distantly upon my associates, had arisen from some kind of indefinable death amidst stalagmites and glacial mud ten thousand years removed….”We are dwarfed,” I muttered to myself alone, “the tiny projection of a lantern show.” …I have never had occasion in the years since to think upon us differently. Not once.
Perhaps all-too-linearly, I imagine us situated on a scroll. Behind us the scroll unravels infinitely (or at least 14 billion years) into the past. In front of us the scroll rolls open steadily with the passage of each present moment. We take it as a given that the unrolling will continue, while aware that our experience of it in our current form comes with an expiration date. Much effort is expended in the present attempting to determine the direction of the unfolding future. As the past’s path shows, most of that is folly. The future-present has plans of its own, often offering little more than frustration and unintended consequences as compensation for human attempts to steer the course of events.
There seems to me to be an unsettling magnificence to encountering the present informed by the long wave of the past. With each breath, each heartbeat, we are thrown into a manifestation of the accumulated legacy of billions of years. This, here, is the end result. For now. It is disquieting, as we are asked to reconcile the overwhelming insignificance of any given moment as understood within a timeframe of such scale, with the equally true notion that it is immensely important as it is all we have and it is all we’ll ever have – a series of present moments strung together to form a lifetime. Human constructs such as civilization, capitalism, nation-states, white supremacy, patriarchy and so forth become disempowered and absurd when viewed from deep time. Yet they also demand the utmost attention as they so shape our present experience, wreak tremendous pain on billions of beings and threaten to send our species the way they have already sent so many others, to extinction.
I would argue that those who spiritually drop out and exist in impermanence above it all forsake the responsibility called for by the suffering created in each present moment by the current hegemonic systems. Similarly, those who neglect the long wave of time and cling unyieldingly to the constructs of the present as if it is all that ever was and will be, are either explicitly or implicitly abetting the perpetuation of life-denying processes. Realistically, between these two extremes exists a spectrum where most of us reside.
To be addressed by a voice
Arriving at this point of a past-informed present brings up for me the existential questions: What does this all mean? Why are we here? What is our purpose? Keeping in mind the concerns of Foucault and Kant, any ontological inquiry will inevitably be tainted. But could taking an Eiseleyan view of the past, imbued with acceptance and compassion of the present, offer some guidance about, perhaps not our future, but how to best endeavor to move forward?
Perhaps. And perhaps I should interject here that I make no claims that what I put forward is the correct way to look at things. It is simply what I’ve come to value in doing so. There is one more conceptual model that I would like to try to integrate into this framework before attempting to come to some conclusion. And that is a discussion of teleology.
If, wary of human wisdom, I have given up on the idea of a set plan for what the world should look like, but still find the suffering that exists in the present to be disturbing and worthy of changing, how do I set a course and what do I draw upon for guidance? There is no simple answer, but I do find the teleological proposals of James Hillman and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to be useful guides.
In his book-length exchange with journalist Michael Ventura eviscerating the current state of psychology, appropriately called We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, archetypal depth-psychologist James Hillman argues that psychologists should not attempt to analyze humans by using their development, in particular in childhood, as a map to understanding their current condition. Instead, he proposes that humans be understood primarily as guided by an image, one that is immutable and unchanging throughout the course of their lives. Whatever happens to a person in their life then serves as an opportunity to understand that core image, which we are all aspiring to individuate towards throughout our conscious existence.
[T]he primary activity of the psyche is imagining. My point here is that we humans are primarily acts of imagination, images. Jung says, “The psyche consists essentially of images.” And what is an image? Not only the depiction of something there on the canvas in oil paint. Jung says: “When I speak of image…I do not mean the psychic reflections of an external object, but a concept derived from poetic usage, namely, a figure of fancy or fantasy image, which is related only indirectly to…an external object.” Or, put it my way, what we are really, and the reality we live, is our psychic reality, which is nothing but—get that demeaning nothing but—the poetic imagination going on day and night. We really do live in dream time; we really are such stuff as dreams are made of. If at the soul’s core we are images, then we must define life as the actualization over time (for Keats twenty-six years, for Picasso ninety-two) of that originating seed image, what Michelangelo called the imagine del cuor, or the image in the heart, and that image—not the time that actualized it—is the primary determinant of your life. Do you see what this means? It means that our history is secondary or contingent, and that the image in the heart is primary and essential. If our history is contingent and not the primary determinant, then the things that befall us in the course of time (which we call development) are various actualizations of the image, manifestations of it, and not causes of who we are. I am not caused by my history—my parents, my childhood and development. These are mirrors in which I may catch glimpses of my image.
Hillman elaborated more on this theory in the book The Soul’s Code, which admittedly I have not read (though I went to a talk about it!), where he takes the metaphor of an acorn that holds the image of a fully grown oak tree within it. Plant and tend to the acorn and the oak tree will emerge. Despite what may happen to the oak, the image that guides its journey toward full expression remains consistent – from acorn to old-growth.
To be guided by this image would mean each of us has an individual telos that finds its expression through our vocation, our calling. Why we have the image we have is unknown, but to fight against it causes suffering, while flowing in sync with it “feels right.” I would propose then, that this would seem to be an important component of the type of world I’d like to see. One where the necessary set of circumstances exist that would allow one to pursue one’s vocation and thus express the fullest, highest form of oneself.
Diaphany of the Divine
What would the world look like if it were filled with humans fulfilling their callings? Not the callings we’re indoctrinated to aspire to – wealth, appearance, possessions, status, etc. – but the activities or manners of existing that deeply feed us at an existential level. What if we moved the acorn theory from the micro level of the individual to the macro level of the earth, or more broadly, the universe? What immutable image does the universe aspire to? And what is the role of humans in this development?
A person who was both a top evolutionary scientist and a Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, tried to answer these questions. His premise is that the universe has a teleology, of which Earth and the evolution of life on it is an integral part. Of particular significance is the evolution of beings (us) who have the capacity to reflect on our existence. As such, humans, being part of the universe, are the first known examples of the universe reflecting on itself.
Evolution – both in life form and in thought – tends toward complexity. These co-occurring complexifications, Teilhard de Chardin argues, will lead to an evolution of consciousness that will take the form of a noösphere – akin to the geosphere and biosphere. The noösphere, comprised of billions of consciousnesses, will become a vehicle for co-extensive thought, the repository of 100,000-plus years of collective human knowledge and history. Individuals both contribute to this sphere and receive guidance from it, leading not to the unification of static, mind-controlled replicas, but to a communion of unique, complex and consistently evolving, reflexive consciousnesses.
Teilhard de Chardin pursued this further, proposing that developments of a noösphere would lead to noogenesis and the emergence of a kind of “Ultra-Human” (what we now refer to as transhuman). The universe containing such an evolved consciousness of itself would eventually contribute to it reaching its Omega Point, the universe’s highest level of attainment and expression. Despite the fact that the Catholic Church censored and sanctioned his philosophical works, Teilhard de Chardin identified Catholicism as the spiritual vehicle that would imbue the sacred in the evolutionary process currently unfolding, a necessary component for the universe to reach its Omega Point.
It strikes me a quite audacious to postulate the ultimate trajectory of the entirety of existence as we are aware of it, and even more so to bestow such an integral role in it to a human construct such as the Catholic Church. What I appreciate about Teilhard de Chardin, aside from the dense beauty of his writing, is the animation, intention and purposefulness he bestows upon time, the universe and human existence. In a way, he injects the soul into Eisley’s rather inanimate deep time, with each moment containing the potential to contribute to a process vastly greater than ourselves.
Caught in the form of limitation
This essay has covered a lot of ground, each aspect of which merits more attention than it received here. The answer to the question I began with, concerning spirituality and social justice, remains elusive. What I have attempted to offer is the current framework through which I interpret events and interact with the world. If my telos, image or vocation is to place my meager morsel on the scales in favor of collective liberation, which I believe that it is, then it is incumbent upon me to understand as best I can the present moment. There are many useful political and theoretical frameworks for interpreting the structures that currently determine much of our daily lives. They are also limiting in the sense they were constructed in response to those structures, and more often than not limit their critique largely to the material aspects of those structures. Trying to find meaning within it can thus feel constricted and superficial.
I find a further step back is necessary. To a foundational perspective from which I can locate acceptance and lovingkindness and balance the ever-present tension of acting to immediately counter the vast suffering in the world (risking burnout or a descent into nihilistic rage) and holding that there are much, much vaster processes at work far beyond my comprehension (risking complacency and above-it-all, navel-gazing inaction). For me, effective social change work must answer in the affirmative to both the questions of: a) is it in service of alleviating suffering, and; b) is it moving this species and the ecosystem it inhabits in an evolutionarily transformative and liberatory direction?
There is no one right way of doing it. The concern is not foremost around taking the right action or making the right decision, but rather what guides us to ask particular questions in the first place and what are the motives behind our answers? If the mechanism is solid, then there is little to worry about when it comes time to act. I suppose this serves as an outline of my mechanism as it currently stands, in the hopes that others may find a useful piece of it here or there, and just as hopefully offer something back to build it up further.
Ultimately, man [sic] should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
– Viktor Frankl