I decided to write this blog for a number of reasons: first of all, I felt that I had something interesting to say; I was writing a lot of stuff on forums and thought it would be good to put my ideas together somewhere; I wanted to write a book, but never seemed able to organise it logically and kept finding new perspectives; I’ve always kept a journal, so blogging fits the style I’m used to writing in; if I want to publish a book (or just more of my writing), it’s probably best to use electronic means for environmental reasons.
In fact, this is my second attempt. When I took the plunge for the first time, thinking that I had gained enough clarity about my work to dare to publish it, the whole edifice seemed to fall apart within a matter of weeks. One of my tasks is to reassess what, if anything, is still valid from that earlier philosophy and what must be ditched, as well as to educate myself on subjects that have opened up to me within my new worldview.
I made a paradigm shift. That process itself was not entirely unexpected. My philosophy involved paradigms and paradigm shifts very centrally. I was not at all surprised to move through one myself, indeed I was working towards deliberately inducing one, it’s just that I hoped it would be a very different kind.
I am hesitating, I realise, to name the philosophies I had before and have now, because putting labels on such compex things is riddled with dangers. I would not want you to read these first descriptions and think that you understand precisely where I’m coming from.
Having offered that word of caution, then, where I was before the change might be described as on ‘the road less travelled’ (as M Scott Peck called it in his famous book). I was of a mystical bent, a ‘seeker’, a tentative believer in a realm of reality that lay just out of sight of the ordinary world, either ‘spiritual’ (in the sense of being inhabited by non-physical personalities or a Personality, God) or what might be termed ‘transcendent’ in a more Buddhist sense (implying a Unity that a human mind can reach or ‘melt into’, sometimes called ‘God’, sometimes not, but still the Great Truth, Mind, Overmind, Oneness, Nirvana).
I rejected the Christianity that was preached at me in a half-hearted, non-committal way every Monday in assembly, but then as a teenager in the ’70s I thought I’d found something incredibly deep and very likely to be true in the confident words of yogis and Eastern mystics.
I made many about-faces and reassessments of Eastern philosophy since then, never studying it formally and never really getting clear about its many branches and meanings – cherry-picking – but I considered seriously what I discovered, and I practised a little Hatha Yoga and meditation. My philosophy meandered towards Buddhism, and for many years I hoped for and worked towards attaining Enlightenment. I am also rather lazy, however, and my practice was never very steady.
My studies got more serious in 2006 and 2007, when I read and reviewed several books on Buddhism and related subjects, but I felt frustrated to find serious faults in all of them, from slightly fuzzy thinking, through infantile failures of logic to blatant appeals to dogma. However, I thought that these were perhaps just the misunderstandings of individual authors, and that behind them the great truth I sought might still lie. In January this year I began to consider really pushing forward in my practice instead of my reading, and work towards attaining Enlightenment. I had understood for quite some time, of course, that that goal was one I must strive for by my own efforts, that it was attained through practice rather than just rational thought, and that success (according to most sources) even depended on things outside my control, like the number and quality of my previous incarnations, for instance. My best efforts might be in vain, but a lack of effort would probably not get me there.
Or would it? Other versions of the teaching – particularly along the lines of Zen – suggested a deep paradox about the journey. If Enlightenment is synonymous with Liberation, the extinguishing of all desire, perhaps striving itself is the problem and perhaps I might get ‘Enlightened’ if I gave up trying. These and other thoughts I began discussing with Buddhist monks and lay teachers at online forums and by email, and out of those meetings and discussions arose further doubts and concerns to add to the heap of errors I’d found in my reading list. The whole sherbang was looking more and more shaky.
Everyone I talked to online who believed in Buddhism showed – in my admittedly partial judgement – the same failures of reason as the authors of the books I had studied in previous months. In this medium, where I had the opportunity to ask questions and engage in conversation, I also witnessed a lot of obfuscation and a deep inertia of intellect, an entrenchment in the current view, an automatic refusal or inability to ‘think outside the box’. This was so powerful that it caused experienced monks, supposedly dedicated to peace, love, liberation and openness (not to mention truth!), to close down, refuse to discuss questions, censor polite expressions of doubt from the bit of the Internet they controlled, become dismissive and hurtful and, most worrying of all, demonstrate a mindless obedience to others whom they considered wise or even divine. They struck me as some of the least enlightened people I’d ever met.
I was really quite shocked. I might have expected this kind of behaviour if I had expressed doubts about Jesus of Nazareth to fundamental Christians, but I had the crazy notion that Buddhists would be open, rational people, not religious zealots. I should not, perhaps, have been so surprised. I remembered joining a Buddhist discussion group many years before, where I was too shy to say very much, but witnessed endless bickering about the meaning of various Buddhist concepts and how to apply them, the clash of what appeared to be enormous egos, and only an occasional word of support, encouragement, care or compassion. None of them seemed to have ‘got it’, whatever it was, the relativity and paradox at the heart of it all. I preferred therapy groups, where all creeds were accepted, as it were united under one religion of moral common sense, mutuality, respect, care and forgiveness.
At about the same time of my final push towards Enlightenment, I became involved in two other forums, Steve Pavlina’s Personal Development for Smart People, and the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), and my relationships and discussions there also influenced my reassessment of my life’s spiritual quest.
I argued with the sceptics and the scientists at JREF that the private subjectivity of human consciousness was an unsolved mystery and, I thought, might be considered primary, more absolute than the energy-matter that science investigated. I went into it defensive and almost immediately fell foul of moderation when I was attacked and ridiculed and decided to bite back, but I came out feeling that I had presented and developed my points and considered those put to me.
There was a scientific proposition I found particularly intruiging, that consciousness could evolve out of utterly unconscious energy-matter, and take place moment to moment because of the actions of utterly unconscious brain cells. I was puzzled how I – the self, the witnessing centre of all my experience – could seem so absolutely certain, so private to this bundle of nerves and synapses and, crucially, so unlike the material stuff of the universe.
Fuller discussion of the issue of human consciousness must wait for another time, but that single thread I started at the JREF, Subjectivity and Science, from which I seemed to emerge with no significant change in my belief system, sowed invisible seeds of doubt that would bring me back months later with much more sympathy for the sceptical, materialist view, with gratitude for what I had learned.
(Steve Pavlina’s forum is a curious place, of which I’ll say more later, no doubt. Steve’s work – I suppose you could call them ‘teachings’ – come under the protected title ‘Personal Development for Smart People’. To a British person, certainly to one who’s knocked around in therapeutic circles for some time, it comes as a surprise to see ‘Personal Development’ interpreted the way certain people do, particularly it seems in the USA. There’s a whole industry teaching you how to do it, but it seems a very close bedfellow to Business Development, and that merges seamlessly into exploitative practices of the marketing kind and just as imperceptibly into New Age philosophy. There is a strong influence at the forum from something called variously The Secret, Intention Manifestation, the Law of Attraction and Subjective Reality, which I find philosophically interesting, but also quite disturbing.)
I must exercise the same caution about labels in approaching the paradigm toward which I have moved as I did about the one I’ve left behind, but a starting point would be ‘sceptical’. There is some danger of misunderstanding immediately, since many people consider ‘sceptic’ and ‘atheist’ as synonymous. (As a matter of fact, I do not know whether there is a God or not, but very much doubt it. A deeper analysis would require a definition of God.) But the point I want to make is that scepticism is about doubting, rather than deciding such an issue once and for all. A sceptic may doubt his atheism as another does his religion, since both are beliefs. This is something that some self-styled ‘sceptics’ don’t understand: they use the word to mean that they are clear in their view that the world is material and godless; of that they have no doubt, or they fail to accept that non-belief in God has a positive implication of belief in the non-existence of God.
I began this new blog with the understanding that there were things in my old view that may still be useful – I am increasingly of that opinion – and that I have not moved to a traditionally scientific-materialist philosophy either. Materialism (or, if you prefer, ‘physicalism’) is an interesting philosophy I wish to consider and learn more about, and I am willing to contemplate that everything in existence might be energy-matter, while ‘mind’ is an ’emergent phenomenon’, a particular effect, just as a rainbow is not made of a special rainbow-essence, but light and raindrops impacting retinas and eliciting biophysical responses.
As I write this, I am very aware that I did not have difficulty understanding the scientific view at all, and might even say that I believed it to be true. I am struggling to give the subtle sense in which I thought, still, that there ‘had to be something more’. One way to explain it, perhaps, is to say that I applied the law of conservation of energy to consciousness. If there is now consciousnessness in the universe, I thought, it was not created out of unconsciousness. Nothing gives rise to anything essentially different. Of course, that may be true, but the material scientist would argue that mind is not essentially different from matter, but a quality or effect of matter when arranged in a certain way (a living human brain, sufficiently supported chemically and sufficiently developed systemically).
An image I have kept in mind is of straddling these paradigms – the mental/mystical and the material/scientific – keeping a foot in each, not quite crossing, but considering what it’s like on the fence. Nevertheless, what has been reaffirmed is my commitment to reason and the ousting of personal bias and superstition as far as possible. The Buddhist intention to transcend ego-desire in order to see reality clearly is, after all, very similar to the scientific intention to remove subjective bias to the same ends; the method and underlying axioms are completely different. There are further analogies, like the illusory or transient nature of self, a proposition of Buddhism which aligns it with scientific physicalism, in contrast with most other religions. Many of the concepts and rules of Buddhism, however, I now consider likely to be driven by wishful and circular thinking. Some of these I have been forced to recognise as superstitions that I took on. I must say in passing that I believe science also is not free of circular thinking and is based on a kind of faith, a seldom-examined canon, though it does at least hold the intention of overthrowing any it discovers to be false. I will return to this subject in greater detail later.
If this all sounds very dry and analytical, let me assure you that going through it was an emotional rollercoaster. I had caught myself cheating, as it were, making the basis of my philosophy and aspiration the mystical hope of deathless liberation from suffering and full understanding of the universe promised by Eastern mystical philosophy. I am learning that I may never know ‘the Truth’, and I am having to come to terms with the grief. I told myself pleasant fairytales and chased illusions for thirty-five years; I will suffer and die, perhaps not having discovered the meaning of life; perhaps there is no meaning of life.
Part of this work will be retrospective, to publish some of the details of this transition as I wrote them, in longhand, in my journal. I hope that in doing so I may encourage others who are waking up to scepticism, recovering from religious indoctrination and self-delusion, or opening themselves to atheistic possibilities. It is hard to overestimate the fear, grief, anger and depression that can be faced by those who dare to question their religious beliefs, for if those beliefs are right, they could now be suffering from a mental illness or Satanic temptation, and risk losing the most important relationship they have, with the creator and sustainer of all things and the source of all goodness.
The odd thing is that this transition, for me, has a flavour of that beautiful promise of mysticism. I am again reluctant to label it, but it reminds me of ‘enlightenment’ (and it doesn’t make me feel too arrogant if I spell it with a small ‘e’). It was certainly a great liberation, which is another name for the same condition, it was ‘very enlightening’ in the colloquial sense, and I feel that my ego has been, if not completely transcended, at least taken down a peg or two. It offers something of an answer to my question to my temporary guru – Wouldn’t giving up striving for Enlightenment be an enlightened act? – but it is a paradoxical answer: I have not given up striving to learn, I have just given up straining to believe certain propositions, striving to attain a condition that may, after all, be illusory.