(This essay needs work.)
How does a person make good decisions?
How does a person make any decision at all?
It always feels to me like forces inside and outside make rapids that I float along on, trying to keep my face out of the water. And then it’s like I notice I’ve done or not done something and it feels like I’m supposed to claim responsibility for what I have done or not done — as if I chose to do it, rather than just sort of notice that various words and deeds had fallen out of me and now appeared to be the proximate causes of various situations; situations I can neither particularly fathom, nor particularly inhabit.
The fundamental spiritual wager is that Love is Real, and every mundane thing is only worth doing to the degree it occurs in and through and for the Love that Knows we are all in this together and that alone Knows what is really going on and how we can fit into what is really going on in a way that is wisest and best.
Why make this wager? Because we humans can only understand, care about, and/or believe in our own feeling/thinking/acting to the degree that our feeling/thinking/acting is aware, clear, honest, accurate, competent, compassionate, kind, and joyfully-sharing inside of a Reality that loves everyone and has a path and a home for us all — all of which implies an implicit belief in spiritual values and our need for spiritual insight, and also an implicit need for the spiritual Reality to be infinitely compassionate, kind, and inclusive.
How do we know that the above is true for humans?
I dunno: Search yourself!
[Note that accepting the above as “true enough to serve as a starting place in my conscious moment” rules out any talk of “philosophical zombies” (the notion that other humans might have no consciousnesses) or even any talk of “maybe other people are fundamentally different than I am”. Part of what we are above admitting we cannot psychologically make any sense of is the notion that others are not fundamentally like us and thus share the same fundamental vistas/circumstances — including the ability to perceive and meaningfully interact with spiritual Love (the Love that doesn’t let anyone down ever).]
For now, let’s agree that a human will attain and maintain internal coherency (meaningfulness-to-oneself) only to the degree that that human both accepts and (at least to some degree) wins the spiritual wager we sketched out above.
How can we succeed here? We need insight into the True Good (aka: Pure Love; aka: Godlight; we are pointing imperfectively but not therefore meaninglessly towards vistas we assume all humans share) in order to understand, believe in, and care about our own feeling/thinking/acting. However, ideas, feelings, and actions about the True Good are not identical with the True Good (which, if It is to be what It must be for It to serve as a firm foundation for human feeling/thinking/acting, must be prior to our self-awaredly-limited feeling/thinking/acting); and confusing ideas, feelings, and/or actions about the True Good for the True Good is counterproductive: to the degree we make that mistake, we focus on our own hopes and fears rather than on the True Good.
How can we succeed here? We need insight into a spiritual Reality that loves everyone infinitely and will not abandon anyone; and that spiritual insight must be meaningful to our feeling/thinking/acting (otherwise it will not be meaningful to us); but confusing our own feelings, ideas, and/or actions for spiritual Reality is a classic spiritual error.
Imagine the mystics are right. Imagine that Pure Love is all there is, that Pure Love creates, sustains, shines through, and in some sense is this interconnected expanse of mind and matter (whatever mind and matter are, and not worrying about whether they are truly ultimately distinct from one another or not). Imagine that Buddha Nature is a formlessness that creates, sustains, and shines through all formed things, which flow together as one, and which ultimately flow into and are Buddha Nature. Then Pure Love shines through each conscious moment; and it also belongs to the mystical vision to believe that humans can relate meaningfully to Pure Love — albeit not in a literal/ way: the wise person’s words and deeds point towards the Light, but no one can fit the Light into words and deeds. So then we’re set! We just need to inhabit the mystical vision and we should be able to organize our feeling/thinking/acting better and better around the Pure Love shining through all things.
But what would such an adequate organization look like? And what feelings, thoughts, and actions would it give rise to? And what will keep us from making the classic spiritual misstep of mistaking our own hopes and fears for God’s Truth?
It seems to some degree we must misapprehend Pure Love. To some degree we must make the classic spiritual misstep of mistaking our own hopes and fears for God’s Truth.
But this is true whether or not we consciously accept the spiritual wager. We humans cannot help but seek and to suppose ourselves in some degree and way finding the True Good (regardless of the ideas we may toss about at the top of our conscious thought). Witness the self-proclaimed “nihilist”: why all this arguing and/or dramatic posturing if deep down his “there’s no Truth!” did not feel to him like a great Truth — giving him the certain meaning that he needs to feel himself infinitely safe, sound, and cared for?
So our choice is not between whether or not we make the spiritual wager: we will make it. Our choice is whether or not we consciously accept this psychological inevitability and whether or not we choose to keep consciously working to progress within this inevitable, underlying spiritual wager.
It’s scary to consciously accept the spiritual wager. Because if you let the spiritual wager remain a subconscious activity, you can more easily fool yourself into believing that your main interest is succeeding at straightforward tasks compatible with your own hopes and fears: good job, nice spouse, comfy life; and/or this or that type of human greatness (including — to the degree we turn them into ideas stapled to feelings of certainty — spiritual goods like “righteousness”, “salvation”, “wisdom” and “goodness”).
However, in the end, the more we dodge and/or pervert the spiritual wager, the less meaningful our own feeling/thinking/acting is to our own feeling/thinking/acting: we don’t travel with our own f/t/a to our own conclusions: we inhabit our own lives less and less: we more and more desperately (with whiter and whiter knuckles) cling to notions and choices that mean less and less to us.
That is why we are better off consciously making the spiritual wager. Even though it means we have to accept the possibility of finding that we must give up some goods/loves/preferences we currently believe we cannot bear to part with.
But the spiritual wager assumes that we must translate what is prior to our ways of experiencing, thinking, and choosing into our experiences, thoughts, and actions. So consciously making the spiritual wager in no way guarantees that we will not continue to confuse our own notions for God’s Truth. And humans are imperfect, so there is no way to guarantee that we will avoid either categorical errors (ie: adopting a fundamentally inadequate worldview) and/or particular errors (ie: specific critical misapplications of one’s worldview).
Our goal cannot be perfect wisdom, but only enough wisdom to continuously self-critique and self-correct — enough wisdom to keep growing in effective kind delight.
Ideas, feelings, and actions cannot have literal insight into Pure Love. But they could have poetic insight into Pure Love. Just as both author and reader recreate — through empathy — the poet’s solitary walk along the beach; both the doer and the watcher of words and deeds that flow with minimal contortions off of the doer’s minimally-contorted experience of Pure Love can — again through empathy — get some sense of the Light underlying those words and deeds.
Sounds reasonable enough. But in practice, this is what happens to me: I chatter at God, with no particular sense that God is answering my queries or steadying my feeling/thinking/acting’s interface with Godlight. A girl’s name pops into my head and I decide once again — contrary to all appearances — that she must be the “one”, even though it really isn’t very surprising or eternally-suggestive for the name of someone you are constantly obsessing over to sometimes pop into your head.
Maybe if I could get more insight into empathy. Since empathy is how poetic insight is transmitted, and it is also at the core of the spiritual wager: if the spiritual wager is correct, then others really are like we are and the correct perspective really is seeing divine Light shining in and through ourselves and everyone else.
So let’s think a little about empathy.
First, let’s consider how empathy makes communication, and poetry in particular, possible.
Some people argue that we can’t know what others mean when they speak of pain. They say it is as if someone is looking at something in a box only they see and naming it “pain”, and we don’t know if they are seeing the same thing in their box when they say, “pain” as we see in our box when we say “pain”. To these people I say: that’s not something we need to believe.
We learn concepts like “pain” by observing people using the concepts and mapping their external states onto our internal states. We recreate their internal states by reversing the mapping of our internal states onto our external states. We learn to associate their concepts by empathizing with them.
We may not be able to prove that empathy works, but if it doesn’t, then life is psychologically unbearable and also completely incomprehensible, since (1) we need the Light to exist and to shine in everyone and (2) the foundations of everything we’ve learned came from interactions with others — if those foundations are based on illusion, what are we to make of all our knowledge? So, as above, we find ourselves not proving that the spiritual wager is True, but rather demonstrating that our best bet is to find a way to find out that and in what way the spiritual wager is True.
Communication is possible because empathy is possible. And communication about spiritual Truths is possible because we all share the same fundamental vista of Pure Love shining through, accepting, and love-lifting us all. We don’t know that that’s all True; but we know that we need to discover that and in what way it is True if we are to understand, believe in, and care about our own feelings, thoughts, and ideas.
Poetry is possible because language can paint a picture that the poet viscerally inhabits. Because the poet is inhabiting her painting as they create it, the painting reflects her inner vistas — her feelings and vague senses of things, and how the ingredients mix together with ideas and a vague underlying spiritual sense to create a unique moment that she is both entering (or, if it’s based largely on a previous experience, re-entering) and actively shaping via her poetic contemplation of that moment. A poetic contemplation is a whole-being contemplation: you feel it from the core (spiritual Light) out through perceptions, feelings, emotions, vague notions, ideas, and words and deeds. A good poem reflects that whole conscious moment as it interacts with a specific set of ideas, experiences, observations, etc.
As I write this, it occurs to me that I am I horrible poet. Because my poetry doesn’t do that. Am I a horrible poet, or is my theory of poetry overly idealistic?
Does my poetry ever do that? How could I create enough space while still remaining adequately technically alert?
Setting the question of your essay writer’s own poetry to one side; the point is that poetry presupposes that we humans are enough like one another that we can communicate experiences by sinking into those experiences as we sing of them. Poetry presupposes that the poet’s ability to awaredly inhabit both subconscious and conscious experience leads to word choices that other people’s subconsciouses will then be able to reconstitute to create essentially similar experiences. That is how art works: the artist expresses their experience in objectively vague but fundamentally clear ways, so that the beholder of the art is able to journey into the artist’s moment and share in the artist’s contemplation of a whole human moment. Art works via empathy, via the faith that we are all essentially the same and can speak meaningfully with one another — even (or especially) about vague, experiential aspects of life that are too wide and deep to fit into literal descriptions.
Is the spiritual path akin to the artist’s path? Is the spiritual path a conscious immersion in the whole human moment with the goal of both transforming and expressing each moment by asking one’s feelings, thoughts, words, and deeds to better and better harken to and reflect the Pure Love shining through each conscious moment?
When does art lead one astray? I am thinking of this:
Dutch behavioral biologist Maarten ‘t Hart, hired by Herzog for his expertise with laboratory rats, revealed that, after witnessing the inhumane way in which the rats were treated, he no longer wished to cooperate. Apart from traveling conditions that were so poor that the rats, imported from Hungary, had started to eat each other upon arrival in the Netherlands, Herzog insisted the plain white rats be dyed gray. To do so, according to ‘t Hart, the cages containing the rats needed to be submerged in boiling water for several seconds, causing another half of them to die. The surviving rats proceeded to lick themselves clean of the dye immediately, as ‘t Hart had predicted they would. ‘t Hart also implied sheep and horses that appear in the movie were treated very poorly but did not specify this any further.
From the Wikipedia page on Nosferatu the Vampyre https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nosferatu_the_Vampyre
What are we to make of this?
On the one hand, the artist’s task is to unfold as clearly as possible a vague inner vision that is both particular and universal. And maybe gray rats fit that vision better than white rats. But it isn’t OK to treat living creatures like that. On the other hand, if you work in property management in NYC, you know that while you are not even allowed to humanely kill stray cats, you can do any horrible thing to rodents, and besides poisoning them and breaking their backs, maintenance personnel will sometimes smash glass up and mix it into cement, and use that to close rat holes. And, further, we have used rodents to test not just necessary goods like medicine, but also fluff-goods like make-up. So is the quick torture and accidental death of hundreds of animals that we already routinely torture to death too high a price to pay for artistic expression? Keep in mind that this film is considered to be a cinematic triumph.
On the other hand, how can cruelty be a productive part of a meditation upon the whole human moment — whose core radiates Pure Love — or else (if the core of a human moment does not radiate Pure Love) all is lost &mdash ?
Does the movie lose Beauty because the rats were mistreated? If we didn’t know about the mistreatment of the rats, their mistreatment is not likely to change the final product enough for it to aesthetically register with filmgoers. But is their mistreatment still somehow making the film less Beautiful? How? Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder?
The fact that it seems possible to serve both art and cruelty demonstrates that art is not a purely spiritual exercise.
Wise feeling/thinking/acting does stop being wise to the degree it participates in cruelty. Even if the cruelty is hidden from observers, it is still coloring the feeling/thinking/acting of the one being cruel.
But are wise observers able to detect the flaw within another’s feeling/thinking/acting? I cannot tell from watching
Nosferatu the Vampyre that rats were mistreated making the film. Could a wise person reliably pick up on that moral flaw just by watching the film? That seems unlikely. But shouldn’t a wise person be able to tell from the behavior of another person that that person was caught up in cruelties, or at least that that person was feeling/thinking/acting with inadequate wisdom? Via empathy and a fine attunement to the inner state that the less wise person’s expression, movements, and gestures are reflecting?
Everything should cede place to the purely spiritual exercise of poetically expressing Pure Love in feelings, thoughts, words and deeds. So you shouldn’t torture rats, even if it will make the picture more beautiful. But it seems to go too far to throw out a beautiful movie because animals were mistreated when it was made (in 1978, so over 40 years ago).