A Nexus for Existential Seekers

For a long time now, I’ve been toying with the concept of creating an institution dedicated to allowing people to openly explore the great questions of philosophy, psychology, and spirituality: who are we, where do we come from, where are we going, and what’s the point of all this? Let’s call these, for simplicity’s sake, existential questions. The institution would help  people learn and think about existential questions both on their own and in collaboration with others.

This is vague, because the realm of ideas and practice it is meant to delineate is itself vague. Some activities I could envision, however: a physical space for people to meet and talk; a virtual discussion forum or mailing list for people to do the same; a library with books on relevant topics; a website with links to relevant topics; conferences that invite together innovative thinkers on these topics from a wide array of viewpoints, and brings them into conversation with each other; a deliberate attempt to form research groups (perhaps an “existential research institute”) that might actively collaborate on particular questions, and result in papers for publication; a journal to allow the publication of articles and stories on these topics; a podcast to interview relevant thinkers; and maybe a way to facilitate people finding teachers, classes, and other relevant activities. I’ve envisioned it as a kind of hub for a spiritual search.

No institution currently exists to support this kind of unbounded and open-ended inquiry without also requiring a subscription to one dogma or another, if not one religion then atheism, or some sort of mystical or spiritual or New Age doctrine, or even a psychoanalytic or psychological one. Places like Patheos and Beliefnet do host blogs on various religious and spiritual traditions, and provide tools for the comparison of various traditions, but this seems yet a far cry from a truly open space for seekers.

Lately, I’ve been having my doubts about the viability of any such space.

Is it a calm library, an exciting commotion, an intelligent discussion group, a madcap research institute, or something else?

There is a core of inarticulacy to the idea. It’s a space where people can talk about these issues and expect to find others equally interested – even if there are barriers to real communication; those barriers exist everywhere anyhow.

So it’s a place where people can come out of the soundless vacuum and into an airy space where they can finally give voice to what they’ve been trying to say, and find comrades, and engage with the deepest questions.

But how would this space look and function? How can someone from a Christian tradition talk with someone from a Hindu tradition or an atheist tradition about random “great questions” – what is really the common ground?

I’m having a crisis of faith, the first might say, or I don’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity. Can the others help him? Wouldn’t he be better off turning to members of his own denomination?

And if random people come in with a random smattering of purposes, wouldn’t any discussion be haphazard and low quality? People want to speak, but speaking may not be as simple a task as getting together and vocalizing. Unprepared speaking about such subtle topics might lead to seriously disappointing results.

Take a young seeker who wonders: does God exist? What is the purpose of life? Why was something created rather than nothing? Do we have free will?

Let’s say he’s disappointed or confused by the answers he’s gotten to those questions from his family, and now he’s wandering in search of answers.

He might go into the bookstore and look at self-help and New Age books. He might find  flyers at a local YMCA and attend sessions of some random discussion group focused on the texts of Gurdjieff or another mystic. He might search out meetups for various spiritual groups, and find largely tarot and New Age stuff or spiritualism and channeling, or philosophy reading groups tackling the work of Wittgenstein or Zizek.

Perhaps he looks at academic philosophy, with linguistic dissections like a bottomless stack of crossed swords. All this to him seems a jumbled heap from which it is nearly impossible to extract a  satisfying education.

And from this heap he gathers various impressions, thinks, perhaps joins a group or two, gets more confused, and probably finds no one and nothing to help him sort out what is useful from what is not useful, and no one trustworthy to speak about these things with — unless he is entranced by a charismatic leader or two, a typically even less desirable situation.

What would he wish for, or whether he wished for it or not, what would benefit him most? A true teacher? A space where he could express himself freely?

He would not be well-served by talking to other people just as ignorant as himself – would he? Perhaps in part he would, if only to feel that in his questions he is not alone. He would not be well-served by falling into a logical well with the analytic philosophers, or the doctrinal disputes of particular religions – would he? Or perhaps being acquainted with them all would be useful, so he could better choose between them, or reject them all, or take certain elements he found true.

I could imagine a series of discussion forums, each one populated by advocates of its particular approach to the existential problems. A seeker could wander between them, a buyer at a kind of spiritual bazaar.

There would be an online library, full of key links to seminal books and articles. There could be a subject-specific set of resource pages. Things could be split up not only by tradition and sub-tradition, or philosophy or philosopher, but also by issue.

Yet any such library would have to be so oceanic in size and so necessarily superficial that it would be barely better than Google or Wikipedia.

Maybe some pattern has to be stamped on the chaos. Maybe various strong standpoints have to be introduced as in the classroom experience. Imagine a convocation of teachers, each one with their own point of view. Maybe in a class, or maybe in something like a Ted conference. Each one presents their ideas, and so the seeker gets a welter of opinions from ideological entrepreneurs, each one attempting to make their point of view as beautiful and relevant as possible. This would filter some potential speakers out, because they would need to be willing to say their piece in a setting which featured active competition.

Yet can this kind of short-form philosophy marketplace do justice to the traditions it represents? There is also the point that the answers to great questions are more than intellectual, verbal ideas. What about community, aesthetics, and culture? These things matter too.

There are too many opinions and systems, and one seems to be left with the unpalatable choice of simply adding one more opinion to the set, or to attempt to synthesize all the other opinions – itself a specialized form of adding an opinion, or to try to catalog and somehow index all the opinions, which is what I’ve been talking about so far.

The question is how best to help that young seeker?

No indexing, no easy access to lists of resources will much help. It merely foments the confusion.

Would links to people – other students, would-be teachers – help?

What could our young man possibly say to them, or possibly hear in return, and what would it mean for him to be helped?

I don’t know how much merely exchanging low level conversations filled with confused and scattered speculation would help, and that’s the kind of discussion students generate.

Teachers might bring more answers, but these would mostly be answers within various traditions. Is that what the aspirant is really looking for? That might be what he is given – but is that what will really help him? And the question recurs: help him do what?

Choose a set of beliefs? Satisfy his curiosity? The truth is so ambiguous and shifting that there is no simple way to do either of those things, nor could there be a “Consumer Reports” for competing answers to the great questions.

The key and the crux of the existential quest is a lifelong continual search for the correct phrasing of the Question. And the question is how to facilitate that. There are enough books, articles, and other resources out there; another index of them does not really help. However, finding other people who are equally interested in the search might be useful. They could act as sounding boards, discussion partners, and brainstorming comrades who could help the seeker think past problems. For any particular major tradition, however, forums already exist to facilitate these conversations.

And one great teacher with whom one has the good fortune to spend deep, extended time is worth a thousand ignorant fellow seekers as far as learning goes. I had a fabulous teacher, and these are very rare. But I also had time with him, and I had the temperament and the desire to keep asking him question after question — and he had the patience to listen — for a long, long time.

The seeker is confused, but there is no cookie-cutter way to help him find his path. He longs to talk to someone useful. Yet other seekers are just as confused. He can go to  religion- or atheist-specific discussion forums, where he will find other more or less confused seekers. Or he can look for a teacher. While great teachers are helpful, they are too diverse to be easily collected under one umbrella. Perhaps one could set up a directory of teachers, allow people to include reviews, create a directory of their articles. Individual rating sites of spiritual teachers already exist, though they are radically incomplete.

There’s no useful way of comparing teachers without a very strong viewpoint of your own as to what the “Search” is all about and where it leads. Otherwise, what are you going to say about a teacher; how can any review be just? “This guy is charismatic. He’s also a crock.” What does that mean, and what is it based on? Some belief of his that doesn’t check out? How can you evaluate a belief in isolation from the system of which it’s a part?

The biggest contribution any particular teacher could make would be to write his own opinions down in plain English, adding to the compilation of opinions already in existence.

The dream of some great gathering space to help seekers may be stillborn.

What about establishing a way for more “advanced” seekers and theorists to discuss things with each other and to push the boundaries of the investigation of the mind and soul forward? Would it not be productive for religious leaders, atheist thinkers, psychoanalysts, theologians, philosophers, writers, priests, monks, artists, and others to be able to talk to each other about the cutting edge of inquiry into the depths of the psyche and the horizons of life’s meanings?

The question here is whether there’s sufficient common ground such that there could be such a thing as existential collaboration. Between even, for example, psychoanalysts of different schools such common ground is elusive; and most psychoanalytic texts, so far as I can tell, largely talk past each other. The relationships in psychoanalytic institutes are essentially linear, from analyst to analysand – they are a kind of intimate teacher-disciple relationship.

I have yet to have a truly productive discussion about my ideas with even those people whose intellectual prowess and spiritual depth I respect the most. Real communication proves incredibly elusive; speech always seems to end up, especially on these topics, two ships passing in the night. Perhaps, at best, thought-seeds may be planted that blossom into concepts at a later date.

In order to discuss subtle spiritual ideas properly, they have to be thoughtfully written out. Then a discussant would have to peruse that piece with arduous care, reflect on it long and well, and then write an equally thoughtful response. This is exquisitely rare. Everyone is too stuck in their own world to pay true attention to others’ ideas.

But wait: doesn’t this happen in academia? Doesn’t this happen with philosophy papers or theology papers, that sort of thing?

Sometimes. Of course, the people writing the papers usually work in the same subfield of the subject, and therefore share a lot of assumptions. You don’t usually have an anthropologist contributing to a discussion among trade economists, though it may happen occasionally. The fields are too different. But where there is a cogent bounded discussion entity, yes, communication may just barely be possible.

Even in academia, scholars rarely respond directly to each other; they might at best cite one another, often for propositions which the cited author doesn’t really care about and might even disagree with. Each author is going off in her own vein – with the exception, again, that student and teacher might alone have a superlative link.

So an index of spiritual resources: not useful because it’s too broad.

An index of spiritual teachers: not useful because no rating system could actually compare them without a strong a priori view of what’s important in the spiritual quest.

A way to connect seekers with other seekers: that’s the blind leading the blind; an appealing thought, but not useful in practice.

A way to allow “advanced” philosophers, psychologists, writers, and artists to connect with each other on spiritual topics: their work speaks for themselves, and direct communication may be nearly impossible due to an absence of shared assumptions and vocabulary.

Perhaps the idea of an existential nexus is hopeless, which may be exactly why it does not exist.

To become a teacher of sorts, to put opinions out there in plain English – that alone may be truly useful, and that may be exactly why it so often happens.

What we want and what we should

Desire is the fundamental force behind all human actions. We want all sorts of things: companionship, respect, achievement, connection, money, power, pleasure, and so on. And yet, strangely enough, we also very strongly desire — but is desire the right word? — to do what we should do. We’re looking for some kind of moral indicator, some barometric reading that shows we’re reaching towards something more than just our temporary, moment-to-moment impulses. What exactly are we reaching towards? What’s the relationship of the “want” to the “should”? Are they even the same species of mental phenomenon?

Since the ancient Greeks people have known about knowing they “should” do something but not wanting to do it in the moment, and so not doing it. The Greeks called it “akrasia,” meaning weakness of the will. Perhaps people wanted to do something before, or wanted to have done it, but they don’t actually want to do it in the moment when they are required to do it, and so they don’t. Classic example: wanting to run in the morning before you go to bed at night. In the morning, not wanting to run — and not running. And yet knowing all the benefits of running.

But maybe whatever benefits you’d get are easily trumped by the harms of ignoring your desires and fighting yourself. And the benefits of paying keen attention to and following your desires might be a should whose benefits easily exceed the benefits of forcing yourself to run. Perhaps the idea of getting yourself to run itself comes from some kind of outside idea, and your desire not to run actually represents your more natural self, the self that, if given expression, would lead you to an even better path to fitness. Desire may be the expression of an inner intelligence trying to communicate.

And all of this applies just as much to things you shouldn’t do as to those you should.

So perhaps the should that seems beneficial isn’t. Perhaps the desire that seems indulgent points to the real should. Perhaps the real should points to being in touch with our true desires. But what are they? Confusion remains. Appearances can be deceptive, and these intertwined concepts are but separated segments of the same snake’s body.

Cogitation and Indecision

Reverie. Wisdom. The former’s the future, the latter’s the past, or so it seems – in style, rather than substance.

In the future maybe I will let myself dream a lot more, and write down what I dream.

But my past work has been more didactically concerned with wisdom, and that’s important, and I’d like to honor it somehow, and share whatever little I’ve learned with others.

I don’t know where to go exactly, and I also don’t know how to determine where I should go next. I feel blank, jaw hanging, sort of staring into space.

I feel the weight of my body and my mind seems tethered to that potato, that lump, unable and unclear on where it should aim, like a dog tied to a post, running, coming back, running again, never going very far, getting tangled up nevertheless, traveling in strange ellipses or semi-circles.

My cup overfloweth: and the excess I must share in joy. Must this be the attitude for successful art?

I would like to share what I’ve learned and I would like to start a conversation. I simply have no idea how to do those things. I also don’t quite know what I’ve learned, as what I’ve learned could itself be perceived from different angles.

What should be driving this decision? My desire. I’m trying to figure out exactly what, if anything, I desire to write on wisdom or whatever.

And so I present to myself different scenarios, in words perhaps accompanied by an image or two or some tones (both of these either generated by the words or perhaps coming concurrently with them to my mind), and sense my own reaction of approval, indifference, withdrawal, etc.

Part of me, I think, wants to post a blog a lot more, because it doesn’t have all the baggage of a book attached to it, and it’s so damn immediate. I could help start a conversation with a blog, perhaps, if only I knew how to get others – the right others – to read it.

Perhaps I ought to simply start sharing what I know in chunks on there. Start sharing my indecision – my agony of indecision.

But putting what I’ve just written up there? Seems embarrassing. And yet perhaps the very embarrassment is interesting.

A new aesthetic for inner explorers

The core problems of human existence are rooted in the mystery of the mind. Existential dilemmas, political conflicts, icy family feuds, and all the fruitless self-whipping in which we engage to fix or improve our personal lives: all these and more arise from the dark inner workings of the psyche. Take any social policy you like and you’ll see that the greatest obstacles are “political.” Take any self-destructive behavior and the main problem to overcome? “The desire to continue the behavior.”

We do not understand the bewilderment and loneliness we feel in the face of the contemplation of the vast universe and our existence in it (what are we, and what is all this?) or the sudden influx of powerful ecstasy when listening to a piece of music or the nostalgia we feel on seeing a beautiful person or the strange sacred quality time is lent on a rainy afternoon, or that power of charisma that some possess, or the way our beliefs change when we read a persuasive text, or the odd thoughts that occur to us as our mind wanders as we walk down the street or just before going to bed. A million million such examples may be found.

Take victims of domestic violence – why will they often defend their attackers? Take any sports team down on morale: why won’t their spirits lift? What makes someone fall in love with someone else? What are the roots of addiction? How do the desires and points of view of a society change and cause war and peace, alter art, evolve customs?

Social, historical, technological, economic, and other factors play a role in explanation, but only a subsidiary one. The real ever-lasting question – meaning the name of that thing that actually plagues us, that endless itch we wish to scratch – as to why things turn out as they do, the inextricable pebble in our shoe, always comes back to the mind and to the mind alone, and in fact to the case of each of our own, individual minds, which is the first and final source of interest.

It comes down not to just any part of the mind, but to its bizarre depths, its strangenesses. I mean those mental phenomena which involve the greatest emotional tumult, that are the haziest, the difficult to define, the hardest to see because most glimmering, and to fix in memory once seen, the closest to our own defensive desires to protect our self-image and to feel certain, the most perspectivally variable, and the most resistant of articulation – the closest to ineffability.

These are the areas of intense love in close relationships, patriotism, religious fervor, artistic inspiration, spirituality, nostalgia, dream and memory and imagination, the divine and the demonic and the daemonic. Here are the Archimedean levers at the forges of desire and perspective.

Experiences in these domains may be so swirling, kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, and illusory, so evasive and blinking and polymorphous, that they can only be seen with peripheral vision. They are so dependent on the total context of our selves at that moment that later on, be it only seconds later on, if we have changed, they can seem impossible to recall or comprehend or relate to, like dreams upon waking, until we see them once more with a start, unexpectedly, like apparitions, and then lapse into forgetting again.

These domains of mind control all the other great spheres of human concern.

We tinker at the margins with this or that new tool or theory while the great oceans of energy and image seethe and boil in dark turmoil in vast complexes we do not comprehend, cannot see, can barely conceive. We fool ourselves into believing we capture them adequately in scientific symbol, in the dry notation of biology or psychology suitable to describing things.

Yet the things that dwell in these places are barely things at all. They are neo-things, inchoate things, seeds of things, or remnants of things. Things are well-defined, have clear boundaries. Whereas these aspects of our mental life are not well-defined, are themselves features of our perception that distort other things, that send us into tizzies, that alter the ways we interpret ourselves, that vex and nettle us into quests for god knows what and we think we know what but in fact do not. Like staring at the sun, these phenomena daze us if we look at them without the proper instruments.

Science cannot help much with this project. Science, when it examines inner experience, correlates the brain and the environment to words and other symbols that represent that experience. Yet our symbols cannot withstand that purpose. Our experiences are too individual to be represented adequately in clichéd verbal conventions, yet such is the language science necessarily uses to compare experiences between people. Each of us has such vastly different and specific experiences in such different mental contexts that we each need to build our own tremulous and idiosyncratic vocabularies to grasp them. By our mental context I mean our memories, our anticipations, our self-images, and all the other things that form the background for any particular experience. The inability to account for the richness of inner context renders science too blunt to penetrate the fleeting objects of our inquiry. It can make crude statements, nothing more.

We need to see these strange experiences. The seeing requires each individual to look deep and long within, to introspect, to reflect, and to express what they find as part of a picture of the whole of themselves. Science is about abstracting away from extreme subjective detail and color and specificity. Yet in the realm of these experiences, it is precisely the merest shifting details that grant meaning to the whole, and it is only by noticing those details first that we can start to see patterns.

Because we have not effectively seen these aspects of the mind in all their fullness, because they are so individual, and because we have not articulated them, science is far from the point where it can act effectively. Academic psychology tends to study more easily measurable behavior, in fact nowhere near these most subjective spheres, though it may claim otherwise. Its methods of questionnaire and experiment and even field study cannot effectively enter the private subjective experiences of their subjects, for that would require those subjects to come up with the reflective art that would alone express that subjectivity.

Psychotherapy, and psychoanalysis in particular, are the quasi-exceptions. They do try to tackle these subterranean areas of the mind. Unfortunately, they are filled with jargon and rigid theoretical models and are often contradictory within themselves. Indeed, they are worse than inconsistent. They are, within their warring schools, often incomparable. Psychoanalysts, for example, often don’t even disagree with each other because they don’t truly speak the same language. They use the same words, but understand them differently. They nod their heads at each other’s speeches, thinking that everyone is on the same page when they are not.

Literature is often no better, though it should be. It too often aims to produce the various mysterious effects of the mind in its reader by physically reproducing the relevant situation, but mimicry is not the same as understanding. Literature does not often enough aim for insight and for clarification of the states and areas of the mind.

There has been a general tendency in literature to either avoid the ineffable in favor of the historic or the mundane, or else to convey the ineffable by “epiphanic” writing that produces some little bit of silence at the end that is mistaken for profundity, like some sort of pillow mint left at the end of a meal at a fine restaurant that contents you. There is that little feeling of “ah!” and satisfaction — not insight. There are powerful exceptions (see Proust), but they are rare.

Yet even so, it is true that our interpretation of our own experiences is a great gift we can give others to help them interpret their experiences. By seeing our approach, others learn: not to imitate but to analogize. So perhaps there is room for a science of a different kind, one where each person is the principal investigator of their own private universe. Yet, by effectively communicating our findings, we can help others with their research. In expressing our most intimate and private perspectives, we reach the universal.

Art (and by this I mean a broad term that includes literature at its core) can and must be the instrument with which we see our inner recesses more clearly. To accomplish this aim, however, requires a new aesthetic.

There needs to be an aim to understand the mind and not merely create various effects. Effects are fine, but we must go a step further and reveal insight.

Insight takes place through the logical assimilation of inner experiences to images. To show that various previously inexplicable pieces are actually parts of a whole is insightful. Metaphors are how we understand things, and vision is the archetype of understanding. We see something, whole, complete, a synthesis – this is how we wish to know our mysterious inner lives. This vision must be accomplished by metaphorizing our experiences, analogizing what they are like to various images, and connecting these various images to each other in comprehensive logical and imagistic networks.

Images also have the benefit of being portable. A chapter in a book that describes an interesting experience by cinematically demonstrating the circumstances that might provoke the experience simply creates effects; it needs to specifically assimilate those effects to images so that someone may say, for example, “he compares Juliet to the sun.”

That metaphor, that image, then becomes a tool of discourse about the meaning of love.

This also means that, contra much writing advice, writers who wish to illuminate the mind – and not all must have this goal, of course – must tell and not just show. They must take a viewpoint and be didactic, see themselves as active inner scientists with a responsibility to contribute to the clarifying conversation.

The images which form the metaphors of experience themselves form a system that show how its author sees the world, the peculiar distortions and characterizations of the cavernous lens we call our individual perspective. And it is in virtue of this system of images and their implications, that is, the reasoning drawn upon them, that the author pursues goals. He who sees life as a battle, for example, draws different implications from an interaction than one who sees life as a party. They not only have different desires, but they see different worlds. Meanwhile, desire itself affects and shapes the perspective.

Image, reasons, desire, perspective: these are the key concepts of explanation which the artist must employ to metaphorize the subtle flickerings of inner experience. Build all the images into a perspective, show how desires act upon that perspective through the relevant reasons, and demonstrate the depths of a personality. Of course these change over time, and those dynamics, too, must be articulated.

We have to take into account the concept of defensiveness (a true psychoanalytic contribution), and attempt to make clear how defenses operate to distort perception, and be cognizant of their effect on ourselves as we write.

We need a multi-vocal view of the mind. Each of us contains within us many persons. One of the advantages of writing fiction is that these persons can be given independent voice. This radiating band of viewpoints within each of us is not portrayed often enough; instead, it is still assumed that if a thought crosses your mind, it is “your” thought. Not at all, of course. Each mind is a community, and only the considered judgment of it after deliberative reflection deserves to be considered “its opinion” – and even that does not negate the fact that it may have fully contradictory opinions still within it.

The tiny images that occur just before going to sleep and the little thoughts that occur to us as we walk along the street must be paid attention and assimilated to the larger images that they suggest. Too often are they washed out of the narrative when they have important things to say. So too is this true of what French writer Nathalie Sarraute dubbed “tropisms,” or the “delicate, minute inner movements” of the mind that underlie everyday actions, and that are not described nearly often enough.

We need to focus on honesty and clarity as opposed to artifice and emotion. Intellectual insight into the emotions is superior to moving an audience. We need to take on some of the documentarian’s responsibility.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, we must keep in mind at all times the relation of art to wisdom. Wisdom is an unfashionable word in many corners, assuming as it does that life may have a point. Wisdom is the knowledge of what is good and how to achieve it.

Every act we take in art is informed by assumptions about the good. To exert the effort to see clearly, for instance, is to privilege contemplation over action. To admit the multiplicity of viewpoints within a person is itself a viewpoint, and one that may detract from the unity of purpose that would push one cause, one socially just cause perhaps. So too that clarity is more valuable than emotional movement, or that that the inner world is worth valuing, or that science is inadequate in investigating it, or that theory is useful: all are moral statements, all are in the domain of wisdom. And of course, all are arguable. To see our inner lives will require a constant investigation into our modes of investigation and thus into wisdom.

What does it take to a paint a panorama of the interior world? Send me your thoughts.