“Dis-ease”

The term “disease” is today used exclusively to refer to a medical condition, specifically an absence of correct or healthy function. The root word “dis” originally connoted absence or lack, with a further meaning connoting bad, ill, or unfortunate, perhaps in a more metaphorical sense. Thus, for example, “disaster” was not a missing star, literally, but a bad star, an ill omen, a foreboding and prophetic moment.

In the broadest sense, collective thought has historically always feared, or awaited, disaster, always suspected the presence of a bad star. A strong sense of dis-ease has always haunted human efforts, especially social, cultural, and organizational ones. Perhaps this sense is evolutionary, as when primitive men (specifically men, versus women) pursued the hunt, courting the danger of injury or death, while restlessly passing night in woodland copses or hovels, fearful of the night sky, a turn in weather, the sudden appearance of one of the large creatures it hunted during the day. Add to this evolving stories or reports of spirits and malevolent natural phenomena and “dis-ease” was endemic. The dis-ease may have originated in guilt over their work or how they might have treated one of their clan, or in quiet moments a consciousness of frailty before a complex universe, as the experience of injury, sickness, and death became familiar. One may speculate that dis-ease has always been a component of human existence.

Even without a study of primitive anthropology, Freud came to call this “dis-ease” malaise, and to see it rooted in the tenuous status of human beings in their relationships to one another, and to nature and nature’s inevitabilities. While he saw religion as a displacement for psychological conditions, a history of religious thought does demonstrate the perennial attempt to unravel “dis-ease.”

Thinking in terms of culture one might assume “dis-ease” to be a strictly modern affliction, the doubt, restlessness, and anxiety characterizing contemporary life and philosophy. Contrast the Stoicism of antiquity, which Frank MacLynn (biographer of Marcus Aurelius) describes as entirely based on the classical assumption of Platonic and Aristotelian thought of an ordered and meaningful universe governed by God and ethics. Even the other philosophies of antiquity were not dissimilar. Epicureanism, with its emphasis on aesthetics, and the gentle materialism of Lucretius, were also built on pantheism and saw ethics as the only universal to which to cling. These philosophies understood the need to assuage the heart and spirit against dis-ease. In that sense, they shared the temperament of the contemporary East.

The mystery religions of antiquity contrasted to the temperament of the philosophers, but nevertheless did not contradict the desire to understand nature and find a resolution to dis-ease. They did, however, not assume that the God of logic was the true God or a single source of divinity. Their emphasis on bypassing reason and logic in favor of a subjective method of appropriating knowledge offered an alternative to the non-philosopher masses. A similar historical parallel is to be found in the Western scriptural religions of the era: Judaism and Christianity.

What limited the impact of Judaism outside of its immediate adherents was its sense of exclusivity and the peculiar nature of its notion of God, which relied heavily on a myth-making narrative and a narrow set of commandments and rituals. Judaism offered no individual path like the mystery religions, and no philosophical paths until later contact with Greek sources. Christianity suffered the immediate conflict of internal dissension, between the Eastern-style teachings of Jesus, and the institutional and ritualizing forces of Judaism. The victory went to the latter, and the sayings tradition was deliberately mingled with diluting and mythologizing elements of use to the institutionalists. Thus, no rigorous philosophical school emerged — unless the theologians count — and the insights of a mystery religion took on ritualized formulas more heavily Judaic than Greek.

Of special note in this era, therefore, is Gnosticism, which challenges both the institutional Judaic element in Christianity as well as the exclusivity of Christianity’s dependence on scriptural authority complementing the institutional. The Gnostics return to the fundamental dis-ease that should be addressed: the universality of pain and suffering. Some Gnostics went so far as to overthrow the biblical creation narrative and argue that the true God is entirely spiritual and did not create the world, that the world was created by an evil archon/pretender who contrived a flawed creation full of death and suffering.

Modern sholars, effectively maintaining the vital questions of the historical Gnostics, were concerned to rescue the original sayings and parables of Jesus against the interpolations of the orthodox Christians tussling for power as priests, bishops, and authorities, with useful narratives of the passion and resurrection suiting their succession narrative. The impact of the original sayings (as the Q Gospel) and especially of the Gnostic and other sectarian documents discovered at Nag Hammadi is specific to twentieth century spirituality, and complements the grand intellectual effort of the era to address dis-ease. For it is not the dis-ease only of contemporary life but even of the foundations of the civilization, for better or worse.

But gnosis as a method is common to all spiritual traditions. Judaism eventually developed a school of mysticism to transcend the aridness of Scripture anthropomorphism. The Christian mystics of Western Europe, especially Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross, exemplify the notion of discerning the divine outside of the canon of authorized documents, dry and lifeless.

In Islam, Sufism was essentially a gnostic methodology, entirely original within the Muslim tradition but paralleling the mysticism of its predecessor religions in the West. In modern times, theosophists have been instrumental in popularizing elements of Western gnostic traditions and melding them with Eastern thought, and while frequently vague and naive, their historical efforts to explore Eastern documents and traditions has represented an effort to address modern “dis-ease.” The popularity of Eastern thought, then brought to the West as New Thought and New Age, plus keen Western interest in depth psychology and Hindu and Buddhist traditions have all highlighted the gnostic search for meaning that is not dependent on authority, reason, or cultural exclusivity but on the efforts of spiritually-minded individuals.

Jung on aging

In his essay “The Stages of Life,” C. G. Jung describes consciousness as the source of our “problem,” contrasted with nature and instinct. For modern times, the “problem” disrupts the psychological progression of the life stages but also challenges the function of culture, which is self-individuation and self-development. The cultivation of self that ought to logically be the provenance of maturity, experience, and wisdom, is undermined and overthrown by the artificiality of consciousness, not only the continued adolescent behavior of older people as an example but more deeply the modern failure to cultivate value.

Thought, like desire and achievement, does not address the problem of consciousness but exacerbates it. The tendency of our thinking is rigidly linear, but there is an alternative. As Jung puts it:

We only understand that kind of thinking which is a mere equation from which nothing comes out but what we have put in. That is the working of the intellect. But besides that there is a thinking in principle images, in symbols which are older than historical man, which are inborn in him from the earliest times, and eternally living, outlasting all generations, which make up the groundwork of the human psyche. It is only possible to live the fullest life when we are in harmony with these symbols; wisdom is a return to them.

Jung argues that we must be attentive to these “primordial images of consciousness” because that process can supersede rational thought in making an order to our lives. He laments how few people are aware of the character of the stages of life, how many enter them successively neglecting their significance and failing to make the necessary and healthy transformations.

Jung uses the sun to illustrate the stages of life. Visualize a circle, then place a cross within it to create four quadrants, which, from the lower left clockwise to the lower right, represent the sun’s progress across the sky, and our human stages of life from infancy to old age. The first quadrant is childhood, when our consciousness emerges from nowhere to begin its progress. Youth should not be impeded but allowed to grow, experience, and learn. In the long midday and afternoon span the adult years of career, profession, social obligation, and self-image, conforming to the many responsibilities of the ego and the instincts of the species. Then the sun begins to set, and new lessons by the aging must be observed and taken to heart in order to appropriately derive the lessons of this last stage. Jung draws out these lessons:

Aging people should know that their lives are not mounting and expanding, but that an inexorable inner process enforces the contraction of life. … For the aging person it is a duty and necessity to devote serious attention to himself. After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illuminate itself. Instead of doing likewise, many older people prefer to be hypochondriacs, misers, pedants, applauders of the past or else eternal adolescents — all lamentable substitutes for the illumination of the self, but inevitable consequences of the delusion that the second half must be governed by the principles of the first. … Money-making, social achievement, family and posterity are nothing but plain nature, not culture. Culture lies outside the purpose of nature. Could by any chance culture be the meaning and purpose of the second half of life?

Jung speculates that life after death offered by religion is a concession to those who cannot tolerate the transition from middle years to old age, and especially cannot discern the significance of what old age offers the psyche: the opportunity to pursue the primordial symbols left behind in the rise of consciousness and “problems.” Would that we could perceive these possibilities early in life, nurturing them so that our entire lives would fall not so much into delineated stages but into a continuity of inner self-development.

C. S. Lewis on pain

In 1940, writer C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) published a little book titled The Problem of Pain. Written as a Christian apology, the work addresses its topic in an entirely popular and literal way, assuming the theological arguments of a medieval scholastic, uninformed of any other intellectual movements, even within Christianity, let alone contemporary issues such as anthropology, philosophy, hermeneutics, or psychology. The reader is relegated to a list of arguments constructed on original sin, free will, hell, angels, the Devil, the nature of God, the divinity of Christ, etc., all from the point of view of a traditionalism and scriptural literalism that is sweepingly insufficient from an intellectual source.

Lewis is most animated when he acknowledges the existence of the Numinous (citing Rudolph Otto) as the universal source of religion in all its forms but quickly qualifies the sense of the Numinous by interjecting a criterion: that only in Judaism is the sense of the Numinous identified not only as Yahweh but that it is identified with a moral standard (the commandments) which defines the behavior of those who acknowledge this absolute manifestation of the Numinous. Thus, Lewis is able to argue that because no other sense of the Numinous clearly identifies a moral standard to complement its divinity, only the Judeo-Christian religion breaks through to the complete nature of the Numinous — and therefore constitutes the true religion. But contrary to Lewis’s ahistorical sense is the equal universality of the perennial philosophy, which Lewis seems to anticipate in alluding to Aldous Huxley (whose book The Perennial Philosophy argues that the Numinous is universally present and not merely in one culture but simply expressed variantly) was published in 1945.

Ironically, Lewis very clearly sets out the “opposing” view on pain and suffering early in the book, saying that this view is what he would have argued before his conversion to Christianity. These arguments are never really addressed in the course of Lewis’s book but are subsumed under the author’s necessity to have the reader accept Christianity and its theology. In any case, the straw argument is from an “atheist” point of view and does not acknowledge a perennial philosophy, so that Lewis has constructed a theist/atheist frame around what is in fact a larger view of religion in Otto, Huxley, and contemporary studies.

Look at the universe we live in. By far the greatest part of it consists of empty space, completely dark and unimaginably cold. The bodies which move in this space are so few and so small in comparison with the space itself that even if everyone of them were known to be crowded as full as it could hold with perfectly happy creatures, it would still be difficult to believe that life and happiness were more than a bye-product to the power that made the universe. As it is, however, the scientists think it likely that very few of the suns of space – perhaps none of them except our own — have any planets; and in our own system it is improbable that any planet except the Earth sustains life. And Earth herself existed without life for millions of years and may exist for millions more when life has left her. And what is it like while it lasts? It is so arranged that all the forms of it can live only by preying upon one another. In the lower forms this process entails only death, but inthe higher there appears a new quality called consciousness which enables it to be attended with pain. The creatures cause pain by being born, and live by inflicting pain, and in pain they mostly die.

In the most complex of all the creatures, Man, yet another quality appears, which we call reason, whereby he is enabled to foresee his own pain which henceforth is preceded with acute mental suffering, and to foresee his own death while keenly desiring permanence. It also enables men by a hundred ingenious contrivances to inflict a great deal more pain than they otherwise could have done on one another and on the irrational creatures. This power they have exploited to the full. Their history is largely a record of crime, war, disease, and terror, with just sufficient happiness interposed to give them, while it lasts, an agonised apprehension of losing it, and, when it is lost, the poignant misery of remembering. Every now and then they improve their condition a little and what we call a civilisation appears. But all civilisations pass away and, even whilethey remain, inflict peculiar sufferings of their own probably
sufficient to outweigh what alleviations they may have brought to the normal pains of man. That our own civilisation has done so, no one will dispute; that it will pass away like all its predecessors is surely probable. Even if it should not, what then? The race is doomed. Every race that comes into being in any part of the universe is doomed; for the universe, they tell us, is running down, and will sometime be a uniform infinity of homogeneous matter at a low temperature. All stories will come to nothing: all life will turn out in the end to have been a transitory and senseless contortion upon the idiotic face of infinite matter. If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.

Fitzgerald on Omar Khayyam

Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in its various editions, first appearing in 1848, has often been identified for its Epicurean aesthetic and worldly philosophy, fitting the mood of British intellectual life and art in the late nineteenth century, with its interest in antiquity, romantic exoticism, and fatalism. The pessimism of the era reflected that of ancient Rome at a comparable stage, the nearest counterpart to the British Empire, with Omar Khayyam a similar-minded thinker in a fossilized imperial society.

Historical Epicureanism represented a skepticism of the gods extrapolated to the state, to society, and to institutions so revered by both the powerful and the foolish. The alternative to duty, service and belief was an aesthetic point of view, a seeking out of what was not transient — art, poetry, music, modes of expression both genuine, enduring, and universal. In Omar Khayyam, however, the aesthetic life actively enjoys sensual pleasures, especially wine:

How long, how long, in infinite pursuit
of this and that endveavour and dispute?
Better be merry with the fruitful Grape
than sadden after none, or bitter fruit. (1st., 39)

To the catalog of sensual pleasures are added those pursuits which wine embodies.

While Khayyam may have been shunned by contemporaries as blasphemous, the poetry of the Sufis often used sensual imagery presented as mysticism — and a French priest and translator of Khayyam, contemporary of Fitzgerald, pleaded likewise for this view. [Interestingly, this view has also been applied to Chinese poets such as Tao Chien and Li Po who also celebrate wine.]

But while Fitzgerald does not accept the mysticism argument, neither does Fitzgerald believe that the astronomer Khayyam was an adherent of science and reason as an alternative to intellectual skepticism. Rather, he imagines Khayyam’s sensualism to be an exaggerated poetic device, for he is too smart to not further apply philosophy to the presumed Epicurean solution, let alone a hedonist one. Fitzgerald instead identifies Khayyam with Lucretius, seeing Khayyam less patient of an entirely Stoic view of the universe. Notes Fitzgerald:

Omar, more desperate, or more careless of any so complicated system as resulted in nothing but hopeless necessity, flung his own genius and learning with a bitter or humourous jest into the general Ruin which their insufficient glimpses only served to reveal; and pretending sensual pleasure as the serious purpose of life, only diverted himself with speculative problems of Deity, Destiny, Matter and Spirit, Good and Evil, and other such questions, easier to start than to run down and the pursuit of which becomes a very weary sport at last!

In rehabilitating Khayyam, Fitzgerald sought to rescue the skeptic Persian poet from those who would embrace his apparent hedonism and disperse with any moral sensibility. Such is the hazard of publishing an overtly Epicurean work, shrouded in mysterious antiquity, embraced by readers of this or that quote celebrating pleasure but missing any irony about pleasure’s futility.

Ineffability and nature

The occasional complaint of letter-writers to editors of religious and spiritual magazines is that the course of articles is usually insufficient summary, while the real gist of insight is promised at an expensive conference or workshop in a pricey venue for an excessive number of days beyond the average person’s reach, as if the best insights are only available from celebrity figures at swank locations.

The point is reminiscent of John McQuarrie’s remark in his 1967 book God-Talk, wherein he discusses the expressability of religious experience, specifically the paradox of talking about the ineffable:

It has to be acknowledged that adherents of religious faiths are almost notorious for their habit of talking and writing at great length. Perhaps the urge to verbalize is more characteristic of the West than of the East. W. P. Paterson wittily remarked that the Indian sage’s career culminates when he retires to the forest to meditate in silence, while his Western counterpart is more likely to be invited to give a course of lectures embodying his mature reflections on life!

[The Patterson book referred to is The Nature of Religion, published in 1925.]

And if this phenomenon was true decades ago it is especially true today. What articles and books need to do is to point out the essentials, the building-blocks, and past insights, then bid readers to go and do likewise.

In this respect, the traditions that emphasize silence and meditation understand that technical elaborations and group exercises are of little value if the aspirant has not time or space to pursue the recommendations.

But, further to help the individual, they should best recommend a strong relationship to nature.

A relationship to nature can supersede the desire for social or group work that supposedly reveals self or elucidates principles. Being in nature directly, within silence, trees, forests and fields, mountains and water reveals to the self the profound integration of all being into silence. When silence is disrupted in nature, it is to adjust balance, the “Great Transformation” with its many micro (and occasional macro) changes, and restore silence. As human beings, we both understand and are part of this greater process, and must learn how to conform, reconcile, and present ourselves to this process. No matter what intellectual path we study, the complement of silence and nature always allows the meditative process to reveal the ineffable, wherein the body, mind, and soul, already charged with its origin and direction, can make more explicit its truths.