Friday, December 6, 2019
Why Take A Magical, Mystery Tour?
Many reasons exist, but listening to old Baba Ram Dass lectures might push the idea of the journey to the front of your mind.
Formally named as Richard Alpert, he describes three phases of his life:
First, he was a young PhD in psychology from Stanford who landed an awesome job at Harvard before he was 30. Alpert lived the cosmopolitan life of a Harvard professor, even owning a boat and decorating his apartment with antiques.
Second, Alpert got mixed up with Timothy Leary. Together, they took hundreds, maybe thousands, of LSD trips interspersed with STP, MDA, psilocybin, and just about any hallucinogen they could get their hands on. They sought dissolution of the ego, and boy did they find it.
Harvard fired Alpert—no big surprise—leading him to his third stage, namely years studying eastern religions in India. There, he experienced the dissolution of his ego naturally, through meditation and other spiritual practices.
Alpert returned in the 1970s, and began lecturing around the US wearing flowing white robes and beads. His father, who apparently loved him but disagreed with his pursuits, called him “Baba Rum Dum.” Thousands came to his lectures at major universities around the world.
Not that Alpert/Baba Ram Dass himself elicits any spiritual yearning, but I list here just a few reasons to consider pursuing spirituality in whatever way works for you:
I begin with good old Immanuel Kant who, unlike Alpert, never travelled more than 19 miles from his home in Germany. Nonetheless, he literally changed the course of Western philosophy forever. Philosophers, at least those studying in the west, split the four millennium history of philosophy into two camps:
Because Kant was the first western thinker to raise fundamental questions about human knowledge. He brilliantly pointed out that all you think you know results from your five senses filtered through your central nervous system.
Whatever you think is certain, like this wooden table on which I write this second, only appears that way because of those senses and that nervous system. Interestingly, models from contemporary physics suggests this table is almost entirely empty space. Literally, more than 99 percent of it is empty, meaning my experience of it as solid is illusory.
But it sure feels solid to me, and I can even identify the type of wood (maple, I think) used to make it.
What’s in a name?
If your world feels shakier after Kant, consider next the thinking of Jacques Lacan. He was a French psychoanalyst and philosopher who followed pretty closely on Freudian ideas. Of course, he had to write about them in an impossible way to earn him stature in the French academy.
But that’s another story.
Anyway, Lacan points out three basic ways we humans are alienated. First, we are born of another—our mother—from whom a permanent separation occurs after around nine months of pregnancy.
In other words, we literally began life united with another.
It never recurs.
Second, we metaphorically look in the mirror and create a noun-like conceptions of ourselves, a “somebody,” who we then confuse with being, well, real.
It is not.
We are verbs, beings. Nouns—like farmer, wife, son, or any other signifier of self—always fall short in describing our real natures.
Third, Lacan says, we have a limited symbolic register to use when understanding the world. Here, perhaps he reminds you of Kant.
If you’re feeling sad this Friday afternoon, for example, you have a limited number of words to choose to describe that feeling. Words like sad, loss, grief, jealousy, missing-out come to mind. They always fail to fully describe your human experience.
It matters naught whether you know three languages, or understand only Spanish or Latin.
All languages have the same limitations.
They are only symbolic systems, ways of abbreviating the world, allowing us to communicate.
For these three reasons, we human beings live in a constant state of alienation from ourselves. We’re seeking completion in some way, because of the loss of our primitive connection-with-(m)other.
We believe noun-like lies about our identities, and;
We can never find words to fully describe our experiences.
Consider next the basic premises of Buddhism and Taoism, namely that the self is a delusion. Contemporary psychoanalysts would consider “mental health” something like having a coherent, stable self-narrative.
That indeed sounds cool.
It’s not a terrible definition.
But, is it really us?
It’s just a set of descriptors creating this other thing we call identity.
In truth, these eastern philosophies preach, we’re unfolding in time, always changing. Even contemporary physics would agree that the world, as we know it, consists of form and energy, always unfolding, altering, morphing.
These thinkers would have no problem with you identifying yourself however you do—physician, mother, cousin, or friend. But they’d critique your attachment to any of those roles.
Life is a process, they’d say.
The more you identify with it, namely these altering, ever-changing processes, the less you’ll fear death. After all, all things are born, live, decay, and ultimately die. This process idea applies not only to plants and animals, but to mountains, buildings, and entire civilizations.
Now I turn to Karl Jung who, in a way of thinking reflective of all of the above, suggested we live our lives in a dream-bubble. It is fictional. Within a much smaller bubble lies reality, whatever that it. But, primarily, we live a dream, a plot, a fiction.
How hilarious, yes, but we consider it real.
Working towards a conclusion now, consider finally the basic ideas of economics. International capitalism, the dominant economic model around the globe, invites, nay, requires we humans to live as producers and consumers.
Think about your day on this Friday afternoon.
I, for one, am only up here in Cayucos because I’ve been productive enough to have enough money for the trip and the rental unit. I took Amtrak up yesterday. On the way, I noticed the endless brand names to which I was exposed on the train itself and on my laptop.
I remember forcing myself not to add anything to my Amazon cart.
I felt a bit lonely, and I imagined some new item might brighten my mood.
It would not have.
But I certainly thought it might.
The marketing firm Yankelovich, Inc, whatever that is, believes the average modern person is exposed to around 5,000 ads per day.
Maybe require is not a strong enough word when it comes to the push to consume.
Perhaps oppression would be more accurate.
Finally, and I credit Baba Ram Dass with this information, I can explain what is meant by spiritual materialism. I suggest you avoid it on your magical mystery tour.
The phrase refers to any spiritual belief system promising some definite solution (definitive meaning, say) or, similarly, promoting us versus them thinking.
The little ™ next to the TM standing for Transcendental Meditation offers a great example. The organization trademarked the name, and then suggested that transformational meditative states can only be achieved through purchasing a mantra from them. Those mantras are pricey, by the way. They cost around $3000.
Many ways exist to meditate, most of them costing nothing.
Many paths can lead you to deeper truths, most of them costing nothing.
And so I begin my own spiritual journey for all the reasons listed above and a few more personally my own.
I’ve checked off all the boxes:
Love, family, friends, education, housing, food, vacations, publications, podcasts, even a few antiques and fine works of art.
A much greater mystery lies behind what we all know, and the search with the realization of just that:
It’s all a game, a fiction, an unfolding process.
Wouldn’t it be better to search for the rules or, at least, challenge stupid ones handed to you like be productive and consume?
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