As I was preparing last week’s discussion notes, I was introduced to a new concept (new for me that is) – spiritual bypassing, which I briefly mentioned towards the end. We’ve all seen it, even if we didn’t know the word for it; and many of us experience it, even when we object to others doing so.
Conveniently for me, it fits perfectly into the story that we started to develop last week – the story of a narratively constructed self confronted by the unconscious shadow. Keeping it in those terms for a start, we can think of spiritual bypassing as a sort of faux spirituality that refuses to acknowledge the dark bits of the shadow. The stuff about love and light that Alana Louise May got stuck into is one of the more obvious and ubiquitous forms in New Age circles, but it’s not the only one; and it’s important to recognize that spiritual bypassing can be found in all religions and spiritual orientation, not only in new agey stuff.
John Welwood, a Buddhist and a psychotherapist, coined the term when trying to address a common phenomenon that he both observes and has experienced in attempting to come to terms with certain Buddhist teachings – especially non-attachment. (www.johnwelwood.com/articles/TRIC_interview_uncut.doc, Teal Swan YouTube)
I think it’s also worth considering a secular form of emotional bypassing – various ways in which cultural norms and expectations lead to the repression or denial of feelings. I’m only starting to explore the literature on this idea; so it’s quite likely that someone has already extended the concept in this way, and I just haven’t come across it yet. But I’m going to try to extrapolate from the little I know about Welwood’s concept to broaden it beyond the “merely” spiritual realm. Certain ideals of masculinity, for example, are one of the more obvious ways in which cultural norms lead individuals to embrace certain aspects of their emotional and behavioural spectrum while denying and repressing others.
What I want to do this evening is go deeper into the theory of the narrative self, discussing Charles Taylor’s idea of the self as a moral or orientating framework. As we discussed last week, he says it gives us a necessary place to stand in our dealings with the world around us. Tonight I’ll go into more depth about what he means by the ideas of a moral framework and a place to stand.
If there’s time, I’ll elaborate on the idea of spiritual or emotional bypassing, in order to then use it to further demonstrate how the narrative is formed in dialogue with the world around us, and how it then shapes our decisions and behaviours. We might also open up further exploration of the ways in which spiritual bypassing over-simplifies and thus perverts the older traditions that the practitioners think they are following. [it’s all good, Pangloss, love and light, etc] – But I have a strong suspicion that we won’t get to that tonight – so I aim to make that the main focus next week.
Before I recap the idea of the narrative self, though, two other things have come up. The day after our previous session, I interviewed a Sanskrit scholar who told me a story of the ancient Vedic texts, which extended into a very vivid articulation of Ultimate Reality. In the process, it also raised some qualifications to my simple presentation of the diversity of ways of conceiving the self, spirit etc.
On a related note, someone else suggested that I should elaborate a bit more on that diversity of concepts, because the narrative self as presented last week, seems inadequate. In that discussion I realised that although I am disinclined to tell you what I think is true, rather than presenting you a number of different perspectives from which to pick-and-choose, I had already chosen the one that I wanted to focus on.
As I started to work on a deeper engagement with these older ideas, I concluded that I must introduce this idea of clouds and boxes now, rather than in week 5, as I had originally intended. Once we’ve done that, then we’ll return to a further exploration of the ideas and implications of a narrative self identity.
I still favour the theory of the narrative self, and I’ll loop around to explain why after we spend some time discussing some of the diverse ideas that I lumped together last week with the qualification that I’m not really interested in splitting these hairs. So let’s take a few minutes to try to do them justice, even while explaining why clarifying these distinctions is not of great concern to me.
In my interview, I learned that it is a mistake to assume that the problem of the self in Buddhism is the same as the one in the Vedas, although they’re clearly related. One significant difference, if I understood it correctly, is between a dualistic and a non-dualistic orientation. In simple terms, the non-dualistic view is that the Universe is One, and we are all part of it – not separate from it. Brahma, or Atman or God and all of the gods are part of this same One-ness. Unfortunately, simple terms will not suffice for doing justice to the complexity of the different orientations that share this basic assumption. Yet, we’ll have to stick with them for the moment.
In contrast to that basic idea, a dualistic perspective maintains that the Ultimate Reality, God or Atman, is radically separate from the cosmic reality that we are part of. Georg Feuerstein suggests that in Patanjali’s dualism, for example (Patanjali of the Yoga Sutra’s, which I mentioned last week), through right practice and self-realisation we might have an immediate and personal encounter with God, but we will forever remain distinct from It.
I may have indicated that I’m more inclined towards the non-dualistic perspective, but I was quite intrigued by some of the nuances that arises from some dualistic frameworks. For example, I told you that this image indicates the merging of the small-s-self into the big-S-Self, which is sometimes also known as Brahman. My informant tells me that that is certainly one way of seeing it, and it is in fact a real possibility – something that can be achieved through particular practices, whether Vedic, Yogic or Buddhist.
We got into this topic of conversation as she started to differentiate between the Buddhist approach to escaping suffering and some Vedic ideas of ending the cycle of death and rebirth. I need to stress the some in that statement, for some other Vedic ideas are non-dualistic and thus see the One-ness of the Brahman much as the Buddhists see the one-ness of the cosmos.
Anyway, while the Buddhists moved away from the term Brahman, they maintained an understanding of a non-dualistic One. And as we briefly discussed last week, they came to see the ego-constructed self as an illusion, which includes and sustains the delusion of my being a distinct entity, an individual distinct from the Cosmic One. From this perspective, learning the dharma, the truth, is about overcoming this illusion, and coming to realise my One-ness with everything. When this is achieved, I lose my distinctiveness, I lose my individuality and merge into the Brahma.
In this story, the Brahma is a bliss state; a place of love and light and perpetual Om. It is the cosmic vibration of the Om, the root state of undivided consciousness. It is therefore quite understandable that many people aspire to escape the cycle of death and rebirth, and thereby escape the suffering that is unavoidable in this cycle, by merging themselves with this cosmic One. In this way, the ego-self is a fragment of the Cosmic Self.
But!!! But there is another layer, level, realm, universe of the Cosmos that is above and beyond this Cosmic One-ness – the realm of Atman, the Supreme Being, the radically Other. While it is possible to merge into the love and light of the Brahma, it is not possible to merge with the Atman, which is beyond love and light. It is, however, possible to encounter and dwell with the Supreme Being, through right practice, through realising the ultimate truth. But to do this requires maintaining your distinct identity as a distinct self. So we can end the suffering by losing our self in the Brahmanic soup, or we can maintain our self and take it to a higher plane!
If our aspirations are to blend into the melting pot of the Brahmanic soup, there is no need to differentiate between Krisna, Shiva, Kali, Brahma, etc. But if we aim to move beyond that realm, it is important to recognise that Shiva, Kali and other gods operate in this material realm, but Krisna is beyond it. It is interesting to note then that the gods concerned with the material realm make demands for various austerities and self-restraints, whereas Krisna knows no such restraint. Krisna is a player – and all is right with His universe. But other gods might make demands to refrain from killing, or sex, or whatever, in order to achieve the necessary levels of non-attachment from this material plane.
I think that’s enough of that particular story. I’m afraid I’m not equipped to clarify any of the details of how these realms co-exist. She also said something about a multi-verse, which resonates with my early encounters with these ideas through such classical new age texts as the Tao of Physics and the Dancing Wu-Li Masters.
Nevertheless, I have a very deep-seated allergy to proclamations of Absolute Truths, and to detailed descriptions of Ultimate Reality. I’m realise that this might be because I am much too ego-centric to let go, or to accept that someone else might have access to higher truths than I can access. Nevertheless, regardless of this particular truth claim, one of the things that troubles me in many such stories is orientating frameworks that portray life in this earthly plane as an obstacle or hindrance to a higher form of existence in another plane, or an afterlife. That is, the idea that pleasures of the flesh in this life will condemn me to eternal damnation – or simply to coming back and trying again until I learn to renounce them – strikes me as a cruel and unnecessary control mechanism – man-made stories / narratives intended to shape the behaviour of our fellow citizens. I’ll come back to that again later. For the moment, let me leave the interview story and try to outline some of the details of different versions of the self that I can find in yoga literature.
First, I note that Georg Feuerstein, who is widely regarded as the foremost Western (academic) authority on yoga and its literary sources, outlines differences in theistic orientations between Pre-Classical (~500 BCE) and Classical Yoga (~400 CE) (as well as Pre-Classical and Classical Samkhya – a different school of Indian philosophical thought). He observes a
shift away from an original panentheism’ that arises from a ‘felt need to respond to the challenge of … Buddhism by systematizing [themselves] along rationalistic philosophical lines. In both cases, this effort led to a metaphysical dualism that is barely convincing and that limps behind the nondualist interpretations of Vedānta. (Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, 3rd ed., p. 198)
I am not qualified to determine whether Feuerstein is a more reliable source than my interviewee. However, I find his more measured approach to be more convincing. There may well be some confirmation bias involved here, since I encountered both of these accounts from a nondualist predisposition. All of this is said merely by way of creating openings for you to begin to formulate your own conclusions.
I want to highlight, though, this observation in the middle of the passage – the bit about a felt need to systematize and rationalize. I find this ironic, since in my experience Westerners often turn to ancient Eastern philosophy looking for non-rationalized systems of thought to counter-balance the excessive rationalization of modern scientific thinking.
We find a similar but different use of reason in response to ideas of the self in a Chinese text from about 500 CE that examines the merit of these ideas. The author is Hsuan-Tsang, who says that the ‘real self is impossible’. Why?
Theories of the self held by the various schools may be reduced to three kinds. The first holds that the substance of the self is eternal, universal, and as extensive as empty space. It acts anywhere and as a consequence enjoys happiness or suffers sorrow. The second holds that although the substance of the self is eternal, its extension is indeterminate, because it expands or contracts according to the size of the body. The third holds that the substance of the self is eternal and infinitesimal like an atom, lying deeply and moving around within the body and thus acts.
The first theory is contrary to reason. Why? If it is held that the self is eternal, universal, and as extensive as empty space, it should not enjoy happiness or suffer sorrow along with the body… (Wing-Tsit Chan, Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, p. 375)
And so on. The second theory is also contrary to reason. As is the third. My point here is that already 1500 years and more ago, these philosophies of experience were being revised and bogged down in philosophical reasoning. Ironically, this form of reasoning was rejected in the very earliest teachings in both Indian and Chinese philosophy. The earliest traditions recognized that the simple fact of naming things is in itself problematic, for as soon as we start down that path, we become obsessed with defining what does and doesn’t belong to the name – what is included, what is excluded, what are its attributes and characteristics, etc? As Feuerstein explains:
We already touched on this last week, when I was discussing the Buddha’s teaching about the finger pointing at the moon. It’s not only our texts and our reflections, teachings and contemplations that are merely pointing at something; our words themselves tend to “thingify” stuff. This understanding lies at the root of some of the attempts to understand or discuss the Self. Recall again that I mentioned the idea of the small-s-self needing to surrender in order to merge with the large-S-Self. This is one of the ways that the relationships between the atman and the brahman has been conceived. Before I elaborate on that though, it is worth noting the irony that in conceiving it and attempting to share it we immediately name it, and in the process begin to thingify or objectify it; and in that action it is already slipping away.
Hence we find discussions such as this one from Mircea Eliade (Feuerstein’s predecessor as the foremost Western scholar of yoga):
…it is difficult to find a single formula that will include all of the meanings given to brahman in the Vedic and post-Vedic texts, [but] there is no doubt that the term expressed the ultimate and inapprehensible reality, the Grund of every cosmic manifestation and of every experience, and, consequently, the force of every creation… There is no need to recall all of the nearly innumerable identifications and homologizations of the brahman … the important fact is that … [it] was considered the imperishable, the immutable, the foundation, the principle of all-existence. (Eliade, Yoga, p.115)
He goes on – we don’t need to. What we can see in this passage is that it is both unspeakable and inapprehensible, yet very much spoken about. Again, every term used to describe it is a finger pointing – and every pointing finger is potentially a distraction from finding what we’re looking for. We find a similar conundrum in Judaism, where the ancient prophets refused to name God, I’m tempted to say “for fear of” but it was actually because they knew that naming It would distract us from Its ineffability – the very fact that the thing of which we speak is too un-thing-like to be referred to using any objectifying terms. But of course we cannot speak of it, cannot point to it, cannot begin to share our understanding of it, unless we use words to do so. The alternative is to retreat into silence – as many philosopher, yogis and monks of all persuasions have done over the millennia, for precisely this reason.
Oops – did I just invoke “reasons” to one of those things that cannot be “reasoned” about?
Another irony – which is actually not an irony at all, just a plain old-fashioned paradox – is that in most Vedic, yogic and Buddhist traditions, the path to enlightenment, or liberation from the endless cycle of death and rebirth, is knowledge of the ineffable, unknowable, Absolute. In one sense or another, such knowledge can only be achieved through concerted, dedicated effort – but this effort almost invariably takes the form of surrendering to the fact that one cannot know that of which knowing is necessary. That is, this knowledge is not a cognitive, rational, or reasoning kind of knowledge that includes learning the names and attributes of things. Instead, it requires transcending those forms of knowledge to achieve a state of experiential knowledge. Or, at least, I think that’s what it means – but the fact that I’m thinking it means that I’m doing it a disservice, and thus missing the point.
I can have a lot of fun with this paradox, even as it does my head in. We find in both the Vedic, the Taoist, the Buddhist and the Neo-Confucianist literature a reference to naming things that are “not-this, not-this”. In other words, all of our efforts to name the thing are missing the point – the thing not only exceeds or surpasses all of our attempts to name it, but it’s not even a thing. Or an it. I’m ready to leave these esoteric distinctions, now and return to the idea of a narrative self, going deeper into the understanding of it as Taylor formulated it, and beginning to reformulate it in the context of this problem of naming, as well as in light of considerations of the shadow self, and of the implications of narrative therapy.
But first I want to slip in a linking conception. When I first outlined this series, I slated this next topic for around week 5. But all of this ineffability and inapprehensibility – all of this problem with naming – forces me to change my schedule around. Introducing this idea now will give us ways of linking these problems of thinking about ultimate reality to our problems of living in the mundane reality that confronts us on a daily basis.
Which is a long preamble to this idea I’ve developed that most of what we do in language can be seen as attempting to force clouds into boxes.
We’re almost always dealing with clouds – shifting, changing, etc
We’re almost always trying to force them into boxes – neat and clearly delineated, fixed and unchanging, clear cut and easy to judge. Looking at this in terms of our struggles to come to terms with the ineffable characteristics of Absolute Reality, or of God (whatever that means) is relatively easy, if we’re prepared to open our eyes that wide. But the problem occurs in all uses of language, and becomes particularly acute when we start talking about our identity.
Now there’s a connection that I think we didn’t make last week – the narrative self that I’m discussing is our identity. The self is the identity, we identify our self through story, and this identity is our orientation to the good.
In concrete terms, I identify as a man: a white middle class western middle-aged intellectual inner-city cosmopolitan blah blah blah. Each of those identifiers – attributes, characteristics??? – is in itself the title of a story; each of them contains a multitude of narratives.
It’s in the nature of language as a social form of communication (which is a tautological description) that each of those terms as meaning embedded in social exchange – and each is therefore subject to negotiation, if not disagreement. To pick just one example, in the early 21st century, cosmopolitanism was a hot topic for social theorists trying to understand the movements away from nationalism, even while nationalistic tendencies are recurring on a large scale.
A much more straight forward example is the one that I outlined in the promotional blurb for this series: what is a woman? What does that mean? You’re all well-enough versed in the feminist debates that we need not rehearse the questions of femininity, motherhood, child-rearing, nurturing, caring, biology etc. Yet we know that many women suffer from the struggle to measure-up, to be good enough; to be seen and appreciated as “real women”. Same with men.
In an odd way, being a philosopher is both a highly masculine occupation and a threat to my masculinity in the terms of the robust brawny masculinity of a football culture. In working class culture, book work is often seen as girl stuff, even though in feminism, the exclusion from book-learning has been one fo the greatest crimes of the patriarchy.
I could go on – but you can see the point: the words man and woman refer to ever-shifting cloud formations. They have different meanings in every culture, in every sub-culture and for every individual who wears the label. No two men are the same, no two women are the same – but when I walk through the cosmetics section at Myers I see shit-loads of women trying too fucking hard to measure up to some uniform standards of femininity. They are trying to fit into a box – a rigid category, where some things are in, and some are out. Where there is no grey area, no blurring of boundaries.
One of the difficulties for those of us who can see these things is managing at the same time to accept that for the majority of people – especially those bazillions of women in the cosmetics store and all those young men trying to live up to the standards of the footy club – these identifiers are real.
In other words, once we have forced the polymorphous clouds into a more-or-less fixed container of a box – constructed an identity around a particular orientation, identified particular objects for pleasure and particular modes of achieving that pleasure – these become self-defining properties, and any challenge to them, assault upon them, denigration of them, is treated as a threat to the Self.
To put this another way, I cannot be who I am if the things that characterize who I am are fleeting, or unimportant. Charles Taylor explains this in terms of constructing a self as a place to stand in the world – it is something that matters, constructed as something that is worth defending, worth fighting about. Without such a place to stand, life is empty and meaningless.
None of this undermines the idea that our gender, our identity, our sexual orientation is in fact a social construction. It’s merely saying that once it has been constructed, we are prepared to defend it as if it were natural, essential, a matter of life-or-death.
The Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out that our self is a performance, but we perform it as if it is natural and spontaneous. This means that for most of the actors or players on this stage of life, most of the time, the script is not negotiable; it is not optional, or fleeting – it is perhaps always unstable, but that merely provides incentive to fight for security…
I mentioned in passing last week that there are a wide variety of ways that the word self has been used and defined in psychology. I’m won’t pretend to be across that literature, but my random encounters with these concepts lead me to conclude that like much else in psychology, there is much too much emphasis on trying to pin down precise definitions, splitting very fine hairs and forcing things into precise categories.
As I said, much of what we are discussing is metaphor. I’m not sure that’s the best term to use to categorise the self, but when we discuss the self, or a self, we’re talking about something that no one has ever seen; its existence can only be deduced by inference from secondary effects. It certainly cannot be objectively measured or assessed. Of course this is also the case with the psyche; and the spirit, the soul and many other ways we have of speaking about what goes on within, and what drives, the human person.
So, now I’ve looped back around to my original declaration that I’m not much interested in trying to pin down precise definitions of the various ways the words are used in either ancient philosophy or modern psychology. Let’s return to the discussion of the narrative self, and try to understand why I find this a particularly useful way of thinking about these things. Note that I am not saying that it is true, or accurate – and certainly not the only way. I’m merely saying that I find it very useful; both for self-understanding and for understanding where others are coming from, and sometimes for understanding how they get themselves into the stupid knots that torment them and prevent them from living the lives they claim to want for themselves.
So, a brief recap of the idea of the narrative self. The basic premise is that the self is a story that we tell ourselves and others, a story that answers the question “Who am I?” or “Who are you?” I outlined a variety of ways that the question is asked: we ask people we meet at parties “what do you do?” We ask children “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And so on.
I pointed out that we might answer this question differently depending upon who’s asking –a different story for Mum, the police officer, our best mate, and the person we’re trying to chat up. And this shifted our focus slightly – from the story that is told, to the story-teller. Whether narrative or narrator, I suggested, isn’t a useful distinction, but it does raise the idea that I contain multitudes.
Despite the multiplicity, though, I suggested that there is an underlying “I” who believes that all of these multitudes co-exist within “me” – that as the narrator of the stories, there is some sort of coherence or singularity that ties me all together. I know that although I told different stories to mum, the copper, my buddy and my lover, I can sort out the differences, tell them apart, and discern some underlying continuity. What I was getting to at the end of the discussion, when we began to discuss the shadow, though, was that sometimes there are actions, behaviours or statements that I cannot easily integrate into this coherent narrative – time when I say “I can’t believe I did that” or “said that”! Times when I would declare my own behaviour to be “out-of-character”. Let’s leave that for later, though, and focus on this idea of continuity and coherence.
To a great extent, the issue of continuity and coherence only arises because we exist in time: we are being-in-time. If we were not conscious of the passage of time, the question of what links this moment to that moment – of what links the story I told mum to the story I told my lover – the question simply would not arise. We could be like the proverbial goldfish in the bowl, with less than 5 seconds of memory – an eternal being-now!
We get lots of spiritual advice about the merits of being here now, being in the moment, being present. We might address that advice, that aspiration at some point. Let’s leave it for now and accept that I am not criticizing or questioning that advice in any way when I suggest that it would have no relevance, no resonance, if not for the fact that that is not our “natural state of being”. We are creatures in time, located in the present, shaped by the past, with concerns about the future. And it is only under these conditions of being-located-in-time that the question of the self arises. “What will you be when you grow up” is a question in time. The fullest version of “what do you do” is something like “what do you do when you’re at work” or “what do you do when you’re not hanging out here” – i.e., what do you do at some other time than this one?
From this perspective, we can see that one of the things that concerns us when we start thinking about the self, when we’re engaged in a process of self-enquiry, is how we are oriented in time. The American philosopher Alasdair McIntyre raised the question “Am I the same person today that I was twenty years ago?” (After Virtue) I look around the room and see a 30 year old, and I know she’s not the 10 year old that she once was. And yet, that statement makes no sense at all unless we can answer that question “yes” as well as “no” (as McIntyre does).
That might seem like a long way around, but it loops us back around to getting from A to B. Once I begin to tell you the ways in which I am not the same, I must go back and tell you who I was – we need that kind of a starting point to figure out how I got to here. And if I’m the kind of modern go-getter who has plans and objectives of where I’m going to be in five years’ time, it helps tremendously – some would go so far as to say that it’s absolutely necessary – for me to have an understanding of how I got to where I am right now.
This understanding of being-in-time is only one of the three dimensions that Taylor identifies as necessary for me to find my bearings in the world. The second one is physical space – which is where I began. I don’t think we need to elaborate on that much more right now – but it is inseparable from the fact of us being embodied beings; and the question of embodiment is one that must be addressed (from my perspective) when dealing with some of the more esoteric conceptions of the self.
I’m not really ready to go down this road – or rather, it would divert me from the path that I have planned to take tonight – but let’s briefly note that in many of the traditions in which I can only find my true self or spiritual truth by surrendering myself to a cosmic or absolute divinity, my physicality, my embodiment, is either irrelevant, or it’s relevant only because it presents itself as an obstacle to realising the truth. This isn’t only the case in eastern traditions of transcendence, either – it’s also to be found in Christian traditions in which the body is the source of our temptations, an obstacle to finding grace. Physical pleasure is problematic in many of our moral and religious codes.
The ones that see things that way fall into a category that can be called world-rejecting religions – in contrast to world-embracing ones. We can come back to that. For the moment I simply want to be clear that everything that I am proposing comes from a world-embracing perspective. And that means not only acknowledging the facts of embodiment, but embracing them, and celebrating them – without reducing myself or my experience to them, and without being overly attached to them.
There’s a whole world of concepts and debates raised in that brief qualification. Can I leave that dangling as a teaser for next week (or maybe later tonight) and get back to the point?
As an embodied being, I must have a location in space – a sense of where I am in the world. To use one simple example, if I have a map of the city and someone has shown me where my destination is – let’s say the Northcote Town Hall for no good reason except to have a definite destination – I can see on the map where I need to get to. But that piece of information is of no use to me until I can find on the map where I am right now. I cannot get directly from A to B if I only know one of those two coordinates.
Going back to being-in-time – from 20 years ago to now, I know both of those coordinates, in a sense. But there’s also a sense in which I need to tell the story of the trajectory from there to here if I want a full appreciation of where here is. That journey is full of experiences, some setbacks, a failure or two, some false turns, a change of direction or several – all of which provide the context in which I can develop an understanding of where here is. In this sense, the question who am I is inseparable from – as David Byrnes put it – “How did I get here?”
Those are two of the three dimensions that we need to get around in the world. The 3rd dimension is being in moral, or social space – that is, how do I relate to others? While this social space is more abstract than time or physical space, and therefore somewhat more difficult to pin down, Taylor identifies three different axes that are typically matters of concern for us in social space: 1) ‘a sense of respect for and obligations to others’; 2) ‘understandings of what makes a full life’; and 3) a ‘range of notions concerned with dignity’ (Taylor 1989 cited in Smith 2010: 60). Let’s think about these for a minute, noting first that they are only of any concern to us as individuals because, again, we are beings-in-time. If we were episodic creatures like goldfish, none of this would matter. But we’re not – we encounter people today, and will have to deal with them again tomorrow. And if we encountered them yesterday, that influences our dealings with them today.
Without getting too complicated, we could begin with the second of these, and loop back to the idea of spiritual or emotional bypassing. As we suggested last week, this kind of bypassing tends to arise from twisted understandings of spiritual traditions, such that we come to understand that we should “think positive” and that that means that we should avoid having negative thoughts. From this perspective, it makes sense that we should not see the dark side of people, especially ourselves. Or we think that there is a divine consciousness with cosmic intentions, and therefore everything is as it ought to be in the world – for if God made it, and God is good, then it must be good, right? So there’s nothing to worry about. It’s all good.
[It’s worth noting that these distortions are not peculiar to modern Western interpretations of Indian spiritualities; it’s actually an age-old theological problem known as the theodicy question: If there is a god, and god is good, then how is there evil in the world. This issued was poignantly caricatured by Voltaire in his 18th Century novel Candida (a rollicking romp of a story for a philosophical treatise!).]
These are some of the huge variety of ideas of “what makes a full life” – and when we adopt these ideas, incorporating them into our self-narrative, they shape our choices, our options, our decisions, and thus our actions. In this way, who we are – who we are becoming, who we are trying to be – is inseparable from these stories that we tell ourselves. I suggested that there are non-spiritual variations on this kind of bypassing too. A simple one is the clichéd idea that big boys don’t cry – by which, of course, I am referring to a whole package of ideas tied up with masculinity; a particular kind of masculinity that is rugged, stoic, unemotional and so on. This particular package is part of the warrior or hero ethic of old times. It’s implied in the cowboy ethic and the lone explorer – but today it is perhaps most apparent among the football heroes. Despite the high-profile violence and sexual abuse attributed to those guys, though, the most devastating effects of the ubiquity and impossibility of this ethos are seen among the boys and men of our rapidly changing farming communities where the suicide rate is among the highest in the world.
Because blaming factors outside your control would be crying.
Of course, none of these points are absolute truths; they’re all stories, or snippets of stories. They’re ideals that individuals might aspire to live up to; standards by which men judge themselves, and each other. And that final bit is of crucial importance – it invokes the dialogical dimension of all of these things – that while individual might aspire to live up to them, they are not individual values, but culturally constructed, prescribed and maintained.
Note too that this discussion has slipped from understandings of what makes a full life (2) to notions concerned with dignity (3). Of course the range of things concerned with respect for others are also intertwined here.
We can sum all of this up by saying that the narrative self is an “orientation to the good” – it explains and defines what we think is good. This way of putting it has triggered a lot of controversy, with many people assuming it means something like an Absolute Good, or a God – a cosmic good, a universal good. But we’re actually talking about a relative good. It means that we each narrate ourselves according to our own sense of the good – allowing, of course, for that dialogical element, which means that what we each individually think is good is inseparable from our social and cultural context – what we think is good is highly influenced by the people in our lives.
Last week I made a distinction between significant others and a generalised other. That still stands here. And it complicates things, even while making them less controversial to individualists. What it means is that while your individual idea of the good is very much something that you have come to on your own – you have come to it by sorting through the broad array of ideas and materials made available to you in your social milieu.
There’s no simple or straightforward way through this. Many, if not most people who have ever lived, are born into a particular faith community and live their entire lives believing in the particular god / good that they inherited. We might think of that as an orientation to the good that is entirely inherited from their significant others. Perhaps it “sticks” best when the community of their generalised others also adheres to the same orientation.
I think it is safe to say that that situation does not apply to anyone here today. We live in a world in which we have been exposed to a plethora of competing orientations, competing truth claims, competing ideas of what is good, and what constitutes a good life. From within this multitude, we each have to make choices; we must decide how we are going to live.
This does not necessarily mean that we must decide on the big picture over-arching view and stake a claim. It does not mean that once we have made a claim we must stick with it, or defend it. In many ways we might find life a bit easier to deal with if that was the case, but it’s not. And although we might occasionally yearn for the simplicity of that imagined option, most of us would rebel vehemently if anyone tried to impose it upon us.
Taylor’s idea of an orientation to the good comes down to our everyday life decisions. And it’s inseparable from the idea that the self is a story that we tell our self and tell others about who we are. But here, I’m going to add yet another complication – sometimes the other can see some aspect of our orientation to the good by interpreting our actions; sometimes an aspect that we are not conscious of, and sometimes one that surprises us when it’s pointed out to us. Yes, this includes things in the shadow; things that we might even deny when it’s pointed out to us.
But at a simpler and more obvious level, I can deduce something about each of your orientations to the good – something about what you hold to be good, about what you value – by interpreting one of your action decisions. The simple fact of your presence here right now indicates that you value an opportunity for self-exploration or philosophical discussion more than watching whatever is on television right now, or yet another evening at the pub. Of course, you might be recording what’s on TV right now, and looking forward to heading to the pub when we’re done here – but at the very least that indicates your preparedness to delay that gratification for this experience.
Of course some of the choices that we make are more or less conscious. Some of you are ethical vegetarians, and others are environmental vegetarians. Some of you to be both an ethical and an environmental consumer without being a vegetarian. I know that I am continually compromising on, and compromised by, every consumer decision that I make. And I have to admit that sometimes I stick my head in the sand rather than confronting or dealing with the multiple factors involved in each of these decisions.
Regardless of the particulars of any decision, the point is that having a sense of who I am entails a sense of my values, of what I hold to be good. It is only from such a position that I can make decisions, and negotiate my way in the world.
Some people fully embrace the theory of the selfish gene, the consumerist capitalist ethos of looking out for number one, the survival of the fittest, the warrior ethos of winner takes all – and from those perspectives they set forth to conquer and accumulate. Others are much more attuned to cooperation, nurturing, caring, serving, helping others, sustainability and learning to live within our means. From those perspectives they attempt to do no harm and have a minimal environmental footprint, among other things.
And of course many people parrot value statements that they’ve heard, and live according to a bunch of conflicting and inconsistent ideas and values. They manage to get by as long as all is going well for them – but when the shit hits the fan, what they really value becomes apparent. It’s not uncommon to hear people espousing family values, who get caught out having extramarital or homosexual affairs. We also encounter diehard nationalists, who thump their chests with national pride and declare “my country right or wrong” – but then balk at paying their taxes.
Hopefully those points are clear enough. My self consists of stories that I tell myself about who I am – and often I only hear those stories about myself because I’m telling them to someone else. For example, when I talk about my marriage ending, the story identifies certain lines that were crossed. When I talk about a career change about the same time, I say I left a career that was soul-destroying. Each of these snippets of stories are value claims – or what Taylor calls strong evaluations.
Strong evaluations are in contrast to simple evaluations – will I wear a blue shirt or a green shirt tonight? Will I wear my duck feet or my volleys? These are evaluations that might include a statement about who I am, but ultimately, they’re not important. But, for example, I cannot continue to think of myself as courageous if I take the cowardly course of action in a confrontation. Similarly, it is untenable to maintain an image of myself as a humanitarian if protecting the national borders takes precedence over a boat-load of asylum seekers, for example. But of course, some people do – some even donate to Amnesty International and wear the Amnesty logo as a lapel pin, while defending Australia’s mandatory detention regime.
Such self-delusions, of course, are not radically different from various forms of spiritual or emotional bypassing. In a sense, we can reinterpret that last example as “my heart says I must look after all people equally, but my head says I have to look after my people first, so I will harden my heart to the suffering of others”.
In the faux-spirituality realm, we saw a similar kind of by-passing when Tony Abbott said “Jesus knew there was a place for everyone, and not everyone belongs in Australia”. Abbott and his spiritual guide Cardinal Pell seem to be masters at using a faux spirituality to bypass any and all humanitarian considerations. I’ve never been a Catholic, and I stopped being a Christian a long time ago – but their orientation to the good seems to me to be quite un-Christian. Yet, regardless of the labels, they share a clear orientating framework – their actions and decisions are consistent with a particular ideological framework; an authoritarian framework that favours the interests of certain institutions over the individuals affected by those institutions, for sure – but a clear and consistent orientation all the same.
I think we’ll have to leave it there for tonight. Next week I want to elaborate eon embodiment, then go deeper into issues of the shadow and spiritual bypassing.
Chan, Wing-Tsit 1963. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton University Press: Princeton
Eliade, Mircea 1958. Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Bollingen Series LVI, Princeton University Press: Princeton
Feuerstein, Georg 2008. The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, 3rd ed. Hohm Press: Chino Valley
Smith, Karl E 2010. Meaning, Subjectivity, Society: Making Sense of Modernity, Brill: Leiden
Taylor, Charles 1989. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Harvard University Press: Cambridge