Friday, 21 April 2017

Mysticism, Freedom and the Human Will


Chaos is creative potential.
The full key to self-actualisaton (personal growth or whatever you want to call it) is will. This is the freedom that Christianity talks of, a free will capable of making choices and effecting change. Freeing up our capacity to love.

Throughout the ages philosophers have recognised the importance of the human will. For example:
Epictetus: You may fetter my leg, but my will not even Zeus himself can overpower.
Schopenhauer: the world as will and representation
Alphonse Constance: magic is the product of will and imagination
Nietzsche: will to power
Crowley: Love is the law, love under will
Schweitzer: I am life which wills to live
Fankl: will to meaning
Both Buddhism and Jungian psychology see the human psyche (soul) as being extraordinarily deep, but mostly unconscious. Most of who we are, most of our capacity to effect change, is not present in our conscious mind. So our actions are driven by forces and desires that we don't understand, whilst our conscious mind rationalises our decisions so that the ego can maintain its illusion of control. (For what it's worth, the rationalisation of decisions after they have been made has been verified by modern empirical psychology.) Compulsive behaviour and neuroses are the clearest examples of "unconscious drives". In "Doors of Perception" Aldous Huxley argues that our limited awareness, our filtered perception of reality, is an evolutionary mechanism for survival. Complete awareness of all our sensory input (including self-awareness) would debilitate our ability to function in a competitive world.

Our worldview, how we choose to see the world, is one of the ways we filter reality. We reject information that doesn't fit our worldview and seek out information that reinforces it (confirmation bias), allowing us to only have to deal with a small (and safer) proportion of reality.

So in Buddhism, the goal of meditation (and for Jung the goal of psychoanalysis) is to permit our awareness (mindfulness) into the totality of who we are - to become fully conscious of the unconscious self. To really see and accept ourselves. In the process Buddhism says that we will come to understand that what we view as "self" is largely (or even totally) the product of ego, and that who we are is in fact not so separate from the rest of the world we find ourselves in. We are merely a small part of everything.

In becoming aware we become free to choose. In becoming conscious our will is freed from the self-repression (self-rejection a pushing away and deliberate - but through habit unconscious - blindness to what goes on inside us). This is why being willing to face who we are, to take responsibility for ourselves and to stop blaming others, is so essential to finding true freedom. This is full self-acceptance.

As we become more aware of ourselves, as our capacity for action increases and we become more free, we become "bigger people". There is more of us around than there was.

This understanding that awareness brings freedom is why to the Buddhist right living, right understanding and right teaching are all the same thing.

But remember, the only theory worth a damn is the theory of the practise. What does it mean about how we live to understand that freedom means a free will?

It means to take control of who we are and responsibility for what we do, and to put ourselves into what we do rather than being dragged around by habit and routine. We can still do the same things (but we can also be free to stop), but choose to do them. Don't let them be someone else's choice about how you live.

It is through habit that things become unconscious. Look at how a child learns to walk, every nuance of every step is a wobbly and conscious action. So deliberate, and so hard! Yet through practise we barely think about it at all, the thought processes involved in balance and avoiding obstacles have become completely unconscious. It's the same with, for example, learning to drive. At first turning a corner (check your mirrors, change gear, slow down, indicate) is a bewildering plethora of actions to perform simultaneously. After a while you develop an "autopilot", and do it with barely a (conscious) thought. In fact the thought processes and decision making are still there, we're just not consciously aware of them. It's still us. There's no-one else to blame for the actions of the parts of ourselves that we don't see or feel.

So it is our habits that bind us. Our habits of destructive thought patterns and destructive behaviour for example. Step off the vicious cycle and onto the virtuous cycle.

Through deliberate action you can train your subconscious, train your "autopilot" into good habits. Choose to love all the time, and what initially takes deliberate effort becomes habit. Make decisions, do things you're afraid of, step out of routine, do unfamiliar things, choose to live. Face yourself, accepting yourself with compassion (by understanding your motives and reasons) but not turning away from the reality of who you are and what you've done. Choose to love, love under will.

By facing yourself you can master yourself.

One silly example (and I'm full of silly examples) of how I've been doing this in practise is that over the last few years I've been trying to make myself ambidextrous. I saw that my children, early on in life, used both hands almost equally with a very slight preference for one hand. Gradually that slight preference meant that they became more skillful with that hand, so the preference was reinforced - it was easier to do something with the hand they had used more often. I realised that my left hand was almost entirely useless for many common actions, and not as strong, simply because I didn't use it through habit. I started to deliberately choose to use my left hand for everything I could. Actions that had previously been completely unconscious, like stirring a cup of tea, suddenly became difficult and I was very aware of them. As an interesting side-effect I was forced to live more in the moment, putting more conscious effort and will into things I used to do completely passively. A very interesting experiment. Over time the conscious effort required to choose my left hand and arm is fading and it is becoming more natural. I haven't switched for hand-writing yet though, my writing is barely legible with my right hand!

So we can choose to change, by changing our habits. At this point Christians may protest and argue that it is God who changes us. Well yes, but the freedom God wants us to have is a freed will. So God doesn't make our choices for us. God (and I will shortly provide an understanding of God that the atheist may not object to) brings us an awareness of our weaknesses and habits, that awareness is the capacity to change. We must still choose to change.

For me the defining heart of Christian mysticism is Moses meeting God in the wilderness. The burning bush, the fire that burns but does not consume. Moses asks God his name, and in mysticism a true name reveals true nature (c.f. "he has given us a new name"). God's answer is YHVH, Yahweh, Jehovah. I Am. God is consciousness, pure being, pure existence.

So the eye of consciousness is the eye of God.
1 Search me, O God, my actions try,
And let my life appear
As seen by Thine all-searching eye—
To mine my ways make clear.

2 Search all my sense, and know my heart
Who only canst make known,
And let the deep, the hidden part
To me be fully shown.

3 Throw light into the darkened cells,
Where passion reigns within;
Quicken my conscience till it feels
The loathsomeness of sin.

4 Search all my thoughts, the secret springs,
The motives that control;
The chambers where polluted things
Hold empire o’er the soul.

5 Search, till Thy fiery glance has cast
Its holy light through all,
And I by grace am brought at last
Before Thy face to fall.

6 Thus prostrate I shall learn of Thee,
What now I feebly prove,
That God alone in Christ can be
Unutterable love.


Francise Bottome (approx 1872)
Suspend your disbelief for a moment, if you can, and imagine singing that song with genuine passion. And further imagine that the the God you've found and believe in is in fact pure consciousness and the essence of life itself. That you love and adore it with all your heart and open up the core of who you are to it with reverence and respect, even some fear. That you invite it in, to reach into and search out the depths of your being, determined to face who you are and believing you can find purity of life in it. Now wouldn't that be a fine and honest thing. 

I take a different look at what will is in: Soul, spirit and will.

Christians wondering how I see Jesus fitting into all this may be interested in my article "Theodicy and the Problem of Evil".

"Strive not to know but to be. Turn your intelligence not into understanding but into being."

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