Friday, August 28, 2015

Everyday Phenomenology: Profanity

For my next post, I want to talk about the phenomenology of swearing or profanity.

Though I mostly missed the experience of vulgar language in my private middle school and charter high school, I encountered it full force when I went on to study at Westminster College, where many students and even some professors used "swear words" up to and including "f***" (I'm not writing the actual word so that any filters on young readers' internet connections don't block out my blog). It was there that I really started to see profanity in its true colors. And here's a secret: those colors aren't all "bad." We'll get to why that is as we proceed.

Swearing as shock

Let's start with an obvious observation: people swear to get an effect. This is true in all uses of curse words, even if it isn't immediately obvious how so. For instance, when I stub my toe on a rock and say "dammit!," I use that word to "announce" my pain, or rather, to best communicate that pain to those around me. But why do I feel like I need to get across my pain, and why does swearing do the job better than anything else? It's because swear words carry the "shock" of shock value, and therefore because the power in those words corresponds to the pain I'm feeling.

There is a hidden implication here: that--since I need to use the shock value of a swear word to communicate my pain's energy--I feel a need to communicate that energy. To put it another way, I have an innate desire to feel connected to the emotions and thoughts around me. If that weren't the case, I wouldn't feel compelled to announce it. This has a few consequences, first and foremost that I think of it as normal and natural to exist in a continuous, "at-one" state with the people around me. This turns up in the toe-stubbing example because the pain I feel negates that basic sense of oneness with the people in the room. I personally feel less of a desire to swear when I stub my toe in private (that is, less than I would around others), but it is actually still there a bit. Why? I think it's because basic human nature includes a feeling of "pre-sensory togetherness" with others (or rather, a togetherness that I sense as more fundamental or "internal" than sensation), which includes even the potential of someone hearing. In other words, I feel that I naturally should be "together with" those around me, and when I feel a pain that threatens that togetherness, I announce my pain with swear words to correct it.

Swearing as aggression

I could say the same about language in general as I did about swearing just now--that it physically manifests my feeling of basic oneness with others (which is something that Heidegger said in his Being and Time, more or less). But what's unique about curse words is how they establish that unity. Specifically, swearing establishes that unity through force, or rather, through a kind of "aggressive re-alignment" of others' perspectives. Whether in the pain example or in a case where I use a curse word in anger, fear, or even intense pleasure, I feel my emotion as so powerful that I use the expletive to force the other person into the emotion (or at least an intensity intended to correspond with it), whether she likes it or not. There is then a kind of violation of the other's perspective implicit in my use of vulgar language, since it compels the other person to abandon her previous and/or default sense of things and adopt mine. Swearing essentially says: "look at me!," forcing the other person to "turn her head in my direction" and stop noticing what she was paying attention to before.

This is true even in those times I swear from deliberate choice and not just out of an intense emotion. For example, when I use a swear word as an insult (like b***h or a*****e), I swear to aggressively replace the listeners' perception of the person I'm insulting with my own. When I call someone a b***h, I use the word's energetic "shock" to call attention to my insult; if the word has retained its power in my previous use of language (something that doesn't always happen), the listeners can momentarily only give their attention to my insult. The shock of the curse word "draws in" everyone's attention to it. In the case of insults, a swear word belittles the "insultee," or rather, it makes her "be little" in the hearers' eyes. The energy of the "shock" calls attention to her, only in a negative way. Though you may not agree with me when I use this insulting expletive, the way I use it makes you consider its object at least in the context of my insult. In other words, the insult makes everything you think about her arise with the insult in mind, either in agreement or disagreement. If I hadn't said the swear word, your thoughts about her would simply exist in their own context and not one I forcefully provided for them.

But what about those people who use profanity in a cavalier way, whose every other word is "f*** this" or "f*** that?" This is also a show of aggression, yet one that tries to use the recontextualizing involved with profanity on a more comprehensive scale. For instance, you'll often find that these people are in a liberal or counter-cultural crowd. That is, they want to protest the established order of things on a deep level, and one way that they find helpful for doing that is to use constant vulgarity. Why is this? The culture that they fight against is one that doesn't swear, and so they aggressively try to recontextualize that culture through their curse words. Counter-culturals like these use so many expletives because that language shocks the traditional elements of the society and so calls attention to themselves in the way described above. But more than that, it forces the conservative listener to pay attention to their perspective and at least consider it. Does this mean that all cavalier swearing is politically induced? No, because many times people do it to try joining the "in crowd", and it is this "in crowd" that has political motivations. It might not even start consciously; all it takes is someone who feels daring enough to go against the his hometown thinks. In that respect it's a way to aggressively assert my independence, a task that is admittedly very needed in life. But swearing is perhaps one of the more inconsiderate ways to do this, since it necessarily involves a violation of others' perspectives

There is another kind of cavalier swearing, though, one somewhat familiar to professional comedy. Take Lily Allen's pop song "F*** You," for example: it uses the word "f***" as just another word, here in place of the "thank" in "thank you, thank you very much." This has a very peculiar effect: it uses the word's "shock" power in a context inappropriate for it, and as a result it "shows" us the nature of the word itself. By saying "f*** you" in place of "thank you," Lily Allen's song gives me a contrasting "background" by which to see "f***"'s power, and then something fascinating happens: I realize that the "the F word" is really just another word. To think, I say, all this time I've been fearing a word that has four letters and rhymes with "duck!" Because this is an eruption of meaning, this has the effect of the punchline to a joke, meaning that it strikes me as funny. In reality, all humor is characterized by this eruption of meaning, something I'll hopefully get to in another post.

But what about a comedian that--though he swears a lot and is funny--at least seems to be serious? He's still funny by how much he swears, and yet there apparently isn't the context mentioned above to provide the needed contrast for humor. And yet there is: the needed "mundane" context shows up in how we expect the comedian to act, and when he goes against that implied context, we find it hilarious.

Swearing as dominance

And yet not everyone finds them funny; some, even many, would be offended. Why? It's because these people respect the contexts where they find themselves, and they would prefer them not to be violated. This presents a stark contrast to those who love to be "cursed at" in a friendly way, and so the question arises as to what this difference consists in. I'd suggest that those who like others to amicably swear at them are comfortable experiencing themselves and their own perspectives in a submissive way, whereas the swearer experiences herself or himself as dominant. Swearing is thus an image of or correspondence to the act of physical intimacy, one that I don't need to stress. But nevertheless, there is a kind of intimacy presumed by two or more persons' comfort with swearing to each other--one that consists in my willingness to have my perspective forcefully removed, to be recontextualized.

Moreover, we can conceive of the way religions can protest the use of profanity as similar to the way they protest against premature intimacy. Both involve a perceived disrespect of proper boundaries, the one in terms of physical bodies and the other in terms of mental points of view. This could also imply that the way certain thinkers conceive of chastity (like Adam S. Miller and mystical Taoists, for example) as a conservation of spiritual energy has a parallel with swearing. In other words, if I use my swear words inappropriately, I discharge a weight of meaning that is better used elsewhere.

Does this mean that we should never swear? Though others might say so, I disagree. Words as bad as f*** should be carefully guarded, like a secret, and disclosed only in those cases where the meaning is appropriate enough. What are those cases? I've only ever said f*** when I learned it for the first time as a child, so you could say that I'm saving it for something special. Maybe I'll use it once in my life; then the meaning inherent in it would be very manifest--as powerful as words can come.

What about taking the Lord's name in vain, though? This is different from other swear words, and the prohibition against it comes from their confusion. If I use a religious expletive, I am using the energy inherent in God's name (at the very least one just ensured by a cultural taboo) as the form of aggression and dominance mentioned above. God's name should be used powerfully, but never in this way; to confuse the two uses of power is to muddle my thinking, to confuse sacredness with willpower. And that is pride.

Well, that's that for this post. Till next time!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Everyday Phenomenology: Video Gaming

In my last post I quoted some passages from Gaston Bachelard's book The Poetics of Space. This work is one of my favorites because Bachelard does the philosophical task he sets out to do in a way I hadn't encountered before. That "task" is something called "phenomenology," the philosophical analysis of experience as it is lived. The more I grow intellectually, the more I realize that phenomenology is my calling. I don't really care about analyzing things "as they are in themselves;" I care more about the world as it presents itself to me, about discovering the wrinkles and nuances of that world that are often too subtle for me to consciously notice. Bachelard does this brilliantly, but so do psychologist James Hillman, whom I've quoted here before, and Martin Heidegger, whom I haven't. They are role models for me--they show me sides of the world I hadn't seen before, letting me look at ordinary things with new eyes.
So I've decided to follow in their footsteps. Just as my senior philosophy thesis did a phenomenology of dreaming, I want to look deeply into the experience of not just the "weird" parts of our existence, but the seemingly ordinary parts. What will follow in this series of posts are phenomenological inquiries into the way we experience the extremely mundane. For instance, the first post I want to write about is on video games, and I am not opposed to writing on the deeper aspects of things like Netflix, fast food, or even autocorrect. By doing this, I hope to let the reader see the world with new eyes; just as Bachelard lets us see the lowly house as a shell, a nest, or a blanket, I want to make the mundane mystical, the ordinary profound
My Methodology
But before this first post, I want to talk a little about the methods I'll be using to interpret these everyday things. Know first that I'm open to using any source at all as "evidence" for the nature of an experience. As far as I can tell, as long as the writer is not telling a deliberate lie (and even most fiction doesn't count as that kind of lie), he or she said it for some reason, and though that reason might be false, those justifications still make up part of the writer's experience. And experience is what I'm all about here. 
Second, know that I won't always use academically rigorous language. I will sometimes (perhaps often) use poetic or apparently contradictory phrases to get across the nature of the experience in question, and I do this deliberately. The reason for this is that poetic language evokes specific aspects of the experience I'm looking at that would be difficult to get across in a propositional way. Poetry, imagery, and metaphor help me show you what I see in the everyday, as opposed to just awkwardly describing it. Nevertheless, I will try to keep it in an overall academic context
Third, know that "truth" as it is traditionally conceived is not my concern here. I don't care whether my picture of things is true, unless we mean something atypical by the word. Instead, I am using my language to "open up" different parts of the world to people. For instance, is an equivalence of the dice in a tabletop role-playing game with divination true? Of course not--but neither is it false. Instead, it lets me see the RPG in a new way, allowing me to appreciate it that much more.
A Phenomenology of Video Gaming
The first real video game I played was Banjo-Kazooie, pictured above. While it holds a special place in my memory for that reason, I'd like to use it as an tool to illustrate to you the different facets of the video-gaming experience. For instance, when I first pick up the controller to play as the bear Banjo, I have an experience that would be really weird for someone who hadn't ever picked up a controller. If I move the joystick up, he moves forward. If I move it to either side, he moves sideways. If I move it down, he moves backwards. I suddenly get the impression of being a puppet-master: I am in control of a being who lacks his own independent will. As far as I can tell, I am Banjo's will, and the figure I see before me is nothing more than a vehicle I am driving
This causes me to reflect--just as gamers have called their in-game characters "avatars" (as in the Hindu notion of incarnation), the Banjo I see on the screen is effectively my body. In the same way I will to move my hand and my hand moves, I push the control stick and Banjo moves. But this causes further thought--if I as my physical self am distinct from Banjo, am "I" distinct from my body? As a religious person, I'd like to think so. But still, the experience of playing Banjo-Kazooie makes me very aware of embodiment, at least until even video game avatars became too "normal" to notice
This means that I can lose awareness of the distinction between my body and the in-game avatar, at least to an extent. I've gotten lost in the worlds Banjo-Kazooie, Skyrim, or Mass Effect more times than I can count, and so I can testify to the fact that the real, physical world can become so "transparent" that I stop noticing it altogether. But is there an analogue for the mind-body relationship? Well, most of us don't notice a distinction between my "self" as a will and my body as what is being controlled, so there's that. However, this comparison only becomes useful when I can show that--just as I can find the gaming controls unwieldy--some experience a disconnect between their inner, "body-independent" selves and their physical selves. 
As someone with Asperger's Syndrome or High-Functioning Autism, I think that the subjective experience of autistics is like this in many ways. One person with autism whom I talked to said that having autism was like "trying to drive a car with a manual transmission" (i.e. as opposed to the automatic transmission that "neurotypicals" drive), and another autistic friend said that people with autism have a sense of being both the car and the driver, while most see themselves only as the car. So I suggest that we conceive of autism as a stark awareness of the distinction between mind and body. This can explain the tendency in autism for a) problems with thinking in terms of an embodied self and other (mind-blindness), b) difficulties with social interaction that follow from this, and c) clumsiness and problems with certain physical sensations. Even perseverating or repetitive behaviors in autism could be explained by the religious conception of the spirit's still-intact familiarity with eternity's timeless (changeless) nature, and the well-known literalism could be explained by a familiarity with the un-hidden nature of things in the spiritual world as described by Emanuel Swedenborg.
Thus, playing video games--especially video games with unwieldy controls--gives a good idea of what it's like to live with autism. This comparison also suggests that, just as you can learn to drive well with a manual transmission or to play a video game adeptly, an autistic can learn how to socially interact just as well as a the average person, though it may take a much longer time. Nevertheless, an autistic person at the end of that path is in many ways much better off than a neurotypical with the same social skills, for he is distinctly aware of how social interaction works, where a "normal" person might not even give it a second thought.
Given that video games offer something like embodiment, this opens up the field to escapism of all kinds. Unlike my actual life, in video games I can venture across Tamriel (The Elder Scrolls), save the galaxy from Reapers (Mass Effect), or live as the opposite sex (The Sims, for instance). Part of video gaming's appeal is then to live as I can't in my suburban, 9-to-5 life, to be another person in another place and time. This has considerable precedent in books, but there is a difference between the two kinds of media. Books leave almost everything up to my imagination, whereas video games leave almost nothing. This is perhaps a danger of video games--they limit the imagination by "doing all the work" of embodying the world and its characters. This issue is symptomatic of a problem with our culture in general: as rabid literalists, we can only conceive of things that we can physically see and hear, and we scoff at anything we have to imagine. Instead of letting the imagination assume its traditional place as intermediary between the visible and the invisible, our culture's media brutishly tries to force things from the one to the other, giving up all sense of subtlety, nuance, or (often) creativity.
Yet there are ways in which video games can foster the imagination. Take the 2010 interactive thriller Heavy Rain, for instance:

Heavy Rain tells the story of a father whose son has been kidnapped, and who must undergo a series of "trials" to save him. The game is very "gritty," and as such I wouldn't recommend it for everyone. Nevertheless, it has many virtues, and it shows them in a way that perhaps no piece of art or media had done before. Specifically, the triumph of Heavy Rain is that it allows the reader to simulate the experience of intense trauma and the subsequent intense love. But the game does this in a way that no film or novel could, for it makes creative use of the uniquely interactive nature of video gaming. First of all, the game brings in a tactile element to its immersion of the player. Specifically, the player must do x and y with controller (with the sticks, the buttons, and actual physical "jerks" for the controller's accelerometer) to perform a physical action. These actions can be physically difficult to pull off, and it often takes nimble fingers to succeed. And yet they are different from what the actual action would involve. For example, the most infamous scene from Heavy Rain involves the father character having to willingly cut off a section of one of his fingers. Though this would be a traumatic experience, it's difficult to see how one could incarnate it in the game with the traditional literalism of video games. In fact, they don't go the literal route, but use symbolic analogues of what I would have to do in that situation. For example, before I can do anything about my finger, I must very slowly move the analog stick up and down. This symbolizes a calming breath, and if I am too quick with the stick, I lose my nerve and have to start over. 
These kinds of symbolic analogues are both like and unlike what the literal act would involve. In a way, carefully pushing the control stick up and down is nothing like how I breathe; and yet in another way it is very similar to it. The resemblance here is non-literal or--as James Hillman puts it--imaginal. The symbolic action I do with the controller acts as a mediator between the far-off reality of trauma and the comfort of my living room. It doesn't mindlessly collapse one into the other, but instead shows it to me in a way that best fits the electronic medium's limitations. To put it another way, Heavy Rain's control scheme shows the player an image of trauma's reality, one that isn't literally faithful to the experience, yet presents its essentials. In that way it's rather like an impressionist painting--just as Monet gave up realism to show the viewer an atypical perspective of the painting's scene, Heavy Rain gives a deliberately unrealistic way of living that situation, yet one that captures "what it's like" more than a literal or realistic control scheme (with a Wiimote, for instance) could. This is what brings out the imagination: it lets me see trauma askew, giving me a perspective I wouldn't have ordinarily used. In that way, you could say that Heavy Rain itself does phenomenology, at least in the way I'm defining it here
There is another way Heavy Rain fosters the imagination, one it shares with narrative-focused games like Mass Effect or The Walking Dead.

In these games, it is either impossible or impractical to "undo" a choice you've made that impacts the narrative. In the original Mass Effect, I have to choose whether to save Ashley or Kaiden, and at one point in The Walking Dead I must decide whether to let a traitorous character fall to his death or endanger myself and others by saving him. These choices are a bit contrived, to put it bluntly. And yet I don't think they were designed not to be. Though cliché and hackneyed, these decisions use the admittedly limited framework of the game's branching storyline to give the player a sense of agency and consequence. This sense of agency is the entire purpose behind these branching plotlines, and the actual choices involved only serve to bring that agency about. This sense of consequence or "weight" is something no other artistic medium could reproduce; the closest you come is a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book, and with that it is far too easy to turn back the page. What's more, these seemingly contrived choices are also food for the imagination--they let the player experience something like moral responsibility without going into the endless nuances of that responsibility (think of a hardcore simulation game like SimCity 4 as a counter-example). The game's story is a frame for the sense of urgency and agency that comes with its choices, and that's what we ultimately remember about it. The Walking Dead is less about zombies than it is about the feeling of being responsible for my choices, and this feeling too comes through a non-literal intermediary, or rather, it comes through the bridge of the imagination and its suspension of disbelief. 
There is a commonality between the tactile and morally weighty elements discussed above: they're both ways of revealing a human situation to the player in a way that another form of media couldn't facilitate. In light of this, let's re-interpret my idea that video games try to overcome their limitations by collapsing the imaginal gap between the game's setting and my living room. Instead, let's say that many video games are conscious of their limitations, and that they push against those limitations in full awareness that they will never recreate real life. A perfect simulation of real life would be as boring as real life often is. Heck, a perfect simulation of any reality would get boring after a while; that's just how reality is. Video games use the limitations of graphics, processing power, and control schemes as kind of foil to "show forth" or "reveal" different parts of reality. The freedom of exploration Fallout offers me is nothing remarkable; if I wanted to, I could get up from my couch, walk out the door, and wander off in one direction for infinitely longer than I could in the Capital Wasteland.

There are no "invisible walls" in the real world. But truly ulimited freedom isn't the point of Fallout or The Elder Scrolls--they are designed with the limitations of the console in mind, and within that context the freedom I already enjoy becomes remarkable.

The Sims franchise is a very special example of this kind of phenomenon. If The Walking Dead gives me a clear vision of moral responsibility by placing it in contrast with the storyline's limitations, and if The Elder Scrolls does the same thing with the juxtaposition of freedom and the console's processing power, The Sims is audacious enough to show me how wonderful, fascinating, and ultimately entertaining everyday life can be. Of course The Sims doesn't recreate life perfectly. If it did I would just live my life instead, but within the context of the game's and the computer's limitations, it does a pretty good job. It changes a bit here and there to make "real life" more interesting, but in the end I play the game not to accrue points or fulfill need bars, but to live life. The progressive (and occasionally regressive...) improvements in The Sims' realism give me a kind of excitement that my computer is so quickly approaching my life as it is. And what's even more remarkable, one of the most exciting things to do is to recreate either myself or my house in the game's engine. I can obviously take a look at my face in a mirror or look at my house on Google Earth whenever I want, but it's the novelty of a new (slightly pixelated) perspective that gets me going. I create myself because I think that computers shouldn't be able to facilitate that creation, and when they manage it, I stand in awe of my own features. In this way, The Sims "does phenomenology" more than any other game, since its very purpose is to re-interpret and re-contextuaize the mundane realities of modern suburbia. The same fascination that fills me with glee when reading a Bachelard or a Hillman exists in The Sims when I see my Sim-self reading a book, going to work, or striking up a gibberish conversation.

And yet there is also an escapist element to The Sims. I play the game not only to live everyday life, but to live the parts of everyday life that are outside my purview. In The Sims, I can be a woman or a criminal, just as I can be "hot-headed" or a "never-nude." This is similar to the escapism of games like Grand Theft Auto, but the fascinating thing is how amazingly continuous those escapist elements are to those that are mundane for me. The Sims is comprehensive enough that what is unfamiliar to me might be boringly normal to another, and vice versa. What comes out of The Sims, then, is a sense of cosmic scope or objectivity. I am just another Sim, subject to a race, an age, a gender, and a certain number of "traits," just like any other Sim. I could just as easily have been her as I could have been me! And yet do these ramblings make sense? They do in the context of the Sims. This game intimates to me of a "man upstairs" controlling the scene, giving me impulses to do this and that in exactly the way he does to another. In this way I see myself as very small, and yet I find myself aware of at least the possibility of something "bigger" than me.
There are other reasons to play video games, however. Apart from the realism or pseudo-realism of the games discussed above, there are also casual games like my favorites: Threes or Fallout Shelter.

What draws me to a game like Threes is the satisfaction of getting a "high score," either in a micro- or macro-context. This taps into my desire for achievement and collection, to surpass my previous abilities by "catching them all." There is inherent in this desire a kind of competition with myself--I remember my previous achievement, and I want to surpass it. These are thus at least partially a way to prove to myself that I am skilled. Of course, the skills I use in Threes aren't at all applicable to everyday life, but instead create a kind of "local context." I compete with myself and others in the parameters of the game itself. Thus we come to the idea that competition is something desirable in itself, at least to certain people. Competition with myself (that is, with my previous high score) gives me a "jolt" of freedom from normality when I surpass that score. That jolt is very short-lived, though. Games like Threes are compelling because of that jolt or thrill, and the increasing rarity of that thrill as I progress gets me to chase after it all the more. 
As has been pointed out ad nauseam, this is remiscent of how addiction works. There is thus a danger--demonstrated by repeated experience--that these games can suck you in and captivate your attention to extreme levels. What's good about Threes in contrast with Candy Crush Saga, for instance, is that it requests only a small initial payment, one that you can even avoid by watching ads. With less ethical games, though, an unstable or naive player can easily lose themselves and parts of their income that would be better spent elsewhere. But this is common knowledge. However, another appeal of games like Threes or Fallout Shelter is the possibility of multitasking, either while waiting in line or listening to something like a podcast or an audiobook. These games fill a void in our widely stretched attention span, which has become used to doing more than one thing at once. That is both a good thing and a bad thing, but that's a discussion for another post.
What other kinds of games are left to analyze? Gameplay-oriented RPGs give the aforementioned "jolt" through a) defeating enemies, b) collecting items, and c)" leveling up" in all its various forms. Platformers like Banjo-Kazooie (mentioned the beginning) are appealing as yet another variety of the "skill-test" motif. Regardless of how difficult the maneuver actually is, it gives me the jolt of satisfaction when I successfully jump from one platform to another. This is made more meaningful by its contrast with the ever-present possibility of falling, possibly to my avatar's death. Strategy games like Civilization or Starcraft are also somewhat built on the "jolt," but with the reservation that my gratification is very delayed. To succeed at Starcraft on a "hard" difficulty level takes skill, one that gives a sense of accomplishment when I succeed. That accomplishment is limited to the game itself, but it is so satisfying that it perhaps "grew into" the vicarious experience of it as a spectator sport in countries like South Korea. Competitive first person shooters are very similar to strategy games in that respect, only it is less intellectual and more based on quick reflexes. The "jolt" comes in the thrill of the fight, when I manipulate the controls quickly enough to defeat my opponent, whether it be AI or a flesh-and-blood opponent. I admit that I have no experience with such competitiveness myself, but I have experienced it secondhand through the endless hours I spent with my brother in front of the television while he beat online enemies on Halo 3.
To sum up this analysis, let me talk about the ubiquitous importance of limitation in video games. Obvious in casual games and only deceptively present (but still very much there) in games like Fallout or Heavy Rain, limitation is the video game's bread and butter. While a novel can show us fantastic realities beyond description, the limitations intrinsic to video game consoles or game engines define gaming as a medium. A game is appealing to the extent that it successfully presents itself in relation to those limits. An overly realistic game is less appealing than one which presents its subject in a way that fits its console well. A game defined entirely by limitation (perhaps The Stanley Parable, in a way reminiscent of René Magritte's paintings) might be one of the best games of all.
What does this say about human nature? Our constant search for bigger and better can only exist with limitation as a foil for that quest. If I had everything I ever wanted, I would very quickly get bored. But how often do we forget this! Our movies and our gadgets seek to surpass each other ad infinitum with better CGI, thinner bodies, more ease of use. But what happens if and when we go entirely past the limitations of physicality? Our materialistic culture would lose all its meaning, and many wouldn't know what to put their hopes in. Our culture of "bigger is better" forgets that the big only appears big in relation to the small, and unknowingly tries to get rid of the small in its quest for size. And of course this is its suicide. To save the culture we have invested in technology, let us return to the small, to the limited. This is the reason why "retro" games like Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery give me lots of hope, because it kindles our desire for what is past and "obsolete." We need nostalgia just as much as we have anxious anticipation. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

One Eternal Round

Take a look at this verse from the Book of Mormon:
"For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round." (1 Nephi 10:19)
Those words in bold have always been one of my favorite phrases in scripture. "One eternal round" conjures images of serpents eating their own tails, of the Islamic procession around the Kaaba, or even of the Jungian mandala. But notwithstanding all these symbolic resonances, what does the phrase actually mean? The question arises of whether we can even grasp the meaning of that "eternal round" while locked up in our "straightforward," linear time. But I think we can at least get close. If we can't go right to the center of its meaning, we can at least circumambulate it (that is, get a proper view of it by "walking around it" in a circle). Let's now look at three distinct takes on the idea of an "eternal round," one from philosopher Gaston Bachelard, one from the psychology of Carl Jung, and one from archetypal psychologist James Hillman.

In his work The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes a chapter called "The Phenomenology of Roundness," where he tackles the meaning of statements like these:
"Every being seems in itself round." -Karl Jaspers

"Life is probably round." -Vincent Van Gogh

"He had not been told that life was beautiful. No! Life was round." -Joë Bousquet

"A walnut makes me quite round." -Jean de la Fontaine
Bachelard takes these quotations which, though from very different sources, are surprisingly similar, and weaves something amazing out of them. Referring to these phrases, he writes:
"If we take them in their suddenness, we realize that we think of nothing else, that we are entirely in the being of this expression. If we submit to the hypnotic power of such expressions, suddenly we find ourselves entirely in the roundness of being, we live in the roundness of life, like a walnut that becomes round in its shell. A philosopher, a painter, a poet and an inventor of fables have given us documents of pure phenomenology. It is up to us now to use them in order to learn how to gather being together in its center."
Questions pop up: what's so special about roundness? Does life even have a shape? Does being have a center? And yet, these quotations also bring up something deep in my soul. For the same reason the Book of Mormon's "one eternal round" is powerful, this "roundness of life" strikes to the heart, to the marrow of my bones. But why? Could it be because our first drawings of people as children are always circles? Is it an echo of Aristophanes' two-sexed beings with four arms and four legs, who--though split apart by the gods into men and women--were originally round? Food for thought, at least. But the funny thing about circles is that every point along the circumference is just as close to the center as any other point. It is equality incarnate in geometry, wholeness given form.
Bachelard continues by saying:
"I repeat, images of full roundness help us collect ourselves, permit us to confer an initial constitution on ourselves, and to confirm our being intimately, inside. For when it is experienced from the inside, devoid of all exterior features, being cannot be otherwise than round."
Just as the circle has a perfectly delineated center, the circle is a symbol of our own centered-ness, the way all of our being circles around our own central origins. With the circle, all of us--our whole "circumference"--refers to a single point, though we can never touch that point per se. Instead, we all "orbit" our centers, one point never closer nor farther away from it than another. And that is the circle's beauty.

On another note, these remarks remind me of Carl Jung's understanding of the "mandala" image.

A "mandala" is a kind of circular artistic design originating in Indian religions, often constituting an important religious function. When he was writing his Red Book, Jung discovered that circular images very reminiscent of these mandalas came up in his spontaneous drawings and fantasies, and eventually concluded that they were a very important psychological symbol. He essentially says that mandalas are a visual representation of a person's whole self, both the conscious and unconscious parts. As far as I understand, the perimeter or circumference of the mandala represents myself as a conscious ego, which is therefore just the surface of the deeper, more essential parts of my identity. According to this conception, the mandala's center symbolizes my innermost self, my being as it is in itself, that which my conscious ego merely orbits.

In connection with Bachelard's observations on the "roundness of being," we might deduce that, when he writes that images of roundness "help us collect ourselves," he is really just describing the psychological function Jung attributes to the mandala. The circle is our whole being represented in an image; my body and my outward personality circumambulate a center that, though deeper than they can ever reach, keeps them oriented or grounded in a single point. As such, it gives us an image of how the universe's multiplicity can be grounded in unity. Though there are many points on the circle's outer circumference, they are all equally close to the center, as if the circumference were just the center "projected" into something bigger and more externally visible. Think of that! If being is really round, everything we see is ultimately a projection of the same one point. Though everything looks different and separate, we can have solace knowing that those separate things are just so many different radiuses, all pointing to the center from which everything comes and to which everything refers.

Finally, we turn our attention to psychologist James Hillman's work The Dream and the Underworld, where he says in reference to the Jungian mandala:
"Sometimes, spontaneous images of roundness bring a healing beyond paranoid defensiveness, beyond safety within one's private scheme of personal integration. These images must therefore afford another, an impersonal kind of integration. The individual free soul moves into a perspective of cosmic necessity, we become part of the circle we move in, whatever that circle might be--neurotic, social, intellectual. We have become necessary to it and taken into it. 
The circular states of repetitiveness, turning and turning in the gyres of our own conditions, force us to recognize that these conditions are our very essence and that the soul's circular motion (which is its native motion, according to Plotinus) cannot be distinguished from blind fate. It is as if the soul frees itself not by blindness but by its continuing turning in it. Ultimately, if the spontaneous mandala heals, it does so because it compels a realization of the limitation of consciousness, that my mind and heart and will turn only in a circle, and yet that same circle is my portion of an eternal necessity."
In contrast to Jung, Hillman emphasizes the inherent limitation of circular images more than their potential to represent completion. He implies that the circle, by going around and around and around, represents an inherently bounded state, where one goes nowhere and yet goes on forever. But need this be depressing? I don't think so, at least not if we rephrase his idea. As Bachelard and Jung say that circular images help us collect ourselves around a single point, let's remember that the circle is not a spiral--the circumference never reaches the center. To put that in the psychological terms I associated with the mandala above, we might understand that to mean that my ego consciousness--the awareness I perceive with right now--can never vault itself over to the innermost parts of my being. My ego or my normal conscious awareness is therefore always a servant, always circling around the true being yet never assuming its place. Again, is this a cause for depression? Not if we remember that I am not my ego, that there is a deeper part of me whose influence I can only dimly discern with my waking vision. The ego circles that deeper self, and though it can never supplant that self, it always receives the grace and influx that emanates from the central point.

What does this all mean? My life may seek to be going nowhere; I am still limited in some way or another, and I see no reason to believe I will ever stop being limited. But the brilliant thing about the circle as Hillman and the others conceive it is that this finitude can contain infinity within it. I may seem to be in one place, never moving. But in reality that one place contains an ever-circling infinity of movement in it--a heaven revealed in the grain of sand that is my life, infinity within the finitude of American suburbia.

To finish, I turn to a quote by Joseph Smith, one that wraps up all that I've discussed here:
"I take my ring from my finger and liken it unto the mind of man, the immortal spirit, because it has no beginning. Suppose I cut it in two; as the Lord lives, because it has a beginning, it would have an end."
We have no beginning, no end. Against traditional interpretations of this phrase, I don't take it just to refer to time in its familiar sense. It's true that my being extends into the furthest reaches of past and future; however, I am not just endless in length of time but in my own present being. I am a circle myself--though I appear limited and finite, I contain infinity within myself as it wraps itself into the limited circumference of my outward self. Perhaps this is what the Lord's course as "one eternal round" really means: that His course seems to go nowhere, but is inwardly vast. What else are our ordinances or our doctrine of an embodied God? They too are an eternal round--though outwardly limited, they refer to and contain an infinity within. That is the true meaning of Mormonism or even Christianity in general: that the finite is infinite, that the flesh is spiritual, that the human is divine.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

What Goes Into a Prayer?

I just finished the book Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer by Jungian psychologist Ann Ulanov and her husband Barry. Here's a link to the book's Amazon page, and here's a picture of the cover:

This little work was amazing to me. You see, I've never really thought of myself as an expert on prayer, but this book made me aware of how much of a prayer newbie I really am! While I went on night after night repetitiously thanking and asking God for the same things, this book told me that prayer didn't need to be nearly that structured to be effective.

For instance, they suggest that we should bring our desires to prayer, and--this is crucial--not just the ones we're proud of. They write:
"With God, our desire is more naked, and rightly so. With no secrets, we come at God crudely, like beggars or greedy children. It is no good denying this or trying to mask it. We must see the crudeness and include it. God loves us in the flesh. Denying what God loves and died for is trying to go God one better, and only impedes our prayer. We must bring this crudeness along, too. Even our greed, which God permits, may work for the good. It brings us urgently into prayer where God can get at us. Our greed then may be winnowed, chastened, refined.
I had always found it acceptable to bring my righteous desires to God and ask them to be fulfilled, but I had never considered bringing my selfish or even sinful desires to Him. To think: bringing God my desire for revenge, for greed, for lust! Though I don't use this prayer to ask God to satisfy my sinful desires, the Ulanovs say that prayer becomes that much richer when I use it to bring my desires to the divine. For that is one of their great insights: that all desire is ultimately a frustrated longing for the fullness and wholeness I can experience in God alone. So prayer then becomes a way of "winnowing" that desire enough for me to experience it as it really is--my longing for God Himself as the source of my being, my desire to experience being in its wholeness, to touch the infinite.

And this really does apply to any desire. Even desires of the worst kind--like for murder or something equally upsetting--are just a longing for God that has completely missed the mark. Without the kind of redirection prayer can provide, the sinner will seek for God in things--making idols out of lucre or lustful flesh. And their ultimate punishment will be to find that these things are empty of the divinity they assigned to them, left to themselves in a world full of their idolatry's empty shells.

But with prayer, any desire can become transmuted into a desire for Him and His goodness. With prayer, I realize that nothing God created is inherently evil, and that it is good to the extent that I use it as a means to reach Him. Prayer renders the world translucent to His light, showing me the paths to Him in and through the things in the world. And it is desire that gets me moving on these roads to the divine. The Ulanovs write that desire itself, in whatever form, "reflects God's desire moving us toward fuller being, toward the embrace of love." So the key is--whether the desire be for a job, a child, a partner of the opposite sex, or even a partner of the same sex--to follow that desire back to God, to see Him as He reveals Himself in it. For all desires harbor the seeds of divinity in them. Why else would they strike us as so compelling, as if we would die without their being fulfilled? For God is the source of our being, one we long to return to, and in the object of our desire that source reveals itself to us.

How does this work practically? Though the Ulanovs' advice is sparse on the actual wording of prayers, I suspect that such a prayer would involve consecration. To my Father in Heaven I would say something like:

"My Father in Heaven, I have a desire for something I know can't be fulfilled, and so I offer that desire to Thee. I ask thee to show Thyself to me in the fire of my longing, so that its fire and Thy fire may become one flame. I ask thee to show me the true meaning of what I long for, so that I may use this desire not to turn away from thee in a search for something I cannot achieve, but instead see my longing as a revelation of Thy longing for my return to Thee. Father, I ask thee to use the burning fire of my desire to purify me, to reveal to myself who Thou knowest I can be. I entrust my desire to Thee, and I ask Thee to mold it to Thy will, even if it cannot become fulfilled on earth. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen."

In other words, even though a desire can't be fulfilled in this life--either because of sinfulness or plain impossibility--I can still find God in it. Such a person's desire calls them higher than most dare to go, for it invites them to see the flame of God's kingdom (see this post) as it reveals itself in their own minds and bodies. Without an object to mediate my desire for Him, I must learn to satiate my desire for Him directly, with only the medium of my faith and longing to bridge the way. That bridge is prayer, and prayer itself reveals God in desire.

Inherently helpful in this pursuit is another thing the Ulanovs say we should include in our prayers: fantasies. Though traditional prayer manuals strongly warn against indulging in daydreaming or fantasizing, Primary Speech suggests that such fantasies are only dangerous when they are taken literally. Instead of repressing these fantasies or else mindlessly living them out, when brought to God in prayer they can become the means to a greater communion with Him. The Ulanovs write on this topic:
"When looked at knowingly, courageously, and honestly, fantasy ceases to be distracting. Instead, it shows us our distractions. We see how many ways the world gives us to veer off from what matters centrally. The busyness, the competitive pace, the anxieties about having enough, the vanities about others' approval or disapproval of our dress or our ideas or our lifestyle, the constant stress of getting and spending, the false way of achieving a self by triumphing over our neighbor's self--all these worldly pressures can stand out boldly when we pay prayerful attention to our fantasies. Rather than taking us away from the Lord of our being, fantasies thus noticed expose us to the topography of our being."
Fantasies are images of our soul brought to our conscious attention. When I fantasize about doing x or y, there is a part of me that longs to be known, to reach the light of my awareness. But what is really going on when we fantasize--especially in prayer--is that those parts of me are trying to gather themselves together into an integrated whole, so that that whole might present itself to God as His image. The Ulanovs say that "It may be that the Spirit itself creates 'distractions.' The Spirit stirs up prayer with fantasy, awakens images and motifs as if getting everything ready to be brought to itself in prayer." Fantasies are those ignored, buried parts of ourselves trying to actualize themselves in us. Knowing this, perhaps fantasies are among the "great things the Father hath laid up for you, from the foundation of the world" (Ether 4:14), finally being unearthed.

The key to utilizing fantasy in prayer is to learn "how to have our fantasies and stand aside from them simultaneously." I must stand aside from them without turning away from them, turn to them without losing myself in them. This takes mindfulness, a willingness to experience whatever comes before my mind with both rapt attention and equanimity. So whether I have a fleeting daydream of winning the Pulitzer Prize or being a victimized martyr, or else something more sexual, I use whatever I experience in my mind's eye as a lens to learn both of myself and of my relationship to God. It may be that my fantasy of being the next Dostoevsky or Heidegger indicates my innate disposition to illuminate meaning for the world. A daydream about my getting married with x person may then mean that the person about whom I'm fantasizing shows me what I value above all, that "crush" becoming a bridge or window to divinity. This principle is true even with seemingly lecherous sexual fantasies.

If desire is God's fire drawing my own flame into it, what I desire (i.e. my fantasies) is how that desire reveals itself to me, the ways I can experience the cosmic current drawing me into God. The key, then, is to make the fantasy translucent, to de-literalize it enough that I can see it for what it is: a way God appears to me, to draw me with all the force of His love into His purifying flame. Have no illusions, though--if I mistakenly assume I desire something other than God, I will inevitably face some degree of dissatisfaction. The only true fulfillment of desire lies in God Himself as the source of being, or else in images that let Him shine through.

But how does one practically integrate fantasies into prayer? The Ulanovs offer some advice:

"What does this mean in practice? It means we take our fantasies seriously. It means we offer them to God. We have them and we don't have them. We are rich and poor, hungry and satisfied, full and empty simultaneously. Our most fearsome fantasies remain with us--we are murderer and victim, sick unto death and healer of the dying, victor and defeated. We extend across worlds into every condition of men and women and are connected with them, as ourselves, in our living persons. We become bigger, more stretched out, more transparent, less densely compacted around our tight little identity. Our fantasies become lenses through which we see God's spirit working at us, on us, and in us. We see through our fantasies and are less apt now to be duped by them.

Offer your fantasies to God; see yourself now as victor, now as martyr, now as sinner, now as saint. In doing so you'll learn that these fantasies aren't you per se--they're fun to play around with, but with the endless dress-up game that fantasy always gives, you'll learn to discern your true nature constantly there underneath the costumes. But like all costumes, fantasies are wonderful things: countless ways to present myself to God, to receive Him, to "be-there-with" Him. And also like all costumes, one would be making a great mistake if you assumed that the mask I see is my actual face. Enjoy the mask; enjoy the face. They fit one another, and yet are not identical.

And how do I find my face, my true being? When these fantasies come before me in prayer, I learn with divine assistance to discern the main themes in them, the constancy underlying the variety. The threads of my fantasy, among other things, involves the dichotomies of infinity and finitude, self and other. They dominate my life, and you can see their manifest presence in my blog. But what are yours? It may be that a troubling or impossible-to-fulfill fantasy is revealing your vocation, what you are to do here. But of course, don't take it literally (in fact, don't take anything literally!); instead, look at it askew, trying to discern the divine light in it, the current pulling you into His presence. I have found mine, even in things of which I was bitterly ashamed. I'm sure you can too.

The Ulanovs say many other things in this book, but none of them are as pertinent to the themes we've talked about as the chapters on desire and fantasy were. Besides, this post is already getting quite long. If you're curious, go and buy the book--there's a link to the Amazon page at the top. And before I finish here, I want to remind you that God always loves you, and that that love can shine through all things, if you know how to look rightly.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Seer Stones and Such

Earlier this month, the LDS Church published a version of the printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon. Included in the book are pictures of the "seer stone" that Joseph used in addition to the Urim and Thummim in translating the golden plates.

For those unfamiliar with the history involved, Joseph would place the seer stone in the bottom of a hat, which he would look into, dictating the words that would appear as "letters of fire" from its darkened surface (the phrase is from David Whitmer). Apparently Joseph was quite familiar with the use of seer stones even before he began the translation, and there are stories of him using such seer stones to, for example, literally find a needle in a haystack (with his face in a hat and everything!). It's also important to note that Joseph discovered the above seer stone in a kettle in the bottom of a well, with the aid of yet another seer stone.

Now, the general reader might find such knowledge a bit unsettling, especially if they're a faithful Mormon and haven't heard much of seer stones before. After all, it is a bit weird. But as far as weirdness goes, we Mormons are no strangers to it: from golden plates to Kolob to polygamy, odd beliefs are really our bread and butter. Still, I think it's necessary for me to give my perspective on the strangeness of hats and seer stones, so that I can perhaps help the reader integrate it into their already-existing belief system.

The real questions on everyone's minds are a) Why or how did Joseph Smith use this ordinary-looking rock to translate scripture? and b) What's the deal with the hat? In answer to both of them, I'm going to draw on some insights from a book by Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise Von Franz, titled On Divination and Synchronicity: The Psychology of Meaningful Chance. Here's a picture of the cover:

This book, which I read sometime last autumn, makes an interesting claim about divination (think of fortune telling, palm reading, crystal gazing, etc.). The author writes that: 
"Almost all non-number techniques [of divination] are based on some kind of chaotic pattern, which actually is exactly like the Rorschach test. One stares at a chaotic pattern and then gets a fantasy, and the complete disorder in the pattern confuses the conscious mind....Absolute knowledge is like candlelight, and if the electric light of ego consciousness is burning, then one cannot see the candlelight. If one looks at a chaotic pattern, one gets befuddled, one cannot make head nor tail of it. If one looks for a moment at a Rorschach card with its accumulation of dots, that blots out the function of the conscious mind, and then an unconscious fantasy comes up--"Oh, that looks like an elephant," or something like that. So one can get information from the unconscious by looking at a pattern."

Whether it be tea leaves, a crystal ball, or even palm lines, there is nothing inherently "special" about the tool the diviner uses to discern hidden or unknown things--they're just random enough that the bright light of ego-consciousness can dim itself, enough to let normally unconscious intuitions come to the surface. I myself have experienced this; when I would meditate in front of a plywood wall, I found myself making out figures in chaotic swirls in the wood, much like how one looks at the shapes of clouds. If I felt at all lustful, I would make out figures that looked like alluringly posed women. If I felt upset or despairing, I would see grotesque insects or monsters in the wood. Moreover, if I was in a very spiritual place, I would occasionally make out the figure of a bearded old man (reference the "Wise Old Man" archetype of Jungian psychology). From my perspective, what went on when I discerned these figures in the plywood was that unconscious tendencies, patterns, or even figures "embodied" themselves with whatever was at hand. It's kind of like how a person looks more beautiful if you love them, or how if you look for bad things, you're only going to find bad things. Remember, "like unto like."

In reference to Joseph Smith's translation process, I'm proposing that he used the stone and put it into a hat to let the unconscious light of his spiritual intimations and intuitions more easily come to the surface. In the darkness of the hat's bottom, I find it likely that he saw things that--though they technically were before his mind all the time--he could only see if the "electric light" of daylight consciousness was dimmed, so that the "candlelight" (spiritual light?) of intuitive spiritual perception could manifest itself.

This would certainly explain why the seer stone eventually became unnecessary. When Joseph translated the Books of Moses and Abraham without the aid of a "seeric device," it follows from what we have been saying that his spiritual perception became attuned enough that he no longer needed the aid of something dark or chaotic to dim his waking consciousness. He could do it at will, something Rudolf Steiner thought was absolutely possible (see this post on the subject from a few days ago).

Another reason to believe in this interpretation of the translating process is that, as David Whitmer pointed out, "He [Joseph] could not translate unless he was humble and possessed the right feelings towards every one." The book by Von Franz talks about this too: she writes that "If divining fails, one can generally see that the diviner has a personal neurotic problem which he projects into the material." In other words, if Joseph felt annoyance or any kind of ill feeling, those emotions would block out the clarity of thought he needed to discern the dim light of the spiritual impressions that he translated into the Book of Mormon. This will resonate with anyone who tries to receive personal revelation while leaving a conflict or a sin unsolved--unless you repent, that sin will stand in the way of the spiritual light you're trying to receive, making it that much harder to learn from it.

Practically speaking, this interpretation sheds an entirely new light on Adam S. Miller's idea that the Book of Mormon is "your own personal seer stone." When we read scripture, we are doing more or less the same thing that Joseph did when using his seer stone: letting the glaring light of our egoistic pride and our selfish will subside, so as to discern the soft light shining subtly through the pages and the words. As such, scripture study (or prayer, or any kind of method to obtain personal revelation) becomes much more powerful when you're tired. In the twilight region between wakefulness and sleep, something spiritually amazing happens; insights leap out at you, and everything suddenly becomes a vessel for divine light. Something to ponder, at least.

In any case, don't let the weirdness of things like seer stones put you off of the Church's claims. One thing I've learned is that the best parts of life are weird. Weirdness is refreshing when compared with how boring normality can be.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Reflections on Rudolf Steiner's "How to Know Higher Worlds"

The history of my intellectual life has basically just been a series of encounters with different mystical teachers. My interest in mysticism started in 2008 when I first listened to an Alan Watts lecture. After a few years gorging myself on his anarchic take on mysticism, I encountered the more subtly powerful worldview of Søren Kierkegaard in 2012. Then came Ludwig Wittgenstein and Emanuel Swedenborg in 2013, who helped me connect mysticism to analytic philosophy and religious imagery, respectively. In early 2014 I came across the contemporary Mormon thinker Adam S. Miller, who further helped me to appreciate my faith's depth, and later that same year I discovered the psychologist James Hillman, who combined the playful anarchy of Alan Watts with the depth and respect for symbols found in Swedenborg. 

All of these thinkers came at the time when I was ready to read their works. If I had read Swedenborg in 2007, I would have almost surely found him too "weird" for me. However, my exposure to Alan Watts and the subsequent infusion of Wittgensteinian pragmatism helped me appreciate Swedenborg's teachings in a way that unlocked his inner riches.

I think I may have come across another figure like this. His name is Rudolf Steiner, and just for reference, here's a picture of him:

If I needed to encounter mystics like Watts and Wittgenstein to swallow Swedenborg's teachings, Rudolf Steiner is yet another (big) step toward the mystical. Though he was also a social and educational reformer, an architect, and a philosopher, he is most well-known as a mystic, esotericist, and founder of the spiritual movement called anthroposophy. And what a mystic he is.... He talks about things ranging from auras to chakras to the spiritual nature of dreams, and even though they might strike the modern person as a bit "out there," his writings have done more than most mystical works to satisfy both my intellect and my spiritual sensibilities.

All rambling aside, I wanted to use this post to talk about a book of his I just finished: How to Know Higher Worlds:

Briefly put, this book outlines ways that a spiritual seeker can "open her spiritual eyes." By giving practical advice for both basic and more advanced levels of spiritual attainment, he teaches the reader what it's like to begin to see spiritual realities, to "know higher worlds" potentially as well as we all know this one.

I think the best way to talk about this book online is to give a brief overview of his steps toward true spiritual perception, along with some remarks connecting those steps to Mormon doctrine, Swedenborg, and maybe others. 

Knowing that, Steiner begins his book by explaining that the first step toward spiritual perception is a kind of reverent attentiveness to the physical world. Giving a description similar to how I would define "mindfulness," he explains that we must observe the world around us from a detached, peaceful perspective. Especially important for this goal is the act of “[allowing] what we have experienced—what the outer world has told us—to linger on in utter stillness," something I have only recently begun to do in any significant sense. To do this, you have to pay attention to the world; don't dart from one experience to the next, never satisfied or content, but stay with an experience or a sensation long enough to let it "speak to you."

Another way to explain the same process is that we should “learn to distinguish the essential from the inessential.” Doing this involves getting the right enough perspective to see what in our experiences belongs to their essence, that in them which speaks from their "deepest" parts. This has everything to do with an emotional kind of perception, or at least a perception reminiscent of the way we experience emotion. For instance, he once writes that the "initiate" to higher knowledge should pay attention to the state of being a sunrise induces in the soul and compare it to the state of being that a sunset produces there. He argues that this kind of "feeling-perception" allows what is essentially the "soul" of the experience to speak to us. To me this makes perfect sense; there is a distinct emotional impression I feel around Christmastime, which is very different from the corresponding impression I feel around April or May every year. Though the skeptic might argue that these just "come on top" of the bare physical phenomena, I find that Steiner's argument resonates with a deep intuition on my part.

Philosophically speaking, you could say that what goes on when I perceive this way is that the "deeper," more essential parts of me are connecting with the deeper and more essential part of what I'm seeing. Swedenborg explains something similar in his spiritual works, where he says that there are earthly, spiritual, and celestial sights that perceive things on the earthly, spiritual, and celestial levels. Especially interesting when compared with Steiner is Swedenborg's insistence that a "celestial" sight sees the "purposes" or "loves" inherent in things, whereas an earthly sight only sees the "results" or physical manifestation available to everyone. He often notes on this point that a celestial angel can discern a person's whole character by a quick inspection of his face, or else his tone of voice. What is Swedenborg's celestial sight other than a perception of what is "most essential" in things, a perception of emotion, which is a term more or less synonymous with "loves" as used in Swedenborg?

Steiner continues by explaining that, after you have learned to dispassionately observe the "essential" in both sights and sounds, you will eventually learn to discern something like "colors" surrounding a physical object. Though not colors per se (more like a sensation similar to what I feel when I see a certain color), he gives the example of "a kind of spiritual flame" surrounding a seed, "felt as green-blue at its center and as yellow-red around its periphery." Though he uses the term only occasionally, this is pretty obviously what modern New-Agers, energy-workers, and others call an "aura."

Though the common-sense reader might find the idea of auras distasteful, let me give a few items of evidence for their existence. First, know that Swedenborg talks about them. Deep in his multi-volume work Arcana Coelestia or Secrets of Heaven, he writes that: 
"There are as many auras as there are moods and combinations of mood, which are countless. Our aura is like an image of ourselves projected outside us. In fact it is an image of everything inside us." (Secrets of Heaven 1505)
Using Swedenborgian terminology, the aura is an external projection of one's inner loves, which are more or less synonymous with emotions, as mentioned above. He writes elsewhere that you can theoretically discern everything in a person's state of being as represented visually in this aura, which is an idea that Steiner repeats almost exactly in his book. It's also worth noting that Swedenborg thinks auras are a part of the spiritual world, and so any perception of them is necessarily nonphysical.

The other bit of evidence I can give for auras is simply the fact that I have seen them. Ever since I started my kundalini yoga practice, when I both relax my gaze and focus it on the area around a person's head and shoulders I can usually see a sort of "glow" extending an inch or two away from the edge of their body. It's sort of like the after-image you see when a bright light suddenly goes away, except that, instead of following my eyes and their motions, the aura always follows the person. I have talked to about five other people--all of whom I deeply respect, and few of whom know each other--who have had the same experience, especially (and this is unanimous) in sacrament meetings at an LDS meetinghouse. I have gone beyond this and seen a big, full-color aura once or twice. The main time this happened I was standing out on my front step talking to a friend very late at night, when all of a sudden I could see a purple (or "almost-purple") cloud extending a foot to a foot-and-a-half around him. In sharing these experiences I'm aware that others might think I'm crazy. But in answer to these potential critiques, I'll quote Swedenborg's response to similar worries, which vicariously works as mine: "none of this worries me; I have seen, I have heard, I have felt" (Secrets of Heaven 68).

After a digression on the spiritual "anatomy" of chakras, Steiner goes on to explain that the next significant development in spiritual perception occurs in the initiate's dreaming life. He first points out that dreams are actually events in the physical world (either around me while I'm sleeping or in my memory) seen as they are reflected in the spiritual world. Thus, just as a dream involving current food poisoning might manifest as an alien infesting the stomach, a dream about the end of the world might signify a major change in the life of the dreamer (that is, the end of your world). I greatly sympathize with this take on the dream, partially because it resonates with my own experience, and partially because Swedenborg says something very similar. In any case, Steiner writes that the next phase in the spiritual seeker's development is the emergence of the same kind of spiritual-symbolic perception one has while dreaming in everyday, waking life. In this state, the dream's kind of symbolic perception sometime "overlays" my physical perception, to the point where these symbols disclose a thing's or being's essential nature.

Though he merely explains that this occurs (as opposed to giving a how-to), he explains that the phase after this involves a meeting with two spiritual beings called "Guardians of the Threshold," in turn. The first guardian is essentially the "fruit" of my life, a being assembled from all the good and bad desires, thoughts, and actions I undertook throughout my time on earth. When I meet with him, I realize that he is a sort of "mirror" for my actions, a way I can see them as external to me. This becomes all the more significant from the fact that--from this point onward--I am continually aware of this being's presence and appearance. 

This reminds me--to an extent--of Swedenborg's explanation that angels in heaven (or devils in hell) always face their "ruling love," that desire which drives all my other desires. In heaven, since that ruling love is good, it appears in God, whom all the angels thus face and who appears (at least in this respect) as a sun. It also means that, whenever I see another angel, I only see the part of them that shares in that love. That is, I only see the part of them that consequently faces me. One could also compare this notion of the Guardian of the Threshold with certain the way certain students of esoteric Islam understand the resurrection body. Such a comparison is fruitful for Mormonism, but the consequences would take much too long to explain (see Henry Corbin's Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth for details as to this idea).

The second and final Guardian of the Threshold, on the other hand, is essentially my "true self." Explaining that by the transition inherent in this meeting, "our own being begins to become transparent to us," Steiner says that this second guardian stands over the gateway to the very heart of existence “like the cherubim with the flaming sword before the gates of Paradise.” But there's a catch: this being tells us that we can't ascend to that highest world yet, but must stay in a lower world and--like a Buddhist bodhisattva--help all the beings remaining in the world ascend.

Here we come to perhaps the biggest issue with Rudolf Steiner for a believing Mormon--though it's not clear that this is the case for a being who has met this second guardian specifically, he generally believes in reincarnation. Nevertheless (as other Mormons like Felice Austen have tried to do--see her blog Progressive Prophetess in the sidebar to the right), I think it is possible to productively reconcile the idea of an afterlife with that of reincarnation. The key for this synthesis lies in the personal worldview of psychologist Carl Jung, perhaps best exemplified in passages like the one below from his Red Book: 
"[The figures we experience through tumults upsetting what is familiar in our soul] are the dead, not just your dead, that is, all the images and shapes you took in your past, which the ongoing life has left behind, but also the thronging dead of human history, the ghostly procession of the past, which is an ocean compared to the drops of your own life span. I see behind you, behind the mirror of your eyes, the crush of dangerous shadows, the dead, who look greedily through the empty sockets of your eyes, who hope to gather up through you all the loose ends of the ages which sigh in them. Your cluelessness does not prove anything. Put your ear to that wall and you will hear the rustling of their procession."
From Jung's perspective, those who did not live their life's goal completely enough return to the world to--at least partially--live it out vicariously through the living. He later writes that he imagines there are many dead figures hoping that we live a certain way, perhaps subtly pushing us in one way or another, to help us live out their unlived potential, to answer questions they could not. Not only does this conception of the afterlife resemble Swedenborg's, who wrote that each of us have at least four spirits (two angels and two devils) with is at all times that entice us one way or another, but it also resembles our notion of "work for the dead." Especially when considering that Jung's Red Book actually uses the phrase "the salvation of the dead," it seems apparent to me that--if an ordinance I undergo can vicariously affect a dead spirit--I at least have the potential to help those who have died through my actions while alive. Does my assistance for the dead extend beyond mere ordinance work? I certainly think so, especially considering Jung's statement above.

In any case, the idea of dead that act out their unlived potential in the living certainly sounds like reincarnation, at least from a certain perspective. If a spirit who has died exerts an influence on me and has their progress toward salvation riding on my actions, can't we say that--at least partially--that spirit has "incarnated" in me? Though this means an idea (distasteful to some) of our bodies as host to many spirits at once, it's not like that doesn't reflect our experience. How often do we feel overcome by an impulse that seems alien to us, either for good or for bad? Don't we all absentmindedly hear fragments of sentences in our heads, especially when we're tired? Though it sounds exotic, I surmise with Swedenborg that these phenomena are the evidence of spirits within us, or perhaps more palatably, of spirits close to us in the spiritual world.

In any case, the meeting with the second Guardian of the Threshold is pretty much the end of How to Know Higher Worlds. It's a really good book; you should all read it. I felt the Spirit quite a lot while reading it, so I feel that it's true in its essence. That's it for now, though. Bye!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Thoughts on the Sabbath

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of hearing a Sacrament Meeting talk about the importance of the Sabbath. And it made me think: while I haven't always been the best Sabbath-day observer, I have read some very interesting things over the last few years about the idea of Sunday as a day of worship.

One of them is from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's notebooks, as collected in the book Culture and Value:
"The Sabbath is not simply a time for rest, for relaxation. We ought to contemplate our labors from without and not just from within."
Sunday is a time to step back from our work so that we can see it clearly. For you can only see something clearly if you are separate or "set apart" from it. Just like the artist who steps back from his painting to see not just the details but also the overarching sweep of it, the Sabbath helps us see our work from a higher viewpoint. One might even say that it gives us a view sub specie aeternitatis--from the perspective of eternity.

Think back to the origin story for our seven-day week: the very first chapter of the Bible, or Genesis 1. God creates heaven and the earth in six days, and on the seventh day He rests. Or in other words, on days 1-6 God is in the thick of creating the earth, the sky, and their inhabitants, while on the seventh day God separates Himself from that creation by ceasing His work. So, is the Sabbath perhaps a time to symbolize God's withdrawal from the world so that we don't make the mistake of confusing it with Him? The relationship of Sunday to the rest of the week would then signify God in relation to the work of His creation, respectively; Monday through Saturday stands for the work of His hands; Sunday stands for His presence as it is in itself.

Emanuel Swedenborg said almost exactly this in the first volume of his length project Arcana Coelestia or Secrets of Heaven, which attempts a verse-by-verse symbolic interpretation of Genesis and Exodus. Speaking of the verse on the seventh day in Genesis 2, he writes: 
"A heavenly person is the seventh day. And since the Lord worked through six days, that individual is called his work. Conflict then comes to an end, as a result of which the Lord is said to rest from all his work. This is why the seventh day was consecrated and named 'Sabbath,' from [a Hebrew word for] rest. In the process the human being has been made, formed, and created, as the words themselves clearly indicate."
He writes not more than a page later that the Lord, as the person in whose image we are made, is the true Sabbath. As alluded to in my remarks just above, this perspective means that Sunday is to God as Monday through Saturday is to the world. This means that when we commemorate His creative efforts through our work during the week, we point that work to Him for whom the Sabbath is a symbol. In other words, by ending and beginning our weeks with Sabbath worship, we come together with God in a repose apart from work, works, or action. On Sunday, God isn't at the end of the road, but here with us; He isn't there, but here. Sunday is God incarnate in the calendar week.

How often do we assume that God lies only at the end of the road, that we must work endlessly and tirelessly to get to Him? Work is (and works are) important, yes; however, we do not earn salvation by work. If the week's arrangement tells us anything, it is that God is not in our work, but apart from it. Even after all the work is done, we can only reach Him in stillness, in non-action, by receiving His grace. Works only prepare us to receive Him; on the plan of salvation's figurative "work week," we can only ever empty ourselves of pride enough to receive Him on the figurative Sunday. When the Sabbath comes, we can only rest and know that He is already here, present in our weakness.

See the Sabbath whenever you thus receive God's grace; see it in the restful peace of mind that comes whenever you stop fretting and rest comfortably in faith and hope. The Sabbath is God with us, His presence in our lives, His "there" in our "here." It is the substance of life itself, when received fully and without turning away. We remember this on Sunday, for by our literal rest from work we remind ourselves of the ultimate insufficiency of work or works alone. For God doesn't come through our force of will to reach Him, as though He were "there." He is instead always here, we see Him to the extent we realize He cannot be captured by work or works in themselves.