One of the worst things about writing is that your thoughts are visible, always to yourself and often to others. This also is one of the best things about writing. Worst, best? To me it depends on how honest my writing is, and how well my words comport with my actions.
I hate to re-read something I’ve written and realize that I don’t believe my own words. Yet, even if I’ve written something true to my beliefs, it is painful to read if I’m not acting as if I believe my purported beliefs. Is there anything worse than hypocrisy? Well, a root canal comes to mind.
But physical pain is direct and true. The mental pain of hypocrisy is more bothersome because it can’t be faced directly. My hurt rankles in a corner of my psyche that I don’t want to enter. No relief is possible when the patient hides in the shadows.
This afternoon I was happily reading some critiques of Ken Wilber’s books, as I’ve been asked to write an essay about how Plotinus’s teachings relate to Wilber’s “integral” philosophy. I was trying to better understand why I frequently pen question marks in the margins of Wilber’s “A Brief History of Everything” even though Plotinus is lauded as a 3rd century exemplar of what integral philosophizing is all about.
I nodded appreciatively when one critique noted that while Wilber claims an intuitive spiritual apprehension is the only way to know ultimate reality, his arguments to support this claim are closely reasoned and highly intellectual. So is Wilber really practicing what he is preaching?
In the same vein, another critique questioned whether Wilber has directly experienced the higher mystic truths that he pontificates about. Wilber doesn’t speak much about his own spiritual experiences, but he isn’t loath to put forward confident and detailed descriptions of God’s nature and criticize others who don’t share his views. What gives him the right?
At first I smugly enjoyed reading these “the emperor has no clothes!” critiques, just as I am rooting for each and every basketball team in the Olympics to beat the unduly cocky (until they lost to Puerto Rico) United States squad. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing the unjustifiably proud and mighty brought down to earth?
But then I felt the boomerang of my smugness circle around and strike me in the back of my head. “Good god,” I said to myself. “What has been rightly said about Wilber could just as correctly be said about me. Haven’t I written almost 400 pages about a mystic philosopher who taught that the highest reality is far beyond words? Didn’t I claim that Plotinus’s teachings are true without ever having experienced the truth of those claims?”
For a few minutes I felt a serious depression coming on. Why the hell did I spend several years writing a book that amounts to nothing more than guesses about God? Isn’t this sort of religious presumption what I railed on about for page after page, arguing for the supremacy of Plotinus’s empirical/experimental approach to spirituality over the usual religious dogma/faith approach?
Doubt was setting in. Which is fine, if doubt is justified. However, I then recalled that the central concluding message in “Return to the One” is that vision is its own veracity. When a mystic sees, really sees, what is seen essentially is identical with the seer—with vision itself. It isn’t belief that leads to God, the One. Oneness leads to the One.
I didn’t feel so hypocritical when I remembered that, unlike Wilber, along with Plotinus I never claim that any rational description of divinity bears any resemblance to divinity as it actually is. And I let Plotinus’s first-hand descriptions of his mystical experiences do the talking, not my own (fortunately, for otherwise I’d necessarily be nearly mute).
I re-read some of my own words. Thankfully, they sounded fine.
“So we arrive at a classic chicken-and-egg situation that has vociferous adherents on both sides of the question. Do our beliefs about life flow from our actual life experiences or do our actual life experiences flow from our beliefs? This question can be framed as a choice between ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’ which assumes the primacy of experience, and ‘I’ll see it when I believe it,’ which assumes the primacy of belief.
“…If I’m on a sinking ship, my belief that there may be lifejackets aboard will lead me to look for one in the storage locker. However, that belief won’t produce a life jacket if none are on the ship. When I open the locker, what I see doesn’t depend on what I subjectively believe is inside; it depends on what is objectively there.
“…Hence, the best thought is the concept that leads to no further thoughts, the best emotion is the feeling that leads to no further emotions, and the best perception is the sensation that leads to no further perceptions—at least during the period of contemplation when we seek to experience spirit and the One, the All. In essence, the only belief a spiritual seeker should aim to retain is, ‘I will see it when I stop believing in, and seeing, what is not it.’”
All quotations are from “Return to the One,” by yours truly.