A few days ago I got around to looking through a bunch of unanswered emails. I came across a message in which someone asked me to elaborate on a quote from my July 14 post on “Filtering Reality.”
An aside: it’s sort of ironic (or, some might say, karmic) how I began working on a book that ended up changing how I viewed Radha Soami Satsang Beas and, more generally, my whole approach to spirituality.
Radha Soami Satsang Beas, or RSSB, is the India-headquartered spiritual group that I’ve been associated with for some thirty-five years. The “ironic” aspect of the line above was pretty much explained in the following sentence.
For it was the guru of RSSB, Master Gurinder Singh, who suggested to me various mystics who might serve as worthy subjects for a “Mystics of the West” book. One of these was Plotinus, to whom I was most attracted.
So I’m led to assume that what my questioner wants me to elaborate on is my reference to “changing.” How did it happen that writing a book sparked a change in my entire spiritual attitude?
I only wish that I knew for sure. I’m much more familiar with the what’s of my life than the how’s and why’s.
I mean, usually I can say pretty confidently what happened to me (such as “I bought the wrong size of garbage bags yesterday”), while the how and why of that happening remains a mystery (My wife wasn’t clear about what size she wanted, but initially I had the correct product in hand; then I changed my mind; is trust in my intuition lacking? Or do I have a deep karmic connection with the grocery store’s return counter, since I spend so much time there?)
Ignorance never stops me from writing, though, so here’s an elaboration on how writing “Return to the One” changed my approach to spirituality.
My subject in this book, the teachings of the Greek mystic philosopher Plotinus, caused me to think more deeply about the RSSB philosophy than I ever had before. By nature I resonate with how the Greeks delved into the big questions of life: not by trusting in tradition and the answers of their forefathers, but by searching for truths that could be defended both by reason and personal experience.
Philosophy, the love of wisdom, was a way of life for philosophers like Plotinus. It wasn’t an abstract exercise divorced from everyday existence. If someone’s philosophical beliefs weren’t directly reflected in his actions, then he wasn’t a real philosopher no matter how many books he had read or written.
Early on I realized that if I was going to write a book about the teachings of Plotinus, I had to do my best to live in the spirit of his teachings. Meaning, as imperfect as the attempt might be, my goal was to think in the manner he and his philosophical brethren thought and to worship (insofar as that word applies to Neoplatonic spirituality) in the fashion that he worshipped.
The years I spent working on “Return to the One” marked an extended coming-out process for me. Increasingly I realized that I was a Western psyche trapped in an Eastern body of theology. I was a questioner who had submerged his natural self under an ocean of faith and devotion. I started bobbing to the surface and taking gulps of honest fresh air.
It felt good. It felt real. It felt like I finally was being true to who I was.
One of my arguments with the staff of the RSSB Book Department, which was intended to be a publisher of my book (there also were plans to publish it privately, which I ended up doing on my own) was whether there really is a “Western mind.”
Since I had one in my possession, right inside my head, I knew that there was. Further evidence of this creature’s existence, I argued, was Richard Tarnas’ marvelous book, “The Passion of the Western Mind.” How could this well-reviewed book have gotten away with that title, I’d say to the RSSB publication honchos, if there was no such thing as a Western mind?
Here’s what I wrote in the Introduction to my own book:
I don’t have an ironclad definition of the Western and Eastern minds (which implies that my own may not be indisputably of the Occidental variety). But, in a light-hearted spirit, here are a few ways to distinguish them experientially.
If you attend a talk on some spiritual subject—a lecture, sermon, discourse—and the people around you are reaching for handkerchiefs to dab their tears of love and devotion, while you are pulling out a notebook and pen to jot down critical questions to ask the speaker, you have a Western mind.
If passages in your Bible or other holy book are highlighted in various colors, you have a Western mind (give yourself extra points if objections are penciled in the margin next to pronouncements you disagree with).
I don’t mean to imply that the Western mind is entirely detached, rational, skeptical, independent, and analytical. Even those with a strong predilection toward a Western mentality are capable of manifesting the opposite characteristics as well: intimacy, intuition, faithfulness, interdependency, holism.
This is because each of us is a mixture of what we might call “masculine” and “feminine” qualities. The challenge, psychologically, spiritually, even societally, is to find the proper blend of masculine and feminine, Western and Eastern, yang and yin, respectively.
Yes, the proper blend. I’m continuing to explore what is proper for me, what feels right, what meshes with my inherent way of looking at the world. Plotinus helped me admit to myself that I can’t buy into any spiritual philosophy which isn’t founded on reason and direct experience.
That’s the Greek way. And it’s my way. I recognize that other people have no problem accepting dogma on faith and wholeheartedly devoting themselves to a person, or path, that they believe possesses the truth about God. Myself, I can’t believe in belief. I’m unable to have faith in faith.
It isn’t that writing “Return to the One” caused me to have fresh doubts about RSSB teachings. Trying to embrace the mindset of a Greek rational mystic merely led me to acknowledge and express more honestly the doubts that I already had.
I decided that if the RSSB tent was big enough to hold believers who didn’t totally believe and the faithful who didn’t have lots of faith, then it could hold me. If not, well, I wasn’t willing to cut off an integral part of myself just so I could fit under the tent.