Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Kingdom of the “I”

What is it that we are searching for? Our situation as human beings is that we live in a world of pain and death. No amount of pleasure can negate this reality. Our means of pleasure is the body, and the body is subject to satiation, sickness, and death.

Even if we no longer fear the punishment of hell, we have to somehow deal with our own animal self. We try to know which of our desires can lead to a real and perhaps lasting well-being. We try to know when and how much is enough; and yet this animal self has endless desires. Repression, or at least self-discipline, is an evitable condition of our situation. Our very identity, our ego-self, is a complex of psychological manifestations arising from the body and related to its pleasure and survival. There is a terror in living with a body that is irrational, fallible, and finally, mortal.

We have no cultural and spiritual value systems to reconcile us with the body. We serve the body but we do not teach it how to serve. We worship the body, but we do not sanctify it. Our cultural value systems today are among the least spiritual ever offered to a human community. Basically, the meaning of life has been reduced to an unconscious operating mode: get a job that will enable us to buy what we want, pass through life with a minimum of pain and discomfort. The fulfillment offered to us is the fulfillment of being good and intelligent consumers, effective seekers of pleasure. We will have to repress many of our desires in order to eventually satisfy a few of them.

Yet there is still problem of our existence. Even if we are free to fulfill our desires, we still lack something to fulfill and give meaning to our lives. Even if we have removed God the Judge, we have a feeling of existential contraction, unworthiness, guilt, and sin.

This existential contraction is the “I” itself, cut off from the spiritual dimensions of Reality. Effectively, in our everyday waking existence, this is all we know and are. We become this “I” that seeks pleasures and avoids pain. Our capacity of pleasure is, however, limited and our confrontation with pain is inevitable. To protect ourselves we unconsciously try to make ourselves the Absolute Ruler of our own psychological and material realm. We create a kingdom with boundaries and defenses. We strive to consolidate our powers so that we can acquire what we want and keep out what we don’t want. This is the business and strategy of the “I”. And yet even from a materialist perspective, this kingdom has all the substantiality of a spider’s web. Despite our pride and careful efforts to spin this web, fate can brush it away without resistance. It is no wonder that we who depend on the material world for our sense of security and well-being live in a perpetual state of fear and contraction. Even when we are attaining our desires, and so have experienced what we call “happiness,” we cannot help but question whether this is real, and how long it will last.

What are we to do with our consciousness, our will, our love? These are the choices that variously confuse, distract, and oppress human beings.

This human face is a shape
Tethered in the stall of pain:
Part god, part angel, part beast...
A secret charm, rarely released.

- Rumi, D 568

Our “I” is our relationship to the world; and as long as this relationship is characterized by a self and world, we are in duality. This is our relationship with reality. Our resistance, expectations, complaints, and desires fly off at a tangent from what actually is.

The vast majority of human beings are living in a state of alienation from spiritual reality and from their own essence. Instead of living life directly and knowing themselves directly, all experience is filtered through layers of mental and emotional conditioning in the form of subjective distortions, defense mechanisms, cultural prejudices. This total mechanism of distortion we take to be ourselves. We are living in a “virtual reality” of our own creation, but because we have always been in costume, always wired to the program, always turned toward the screen of fantasy, we have not known ourselves. In the best of these times people’s minds are filled with everything but the truth: images from consumer culture, manufactured desires, superstitions, hallucinations, beliefs, allergies to beliefs, the clichés of neurotic individualism. In the worst of times, human minds may be occupied with mass psychoses of nationalism, fanaticism, racism, tribalism, or religious fundamentalism.

(Kabir Helminski. The Knowing Heart: A Sufi Path to Transformation. Shambala Publications, Inc. Boston, 1999. P.6-8)

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