A penny dropped

Today the penny dropped.

For years I’ve played around with scribbling about this and that with a view to blogging one day, but had to admit I hadn’t found my voice; the scribbles were exercises in composition and syntax only, and then yesterday the penny dropped: on September 30 2013. Maybe for me a date to remember, time and tide will tell, but these few words mark a beginning.

The dropping penny, in short, was the realisation of the indefatigability of the human spirit. For years I have inhabited the edges of ‘spirituality’ without realising that the true spirituality is that of the human ‘spirit’. How can I have been so blind to this perception when it has been staring me in the face for ever? In art, in literature, in biographies, in Hollywood and in the best of television the real revelation is of the resilience, malleability, creativity, resourcefulness and limitless fortitude of the human spirit. In all the best stories, running like a river of refreshment through the valley of death is this absolute and ultimately indestructible essence.

An earlier perception in my life was the appreciation that the human being appeared to be ‘hard-wired’ for spirituality, but my view of this was clouded by a miasma created by such concepts as God, karma, reincarnation and divinity. This fog has now cleared and I see before me the naked truth, that the human spirit lacks nothing, is limitless in scope and achievement, and is in fact that for which everybody is searching. Call it ‘soul’ if you like, Plato did and then created a miasmic aura based upon his ‘Myth of Ur’ and thereby, in establishing the reference point for all of Western philosophy, invented an eternal, reincarnating and ‘judged’ entity, the very essence of self which held until the infamous Council of Nicaea when heaven and hell was formally canonnised instead.

This is why I was naturally drawn to Aristotle – the first scientist – whose concept of soul has more to do with modern concepts as ‘soul food’, ‘soul music’ and the very ‘soul of reason and discretion’ rather than any airy-fairy transcendental entity. Add-in Epicurus and his famously disputed exegesis ‘Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?’ and my philosophic foundation is established. This line continues to the present day via such luminaries as Marcus Aurelius, Michel de Montaigne, Copernicus, Newton, Jefferson, Emerson, Mark Twain, T S Eliot, Wittgenstein, Darwin, Anthony de Mello and the modern day philosopher-scientists Richards Feynman and Dawkins, Jim Al-Khalili and Brian Cox. There are many more that could be named; it is not as if the truth hasn’t been elucidated for all to see but just maybe it needs someone to try to draw the threads together.

My early life – up to entering university – was spent in association with the Christian church of one denomination or another, and I don’t regret that in any way whatsoever. In truth it had more to do with socialising and socialisation than religion (I was brought up in a smallish community in Kent and many social gatherings had links to the church) and that was how it was. Years later I came across the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, and one verse struck me as life changing and it was v113: His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” And he answered “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.” This was a revelation: heaven is here on earth! Where else could it be? I just had to open my eyes and heart to see the reality.

When I left university I met with someone whose influence was to determine much of my later life; he introduced me to a school of practical philosophy based upon the Vedic concept of Advaita Vedanta which is also known as ‘non-duality’. I don’t intend to rehearse that philosophy here as it is the realisation with which I started this piece that is the important part; I am still associated with and teach in the school (which for the moment may remain nameless) but I am an heretic and fail to follow the school’s orthodoxy. The world needs more heretics. During the succeeding years I have studied economics (upon which a future blog is planned) and Sanskrit, both in some depth. The former taught me much about reason and the need for evidence and the latter instructed me upon grammar – an omission from my English ‘grammar school’ education. It has been said that all the natural laws are embodied in the laws of grammar; maybe.

At this point I need to speak of one of many formative insights of the study of Sanskrit grammar. Sanskrit is an amazing language whose complete grammar is set down in the Ashtadyāyi (eight meditations) of Pānini. Every word in Sanskrit has a ‘root’, known as a ‘dhātu’, which is full of ‘spiritual significance’ and in a book called the Dhātupātha the meaning of each ‘root’ is explained. The root of all words related to ‘divinity’, words such as deva (god) and devī (goddess), is, not unsurprisingly: ‘div’ (pronounced ‘dew’) and the meaning is to be found ‘in the realm of playing, desiring to conquer, activity, shining, praise, joy, intoxication, sleep, beauty, desire and movement’, also ‘in suffering pain, lamenting and moaning.’ Now I don’t know about you, but those indications sound all too human to me.

It presented a conundrum. I expected something different of divinity, but after many years I am convinced that the Dhātupātha is literally correct in that indication of ‘div’. The central idea of Advaita Vedanta philosophy is that the Self, yourself, myself, is universal and One. It is also known as simple ‘awareness’ and ‘consciousness’. It is called ‘The Absolute’, and here I had another difficulty which was resolved for good yesterday when the penny dropped. The problem with the definite article ‘the’ is that it objectifies or creates an entity to that to which it is applied. Thus in the world of non-duality you will often come across the use of ‘THE Absolute’ in a way highly reminiscent of the way religions speak of ‘God’. It becomes an unreachable goal because identification with it is a gross form of egoism or, worse, megalomania, when the truth is it is speaking of is one’s very ‘self’.

So, to sum up at this point, the human spirit is also known as soul, absolute, consciousness, awareness and Self. And the most important realisation is the discovery that the self DOES NOTHING AT ALL. It is the ‘is-ness’ of existence, it is the animation of life, it is the presence of the here and now and as William Blake so perceptively observed: “To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.”, simple ‘presence’ is both infinite and eternal. The human spirit then lacks nothing; it is limitless and is the motive of achieving whatever life goal we individually have.

As an aside, the word ‘individual’ itself indicates ‘that which cannot be divided’, it is the indivisible ground of being which flowers as the awesome variety of life. Now this is important, because each of us has different characters, different personalities, different perceptions, different life experience and goals we tend to conflate the self with all these differences. We identify with these differences and thereby we create our own identity. Whereas the unity or commonality of the human spirit is the real identity where all these other identifications simply create and adorn the wonderful variety of life. It’s a game, and a great game at that. Advaita calls if ‘līlā’ – ‘play’, thus echoing ‘div’ qv.

Marcus Aurelius once observed that ‘you are the treasure house you seek’. In other words the truth is not ‘out there’ it’s ‘in here’. This wholly inactive consciousness of self is the very source we all start out seeking like lost sheep and a few, through life’s trials or through meditation or yoga or whatever, discover the treasure house. Lao Tzu called it the ‘Tao’ the nameless name, the truthless truth.

From a practical viewpoint this realisation has value for all of us; many are prone to depression and all too many are driven to suicide because life cannot provide what is expected of it. Now these are dangerous waters in which to dip one’s toe but dipped it must be. For anybody who has undergone cognitive behavioural therapy will realise that the first step away from the darkness of mind is the acceptance of what is, the acceptance of self. It is only by acceptance that we can begin to go with the flow of life, of events over which we have no control. We then concoct these life events into ‘my life’ whereas in reality they are just the things which we have the pain or pleasure of experiencing. They no more define ‘me’ than any other entity, place, perception or experience with which I may identify.

Some identities are difficult to see through: the principle biological division into male and female is the obvious ground of most people’s identity. But in truth the self is neither male nor female; gender is just another part of the play of life. Then there is sexuality – which gives so great a source of pain and worry to theist and atheist alike. What does it matter what sexuality you find personally conducive: hetero-, homo-, trans-, cis-, etc.? All are part of the awesome play of existence here for our entertainment and delectation. There’s no need to be proud of or limited by one’s sexual preference or inclination, it just is. Problems do arise, however, when one’s sexual psychology impinges destructively or harmfully upon another and they need treatment.

Which brings me inexorably to religion: mmmmm, best probably the subject of another post, but suffice it to say here it is an understandable but completely misguided attempt at defining the indefinable. Science (= knowledge) has done much to loose the bonds of religion – in Europe at any rate – but there is further, much further to go. Religion fabricates the illusion of faith to a transcendental deity which inevitably must become a form of tyranny. Just as Plato, wrongly in my view, sees democracy inevitably descending into tyranny it is religion that must blaze that trail. Witness ‘Islamism’ and the ‘Christianity’ of the GOP Republican right in America: scary, and truly worrying.

It is a great shame that religion has been allowed to lay a monopolistic claim to ‘faith’ because the true faithfulness can only be to oneself. Not egoistically, but as Shakespeare observed ‘to thine own self be true and it follows as the night the day thou canst not then be false to any man’. This truth is echoed in the instruction of the Delphic Oracle to ‘Know Thyself’. We are born alone, we live alone and we die alone. In Sanskrit the word is ‘kaiwalya’ and there exists an Upanishad devoted solely to this truth. The word ‘alone’ is an elision of the concept ‘all one’ and here is another touchstone of the dropping penny: the human spirit is ‘all one’ and it is ‘alone’ but in that reality there is no loneliness because the awesomeness of the whole universe is available to play with and in. Be lonely if you will, but know that is your choice and no others.

So this first foundation blog has been devoted to the indestructible human spirit and is being posted in the fervent hope that any reader may be energised into discovering this reality for themselves. ‘It is a poor thing but it is mine own’.

Before concluding I should say a word about meditation. I have meditated on and off for thirty odd years or so. It took me many years to discover what meditation is for. Owing to the miasma of matters spiritual to which I alluded at the top of this post, I thought meditation was connected to the idea of becoming one with the divine, with God, to self-improvement until I realised the self cannot be improved and there is no God. I now see that it is a ‘mind tool’ – which is the literal translation of the Sanskrit word ‘mantra’ – its function is, through practice, to come to the stillness and immovability of the ground of pure being, oneself, from where the mind may be observed in all its flightiness, duplicity, purity and strength. I used to think that ‘self-realisation’ is the transcendence of mind, but I now realise it is in coming to love the mind and to strengthen it with reason, compassion, learning, love and humility. Consciousness maybe the foundation of self but it is love that is the means of living fully and well. If nothing else seek unconditional love and in that freedom lays the diamond ‘I am’.

The route of simple awareness through emotion, ideas, opinions and beliefs distorts the purity of consciousness, of self. These are the impediments to self-realisation or self-actualisation. Meditation offers one way of beginning to become objective about them and seeing them for what they are – the playthings of existence – and it offers a route to the stillness and depth of one’s own true being: the human being, in all its complexity and magnificence.

In conclusion, I must dedicate this blog to three people whom I have had the enormous privilege of discovering through Twitter, that most sociable and unsociable of social media, and hopefully I may call them friends. First and foremost I dedicate this post to Jennifer August, better known as ‘Jennerosity’ @jen_august (the ‘boss’) and fearsome blogger of ‘Wading Through the Illusion’ on WordPress.com, she truly is a world’s wonder and don’t take my word for it, read her blog yourself. Secondly, I doff my cap to @JoshuaDamnIt and his extraordinary WordPress.com blog. Finally to Christopher Krzeminski and his limpid book ‘What are you without God?’ He tweets as ‘Marco the Atheist’ @marco_iO9 and has a second book to be published later this month. I suspect that if anybody does read this post these three names will already be familiar, but if you’ve arrived here by another route (?) then I can only add my recommendation to these fine exponents of the redoubtable and indestructible human spirit. You and I.

And if you have been, thank you for listening.

Stephen Coulson

‘Kool*son’@philositect on Twitter

PS Anthony de Mello “It is not a matter of ‘Is there life after death’ it is more the question ‘Is there life before death?'”

  1. ecblade said:

    Stephen – I loved this and have now read this several times over. While i did so, I looked at my own bookshelves, and was fondly reminded of my earliest college education, long before physics and nursing captured my interest. As I read this, not only do I see that you are a thinker, but a person who has taking up that wonderfully Aristotelian challenge to answer the question: What is the good life? What does it mean to be good?

    In particular, I was struck by the reference to cognitive behavioral therapy. My son, as far as any of us knows, really is the epitome of the directionless arrow. He acknowledges neither past nor present, but lives uniquely in the moment wherein he finds himself. He also does so with gentle good humor, and seems to have an innate understanding that he complete within himself.

    That is not to say, of course, that we do not rejoice in the connections we make, even when those connections are tremulous, spread over the tiny points of wi-fi hookups and LAN lines. We are connected, I believe, and not by any entity such as a god, but connected by our shared humanity…our shared endeavors and successes…and it is that which diminishes us when dark acts are perpetrated. What harms one, ultimately, harms us all.

    So, I am delighted to be following your blog. I hope you will write many more posts.

    I look forward to reading them.

    Jessica – whom you know as @ecblade on Twitter

    • kool*son said:

      Thank you Jessica for your thoughtful comment which brings out something I was intending to include in the blog but forgot, and it is simply this: that goodness is its own reward. So too is evil its own reward. Morality as such is really only necessary for those who don’t appreciate this realisation.
      Your son sounds like a man of fine discrimination; he has clearly been well educated. I wish him every good wish.
      In considering pleasure and pain Epicurus has been greatly misunderstood (as a hedonist) whereas he was a true ascetic who realised that the ultimate pleasure is to be found in the company of friends and I take the greatest delight in the discovery of real friendship via Twitter. Who knew? And I am very happy to acknowledge you as a friend.
      Stephen xx

  2. Haydon Bradshaw said:

    Good to read you.

    • kool*son said:

      Thank you Haydon, coming from you that comment is much appreciated.

  3. Steph @MamaMarmalade (@MamaMarmalade) said:

    I loved this. A lot of it I don’t understand but I envy your knowledge. Having been one of those people who’ve spent a significant amount of time in therapy (everyone should have it, we owe it to the people in our lives!) I understand the need to accept that what is, is. It’s much easier said than done. I’m not sure how much my Mother has told you about me but I belong to a certain fellowship that is 12-step based. It’s as close to religion I’ll ever get, but it all makes sense and it’s all I need.
    I’m so glad you’ve started a blog 🙂

    • kool*son said:

      Well Steph that’s really appreciated. And your Mum is very discreet, so I didn’t know about the 12-step programme. But you’re right, some sort of therapy is important in coming to acceptance and ultimately a non-egoistic love of one’s self for the sake of others in one’s life. Your Mum & I do it through association with a school of practical philosophy (although she’s much more intellectual about it, thankfully), but its horses for courses, and the beautiful thing is with acceptance one’s world expands exponentially – your own successful and much loved blog is just one example. There’s that famous Marianne Williamson quotation, quoted by Nelson Mandela in his autobiography, that its our brilliance we’re more afraid of, and he should know having become beloved of the whole world. The human spirit – true spirituality. Thank you. 🙂

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