Against ‘The Key To All Mythologies’

A character in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (1871-2), Causabon, has been doing research, fruitless it turns out, for a book provisionally entitled The Key to All Mythologies. What if we too are Causabon?

Here’s what I mean. Have we not been searching for the conceptual framework, all-encompassing religion, meta-metanarrative, behavioral economics tome, personal philosophy, personality tests, astrology, physics, evolutionary biology, organizational theory–that is, for the key to all mythologies–to answer, in a moment, all of our questions? To put an end to all of our sufferings? To lay to rest all of our fears? To help us make sense of all that we want–now and indefinitely–to make sense of?

“This is how the world works. Fullstop.” “This is how human beings are. Period.” “This is the reason people do what they do. End of story.” “This is how life emerged and what it’s here for. Stop the tape.”

At some point, it may come as something of a shock to realize that we’ve been trading one key to all mythologies for another and this too for another…

What if our approach were all wrong? What if no single theory, view, worldview, model, or structure were large enough and nimble enough to encompass all of pulsing reality? What if everything can’t, in the end, be reduced to one kind of thing or to one model of things?

Suppose you’re a Buddhist. Buddhism may, as it does, have much to say about mind and metaphysics, yet woe to the person who believes that Buddhism will give him a sufficiently good understanding of politics and economics. Or suppose you’re a psychologist. Woe also to you if you believe that society can be completely reducible to psychological categories (social psychology). Or say you’re a spiritual person. Woe to you should you seek to turn everything into “energy.”

What if reality, itself unified and limitless, nonetheless requires, at least conceptually speaking, a plurality of disciplines and understandings in order to get as much of us around it as we can? Then would we give up, finally, on finding the key to all mythologies and instead would be satisfied–somewhat anyway, begrudgingly perhaps–with seeing how various models can be seen, not without fault or blindspots, to hang together as much as they actually do hang together. This and no more.

It seems, then, that we are destined to keep making sense of the world and of ourselves in whichever honest ways we can. Negative dialectics, you might say, all the way down…

Existential Weight, Existential Truth, Existential Betrayal, And Existential Heroism

Consider that a philosophical conversation is centered on asking and seeking to answer the most basic questions of human existence. But not just this, for it is also concerned with our lives becoming the answers we’ve come to so far.

Grant as much. Then when I have a philosophical conversation, I’m looking–intuitively, that is–for a matter that carries ‘existential weight.’ Something has ‘existential weight’ just in case it (a) implicates my interlocutor while going beyond my interlocutor, (b) grips him or her right here and right now, and (c) is such that we can’t yet put a finger on what it is. The matter is ‘around here’ or ‘in this vicinity.’ It has ‘something to do with’ such and such, but what it is we do not know yet. Hence, from here we rightly begin in mystery.

Suppose by means of philosophical inquiry that we’re able to elucidate the matter of existential weight. Then the person has just articulated what I call an ‘existential truth.’ A truth is ‘existential’ just in case it

  • comes from one–specifically from an intuition–or, what may be the same thing, is an expression or articulation of a “felt sense” within one;
  • it justly elucidates the matter of existential weight (we say, “That’s it!”);
  • and it carries its own immediate certitude.

I suggest that the idea henceforth is to ‘live in the light of’ this existential truth (a) by assimilating it into one’s being, (b) by drawing out its life implications for one, (c) by seeing the places of resistance with one, and (d) by integrating the rest of one’s life in such a way that it is in harmony with this existential truth. (Of course, there can be, and often are, other existential truths as well. In which case, the idea is to repeat this spiraling process.)

Therefore, the great virtue here is fidelity to those philosophical investigations whose concern is for one to ‘live in the light of’ this existential truth whereas the great vice is ‘existential betrayal.’ By the latter, I mean the act of denying, dodging, avoiding, evading, and/or turning away from the existential truth one had already articulated. In other words, an existential betrayal is first an act of forgetting this truth and then a second-order forgetting that covers over, if only partially, the fact that one has forgotten.

Let us say that being heroic, according to this understanding, entails actually, that is, faithfully, and fully living one’s life in the light of the existential truths that one articulates, assimilates, and integrates.

‘You Married The Wrong Woman’

You married the wrong woman. And then you had children with her.

For years, you’ve been going to see a marriage counselor in the hope that she could provide you two with the tools you needed to cope with the relationship.

Now you’re beginning to see. The years you spent in your seated practice didn’t help you ask and answer the questions, “Whom shall I love? How shall I discern? And what does it mean to love?” You’re beginning to see that seated practice can’t, on its own, enable you to inquire and deliberate. To do this is to enter more fully into discourse, that is,reasoned discourse coming from an existential place.

The painful lesson, though, is still to be felt. To see fully: I married the wrong person, and I’ve been deceiving myself into believing that I’m ‘confused about the relationship.’ The truth is that I haven’t been ‘confused‘ for quite a while. What’s worse, I’ve deceived myself about the fact that I married the wrong person by going through years of marriage counseling. I unsaw and, almost in the same breath, I hid what I unsaw. Now I cannot unsee.

This is Socratic philosophy, and it means not just this but surely at least this: examining closely our blindspots, illusions, and self-deceptions as well as the second-order deceptions about our self-deceptions. Closely, carefully, with gentleness, and also, yes, with persistence.

The pain, my friend, is still to come. I hear ya. In waves upon waves upon waves. No, don’t ask yet, “Now what?” That’s a slippery, dangerous, impatient question. Rather, be honest with yourself: go back to the pain and abide there for a while.

Who I Am Is ‘Neither Perceivable Nor Conceivable’

“Who I am is neither receivable nor conceivable.” What does Nisargadatta’s response mean?

You have a thought: “I am beautiful.” Or another: “I am an American man.” You are not that nor are you any thought. I see an image of yourself. You are not that either. Anything that your mind can conceive you are not. Anything that the mind can conceive seemingly of itself is wrong. Who you are, therefore, is beyond the conceivable. Hence, who you really are is beyond all psychological, historical, cultural, social, economic, political conditioning. Set aside social constructionism, therefore.

Similarly, anything you can perceive or sense you are not. You perceive your body: you’re not it. You feel physical sensations: you are not them.

Similarly, whatever you feel about your body or your mind–you’re not either. Because there is no such thing as your here.

Do an inventory now. What are the ways in which we believe we can know ourselves? Through the conceivable and the perceivable! But then our method of investigation turns out to be entirely wrong from the start. The way we go about knowing thyself is erroneous!

What then? Notice how we say “I am X” or “I am Y.” Instead, let go of anything we think, feel, sense, or perceive after “I am.” Discard all X’s, all Y’s. Then we can, as Nisardagatta says, “Simply hold onto the ‘I am.'” But do not hold onto the “I am” in a verbal sense (conceivable again). Hold onto it nonverbally.

Why? Because the non-verbal “I am” is a portal to the Absolute, and the Absolute is who we really are.