Esalen and the human potential movement

In previous posts I’ve written about humanistic psychology, which has been called the Third Force in modern psychology, after Freudian psychodynamic psychology and Behaviorism. The founders – including Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Rollo May – seeing that psychology was primarily focused on psychopathology, wanted it to also focus on psychological health and personal growth. Esalen Institute, an isolated  retreat on the Pacific coast near Big Sur, California, is considered by many to be the birthplace of humanistic psychology. I’ve wanted to visit Esalen, a retreat center for growth and learning, since my graduate education in a humanistic psychology program. I’ve just returned home from a writing retreat at Esalen, and it felt like a weekend on holy ground.

Esalen Institute was founded by Michael Murphy and Richard Price in 1963. The land on which Esalen is located was owned  by Michael’s family for generations, and the two of them had a vision of a center for holistic learning. The place is called Esalen because for thousands of years the area was the home of the indigenous Esselen people. Accordingly, Esalen is considered sacred land, and is treated with reverence by residents and visitors. It’s isolated, far from any town, and doesn’t have cell phone service or television. There are hot springs down by the rocky shore, and everyone knows that clothing is optional at the baths. When I soaked, naked, in a pool, looking out at the Pacific sunset, I had the sense of participating in an ancient cleansing ritual.

Humanistic psychology has also been called the human potential movement. The only required course in my psychology Masters program was “Human Growth and Potential” – known by the students as “Gro and Po.” Although most of my coursework involved psychotherapy and psychological testing, I could understand why Gro and Po was required. Psychology had to be about more than psychopathology and the remediation of symptoms. Indeed, our equivalent of an “Abnormal Psychology” course was “Unconventional Modes of Experience,” lest there be any stigma regarding “abnormal.”

While psychanalytic theory and Behaviorism were dogmatic and monolithic, humanistic psychology was more like a tree, with many roots and branches. It was holistic in its orientation to the study of human behavior, focusing on mind and body as a unity, and exploring the factors that enhance creativity and enable self-actualization. It was holistic in studying both Eastern and Western philosophies and practices, recognizing the benefits of things such as yoga and Buddhist meditation, long before they became popular. Existentialism and phenomenology also influenced the human potential movement.

From the beginning of the movement, Esalen has been its Mecca. Fritz Perls did a five year residency in the late sixties, leading gestalt therapy seminars. Other eminent persons who influenced the development of humanistic psychology and had Esalen residencies were Gregory Bateson, Joseph Campbell, Ida Rolf, Virginia Satir, Rollo May, and Alan Watts. Today people go there to study massage and body work, wellness and alternative medicine, psychotherapy, meditation, and a variety of other subjects. I went there to work on being a better writer, and came home with my spiritual batteries re-charged.

A lot of what was new and esoteric back in the sixties and seventies has gone mainstream. Among the extra-curricular classes available to students in the psychology graduate program at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) were massage, hatha yoga, zen meditation, clowning, tai kwan do, and vegetarian cooking. The program was allied with the Philosophy Department, and there were opportunities to study existentialism and phenomenology. In my therapy courses, I learned about psychoanalytic theory, behavior modification, client-centered therapy, gestalt therapy, transactional analysis, sex therapy, and trance work. Once I was a working psychotherapist, my therapeutic orientation was existential, and I was very eclectic in terms of therapeutic style and techniques. I consider myself very fortunate to have attended the West Georgia College psychology Masters program.

Contemporary concepts like emotional intelligence and positive psychology couldn’t have emerged from Freudian psychodynamic theory or Behaviorism. The humanistic psychology movement created a new paradigm for human growth and potential as a legitimate area of study within the science of psychology. I think that the regard for Freud’s contribution to psychology and psychotherapy will diminish over time, relative to the contributions of humanistic pioneers like Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Milton Erickson.

The concept of emotional intelligence suggests that there are other kinds of intelligence than cognitive intelligence. Accurate empathy and compassion are important factors in human relating, and are deserving of scientific study by students of human behavior. I had initial objections to the whole notion of positive psychology, thinking, “psychology is neither positive nor negative.” But then I came to realize that it’s an outgrowth of the impulses that inspired humanistic psychology. The study of psychological wellness and peak performance, of thriving, of human creativity and the process of self-actualizing, is a legitimate pursuit within the field. Psychodynamic theory and Behaviorism will always have their place in psychology, but they need to be viewed in the context of the psychology of growth and human transformation.

Serious clowning and bozo liberation

This is another philosophical departure from my usual subject matter of psychology, psychotherapy, and human growth – though it’s related to the latter topic. I mostly write about serious topics, but I try to never take myself too seriously. I’m just another flawed human being, and I provide myself with ample opportunities to laugh at myself. It’s part of my personal philosophy, learned to some degree by my history as a clown. Seriously.

I see clowning as one of the sacred arts in the family of mankind. I learned what I know about this art from my onetime friend Greg Smith, master (though amateur) clown, who was a classmate in my psychology graduate program. His clown name was “Cloudly the Clown,” and he taught an informal class with five or six students, as I recall. He made it clear that he took clowning seriously: “This is not just clowning around.” As with most performing arts, it takes discipline and practice to become a good physical clown; but it also takes an understanding of the traditions and vocabularies of clowning – if you’re serious about it.

Like a good martial arts teacher, Greg taught the philosophy of clowning as well as teaching us classic clown moves, funny walks, exaggerated gestures, and the vocabulary of pantomime communication. We started our classes with loosening-up exercises, and practice drills in clown movement and pantomime techniques. Then Cloudly instructed us about the mindset of clowning: how to create your character, and the importance of taking time to get into character before performing. He talked about the symbolic meaning of putting on a new face. Making yourself up was a symbolic death of your ordinary self, and the re-birth of your clown personality.

Greg helped each of us to find the unique clown behind the masks we drew on our faces. Was it a talking clown or a silent clown? Cheerful or sad? Shy, or bold? Clumsy, or physically confident? Victim or trickster? And choosing your clown name was as important as your clown face and clown costume.

The clown I found inside me is named Tyl, after Tyl Eulenspiegel, the trickster from German folklore, the original Merry Prankster. Eulenspiegel translates as “owl mirror” (a reverse reflection of wisdom?), fixing Tyl in the tradition of the wise fool that is found in many cultural mythologies. Tyl is a silent clown, with a childlike delight in small things, and a penchant for mischief. He can be both shy and bold, depending on circumstance. He wears the high white pants of a mime, held up by rainbow suspenders, over a red, white, and blue tee shirt.

While professional clowns often have to stick to choreographed scripts and proven schtick, amateur clowns often get to improvise and play off one another. That’s what I loved about clowning. The role of a clown in a public space is ancient and mythic, and every serious clown has his or her unique persona (ancient Greek for mask) and vocabulary of expression.

By the seventies the stereotype of Bozo the Clown (an early TV personality) had been transcended by “We’re All Bozos on This Bus,” a surreal comedy album by a satirical troupe called the Firesign Theater. We students of Cloudly the Clown identified as bozos, and made silly attempts to organize. We imagined a religion called Bozo Consciousness, with a political arm known as the Bozo Liberation Front. (There were a lot of liberation fronts back then.) Our rallying cry was, “Let your bozo go!” Years later I learned that Robin Williams had made silly attempts to mobilize a Bozo Liberation Front in California; so now I realize that we were just the east coast branch of a tiny movement whose time seemed to have come.

The West Georgia College chapter of the Bozo Liberation Front put up posters around the campus in the week before April Fools’ Day, inviting all self-aware bozos to show up en costume on this holy day and commit acts of irreverence and jollity. Few students responded, but we happy few showed up as clowns and role-modeled bozo behavior. I ambushed one of my favorite professors with a whipped cream pie in the face. His response was philosophical: “You know, I was just talking to a colleague who has a lot going on in his life right now, and I just said to him, ‘You never know what’s going to happen next.’ And now this.”

It was holy work (or play), and I recommend The Way of the Clown to all who are in touch with their essential bozo nature. It can be cultivated in your own philosophical garden, but thrives when you’re part of a bozo community that realizes life is too serious to always be taken seriously. I think that some truths can only be arrived at by paradox or parody. I’ve written about one of my favorite twentieth century philosophers, Robert Anton Wilson (RAW). He has an episode in the Illuminatus! trilogy where a young woman is instructed by two brilliant philosophers who take opposing views on a wide variety of philosophical propositions – while dressed as clowns. Now, that’s what I call an eclectic education! RAW’s prescription to his fans for what to do after his passing was, “Keep the lasagna flying!” I submit this post in that spirit.

 

The Story of Jumping Mouse, Part 2

For those who may have read Part 1 of this Native American teaching story shortly after I first posted it, you might want to check out the end, as I subsequently added a paragraph. Here’s the conclusion:

On the afternoon of his second day crossing the prairie, much to his  surprise, Jumping Mouse came upon another mouse. It was an old mouse, who was drinking from a stream, and was just as surprised as he. After they’d introduced themselves, he learned that this mouse was from his tribe. They got to talking and the old mouse explained that long ago he, too, had set out on a vision quest; but he’d given up. “I almost got grabbed by an eagle, and I’m too scared to go on, or to go back. There’s all the food and water I need right here, and there are plenty of bushes I can hide under. Look, if you go on you’re likely to end up in an eagle’s belly. Why don’t you just stay here with me, where it’s safe.” Jumping Mouse replied, “Thank you, uncle, but I can’t stay. I have to find the Center of the World, so I’ll just have to take my chances out on the prairie.”

The next day he said goodbye to the old mouse at first light, and went on his way. At mid-morning he came upon the biggest animal he’d ever seen. It was lying on the ground, eyes closed, and its breathing was labored. Jumping Mouse approached the ailing beast, which opened one jaundiced eye. “I’m Jumping Mouse, and I’m on a vision quest. Who are you?” “I’m Buffalo Spirit, and I’m sick unto death. The only cure for what ails me is. . . . the eye of a mouse.” Jumping Mouse didn’t want for this magnificent creature to die, and reasoned that he could get along with just one eye. He told the buffalo that he could have one of his eyes, and by magic the eye flew out of his head and lodged in the buffalo’s heart, curing him.

Buffalo Spirit thanked Jumping Mouse for saving his life, and asked if there was anything he could do in return. “I have to cross the prairie to get to the Center of the World, but I’m scared all the time of getting eaten by an eagle.” “Well, I’m a prairie animal and I can’t protect you all the way, but I can walk all the way to the foothills by sunset, and there’s more cover for you once you’re in the hills. You’ll have to scamper to keep up with me; but as long as you stay beneath me, you’ll be safe from any eagles.” So the two of them set out for the mountains. Jumping Mouse was worried at first that the buffalo might step on him by mistake, but he soon learned that the giant beast was very sure-footed. They reached the foothills at dusk, thanked one another, and went their separate ways.

Now Jumping Mouse knew first-hand what mountains are, and he was excited. It took most of two days, mostly uphill, for him to reach the mountain pass. He felt sure that he’d find what he sought on the other side of the mountains.  But just short of the pass, he began to hear a mournful howling. When he got there he saw a wolf –  a creature that he’d normally run from. But this wolf looked pitiful and quite harmless. He seemed to be confused. “Hello cousin, my name’s Jumping Mouse, and I’m on a vision quest.”  “I’m. . .I’m. . . I used to know who I am, but I seem to have forgotten my nature.”  “I’m pretty sure you’re a wolf.” The wolf stood up and comprehension returned to his eyes. “You’re right, I’m a wolf.” He howled again, but this time it wasn’t a mournful sound. “My name is Wolf Spirit, and I. . . I. . . what did you say I was?” Jumping Mouse told him again, and once again he acted like a proud, strong wolf. But, again, his memory failed him, and he just looked sad and confused.

Jumping Mouse thought, Uh oh! He has a different kind of illness than Buffalo Spirit, but if he doesn’t know his nature, he’ll starve to death. I can’t let that happen. He said to the wolf, “It seems that there’s strong magic in the weak eyes of a mouse. If you need my other eye to get your memory back, you can have it.” And by magic his other eye flew out of his head and into the wolf’s heart, healing him. Now Jumping Mouse was scared. He was blind in the presence of a hungry wolf. “Please don’t eat me!”

Wolf Spirit reassured him. “Of course I won’t eat you; I owe you my life! How can I help you on your vision quest?” “Well, I’m blind now. Can you guide me to the Center of the World, and protect me from the eagles?”  “I’ll serve as your eyes and take you there. And don’t worry – eagles don’t mess with me!”  The next morning the two of them set out together and started downhill, with the wolf giving instructions. Jumping Mouse couldn’t see it, but Wolf Spirit described a beautiful circular valley, ringed by mountains. In the center of the valley was a round lake. By noon they’d reached the edge of the lake. “I don’t like leaving you here, alone and blind, but I have to rejoin my pack. You can find nuts and berry bushes with your sense of smell, and you can stay hidden from eagles most of the time.” Wolf Spirit thanked Jumping Mouse again and took his leave.

Jumping Mouse was at the Center of the World, but he was  blind! For most of the afternoon, he stayed hidden as he foraged, but as the day wore on, he became very thirsty. He would be visible from the air as he drank, so he knew he’d have to be quick. He ran from the shade of the bushes and slaked his thirst at the rim of the lake. But as he drank, he heard the beating of wings overhead, louder and louder. Just as he turned to run, he felt the eagle’s talons grab him, and he felt himself being lifted higher and higher into the air. He was terrified, knowing he was about to be eaten! And then some very strange things happened.

In a flash, his vision returned – only it was sharper than it had ever been! And the pain abruptly disappeared! It almost seemed that the beating wings were his own – that he was flying! Studying the lake with his new-found eyes, he saw someone he knew. Prince of Waters sat on a lily pad beneath him. Jumping Mouse wanted to talk to the shaman who’d re-named him, and with that thought he descended, landing on the shore near his teacher. “Prince of Waters, I’m so glad to see you! The strangest thing just happened! See, I was blind and an eagle grabbed me! And then suddenly I could see again – only better! And it felt like I was flying! What’s happening to me?”

Prince of Waters replied, “When we first met, I saw that you were curious and brave. When you rose to my challenge, I gave you a new name. Now I know that you are also tenacious and have a generous  spirit. You have passed many tests on your vision quest, so it is again time for a new name. You are no longer Jumping Mouse. Your new name is Eagle.”

 

When I tell this story to children, I preface it by explaining that in pre-literate cultures, storytelling is how the tribal culture (customs, values, etc.) is passed on from generation to generation. Then, after the story, I usually ask what it taught. The children usually get that it depicts curiosity, valor, tenacity and generosity as virtues. Sometimes one or more of them grasps the central metaphor of the story, without being told: In order to see with the vision of an eagle, you first have to stop looking at the world through the eyes of a mouse.

The Story of Jumping Mouse, Part 1

I’m flying out to California next week for a writers’ workshop at Big Sur, so I may go a week without a post. But before I go, I’ll share my re-telling of a Native American teaching story that is one of my favorites:

Little Brown Mouse lived in a mouse village close enough to a river that you could sometimes hear the sound of water running over the rocks. He was a very curious mouse, so he asked his parents, “What’s that sound I hear off in the distance, beyond The Meadow?” “It’s something the elders call a river.” “What’s a river?” “We  don’t know, just something having to do with a lot of water. But don’t bother yourself about it. Our tribe never leaves The Meadow, and we have all the water we need right here.” Still curious, Little Brown Mouse asked some of the elders what a river was. But none of them had ever seen it, and it had nothing to do with The Meadow, so nobody seemed to care what a river was.

Except for Little Brown Mouse. One day he left the village and set out in the direction of the sound – which got louder as he ventured further and further away from home. He was almost to the edge of The Meadow when he came across a raccoon. After they introduced themselves, the raccoon asked him, “What are you doing so far away from your village?”  “I want to find out for myself what a river is.” “You are one curious mouse. Come on, I’ll take you there. I go there all the time.” So the two of them went through a wooded area and emerged onto the bank of a river. Little Brown Mouse was amazed! He had never imagined this much water in his life. “It’s beautiful!”

Cousin raccoon spotted someone he knew, and waved to him. It was a frog, perched on a log. This was no ordinary frog, but a powerful shaman. The raccoon turned to the mouse and said, “I have to go now, but first I’ll introduce you to my friend, Prince of Waters. He can answer your questions.” He introduced his new friend to his old friend, and left. “What are you doing so far from your village?” asked the frog. “I wanted to see for myself what a river is.” “And are you glad you came?” “Oh, yes! I didn’t know there was this much water in the whole world!” “So now you know for yourself what a river is. Have you ever heard about mountains?” “Only in stories. The Center of the World is in the mountains, I think.” “Do you want to see mountains for yourself?” “Oh, yes!” “Sometimes you have to give of yourself before you get what you want. If you do what I tell you, to the very best of your ability, you’ll catch a glimpse of mountains.” “I’ll do whatever you tell me!” “All right. You can’t see the mountains now because you’re so small, and you can’t see over the scrub on the other side of the river. But if you jump high enough, you’ll see for yourself what mountains look like. Are you ready?” Little Brown Mouse hunkered down and tensed his jumping muscles. The frog said, “Then jump!”

And the mouse jumped as high as he could. Sure enough, at the apex of his leap, he caught a glimpse of rocky mountain peaks in the distance. But without meaning to, he’d jumped slightly forward as well as up, and fell just past the lip of the riverbank, into the water. He managed to mouse-paddle to shore and clamber back up onto the riverbank. Wet from head to tail, he shook himself and spoke angrily to Prince of Waters: “I could have drowned!” “But you didn’t. Did you see the mountains?” All traces of anger suddenly gone, the wet mouse said, “Yes, and they’re so beautiful! But I want to see them up close, like I see the river now.” Prince of Waters laughed. “You have courage and curiosity. You have passed a test and acquired a new understanding. It’s time for you to have a new name. You are no longer Little Brown Mouse. Your new name is Jumping Mouse.”

Jumping Mouse thanked him,  but he knew it was time to go home. He had a feeling he’d be seeing him again someday. He was still wet when he got to the village.  He was excited, eager to tell everyone about his adventure; but nobody seemed to care about what he’d seen. All they saw was a wet tribe member – when nobody else was wet – telling them something about having a new name. He began to feel like he didn’t belong in his tribe anymore, and resolved to go on a vision quest to the nearby mountains, to search for the Center of the World.

Jumping Mouse explained to his parents that he had to go on a vision quest, but promised that he’d return. He set out early one morning, and found a place where he could cross  the river by jumping from rock to rock. On the far side was a wide expanse of prairie grassland, stretching to the not-so-distant mountain range. He was afraid, because the prairie was open land, often with no place to hide from hawks and eagles. Mice have poor long-range vision, and an eagle in the sky would just be a moving blur – until it struck! But despite his fear, he set out in the  direction of the mountains. He found nuts and berries to eat, and drank from puddles, or streams that he had to cross. He spent his first night sleeping under a bush, where he felt safe.

Next: Jumping Mouse’s adventure continues.

 

 

 

 

 

Agnosticism and certainty, Part 2

In philosophy, ontology is the study of being or existence. A relevant subject of inquiry within this major branch of metaphysics is the meaning of life. Many philosophers have tackled the question of life’s meaning, under the assumption that life must mean something. Religions provide maps for life’s meaning: you’re here to obey and serve God – however defined by Holy Scripture. Those who aren’t traditionally religious have to look in other directions to discover life’s meaning(s).

One of the central tenets of existentialism suggests that every philosopher who has attempted to identify the meaning of life has been on a wild goose chase. Existentialism posits that there is no objective meaning “out there” for us to apprehend and comprehend. If we apprehend meaning in our lives, it’s a meaning that we’ve created and superimposed on an intrinsically meaningless and absurd world.

As a young man I studied both existentialism and zen Buddhism. I was drawn to both philosophies, as their study made me look at the world in new ways. But, having abandoned the comfort of religious certainty, I initially saw a bleakness in both philosophies. In a world without intrinsic meaning, you have to grit your teeth and, like Sisyphus, just keep on truckin’, as if  there were meaning in your persistence.

I no longer perceive the bleakness I once saw in existentialism and zen. Reading books – fiction and non-fiction – by Robert Anton Wilson (RAW) helped me to think my way through my existential dilemma. I eventually reasoned  that if you’re not wedded to a philosophy that provides meaning to your life, that frees you to find/create your own meanings. Play with it! This is my understanding of what guerrilla ontology means. My life is  an endless Grail Quest for knowledge, and that journey provides all of the meaning I need to keep on sweating with Sisyphus.

RAW introduced me to the principle :”The map is not the territory,” which I’ve written about in a previous post. Nobody’s mental map  (we all have them) is identical to what it depicts, and yet we often confuse the two. Wilson wrote that “all ideas are partly true, partly false, and partly meaningless – including this one.” He coined the term guerrilla ontology to describe “the basic technique of all my books. . . . an attempt to break down conditioned associations – to look at the world in a new way, with many models (maps) and no one model elevated to The Truth. . . . My goal is to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism – not agnosticism about God alone, but agnosticism about everything.” Sometimes he purposefully and effectively used words to create cognitive dissonance, knowing a little initial confusion (fnord) can provoke you to think in new ways.

Wilson also introduced me to the concept of reality tunnels, saying that we all live in one at any given time. Reality tunnels are our circumstance- and culture-bound , lived -in mental constructs (maps) of what the world is and how we should behave. Irish Catholic reality tunnels differ in some significant ways from Italian Catholic reality tunnels. There are Inuit  reality tunnels, gypsy reality tunnels, suburban family reality tunnels, Sumo wrestler reality tunnels, etc. One can switch reality tunnels one or more times in one’s lifetime, if one’s life circumstances change. An Amish boy raised in a rural Amish community, shunned because he was gay, is likely to live in a significantly different reality tunnel after a year of living in Greenwich Village. I grew up in a military reality tunnel, but at age 25 I moved to a post-hippie psychology graduate school reality tunnel, with totally different customs and rules. The point is that we are all co-creators of our respective realities.

RAW made fun of the whole notion of “normality.” The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) offered money to anyone who could prove e.s.p. or another psychic phenomenon. Wilson ridiculed them by establishing the Committee for the Surrealistic Investigation of Claims of the Normal (CSICON) and offering a reward to anyone who could establish the existence of a normal day, a normal dog, a normal sunset, etc.

Wilson was a friend of LSD guru Timothy Leary and a spiritual heir  to the legacy of the Merry Pranksters. His thinking was broad and deep; but he often used humor as a teaching tool and never took himself too seriously. He remains, through his writing, my primary role model for universal agnosticism. You can learn more about him at rawilson.com. (The site has some great links.) If you want to read something by him, there’s no better starting point than the Illuminatus! trilogy, which I still consider the ultimate conspiracy novel. I’ve read it at least three times, and plan to read it again sometime. If you want to check out his non-fiction, I recommend The Cosmic Trigger or Right Where You Are Sitting Now.

Agnosticism and certainty, Part 1

I’ve described this blog as a psychology blog, with a side of philosophy. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that explores the nature of knowledge, and how we know what we know. When it comes to religion, what true believers (whether Christian, Muslim, whatever) often claim to know, I see as beliefs, because they can’t be proven to non-believers. Faith is an important thing, and I respect people of faith on the whole. But, to me, faith in a belief is different than true knowledge. You may want to read my previous philosophical post, “It’s only Monday if you think it is,” for added context.

I was “properly churched” by my Christian parents throughout my childhood, but it didn’t take. I went through a brief spell of arrogant atheism as a young man, where I was convinced that people of faith were simply not thinking as rigorously as I was. But I was humbled when I read John Milton’s Paradise Lost and realized that people smarter than me believe in God. When I call myself an agnostic, I simply mean that there are a lot of things I don’t know. I tend to distrust the words of anyone who claims to know things that can’t be proven, such as the existence of an afterlife. I’m not just agnostic in religious matters, I’m agnostic about a lot of things – even some  of the claims made regarding science.

Just as I find it arrogant for a true believer in this or that religion to tell me that they know what I need to believe in, I also find it arrogant for an atheist to assert personal knowledge that God doesn’t exist. If I ask a believer for the source of their authority, they’re likely to refer me to a book that they believe has all the answers. If I ask atheists how they know for certain that God is simply a myth, they’re likely to claim that people of faith have all been indoctrinated, and that there’s no hard evidence to support their beliefs. I’ve heard an atheist claim that agnostics are just atheists who lack conviction, but I’m living proof to the contrary. I’m strongly convinced of a lot of things. But I’m also very comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” It’s a whole different philosophical frame than religious or anti-religious convictions.

Confucius wrote, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” Voltaire  wrote, “Doubt is not a very agreeable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” The Buddha is said to have said, “Doubt everything and find your own light.” I’m intelligent, well-educated and well-read, but what I know is finite, and always will be. What I don’t know is vast, endless. I believe, with Confucius, that this attitude is the beginning of  wisdom. It’s what I described in a story in a previous post as continually “emptying the cup,” so that it can be re-filled. I’ve become very comfortable with ambiguity, shades of gray.

I think that a lot of people confuse opinion and fact. I try to rigorously organize my beliefs in this manner: what I know I know (my knowledge), what I think I know (my opinions), and what I don’t know (my vast ignorance). Instead of thinking dualistically – either this is true or that is true – I tend to  think in terms of probabilities. It’s highly probable to the point of almost-certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow. It’s highly improbable (to me) that Jesus arose from the dead after three days and ascended into the heavens. But I don’t have the authority to claim sure knowledge

Back to epistemology: there’s no absolute definition of knowledge. St. Augustine wrote, “Man must know in order that he may believe; he must believe in order that he may know.” We all believe in premises (i.e. there is/may be/ isn’t a God),upon which we establish our values and opinions. Nobody can justly claim absolute authority for their belief system, although many try to. I believe in the merits of the scientific method, but I also believe that science has its limits. I’ve known scientists to whom science is a religion. I believe that science is a finely-ground lens that’s very good at examining some things – but not everything. Science can’t tell us what life is, or consciousness. It’s a branch of philosophy, as is metaphysics. Each has its own appropriate subjects for study and its own methodologies of exploration.

The key to certainty in the study of epistemology is authority. I know of nobody who has the authority to tell me what I should believe about matters metaphysical or theological – although, as a philosopher, I might be up for a discussion. When someone asks me if I believe in God, my usual response is “Define God.” All I’m saying here is that this is part of my personal philosophy; I’m not suggesting that everyone should (God forbid!) think like me.

I’ll conclude this post with a few introductory words about one of my favorite twentieth century philosophers, Robert Anton Wilson. He’s best known for his fictional  Illuminatus! trilogy (which he co-wrote with Robert Shea), but wrote many non-fiction books of philosophy and satire as well. He’s the funniest philosopher I know of. Reading Wilson reassured me that there are other universal agnostics out there, and taught me everything I know about guerrilla ontology. More about that in my next post.

 

The happiest man in the world

I collect stories and used storytelling as a therapeutic technique throughout my career. Stories can be transformative and can trigger insights. Here are my re-tellings of two of my favorite teaching stories:

John was a very sad man. He suffered from what the Germans call Weltschmerz (world pain). The pain of the world weighed heavily upon him. He had a loving family and friends, and made a good living, but nothing gave him satisfaction. He was so depressed, he often thought about ending his life. But then one day he met a kindly old man, who asked him why he looked so sad. John poured his heart out, ending his account by expressing his hopelessness that he could ever find lasting happiness. The old man smiled at him and said, “I know what you can do to cure your sadness. You  need to track down the happiest man in the world and ask him for his shirt. When you put it on, you will know happiness.” “But how will I find him?” John asked. The old man replied, “If I were you, I’d travel to Istanbul and follow my nose wherever it takes me, then ask around. If he’s anywhere near, people will know, and they’ll tell you what they know. Seek him with your whole heart, and you’ll find him.”

John immediately quit his job and sold all of his worldly possessions, other than what he could wear, or carry on his back. He thought he had enough money to bankroll his quest, and booked passage to Turkey on a tramp steamer. When he got to Istanbul, he took a train east, but soon got off, sensing that he had to go the rest of the way on foot. Most people he asked knew nothing of the happiest man in the world, but others smiled, pointed to the east, and wished him well. A few claimed to have seen him, themselves, and gave John their blessings.

After a while John lost track of which day of the week it was, or which country he was in. He was meeting all kinds of people, and learning to make himself understood in new languages. He walked dirt roads through beautiful valleys and walked up and down mountain paths, avoiding cities. But he went on, because he knew he was getting closer to the itinerant man he sought. Now people were telling him things like, “I saw him go through town just last month” and “Two weeks ago he was in my home village, on the other side of these mountains.”

Bandits stole all of his money, and John came to rely on the kindness of strangers as he went on. His clothes were ragged and he had holes in his shoes. Strangers were not always kind, and he didn’t get to eat every day. When people didn’t take him in for the night, he had to sleep wherever he could find shelter. It seemed like the happiest man in the world was always just one or two days ahead of him.

One day John entered a village – he didn’t even know where it was – hungry, weary and raggedy. In the village square he inquired if anyone knew the whereabouts of the happiest man in the world. One of the villagers said, “Oh, he was just here!” When John’s face fell, the man pointed down the road and said, “If you go about two kilometers in that direction, you’ll find him under a big tree off to the right, in sight of the road.” John grew excited and pushed on, despite his exhaustion.

Sure enough, two kilometers down the road he spied a ring of colorfully dressed people surrounding a huge tree, dancing and singing. He ran and joined the circle. There, under the tree, danced a laughing man, who had to be the happiest man in the world. All of his few worldly possessions lay beside him on the grass. And then John noticed that he was shirtless, and realized that the happiest man in the world didn’t own a shirt! And with that knowledge, John knew happiness.

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Here’s another (very short) story about material things and happiness: A zen monk lived in a simple hut on a mountainside. He owned only the essential things he needed to sustain independent life – straw bedding, a blanket, cooking and eating utensils, a few tools, and a change of clothing. One day he went down to the nearby village in the valley. When he returned late at night, he discovered that thieves had stolen all of his meagre possessions. But he laughed, seeing that the thieves had left the moon in his window.

Joni Mitchell (my favorite female poet/troubadour) recorded her song, based on this story – “Moon at the Window.”  You might also want to check out “I Got Plenty o’ Nuthin'” on the soundtrack of George Gershwin’s classic American opera, Porgy and Bess.