Welcome to my blog—an eyes-open and free-spirited exploration of Western and Eastern spirituality, mindfulness, philosophy and literature. A member of the Australian and New Zealand Mental Health Association, I lectured at the NSW Institute of Psychiatry (now the Health Education and Training Institute) to mental health workers for 14 years and at the University of Technology, Sydney to law students for 16 years. My interests include metaphysics, mythology and addiction recovery.
When you look at all of the different philosophies, they essentially come down to two---idealism and realism. The first---grounded in the teachings and ideas of Plato---asserts that what you see is not all that there is, and that reality is essentially unknowable (except perhaps to the few). The second---grounded in the teachings and ideas of Aristotle---asserts that what you see is essentially all that there is, and that reality is knowable---and very real.
Some (including my good friend John Z), say that the idealism/realism debate, and its close cousin the rationalism/empiricism debate, are more and more yesterday's concern, but I respectfully disagree. As I see it, the two schools of thought are saying very different things about the world and our place in it. They are saying very different things about knowledge, and how we come to know things. Idealism is the cornerstone of faith, belief, revelation, traditional religion—and even rationalism (which is just another form of idealism). Realism is the cornerstone of free and independent inquiry, true reason, doubt, skepticism, and empiricism. Both schools of thought claim to see and describe things-as-they-really-are, but only realism has both feet firmly on the ground. Realism uses logic, the latter being about things, not thought, and how things are related. Idealism relies upon faith in ideals and ‘things unseen’---some supposed higher order or level of reality. Having said that, I think we all would be the poorer if we hadn’t had the inestimable benefit of having both schools of thought.
My own journey from idealism to realism coincided with, or perhaps was the result of, my recovery from alcoholism. Actually, the more I think about it, embracing realism was perhaps the catalyst for my recovery. You see, alcoholism---indeed, any addiction---is a disease of ‘self-ism’, which, I assert, is an idealism of sorts. The alcoholic or other addict needs to undergo a ‘Copernican revolution’ of the self---that is, come to realize that the world does not revolve around … me. Self-obsession, self-absorption, self-centredness---that is the essential problem of the alcoholic or other addict. Selfishness---and self-ism. To again quote Allen Ginsberg [pictured above], I have known …
the feeling of being closed in and the sordidness of self, the futility of all that I have seen and done and said.
Eventually, when the pain got too great, I got real. Like the Prodigal Son, I woke up, came to myself, and saw myself---that is, the person that I am---as I really was. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Recovery has been ‘a question/ of realizing how real/ the world is already’---and it has been wonderful.
True, recovery requires a ‘power-not-oneself,’ for, as I have often written the problem of addiction is one of ‘self,’ and self can’t change self, hence the need to rely upon a power ‘not-oneself.’ That may sound like just another form of idealism, and perhaps it is---for some (for example, those whose ‘power-not-oneself’ is of a supernatural, theistic kind). However, my ‘power-not-oneself’ is the person that I am, as well as the energy of association with, and the power of example of, like-minded people (other recovering/recovered addicts). In that regard, I am greatly indebted to the writings and ideas of the British philosopher P F Strawson [pictured right] who, in his famous 1958 article ‘Persons,’ articulated a concept of ‘person’ in respect of which both physical characteristics and states of consciousness can be ascribed to it.
Yes, each one of us is a ‘person among persons.’ We are much more than those little, false selves---all those waxing and waning ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’---with which we tend to identify, in the mistaken belief that they constitute the ‘real me.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Freedom comes when we get real, that is, when we start to live as---a person among persons.
Life is not easy, indeed it is damn hard. Pain is real, so is death, growing old, addiction, and sickness of all kinds. Here's Ginsberg one more time ...
For the world is a mountain
of shit: if it’s going to
be moved at all, it’s got
to be taken by handfuls.
There are only facts, they are very real---but they are more than enough. Know this fact---you are a person among persons, you are in direct and immediate contact with what is real, so don’t let anyone---including yourself, that is, the person that you are---put any goddamn barriers between you and all else that is real.
'Because God is full of life, I imagine each morning Almighty God says to the sun, "Do it again"; and every evening to the moon and the stars, "Do it again"; and every springtime to the daisies, "Do it again"; and every time a child is born into the world asking for curtain call, that the heart of the God might once more ring out in the heart of the babe.'
So wrote one of my favourite prelates, Fulton J. Sheen (pictured left), in Life is Worth Living. He often said those words in his sermons and public addresses. They are beautiful words, speaking as they do about the renewal---or renewing---of life each day.
Yes, life is all about death and renewal, and as we approach Easter it is appropriate to consider the matter.
Living is all about dying. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. We all must die, death is the gateway to life---all that sort of thing. No, it’s much deeper than that. In order to live fully we must learn how to ‘die’ from moment to moment, that is, to die, not just each day, but each minute and each moment of each minute. Jiddu Krishnamurti (pictured below) wrote:
'How necessary it is to die each day, to die each minute to everything, to the many yesterdays and to the moment that has just gone by! Without death there is no renewing, without death there is no creation.'
We cling to our likes and dislikes, our memories and beliefs, our predilections and prejudices, all of which is---the past, as well as the ‘self.’ The tragedy is not so much that we hold on to these things---although that is bad in itself---but we try to experience life through these things whilst clinging to them. The result? Everything becomes blurred and distorted.
Yesterday was Palm Sunday, which marks the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem in the days before his Passion. As Jesus entered the city, riding on a donkey---how rich in symbolism that is----the crowds shouted ‘Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!’ The word ‘hosanna’ means----save now. It refers to a calm surrender and submission, a letting go, a ‘not my will but thine be done’ mindset. Yes, it’s a bit similar to the Arabic word ‘Islam,’ which has the same idea of letting go, calm acceptance of what is, submission, and surrender.
The ‘secret’ is to practise dying---psychologically, that is---from one moment to the next. Dying to all our psychological images (our likes, dislikes, beliefs, predilections, prejudices, etc) and conditioning, in order that we might see things-as-they-really-are, not as we might want them to be. Unless we die to the past on a moment-to-moment basis, not only do we fail to see things-as-they-really-are, but those psychological images will simply be reborn again and again, further distorting our vision and experience of life as it unfolds from one moment to the next.
So, practise dying---psychologically, that is---until it becomes habitual. How? Don’t ask ‘how’---when you ask ‘how,’ you are seeking a method, a technique. Methods and techniques are conditioning---the past. Just do it. Look, choicelessly, at each image as it arises. Don’t identify with it. Don’t judge, evaluate or analyze it. Don’t try to drive it away. There must be no desire to change anything. Just look and observe. Stay with it---the feeling or whatever---until it is fully explored and understood. Then it will be discarded---finished. It dies by attrition, so to speak.
This is the only way to live. All religions teach this important truth---the need to die to self in order to be resurrected into newness of life. The wonderful thing is this---we can all be resurrected into newness of life whenever we start practising the gentle but noble art of dying from moment to moment.
We've all heard of the Ancient Greek aphorism 'Know thyself.' In mindfulness (also known as ‘insight meditation’), the important task of gaining knowledge---or insight---into ourselves takes on a whole new dimension.
Mindfulness---paying attention to one’s current experience in a non-judgmental way---might help us to learn more about our own personalities, according to this new article published in the March 2013 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the APS.
According to the latest research, two important components of mindfulness---namely, attention and nonjudgmental observation (also known as choiceless awareness)---can overcome the major barriers to knowing ourselves. Carlson argues that the motivation to see ourselves in a desirable way is one of the main obstacles to self-knowledge. For instance, people may overestimate their virtuous qualities to ward off negative feelings or boost self-esteem. However, non-judgmental observation of one’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior, might reduce emotional reactivity---such as feelings of inadequacy or low self-esteem---that typically interferes with people seeing the truth about themselves.
In my almost 20 years of teaching law at a university in Sydney, Australia---I had more than 9,000 students in that period (and, lest there be any confusion, I truly enjoyed teaching for the most part)---I became increasingly concerned that far too many students were afflicted with a ‘disease’ which they had caught in their secondary education, or perhaps even earlier. Generation Xers were afflicted with the illness, but Generation Yers even more so. At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory and self-conceited, baby boomers---of whom I am one---appeared to be largely immune to this disease. Perhaps we were inoculated against it along with our triple antigen. I don’t know.
No, I do know. The disease was transmitted in and by the education system---by faddish teachers who couldn’t teach (many of whom were failed students themselves in their day)---as well as culturally and politically … in other words, by people who had a socio-political (and largely leftist) ‘agenda’ of sorts. It’s a terrible sickness---and often terminal. Not even heavy, regular doses of Aristotelian logic assist once the disease has taken hold in the patient’s mind and body.
The disease, which has no name that is universally accepted, manifests itself in a style of thinking, speaking and writing that is characterised by, among other things, an extreme subjectivism and relativism---as well as an inability to engage in critical thinking.
I am so grateful to my parents for giving me the opportunities for a creative childhood. I am also most grateful to my teachers who gave me a good, classical, liberal arts education of the old-fashioned, non-faddish kind, for its emphasis on the humaniities and the arts---in which I excelled---gave me the disciplines of logical reasoning, argument and, above all, independent thought as well as the ability to engage in critical thinking.
Now, I want to set things straight, assuming anyone will listen. I am a philosophical realist---an Andersonian one to be exact. I know this much---and I will defend all of this as being true to my dying day:
FACT 1. Whatever exists---facts---is real. Yes, reality is---what is. That's almost axiomatic.
FACT 2. Truth is a factually correct descriptionor statement of what is, and logic---that is, traditional propositional logic---is about real things in the real world, and how those things are related. (Good, logical thinking means relating---that is, putting together or distinguishing---different pieces of information about facts or alleged facts.)
FACT 3. Whatever exists are complex occurrences or situations in complex relationship to other situations.
FACT 4. Further, whatever exists is a situation located in context (that is, a thing is, under certain conditions, a situation), with the latter affecting that situation.
FACT 5. All such situations exist in the one space-time, and belong to the one order of being.
FACT 6. All things exist in situations which are complex, each such situation involving numerous differences and relations, being ‘a multum in parvo plurally related’ (to use the words of William James [pictured above left]), for each situation consists of ‘things’ (‘terms’) having both connections (‘relations’) and distinctions with other ‘things’ as well as internal differentiation.
FACT 7. There are literally countless, indeed, an infinite number of infinitely complex and interacting pluralities exhausting the whole of reality, and subsisting in one space-time, such that there is nothing but such facts, but not as ‘one vast instantaneous co-implicated completeness’ (to again quote William James).
FACT 8. Everything---yes, everything---is continuously changing and infinitely complex, causation being essentially non-linear interaction at all points in a ‘causal field’, that is, a complex relation where an event (‘situation’) acts upon a ‘field’ or context to produce a certain ‘effect’ (that is, a change in the field); in addition, all situations are caused and in turn bring about other situations.
FACT 9. Nothing---absolutely nothing---is constituted by or is dependent upon, nor can it be defined or explained by reference to, the relations it has to other things; things (‘terms’) and the relations between them are distinct. For example, the knower, the known, as well as the act of knowing, are separate, distinct and independent.
FACT 10. Facts are propositional in structure---that is, there is a logical, direct and coterminous relationship between any proposition that something is the case and the way things actually are.
FACT 11. We can and do have direct knowledge of actual (‘objective’) things---or, more correctly, situations (i.e. ‘facts’)---with each such situation being both complex and on the same level of reality as any other situation that occurs (there being only one level of reality).
FACT 12. It is only in propositions that we know---and can know---things at all, for it is the case that any situation is propositionally structured (i.e., something is predicated of some subject term).
FACT 13. Anything that can be true (or ‘real’) is ‘propositional’ in that something is stated to be the case. Further, every proposition is contingently (that is, not necessarily) true or false---‘logically there can be no alternative to ‘being’ and ‘not being’’ (to quote John Anderson [pictured above right, and below left]). That’s right. You see, no proposition is transparently true, because a statement that something is the case can be justified only by a statement that something else is not the case.
In short, there is a single way, mode or order of being---that of occurrence---namely, that which is conveyed when we say that a proposition is true. This one way of being---the so-called ‘propositional nature of reality’---consists of ordinary things, that is, ‘occurrences in space and time’ (also known as ‘states of affairs’ and ‘situations’). This one way of being (the ‘conditions of existence’) is that of the ‘situation,’ or fact---that is, something being the case in one space-time.
Are there philosophical objections to the above? Yes, of course. There are many different views, but I will tell you this. To date, I have not read any objection to any of the essential tenets of realism that has caused me to doubt the objective truth of the propositions I’ve set out above (albeit in a very summary, even crude, form)---and that is not because I am stubborn and close-minded. At the risk of sounding immodest, I say this---anyone who knows me well knows that is not the case.
Now, it necessarily follows from the above that every question---that is, every assertion that takes something to be the case in reality---is a straightforward (but not necessarily simple in the sense of easy-to-resolve) issue of truth or falsity, there being no different degrees or kinds of truth.
Far too many students---and law students at that---would say to me, ‘There is no such thing as absolute truth,’ to which I would say, ‘Really, You have just shown there is, that there is at least one supposed absolute truth---the one you just espoused.’ You see, if there is no such thing as absolute truth, you cannot make a statement such as, ‘There is no such thing as absolute truth.’ Really.
I am not an absolutist, but because I refuse to be swayed by fads I am old-fashioned enough to affirm that there is such a thing as objective truth, namely, what is. I reject subjectivism and relativism. Not only do they result in epistemological anarchy---of which there is a helluva lot today---these systems of 'thought' are also otherwise contrary to the very logic of things. Truth is not relative to persons. Truth is what is. Ignorance and mistaken beliefs do nothing to make truth relative. When any proposition is taken to its logical conclusion, a question of fact---truth or falsity---is always reached. One always can get back to the objective distinction between something being the case and not being the case. For example, if I say, quite subjectively, 'The sky is for me blue', you may think quite differently. However, once I ask, 'Is the sky blue for you?', an objective issue is immediately raised. The question is whether it is true that the sky is blue for you, not whether it is true for you that the sky is blue for you.
Subjectivism and relativism assert that they sky may be blue for Wally, but may be green for Susan---and both can be right. My response to that? If a person believes or thinks the sky is, say, blue, then it is implicit in what they’re saying---and presumably in their belief or thinking---that there is something called the sky, and that there is also something called blue (or green, or whatever), and thus that there is something called the sky which may or may not be blue (or green, or whatever). Get the picture? In all cases---yes, all cases---we always get back to the objective distinction between something being the case and not being the case.
Sydney---and aBLUEsky. Yes, really!
I used the word ‘belief,’ because people---especially subjectivists and relativists---love to say, ‘Well, I believe the sky is blue, but it is open to you or anyone else to believe that it is green or red or whatever colour you believe.’ Yes, in the words of W S Gilbert, this disease means this--- ‘And I am right, and you are right, and all is right as right can be!’ We are all right, none of us is wrong, we are all equally precious, and we are all winners. Winners in what, I ask? A contest to determine who is the most stupid? ‘Oh, Ellis-Jones, you mustn’t say that. They’re all equally precious---and equally right. Look what you've done---you have made a student cry!’ Damn it, I will say it! In any event, what the hell has ‘belief’ got to do with any of this? I can still hear the voice of my old philosophy lecturer: ‘The sky is blue. The sky does not become any bluer because you believe it to be blue. Further, the proposition---the sky is blue---does not become any truer because you believe it to be true.’
One more thing. Here’s another problem with subjectivism and relativism. If things are as one believes or thinks them to be, then that implies---yes, implies---that each person, or (in the case of cultural relativism), each culture, is infallible in their judgments and opinions---that is, cannot err---and that also means that there can never be any real difference. Thus, if I think the sky is blue, and you think the sky is red, there is no disagreement or real contradiction. It is simply a case that ‘The sky is for me blue,’ and ‘The Sky is not for you blue.’ Those two propositions are not in contradiction to each other. Isn’t that wonderful? After all, we don’t want conflict or disagreement, do we? Rubbish, I say! Bring it on! I'm ready!
You may think I am a little dogmatic about all this, but am I? Who is the one who asserts infallibility---that people cannot err in their judgments and opinions? Not the objectivist or the realist, but the subjectivist and the relativist, of which there are too damn many these days. If only they would---think things through … logically!
I've got a little list---I've got a little list Of society offenders who might well be underground, And who never would be missed---who never would be missed!
I kid you not. I never do. Never!
P.S. I still teach---but these days my students are medical practitioners, psychiatrists, and other mental health workers for the most part. Very few of them are afflicted with the disease referred to above. They tend to think things through. Interesting, that. IEJ.
What is a ‘cult’? The purpose of this post is to shed some light on the meaning of this much abused and misused word ‘cult.’
Recently, I became aware that a neighbour of mine---who has little or no time for religion of any sort (which is fine with me)---was heard to say that the religious body of which I am a minister, namely, Unitarianism, was a ‘cult.’ I was quite bemused by the comment. You see, if the person in question had some definite religious convictions of their own, the comment might be understandable up to a point, but that was not the case here. The word ‘cult’ was simply being used in a pejorative sense---which is ordinarily the case---and as a weapon of some silly sort.
Well, is Unitarianism a cult? Definitely not! If anything, it's a kind of 'anti-cult.' Here’s why.
A cult almost always claims some new or special or unique revelation.Unitarianism---also known in some places as Unitarian Universalism---does not.Also, a cult invariably invests its founders, and often its leaders as well, and their teachings and writings, with the impress of finality, if not infallibility. Unitarianism does none of those things---indeed, the whole idea of infallibility is anathema to Unitarians, not to mention bloody silly! In addition, a cult is a system of religious beliefs that replaces one’s own beliefs with its own, andgives legitimacy---sometimes blatantly, and sometimes quite subtly---only to its own teachings, such that, if a person cannot or does not conform, they are excluded whether by formal excommunication or other means. Unitarianism is and does none of the above.
Unitarianism is both a denominational and a transdenominational vehicle for all spiritual seekers, regardless of their religious affiliation or background. Unitarianism freely shares its teachings with all persons, and it has always had a broad and liberal spiritual focus.
Now, what I am about to say is very important. Unitarianism is not so much a religion per se as an approach to religion and a praxis, that is, a particular and quite distinctive way in which certain spiritual principles (such as the inherent worth and dignity of every person, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and the interdependent web of all existence) are engaged, applied and put into practice.
Unitarianism is not a single religion among other world religions---some scholars and commentators call it a meta-religion---but rather a way of looking at religion and spirituality, and at the many varieties of religious and spiritual experiences of the whole of humanity (including our experiences and enjoyment of music, the arts and sciences, as well as the natural world). Unitarianism is also a way of looking at life---with curiosity, openness, non-discrimination and choiceless awareness. Unitarians, being liberal-minded, like to 'think things through' in a critical, informed, disciplined, and fearless way.
Lewis B Fisher, the late 19th-century Universalist theologian, once wrote, 'Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move.' I like that.
Although not a philosophy per se, Unitarianism performs a similar function to philosophy at its best in that it provides a fundamental and overall coherent apparatus for understanding and criticism, illuminating all fields of human inquiry including politics, economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, theology, ethics, and the arts. Unitarianism provides a ‘key’---but just one key---to understanding those and other disciplines. In short, Unitarianism is a movement, a position, and an adventure in ‘continuing spiritual education’.
Unitarianism, in its more ‘modern’ form, came out of the Protestant Reformation when many people claimed the right to privately read and interpret the Bible for themselves and to set their own conscience as a test of the teachings of religion. The theological roots of Unitarianism can be found in early Judaism as well as in 16th-century Europe (in particular, Hungary, Poland and Romania) when some prominent Biblical scholars affirmed the notion that the Divine was one and indivisible, andchallenged the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was uniquely and exclusivelyGod. (Please note the important combination of those words---‘uniquely’ and ‘exclusively.’ Christian Unitarians had no problem affirming the divinity of Jesus, but his supposed deity was a different matter altogether.)
The philosophical roots of Unitarianism go back much further, and can be found in such people as the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Skeptics, all of whom affirmed natural morality, freedom from superstition, and salvation by character.
Unitarian churches, fellowships and societies impose no particular creed, article or profession of faith upon our members and adherents. Unitarians are therefore free to explore and develop their own distinctive spirituality and are encouraged to do so in a responsible way. There is nothing to believe in Unitarianism. Indeed, most Unitarians would regard beliefs and belief-systems as impenetrable barriers to knowing truth or reality.
Unitarians boldly affirm that the sacred or holy is ordinarily made manifest in the enchantment of everyday life, and embraces all persons and things as part of an interdependent cosmic web. Unitarians seek to live together in peace and promote the highest good for all, relying upon the authority of reason, conscience and experience in order to arrive at solutions to problems in a spirit of rational humaneness.
True it is that most if not all of the mainstream Christian churches regard Unitarianism as a cult. As proof of this Unitarian churches, fellowships and societies have consistently been denied membership to the World Council of Churches and their affiliated bodies around the world. Of course, as is often said, one person's orthodoxy is another person's heresy---and vice versa. Also, please keep in mind the above mentioned definition of a cult, namely, a system of religious beliefs that replaces one’s own beliefs with its own, and a religious movement that gives legitimacy only to its own teachings, such that, if a person cannot or does not conform, they are excluded whether by formal excommunication or other means.
Now, by this definition all of the mainstream Christian churches are cults, with the Roman Catholic Church being the largest and most successful of them all. Each member has to conform and fit the denominational bed ... or else! Ditto with Sydney Anglicanism, which has become a cult within a much larger cult (the latter being the worldwide Anglican Communion). In any event, in the eyes of the law, all religions bodies are ‘sects,’ each with its own particular cultus or form of worship.
Unitarians are non-conformists in all senses of that word. They are proud to be different, and they don’t mind being called heretics. You see, the word ‘heretic’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘one who chooses’. Unitarians choose to be different. They choose to affirm as true what, in good conscience, they are each capable of knowing and understanding.