Tuesday, March 02, 2010

New Story Published, and Reflections on "Insincerity"

Before I get to today's post, I have an announcement. The third story in my archetype series, "Trickster", has been published in Static Movement, an online literary journal. You can read Trickster here. It's actually my favorite of the 5 stories written so far.

Saturday’s blog posting “Rituals” generated some private commentary, and led me to an interesting question: Is a religious expression invalid if it is insincere?

The immediate thought would be “yes”. Religion is so connected to morality that we find insincere expressions to be hypocritical. Superficial displays of piety can be sickening; they are lacking in humility, which is supposed to be one of the most basic religious virtues. However, if you think about the question, it is not so simple.

Most people do not have deep religious experiences; our day to day lives are very removed from that kind of thought. The most common type of religious experience is the “conversion”. Whether a person is converting from one religion to another, or from irreligion to religion, that is the most common starting point when one turns their attention from the mundane to the spiritual. But it is only a starting point.

When someone begins a spiritual journey, a couple of things tend to happen. First, there is a sense of clarity, an enthusiasm—a feeling that everything now “makes sense”. Second, there is a disavowal of the “old” life, when one was “lost”. It is not uncommon to hear conversion stories from drug users, prostitutes, and criminals, who talk how lost they were, but now they are “saved.” Certainly in Christian conversions, this is followed by the sense that this new clarity should be shared, and that they now must “save” others.

In the first book on his encounters with Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda gives us Don Juan’s explication of the four great enemies of the spiritual warrior. Each spiritual attainment becomes an enemy, starting with clarity. Clarity is the first great enemy. Why? Because once you attain it, you think you’ve attained it all. Instead of instilling humility in the face of the Ultimate, it makes one egotistical, because now they think they “know” the “mind” of God. But it is a normal part of the spiritual journey, and as long as one moves past the initial experience of clarity, it is not a problem. My guru, Ammaji, is frequently approached by devotees who relate wonderful spiritual experiences that have changed them, and they want her opinion of the experience. Ammaji almost always replies, “It is nothing, pay no attention to it.” She is purposely bursting their bubble so that they don’t get hung up on the experience. We use our feelings as a gauge of sincerity, but in reality, feelings have little to do with it. Devotion is not an emotion.

Ammaji once said that if you don’t feel devotion, you should act as if you have it, even if it’s insincere, because at some point, the insincerity will be replaced with sincerity. It is difficult, though, because we don’t like to pursue things that we don’t “feel” like doing. One could then say that the “insincere” person is at least making the effort, even though they don’t feel like it. But I think insincerity becomes distasteful when it’s accompanied by self-righteousness. The holier-than-thou person is going to be called out for their fakery in a way that the wavering aspirant who is trying and not quite making it is not. Often, the insecurity is within ourselves; we need validation from others that we are really “spiritual”. This is the root of zealous missionary activity; indeed, there are some Christian sects who are built entirely on that need for validation from others. They are the ones who show up on your doorstep with pamphlets. They must convince you because they haven’t convinced themselves on some level.

Which brings us to disillusionment. When the convert sees hypocrisy in their newfound congregation, when they get worn out and find that they aren’t so sure of themselves, they may give up temporarily, or altogether. But it would be a mistake to see disillusionment as the “bitter reality”—it’s only the bitter reality of how humans behave in organizations, and it's good to know the difference between that and one's own spiritual experience.

So, maybe we should cut those who seem insincere a break. We’re all insincere to a point, since we tend to have a spiritual goal of always feeling “happy”, and it takes awhile to realize that the emotion of happiness is not the goal. There really is no goal. But that realization doesn’t make things any easier.


Richard Kearney said...

That last paragraph seems right on the money to me. Reminds me of the conclusion of an essay by the late Christopher Lasch. Writing about Jonathan Edwards' theological argument in his book "The Nature of True Virtue," Lasch comments, "Unable to conceive of a God who does not regard human happiness as the be-all and end-all of creation, [people who find it galling to be reminded of their dependence on a power beyond their own control or at least beyond the control of humanity in general] cannot accept the central paradox of religious faith: that the secret of happiness lies in renouncing the right to be happy." Getting stuck in a bad place along the road of a spiritual journey can lead to some very nasty gall-fueled tantrums indeed.

Daniel Hanley said...

Many studies (such as the famous Stanford Prison Experiment) suggest that it's a mistake to regard people as having fixed, stable identities outside of an environmental context. So-called good people will do horrible things when put into an environment that allows or even rewards such behavior. We don't appear to be blank slates whose behaviors are completely determined by our environment, but it does now appear that the environment affects how our genetics are expressed. In other words, there's a range of things a particular person might be, but which of them they become depends on the environment. Men who engage in traditionally masculine activities, or are put into positions of power, produce more testosterone than other men, causing them to exhibit more aggressive personalities. Take those men out of power, and their testosterone production drops. The aggression level drops with testosterone production.

What you do, and the context you do it in, is the deciding factor in who you are. Therefore, engaging in a behavior can cause you to become the kind of person who typically commits that behavior, regardless of your previous sense of personal identity. We seem to crave consistency, and our brains seem to want to always harmonize our outer and inner experiences. Act like you are already holy, and you may well become holy, even if it was only an act at first.

It all brings to mind the Buddhist idea that we have no actual self, because there is no definable part of ourselves that we can point to as existing in-itself without reference to something else. Anything only seems to exist because of the context provided by everything else. From that point of view, does it matter if the holy ritual is performed sincerely or insincerely, since neither sincerity nor insincerity can be defined without context, and therefore neither ultimately exists. If the insincere devotee can become sincere as a result of his initially insincere devotion, then insincerity is as important as sincerity. Either way, the act would matter more than the motivation. Give a hungry man a loaf of bread and he eats the same, whether it was given to him grudgingly or gleefully.

Robert Ciccolini said...

This entire enlightenment thing..

No one needs anyone to get it- guru or otherwise. Also, one is not immediately and forever perfect once "it" is known. (At least not in the sense of ones perceptual identification of perfection). There is a trust that follows, a continuous spontaneity that can only be maintained through the perpetual flicker referred to as awareness. Awareness is like the pilot light on a stove. It must be tended to as from time to time and various reasons, it may go out.

Consequently one may discover this when attempting to make tea, or more conveniently- prior. The germane point is to keep the eye on the pilot. This assures the viability of the mechanism necessary for the flame or "knowing". By "conveniently prior" I assert the notion of permanent enlightenment as a bogus ideological
fantasy because in our present human form it is.

Firstly, nothing is permanent. Second, there are myriad factors that may become manifest at any moment which hold the possibility of dampening the pilot. It is at this point that awareness may step in to reignite the flame. If one is watching this may happen almost simultaneously.

In conclusion, there is nothing inherently wrong with gurus, ceremony, spiritual traditions and the like. All these can serve as valuable indicators. But in the end we must all leave the boat if we wish to venture upon the shore. I have left the boat. I have seen the shore. But I don't kid myself that this makes me special or impervious to fault.

Sometimes the pilots out for awhile, but that's ok. The boat is fun, but the shore is better..