Thomas Merton, the subject of my previous post, was a complex man. It seems that any ‘spiritual’ person has to be, or nothing happens. To be a mystical Mozart, gifted from childhood with the ability to converse with the angels, offers nothing to the rest of us.
The Twentieth Century produced a good many western spiritual figures whose shadow sides can seem daunting. The astonishing Aleister Crowley, George Gurdjieff, Carl Jung, Alan Watts, and the first generation of western roshis and Vajrayana adepts, all present mixed personalities, plagued by private demons (including the demon rum), sexual relationships that often hurt their partners, and simple errors in judgement that in retrospect damaged their reputations. Crowley never anticipated that his pranks and outrageous remarks would be taken seriously decades later; Gurdjieff remains a confusing and ambiguous figure; Jung’s affairs hurt his wife, Emma, as also his partners; Watts was brilliant and funny, but also a self-loathing alcoholic; and several western-born roshis have ended up accused of exploiting their students for sex.
If we put all of them into a high-end soap-opera, with a decent scriptwriter, it should make someone a fortune.
Spirituality once was associated almost exclusively with monasteries. There was an understanding that to delve deeply into identity and the profundities of existence drives many people mad. “Zen requires the marvellously balanced man,” goes one old line from Japan; but why would a balanced, happy person bother with it at all?
Depressives and emotionally needy people make up a large proportion of the community of seekers, because they have to resolve their situations. People who can get along in the world feel far less need to do anything dramatic.
I decided some time ago that I had no good definition of what ‘spirituality’ is. Usually, any possible definition is culturally dependent; also, the surviving accounts of most mystics are …laundered.
This dire prognostication isn’t universally true, and it seems some people have come to an inner peace through their practices. Most, I suspect, remain haunted throughout their days. Merton, as has been suggested or known for many years, was teetering on the brink of renouncing his vows when he died.
I have only a vague cultural context for my own questing. The Process, my first and best school, ceased to exist in 1974, and its founders are aging or gone now. I have been a Thelemic magician for two decades, while only occasionally glimpsing the transcendence I was told lay on this path. True, I’ve not been a diligent student, and of late, I’ve been a doubting one. Or, as I insist in my private journal, an unconvinced one.
I’ve missed something, and I’m not entirely sure what it is.
From the preceding paragraph, I identify myself as chronically nonconforming. I have found no conventional community of faith, nor a satisfaction of the quest for certainty that I began as an unhappy teenager. Yet I have found the quest, the Journey to the East, and the company of other seekers along the way. Some of them tell me they have found certainty. Some perhaps have.
Spirit is what drives us. The soul is, we could say, what is best satisfied when the driving comes closest to the essence of us. Usually, to quote the German philosopher Ludwig Klages, “The spirit is the adversary of the soul.”
There is no easy accommodation there.
And a spirituality for the Twenty-First Century is still hard to identify. Yet, if the present turmoil, and the apparent collapse of a 70-year world-order cannot force one out of us, what will?