Monday, September 6, 2010

The Two Projections

Concerning the reality we shall experience after we die, humanity has two predominant projections. It seems to me that both are based on actual experiences of individuals later further elaborated by speculators who haven’t been there. I call the first ecstatic, the other communitarian. Both appear in variant cultural frames. In the Buddhist tradition nirvana is a kind of pure bliss about which I can’t find any elaboration; in the west it is union with God or the beatific vision. Both appear to me to be passive states; but those who hold this view (or have experienced it) deny that. They report a union, an identity, a fullness, a completeness, an unlimited power, an all encompassing knowledge. For a detailed rendition of such an experience I’d point to that of Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s given in Pathways Through to Space. This work has an eastern, Hindu flavor; its merit is that it comes from a modern twentieth century American who’s trying to communicate it in a framework accessible to us. Anyone genuinely interested in the matters discussed in Borderzone will get something valuable out of reading that book. The iconic and briefest summary is Meister Eckhart’s famous line: “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.” The same sort of unitary experience is reported of Plotinus and is found in Islamic mysticism too. I cannot help but think that experiences of this type—very powerful that they are—have shaped humanity’s theologies in major ways. It seems to me that Plotinus’ own unitive experience must have been the basis of his cosmic conceptualization of the One. And ideas like omnipotence and omniscience are mirrored in the experiences of ecstatics—Merrell-Wolff’s for instance or those of Mansur Al-Hallaj, the Persian-Muslim mystic martyred for proclaiming “I am the Truth,” and “There is nothing in my cloak but God.”

I’ve had a minor but potent youthful experience of this type myself (reported here). That should have made me lean in this directions, but, instead, I’ve come to think of it as a valuable inoculation against this view of reality. In all reports of this type of experience I recognize my own—and I’m grateful for the experience because I have a personal basis for evaluating others’. Mine took place spontaneously rather than in the context of passionate struggling, questing, and willful attempts at realizing the transcending—as is usually the case. Thus I see the phenomenon of ecstasy as perhaps caused by a certain state of concentration which releases energies we only experience very, very filtered in ordinary life. And it is an experience of energy rather than of transcending will or intelligence; the cognitive or willful aspects of that experience come from our own consciousness not from that which temporarily envelops us. For these reasons, over a lifetime, I’ve been much more inclined toward the other major human projection of the Beyond.

That projection envisions communities of vast size and diversity in immaterial or “other-material” spaces somewhere invisible to us from here. The simplest expression of this projection might be the “Happy Hunting Grounds” said to have been the destination of some Indian tribes. (With hundreds of real tribes, every human ideology has been presented in Indian lore, not least straight-forward materialism.) The most elaborate such projection I know of is Swedenborg’s, divided into three realms: a lower hellish, a middling spiritual transitional world, and an upper heavenly. Swedenborg’s has a biblical flavor, but missing is the redemptive role of Jesus of Nazareth. People have read similar structures into the Koran. This view also has a strong basis in Near Death Experience reports which picture the earliest moments of entering such communities. Heaven and hell are also part of the Christian world conception—suggesting that it makes room for both, a unitive beatific vision and a “life” in heaven or hell. One is for the upper, let us say, and the other for the less educated classes. And in Buddhism, of course, we also find, perhaps also just for the lower classes, all manner of splendid heavens and dreadful hells, usually numbered seven, a number humanity genuinely likes.

To be sure, the unitive/ecstatic projection is much simpler, tempting the intellectual mind to reach for Ockham’s razor. But Ockham intended for the simplest theory accommodating all of the evidence. I’m much more drawn to the “naive” view of the masses of humanity—which, in the East, for instance, lifted Mahayana Buddhism, with its grand heavens and deep hells, into the most populous branch of that religions—even if, one imagines, it is altogether incompatible with the Buddha’s own view or experiences. If we take the unitive experience as the ballgame, one person in multiple millions born will be saved, the rest plowed under once again. And the vast cosmos of stars and galaxies has no meaning whatsoever. For once I find myself with the masses and look at the elites with a very puzzled face.

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