There are some new and interesting threads unwinding over at Bill Vallicella’s website, the Maverick Philosopher. Currently under examination are “mystical” teachings, in particular Buddhism. But in particular there was one little post, seemingly unrelated, that caught my eye. In this brief piece Bill presents a lamentably problematic question: should we think for ourselves?
The problem is that if we do, we are unlikely to find and correct our errors. But unquestioning submission to authority is an obvious mistake also, as witness the horrors of Nazism. What to do?
I think that the esoteric traditions have something to say about this question.
If we accept the idea of levels of consciousness, and its implicit converse, levels of sleep, then the following point can be made:
In sleep, we inhabit our own subjective world – as I lie in bed at night, I might be dreaming that I am walking down a city street, while my wife Nina, a foot away, might dream that she is sitting on a beach. A roomful of sleepers will have little or no commonality in their subjective experience.
When my wife and I arise in the morning, suddenly we share a great deal more – we agree on our location, what day it is, etc. But there is still great deal that we see very subjectively, and with little overlap.
But is the state that we call “waking” really all that is available to us? We distinguish many levels of consciousness below our waking state: “half-asleep”, “daydreaming”, “wool-gathering”, “dozing”, “nodding off”, “asleep and dreaming”, “dreamless sleep”, “coma”, and so forth. But why assume that our ordinary “waking” state is the summit of our potential? There are practical teachings whose purpose it is first to bring the student to the realization that he is asleep, then to offer a method for becoming more conscious. There are no guarantees, but in my experience a person who practices an authentic method will, at the very least, experience moments – often mere instants, like the pop of a flashbulb – in which he is suddenly conscious in a way that is startlingly different from the usual state of affairs. There is a clarity, and an enhanced perception, that is strongly akin to sitting up in bed and blinking in the sunlight.
The point of all this – a point that is made often in these traditions – is that awakened people, seeing the world far more objectively than the sleeping multitudes, will implicitly understand one another, and will have little about which to disagree. It is the fact that we live in sleep that makes us stray from truth in a million different ways, that makes it possible for Nazism to emerge, that makes us slaughter one another again and again and again.
So here’s the way out of the dilemma: in thinking for ourselves, our chance for error is directly related to the depth of our sleep. This means that we must try to live more consciously. How do we do that? That’s not for this post. But there are ways.
As I remarked in a previous item, if we want to live more consciously, the most difficult and important effort we can make is, always and in everything, to remember to try.