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High-definition spirituality (2)

high definition

Not settling for the mere condition of a human-animal and developing the qualities that will make us truly human, such is the ultimate task facing us (see High-definition spirituality (1)). The pressing challenge, though, is to prevent Bob, our “inner bonobo”, to end up taking control. So much of our behaviour already bears its mark! Practically speaking, we need to imagine the worst and take the initiative, in other words strive to take control of our self. Only on this basis can we work toward cultivating our humanity.

The principle of moral entropy

In order to correctly understand how the human-animal in us tends to stray, we need to recall the general context in which this “straying” takes place. The context actually constitutes the root of the problem. As formerly noted, human-animals aiming to become truly human are endowed with a dual nature, part terrestrial-animal and part celestial-human (see High-definition spirituality (1)). It would however be a mistake to think of it as a static balance between the two parts, say 50% bonobo and 50% human. The real configuration is more dynamic and unstable, like a constant tug of war in which the bonobo relentlessly tries to pull the rope over to its own side.

The bonobo can indeed rely on an original bias or imbalance that systematically plays in its favour. The “id” that expresses our terrestrial-animal part knows no limits; it is expansionist by nature[1]. If given free range, it develops spontaneously and imbues our entire psyche with its own dye. “Spontaneously” means that it happens by itself and sometimes imperceptibly, without our even noticing it. In other words, our animal side functions on its own and does not need us to do any work. Our inner bonobo feeds itself and develops without any prodding. Left alone, it will grow, become stronger, and progressively take over completely.

We have here a moral equivalent of the “principle of entropy”—the principle in physics that lies behind the degradation of energy. Without special effort and external support, moral energy tends to dissipate and unravel. If the human-animal is not actively kept in check, if it is not bridled, it progressively invades the entire space of the psyche. And what happens next? The background noise of the terrestrial-animal forces ends up completely covering the voices of the celestial-human potencies. We become deaf and impervious to everything ethical and spiritual, that is, everything that appeals to our human side. At the end of the process, we take on the full character of an animal and end up being no more than a “humanoid primate”, a primate that takes on the appearance of a man or a woman, an animal equipped with an intelligence increased tenfold[2]. This is where our natural tendency—our line of least effort—will lead us, if we do nothing to actively counter it. The issue is therefore clear: we must at all costs prevent our inner bonobo from taking control and imperceptibly transforming us into “humanoid primates”.

Imagine the worst: a humanoid primate

The expression may seem excessive, but we need only observe how humans behave when they are not firmly held or curbed by social laws. When the reins are released to some extent, when social control is loosened or disappears in crisis situations such as war, natural cataclysm, etc. then inhibitions tend to fall away, and the character traits of ferocious animals start to manifest openly. The lootings that ensue whenever a disaster strikes, offer a sad confirmation of this phenomenon. Once the hurricane or tornado has passed, devastation and desolation leave way to anarchy and greed. Suppose the police are held up on some emergency, that no one is standing in the way. There is no time to wait. Let’s just help ourselves—and not only to staple products, but also to sportswear, handbags, flat screens, etc. Let’s smash storefronts or go on a shopping spree at the neighbour’s home…

Fortunately, such abuse is not always the rule and to some people, these very situations will offer opportunities to display certain moral virtues: dedication to others, heroism, self-sacrifice. But these moments of solidarity and humanity emphasize, by contrast, the predatory atmosphere that takes over as soon as the storm has subsided. When we witness such predatory behaviour, we can all sincerely ask ourselves how we would behave if we were placed in similar circumstances, knowing for sure that no one is watching us: to what degree would we allow the primate in us to express itself?

A useful initial indicator of how we would answer the question is our ability (or inability) to feel a natural aversion toward certain categories of “vile deeds” and more generally toward all deeds that are “contrary to one’s conscience and dignity”[3]. Ostad Elahi explains that such aversion is precisely one of the characteristics of a true human being. We can experience it at varying degrees in the midst of a situation, or else from a distance, indirectly. It is a first indication.

Next, moving on from the obviously shocking examples and engaging in a more thorough introspection, we can try and identify in ourselves what could be called seeds of savagery: discrete and seemingly harmless tendencies that could nevertheless result in callous behaviour when allowed to be expressed more strongly. It is indeed the accumulation of such acts of micro-savagery that in time results in a crack in our being that may eventually lead to global straying and generate despicable behaviour. If you drop your guard, you end up getting used to it. You create a weakness and set the stage for more violent and more harmful outbreaks. This naturally results from the “bi-dimensional” constitution of human beings and the ensuing structural imbalance; left to their own device, the untamed animal character traits imperceptibly become stronger until they are dominant.

Obviously, in this effort to be watchful, it is helpful to keep in mind the repulsive figure of the humanoid primate. The news is full of examples of downright savagery, even outside the exceptional circumstances just mentioned. For example, a person feeling humiliated by a co-worker’s mocking comments is overwhelmed with anger and lashes out at the other verbally and physically. Here the character traits of ferocious animals are expressed in their crudest form. Within each person who has not tamed their terrestrial nature, there hides a potentially ferocious animal. Or consider for instance the case of a traveller who is so upset about the delay of his train that, yielding to the impulses of the animal in him, he rains down his anger on the helpless ticket inspector and decides to help himself in the restaurant car to chips and beverages as compensation.

We should remain vigilant to other less brutal yet no less unpleasant animal traits: they may lead to cowardice, or else breed a proclivity to scheming and intrigue. There is no shortage of examples of such tendencies. What is most important for us is to look back within and realize that the dramatic cases—those disgraceful acts that we typically spot in others—are merely extreme variants of the ordinary cruelty we allow ourselves to display when we let loose occasional outbreaks of anger, irrational fear, laziness, or lust. Such lapses may seem of no further consequence from the outside; society may even encourage some of these weaknesses, passing them off as boldness of character. Yet in the rage that makes us lose our temper, or in the stinging words uttered through our clenched teeth, it is always the animal expressing itself. At a lesser degree, when we snap at someone or send out some form of do-not-disturb signal instead of being helpful or simply giving them our attention, it is still the animal speaking. Hardheartedness can take on various forms, but it always includes some inhuman quality[4].

To get a head start: control the self

How then can we keep Bob—our inner bonobo—from taking control?

The solution is simple, at least in principle. Relying on our inner guide and our willpower, we must strive to control our animal nature (the id), in order to better fight against our imperious self and manage to tame our weak points[5]. How can we concretely achieve such control? By setting up tasks of micro-discipline and most importantly, by following through with them. Ostad has said in this regard: “Once I designate a recommended action as compulsory, I follow through no matter what.”[6]

Here are some examples: exercise regularly, always put things back where they belong, set deadlines and respect them, in other words, follow a schedule, set yourself rituals, little systems of constraints that act as so many safeguards to keep the id in check and hold it within fixed limits. This will help slow down or even counter the natural tendency of our animal character traits to fall into excess, to stray, and as a result, to activate our imperious self.

The path of spiritual perfection as defined by Ostad Elahi is clearly not the path of asceticism, at least as it is generally perceived. There is no weakening or stifling of the id through mortifications or anything of that sort. Because the id is not the imperious self. Even an excess of the id does not necessarily mean in itself that a weak point has been activated. The fact remains, though, that at the end of the day it is the id’s straying and falling into excess that produces the imperious self, through an accumulation effect and habituation that can lead us to infringe upon some rights. It is therefore of the utmost importance to work on the id preventively before weak points have begun to get activated, giving rise to the imperious self. This is precisely what these practices of “micro-asceticism” are for.

Here is another example. Popular wisdom recommends to stop eating while still a little hungry or at least having still room for a little more, if only for one bite. This maxim seems quite trivial, but it proves quite difficult to apply in practice. We get the basic idea: yielding repeatedly to gluttonous impulses opens a path to more serious excesses, to straying that can potentially prove harmful to the body and consequently infringe on its rights. Showing some restraint here, even if only from time to time, is not only a good way to exercise control over the id, but also an excellent means to preserve good health, which any dietitian would confirm.

In general, micro-acts of self-discipline, when performed with perseverance, over time fortify the will, much like when an athlete trains. By taming the beast, by containing the humanoid primate—no matter the benign face it might show—we temper the basic selfish egoity that is specific to human animals. It is a favourable groundwork for the fight against the imperious self, a fight whose positive and constructive aspect consists in cultivating those human character traits that will progressively transform us into true human beings.

The crux of the matter: allocentric ethics

Here things are becoming particularly subtle, because the imperious self—which in short arises from a complication of our animal nature as a result of its interaction with our celestial soul—brings us into the issue of rights, in other words the problem of what is right and what is wrong, what is legitimate and what is illegitimate. With the imperious self, it is no longer a question of simply restraining our animal nature, of preventively detecting its first signs in order to prevent its blatant expression, but instead we are now confronting a power that is not only impulsive but rationalizing, that contrives to find ways to justify in our own eyes deeds and behaviour that in reality are beneath human dignity.

To find our bearings in our practice of fighting against the imperious self and to familiarize ourselves with it, we can refer to what Ostad Elahi commonly presented as the guiding principle in ethics. To perfect our humanity, we have to act according to the voice of our conscience. Acting according to the voice of our conscience, though, means tearing ourselves away from our selfishness. The basic technique is always the same: we should seek in all circumstances to put ourselves in the place of others. I should act with others the way I would like them to act with me and in particular, I should not put them through anything I would not want to be put through.[7]

This maxim, sometimes referred to as the “golden rule”, is the crux of the matter for whoever wishes to set out on the path of becoming a true human being. It implies a complete revolution in our view of things. It requires that instead of placing myself at the centre of the world in a naturally ego-centred perspective, I force myself to adopt, as much as possible, an allocentric perspective—in other words, a perspective that does not content itself with generously including the points of view of others, but that is, instead, truly centred on others. This creates a shift in perspective that is equivalent in the field of morals to the revolution Copernicus introduced in astronomy. Before Copernicus the “geocentric” model associated with the name of Ptolemy prevailed. With its epicycles, its retrograde movements, its aberrations, and anomalies, it was tremendously complex. By contrast, the Copernican system, centred around the sun, emerged as considerably simpler and more harmonious.

The Copernican revolution in ethics implies the same kind of reversal. The ego is no longer the centre of the world. On the contrary, it gravitates around others—a plurality of others whose points of view I strive to embrace to better adjust my thoughts and actions. If it is hard for me not to picture myself in the centre, I can at least convince myself that the world does not revolve around me. I am in orbit around others, because each one of these others can legitimately consider themselves a privileged centre of perspective. Does this make things simpler? Paradoxically it does because ethics thereby gains a sort of universal compass. The ego leaves behind imaginary perspectives and adopts a more accurate and correct image of things, starting with its own place in the concert of the world.

But once again, what does this imply, in practice? It takes us back to the bonobo, because leaving behind the ego-centred perspective requires to force ourselves out of animal inertia, to let go of our snugness—that “do-not-disturb” function that we activate by default to preserve our peaceful comfort zone, the way any mandrill would do. To put ourselves in the place of others is to send the exact opposite message: instead of “I am not here for anyone” the message becomes “I am here for you… even if this comes at a cost”.

A practical case: jealousy

Ostad provides us with a striking illustration of this in Words of Truth with regard to a very common and quite delicate situation, namely when you find yourself personally subjected to another person’s jealousy. At first glance there is no one more loathsome than a jealous person: often spreading venomous things about us, making cutting remarks, rejoicing in our difficulties, and even going so far at times as devising little schemes to run us down directly. Nobody can spontaneously love a jealous person. The natural reaction is on the contrary to get away from that person at all costs. It is a kind of animal defensive instinct.

It is true that jealousy, as Ostad explains, is “one of the worst forms of baseness”, “a lethal poison”[8]. But a poison for whom? Ostad answers: first and foremost, for the jealous individual himself. “Some flaws are more harrowing to the flawed individual than to others”[9]. What is insidious about jealousy is that “jealous people are themselves in a constant state of misery”[10].

Such an outlook requires a complete change in perspective. Instead of focusing on jealousy—that great flaw that we so easily detect in others and that we sometimes have to endure from them—Ostad encourages us to focus on the very person who is jealous, i.e., that very individual who has fallen victim to the grips of jealousy and is therefore the first person to actually suffer from it. “[…] [A] jealous person is similar to bitter water: bitterness is greater in him than in others. If he didn’t have this bitterness within, if he weren’t overwhelmed by his own misery, he wouldn’t be jealous or envious.”[11] “Jealousy is like an acid that first attacks and destroys its own vessel before spreading to its surroundings. Jealous people cannot harm others and only succeed in inducing their own misery, which is punishment enough.”[12]

These words do not only deliver a psychological and moral diagnosis on the evils of jealousy, but they also encourage us to actively place ourselves in the place of the jealous person and see what such change of perspective entails concretely. Something does change in fact, because by striving to feel the pain felt by the jealous person, we can no longer take refuge behind our usual defensive arguments. It is no longer possible to claim that “this is not my problem, it’s his problem”, “It’s not my fault, really, if that person is so mean”… On the contrary, going deeper into the perspective of the jealous person should lead us to feel compassion for him, if only because we have ourselves felt the way he feels in other circumstances and to other degrees, toward other people…

The truly humane attitude here is not to protect yourself at all costs from the effects of jealousy with the hope that things will ultimately settle down. It is rather a question of actively placing yourself in the place of the jealous person and feeling sincere compassion for him. This is not for that matter a purely internal affair, some form of mental exercise that one could carry out purely in vitro. True compassion requires more than an inner disposition. It takes action, it implies changing your behaviour to the advantage of the jealous person: “Try to lead your lives in such a way that you do not provoke the jealousy of others or induce their resentment; try to empathize with others and be attentive to their suffering. […] Those who are humane must live in a way that does not arouse people’s jealousy.”[13]

By becoming conscious of what makes the jealous person suffer, we shift our attention onto the parts of our own behaviour that may arouse his jealousy and increase his suffering. The principle according to which the cause is to be sought within[14] takes on a tangible meaning here. Feeling sincerely concerned, like a party to the problem, means opening up our mind to the possibility that we may be partly responsible for the situation and that, consequently, we may actually have some room for action to remedy it. Understanding the causes of the problem should lead us to take the necessary measures to alleviate as much as possible the suffering of the jealous person, starting with making sure not to provoke his jealousy on some points that we deem sensitive. Identifying these points is yet another matter. Jealousy can be provoked, for example, when we flaunt our wealth, our success in material affairs, in our family or professional life in front of someone who feels deprived of such blessings, or who, for some reason, suffers from the comparison. The humane thing to do in such a case is, for instance, to avoid situations likely to make things worse—not so much to protect ourselves but to relieve the other person.

HD

These reflections give a sense of the high definition that is required to be able to concretely apply this oft-repeated, universal maxim: “put yourself in the place of others”. Put yourself in the place of others, yes, even if these others are “enemies”! It is this “comprehensive” version of the golden rule that, according to Ostad Elahi, constitutes one of the pillars of the process of spiritual perfection: “goodness toward all beings in any form—even one’s enemies.[15] Now no animal, as intelligent or naturally empathetic as it may be, is capable of such behaviour. Accordingly, the in vivo approach that is recommended when you are confronted with a jealous person is highly “unnatural” in the sense that it goes against what your animal nature pushes you to do. It may indeed seem to call for superhuman faculties to feel compassion for a jealous person, and even better, to seek good for that person. Yet, this is where “high-definition” spirituality places the bar for what can be deemed as “true humanity.” “How commendable it is to do good and, if wronged, be ready to forgive. Our being must be as sweet as honey so as to always be a source of goodness for others. And like the sweetness that saturates honey, we must allow for goodness and kindness to saturate the whole of our being.”[16]

 


[1] ^ Bahram Elahi, Fondamentaux du perfectionnement spirituel : le guide pratique, Paris, Dervy, 2019, p. 121.

[2] ^ Ibid., p. 85.

[3] ^ Ostad Elahi, Words of Truth, Saying 277, draft of the forthcoming English translation.

[4] ^ Bahram Elahi, Fondamentaux du perfectionnement spirituel : le guide pratique, op. cit., p. 158-159.

[5] ^ Ibid., fig. 7 and p. 175.

[6] ^ Ostad Elahi, Words of Truth, Saying 468, draft of the forthcoming English translation.

[7] ^ See Ibid., Sayings 129 and 333; Bahram Elahi, Fondamentaux du perfectionnement spirituel : le guide pratique, op. cit., p. 225.

[8] ^ Ostad Elahi, Words of Truth, Sayings 204 and 339, draft of the forthcoming English translation.

[9] ^ Ibid., Saying 339.

[10] ^ Ibid., Saying 318.

[11] ^ Ibid., Saying 311.

[12] ^ Ibid., Saying 339.

[13] ^ Ibid.

[14] ^ Ibid., Saying 225.

[15] ^ Ibid., Saying 22.

[16] ^ Ibid., Saying 342.


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1 comment

  1. mahnaz Jan 13, 2022 11:04 pm 1

    Thank you so much for the meaning full article.

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