The Truman Show and Finding Reliable Spiritual Sources

Preface

Have you ever felt a spiritual longing, but felt like you didn’t know how to proceed and everyone you asked seemed to be misdirecting you? This post tackles the problem of how to locate reliable spiritual sources, and how to get beyond sources which are unreliable. Peter Weir’s film The Truman Show is used as a metaphor, and art critic Rosalind Krauss helps us delve into the postmodern dilemma in which we seem to be confronted by a wall of illusory images. To find reliable spiritual sources may entail questioning the nature of reality itself! Not everything which is popular is true, and some types of information can be discounted because they’re the product of excessive populism, vested interests, or incompetent operators.

Sometimes propagandists use “altruistic fear” to justify harsh social control measures, beating people back and discouraging them from asking deep questions about what is right and true. Examples are drawn from the George W. Bush administration, the persecution of Socrates, and the anti-cult movement.

I also contrast the idol worship practised by the ancient Greeks with the new doctrine of the soul advocated by Socrates. What Socrates and some modern spiritual movements have in common is an emphasis on self-cultivation and self-discovery.

If you’re a spiritual seeker trying to make sense of all the different flavours of information coming at you, maybe you would find some insight here, or at least a map that helps you sort things out. I close with some quotes from sociologist Dr. Bryan R. Wilson on the unreliability of apostate accounts.

I originally titled this post “Developing a Spiritual Nose For News,” which made sense to me but did not compute for some readers. I’ve reposted this under a new title, but kept the original graphic.


Extra! Extra! People’s Daily reports: Dalai Lama not really Tibetan. Is actually housewife from Minnesota!

No, the Chinese government’s official organ didn’t really print that, but it’s the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from them.

In writing about “Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics,” I closed by saying that self-interest colours the information we receive every day, and some of it is junk info with no truth value. But then, not everyone is looking for truth value!

It’s helpful to picture a music outlet which caters to many different kinds of people. Most people are looking for dance music which is very loud and physical; but a few may seek out some little corner of the shop where they still have Gregorian chant or Ravi Shankar fighting the cobwebs. Loud dance music may sound like noise pollution to some people, while to others Gregorian chant and Ravi Shankar are boring and impenetrable.

The whole of civilization is like this. It contains innumerable elements, each of which is valued by some people according to their nature, culture, and level of development, but is considered of little value by others.

When we extend this metaphor to information, it becomes slightly problematic. True, different segments of the population may be consumers of different flavours of information, but are not some things simply true in an ultimate sense, and others simply false? (The Dalai Lama is not a housewife from Minnesota!)

It’s often possible to isolate certain facts and laws about the universe which are true no matter what people think about them or whose interests they serve. But many of the ideas in common currency are more fluid, and resemble the different types of music found in our imaginary shop.

What does this mean for spiritual seekers? Let me tell you a story… My father sired me late in life, so when I was in my twenties he was in his seventies. As a young man, I began speaking to him about my spiritual experiences and aspirations. He was extremely cynical and dismissive. I’ll never forget his exact words to me: “No one has ever seen God!” It was a poignant moment. I looked into his eyes and into his heart, and I knew that in all his seventy-odd years he had never seen God. What’s more, the idea that someone else had perhaps seen God angered him and offended his pride. He instinctively felt that if there was a God, he surely he would have discovered this fact. Never mind that he had never really looked.

My experience mirrors that of many people whose spiritual search begins close to home, by asking parents, friends, and teachers what they think, or by reading popular periodicals. The problem is that in a society which is largely pleasure-loving and secular rationalist, what’s kept in stock is mostly popular music and popular opinions. Most people don’t know much about spirituality and aren’t that interested. This is a fact which has to be reckoned with. We need a personal strategy for dealing with it.

Spiritual seekers have needs and goals which aren’t always well-served by mainstream media.

Are you a spiritual seeker? Then you can rely on populist media for the weather report, but you cannot rely on them for what we call “spiritual report.” In this they are unreliable. It’s simply not their area of expertise; plus, their emphasis on commercialism and populism acts as a heavy-handed filter of information concerning spiritual groups. Many people in the mainstream media are good and well-meaning, but spiritual topics elude them. They lack the time and interest to make sense of the spiritual landscape, so they tend to present a stereotyped view.

Then again, even people that you love and trust, and who love you, may not be good sources of spiritual information. This can be heartbreaking, but it’s true. You may ask parents, friends, and teachers at your school, but you may find that they only repeat what they have heard and do not offer any true insight. Looking in their eyes, you don’t see the light of genuine wisdom or experience. They are not seeking, so of course they have not found. Just as you might navigate your way through our imaginary music store to find something rare and precious which others have overlooked, you need to cultivate spiritual resources in order to unearth spiritual treasures.

Some of the misdirection is an innocent outgrowth of the variety of human experience. If you ask the well-meaning music clerk to recommend something, he may point you to a popular dance tune, not knowing you’re the type who likes Gregorian chant and Ravi Shankar. You’re in the minority, so perhaps he doesn’t even stock your kind of music. Here a commercial element enters in. The music industry can make more money selling one hit recording to a million people than it can selling a thousand different recordings to a thousand different people. (Less overhead.) In an industrial economy, there’s a tendency for everything to become commodified, standardized, dumbed down. Sales value replaces artistic value or truth value. Yet, sales value is only a measure of popularity, not a measure of truth.

This is an important concept which dovetails with our earlier discussions of Socrates, who cared for truth more than he cared for popularity. He tried to offer new light to Athenian society by preaching the doctrine of the soul. Professor John Burnet, in his lecture on “The Socratic Doctrine of the Soul” calls our attention to this statement:

I will not cease from philosophy and from exhorting you, and declaring the truth to every one of you I meet, saying in the words I am accustomed to use: ‘My good friend, . . . are you not ashamed of caring for money and how to get as much of it as you can, and for honour and reputation, and not caring or taking thought for wisdom and truth and for your soul, and how to make it as good as possible?’

— Socrates

If you will forgive this tangent: I am not a conspiracy theorist and have no idea who killed President Kennedy. But one thing seems clear: he represented hope — hope for a more peaceful world in which people could settle their differences without resorting to open warfare; hope also that the poor and downtrodden might be lifted up, that there might be greater sharing of resources. But there was a confluence of political, economic, and military interests opposed to such progressive changes; and those interests certainly got their way when he was assassinated. Had he lived, many sad chapters in American history might have been averted.

We cannot always know (or spend our whole lives investigating) why some information we receive is inaccurate, or what interests are served by extinguishing the new light that some political and spiritual leaders bring — light on the human condition and how we can improve it. The important thing is to develop a “spiritual nose for news.” If we are seekers of truth, then our spiritual intuition can gradually guide us toward the truths we need to hear, the truths that will help us in our spiritual quest.

The Truman Show as metaphor

Locating reliable spiritual sources may entail getting past sources which are unreliable. It’s a little like The Truman Show, Peter Weir’s fascinating, entertaining, and highly metaphorical film starring Jim Carrey:

When you start asking deep questions about the nature of reality and try to go beyond the limitations that most people tacitly accept, the men in HazMat suits may appear, warning you of grave danger ahead: fire, flood, raccoons with big, scary teeth…

You have to persevere in your spiritual quest in order to penetrate the mysteries of the universe — make it past the screaming banshees and make it home to God. According to media critic Ken Sanes:

The fake landscape Truman lives in is our own media landscape in which news, politics, advertising and public affairs are increasingly made up of theatrical illusions.

— Ken Sanes, “The Meaning of The Truman Show”

Art critic Rosalind E. Krauss describes the postmodern dilemma in similar terms:

She says:

What we’re really dealing with in the period in which we live is an extraordinary conformity that despite the seeming pluralism, the seeming diversity, in fact we are seeing many, many different reflections of the same underlying reality. And it is that underlying reality which seems to me to be at the root of what’s happening in the art of our time. It’s as though the world has become a kind of huge billboard or an opaque wall of images that separates us as individuals from a Nature that might exist behind that wall, but which we cannot penetrate to.

Somehow, reality has been swallowed up by a television tube. So this sort of nightmare possibility accounts for absolutely everything that’s going on now. Certain artists have dedicated their work to the problem of how to break through this wall — how to put a kind of little crowbar underneath it, and try to get some sort of leverage on it, try to make a kind of space between the imitation of the real and the real, or try to comment on the ways in which we are trapped in this (what you could call) Plato’s Cave, in which what we are looking at is a world of shadows, a world of simulations, rather than a world of real things.

— Rosalind E. Krauss, Art of the Western World: In Our Own Time

The “HazMat” sequence (45:28-51:19) ends with Truman’s wife saying: “Let me get you some help, Truman. You’re not well.” His alienation and longing to escape from the mundane and pre-programmed are treated as pathological symptoms.

I love the earlier scene where he walks into a travel agent’s office, and instead of the usual posters of beautiful people relaxing on sunlit Mediterranean beaches, he’s greeted by posters warning of terrorists, disease, and air disasters:

Cosmic traveller Jim Carrey is determined to go on his journey.

Cosmic traveller Truman is determined to go on his journey.

This reminds me of the alarmist tactics used by the anti-cult movement, which portrays spiritual teachers as fiends and charlatans so that people will ignore them and be afraid to heed their spiritual counsel. Such marketing campaigns play on so-called “altruistic fear” — fear which appeals to values like keeping your family safe from harm, but is used to drum up support for harsh social control measures.

Only yesterday I saw a 2006 interview with George W. Bush in which he kept repeating that people are coming to kill your family, and that’s why we have to use these enhanced interrogation techniques:

This video has been getting a lot of play because the Senate Intelligence Committee just released its report on the use of torture by the C.I.A., including so-called “rectal hydration” of prisoners — just one of many lovely euphemisms gaining common currency in A.D. 2014. (See this New York Times article .)

The persecution of Socrates was likewise justified using altruistic fear. Athenian society essentially said: “We are a good and moral people who sacrifice to the gods and have fine political leaders. But by preaching the doctrine of the soul, Socrates is bringing unwelcome change and causing our young people to question existing values. Some of them are not sacrificing to the gods as our tradition demands, and we fear the gods may be offended. We therefore accuse Socrates of impiety and of corrupting our youth.” He was thus tried, and forced to drink hemlock.

But of course, Socrates was a very pious man who always entreated fellow Athenians to devote themselves to truth and wisdom. The effect of his preaching was to reveal hypocrisy in the practice of idol worship, which at its worst could descend into a system of corrupt patronage. According to Thomas R. Martin in An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, the Greek gods were viewed as having no love for human beings. “Rather, gods supported humans who paid them honor and avoided offending them. Gods whom humans offended sent calamities in response, such as famines, earthquakes, epidemic diseases, or defeat in war.”

Self-examination leads to self-empowerment

It’s easy to see how an ossified system of idol worship could lead to a moral disconnect in which little self-examination was expected of the average Athenian as long as he or she “paid the rent” by killing a cockerel now and then. By contrast, the teachings of Socrates implied that self-examination leads to self-empowerment — perhaps even to greater constancy than evinced by the fickle Greek gods. Moreover, the Socratic emphasis on self-cultivation necessarily implies de-emphasis on temple priests as intervenors.

There are parallels with the modern dilemma in that many of the new (or transplanted) religious movements which have arisen in Western nations would tend to agree with Socrates that insight gained through self-cultivation is an essential element of spiritual practice. Outer ritual without inner understanding is of limited benefit.

The full spectrum of beliefs and practices of the new religions is quite broad, and many scholars would rightly hesitate to generalize; but at least among those spiritual groups strongly influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Yoga, there is a tendency to reject both scientism and fundamentalism as totalist doctrines, and to emphasize the need for self-discovery. Swami Vivekananda, who along with Sri Ramakrishna is credited with founding modern Neo-Vedanta philosophy, famously said: “See Christ, then you will be a Christian. All else is talk; the less talking the better.” Within that same tradition, the parable is told of a donkey carrying a sack of sugar on its back. The sugar is sweet, but the donkey cannot taste it. For him it is just a heavy load.

Developing a “spiritual nose for news” often entails gauging the qualifications of the speaker. If someone is giving a car review, do they even know how to drive? I’ve worked in product support, and my old boss used to joke about people who thought the computer’s CD tray was a drink-holder (because it slid open and had a round slot). Of the many fallacies to beware of, this is the fallacy of the incompetent operator — the person who posts on a review site that “Linux is no good because as soon as I installed it on my computer, all the food in my refrigerator went bad.”

HeadHit_FinalGif_v3b_320x240Or imagine a product review of sugar written by the donkey in the parable: “I carried sugar on my back for 20 years, and believe me it does NOT taste sweet!” (Alright, but pardon me if I defer to the opinion of someone who put the sugar on their tongue.) So many people who rail against spirituality on the Internet are what Bridget Jones would charitably call “f-ckwits.” Unfortunately, one of the ways that media bias operates is by interviewing the least competent operators — those who flunked out of whatever spiritual school they formerly attended. Why not interview a successful student rather than a failed one? Or is the purpose to rig the outcome?

Leaving aside incompetent operators, I see two other types of untrustworthy sources that one has to get beyond. The first type is untrustworthy because it has been compromised by vested interests of a political, economic, or personally selfish nature. One example is the propaganda put out by the Chinese government criticising the Dalai Lama of Tibet in order to justify the continued annexation of that formerly independent nation. See these People’s Daily articles, which are pure bunkum:

“Carrying forward Buddhism or fueling evil cults?”
http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90780/6279537.html
Last visited Dec-04-2014

“A Doomed Failure – Beijing Review article on the Dalai Lama”:
http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90777/6277744.html
Last visited Dec-04-2014

The second type is untrustworthy because it has been compromised by excessive populism, that is, by pandering to popular appetites and prejudices. In this latter type, there may also be an underlying economic motive, but it is not so clear-cut. For example, in a society which has become highly materialistic, there may be a confluence of interests which want to preserve the notion that the main purposes of life are production, consumption, and procreation. Such interests typically act to drown out the alternative view that the main purposes of life are self-knowledge and self-giving. This effort need not be coordinated; materialists tend to instinctively reject spiritual doctrines, and to vilify people who question whether all this thing-craziness is really making people happy.

An apostate account saying “I used to be self-giving but that was all rubbish — now I’m materialistic” will be hoisted to the skies, billboarded, and given maximum bandwidth on the information superhighway. But remember: Just because it’s popular doesn’t make it true.

Apostate accounts are often highly problematic due to selfish motives and the many pressures brought to bear upon apostates to portray their former faith group negatively, ratifying existing discriminatory stereotypes and social scripts. In this regard, it may be helpful to close with a few quotes from the late Dr. Bryan R. Wilson:

The first duty of those who wish to present a fair picture of a religious fellowship is to seek the views of those who are faithfully committed to it and to undertake a first-hand study of their lifestyle.

*  *  *

The disaffected and the apostate are in particular informants whose evidence has to be used with circumspection. The apostate is generally in need of self-justification. He seeks to reconstruct his own past, to excuse his former affiliations, and to blame those who were formerly his closest associates. Not uncommonly the apostate learns to rehearse an “atrocity story” to explain how, by manipulation, trickery, coercion, or deceit, he was induced to join or to remain within an organization that he now forswears and condemns.

*  *  *

Neither the objective sociological researcher nor the court of law can readily regard a defector as a credible or reliable source of evidence. He must always be seen as one whose personal history predisposes him to bias against both his previous religious commitment and his former associates. If he is anxious to testify against his former allegiances and affiliations, the suspicion must arise that he acts from a personal motivation to vindicate himself and to re-gain his self-esteem, by showing himself to have been a victim who has subsequently become a redeemed crusader.

— Dr. Bryan R. Wilson

Conclusion

You would observe that I haven’t given this post a clickbait title like “Top 10 Reliable Spiritual Sources,” nor have I made a list of specific sources. The focus has been on how to proceed, how to get beyond sources which are unreliable, how to close your ears to all that’s nonsensical and illusory. If you’re a spiritual seeker, then look for authentic spiritual voices which radiate wisdom and inspire you to continue on your spiritual journey. These voices are hard to hear, because (metaphorically speaking) society’s loudspeakers are blasting secular and materialist messages twenty-four hours a day. To hear spiritual messages, seek out the sacred space.

I hope to continue this series by asking: Is greed good? Is self-giving an ego disorder? Is meditation dangerous? Whose opinions should we trust? This will be explored within the broader framework of finding reliable spiritual sources, a.k.a. “developing a spiritual nose for news.”

Advertisements

A Study In Contrasts

When designing the main graphic for this site, I already had it in the back of my mind that ethics and spirituality are related but not quite the same. We may think of ethics as having to do with moral codes, perhaps inflexible, carved in stone; while spirituality conjures up images more fluid and flowing. Then too, if we were to follow the custom of the romance languages and assign a gender even to abstract nouns, would ethics be masculine and spirituality feminine?

The challenge was to view them both within the same “frame,” and so what took shape was a study in contrasts: Socrates stone-faced and the word “ethics” tightly set in carved lettering, but the word “spirituality” done in a more flowing script, suffused with light and adjoined by a picture of Sri Sarada Devi, the consort of Sri Ramakrishna.

In the person of Sarada Devi, we’re already faced with a mini-conundrum: Sri Ramakrishna liked to remain in ecstatic trance, taking neither food nor drink. As a result, his physical health would sometimes suffer. When he was ill, Sarada Devi had to coax him to drink milk. Seeing the quantity, he would sometimes protest; but she assured him it was only “a seer or a seer and a quarter.” In fact, it was much more. She was lying! When queried about this, she said that in spiritual matters she was always completely truthful, but there was no harm in saying such about food in order to nurse Ramakrishna back to health. (A “seer” or “sihr” is a traditional unit of measurement in India.)

A similar conundrum is posed by the old parable in which a murderer is chasing an innocent man, who takes refuge in the house of a monk. The monk answers the door, and the murderer asks: “Is the man I am chasing here? If so, I must kill him.” The monk lies and says: “No, he is not here, I have not seen him.” If the monk told the truth, a murder would be committed; but by telling a lie, he protects human life. Has he acted ethically?

Socrates and Sarada Devi are a study in contrasts because the former has come to epitomize the Socratic method of seeking the truth through critical reasoning, while the latter embodies the visionary aspect of faith: to understand a thing by knowing its essence intuitively, rather than dissecting it mentally.

This suggests a theme which may recur in our peregrinations: moral codes and rules of procedure are highly fallible, subject to human error, human weakness, and the desire to rig the outcome in accordance with self-interest. A visionary approach may sometimes be superior, provided we can be certain that the vision is a true one.

Socrates himself is a figure both fascinating and tragic. At the end of his life, out of favour with Athenian citizenry, he was forced to drink hemlock. His death, described in Plato’s Phaedo, entails much weeping by friends and disciples, but little by Socrates himself, who remarks:

“I am not very likely to persuade other men that I do not regard my present situation as a misfortune, if I cannot even persuade you that I am no worse off now than at any other time in my life. Will you not allow that I have as much of the spirit of prophecy in me as the swans? For they, when they perceive that they must die, having sung all their life long, do then sing more lustily than ever, rejoicing in the thought that they are about to go away to the god whose ministers they are.”

Plato further recounts:

“Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: ‘You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed.’ The man answered: ‘You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act.’ At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates […] Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend.”

This tragic scene nonetheless becomes charming to the ear when translated into French and set to music. For his Mort de Socrate (1919), Erik Satie used Victor Cousin’s translation, admiring it for its clarity, simplicity and beauty. Let us now listen:

As for the death of Sarada Devi, it is described by her foremost biographer, Swami Nikhilananda of the Ramakrishna Order of monks:

On Tuesday, July 21, 1920, about one o’clock in the morning, it became evident that Holy Mother’s last moments were at hand. The attendants began to chant the Lord’s name. Half an hour later the Mother breathed deeply several times and entered into deep samadhi. Peace-eyed slumber settled over her body, which, though ravaged by a long illness, suddenly relaxed and gave out a celestial light. Many of her devotees were deceived by this radiance and thought she was still with them.

Next morning, about half-past ten, the funeral procession was formed. Swami Saradananda and many devotees joined it. To the accompaniment of devotional music, the body was taken across the Ganges to the Belur Math. There the women devotees bathed it and dressed it in a new cloth. A funeral pyre of sandalwood was made on the bank of the river, to the north of Swami Vivekananda’s memorial temple. About three o’clock the fire was lighted. Before the funeral was over it began to rain heavily on the other side of the Ganges and the devotees were afraid it might interfere with the cremation. But not a drop of rain fell on their side. At last the mournful ceremony was over and Swami Saradananda poured the first pitcher of water over the slow-burning fire. Then the rain came in torrents and extinguished the last embers.

Three shrines now stand as memorials to Holy Mother, all erected by the loving care of her beloved child Swami Saradananda. One is the Udbodhan, where she spent the last eleven years of her active life. The second, a white temple, stands on the bank of the Ganges at the Belur Math where her body was consigned to fire. The third, another white temple, has been erected on the site of her birth at Jayrambati. From the top of this temple flutters a flag emblazoned with the simple word “Ma,” reminding her devotees from far and near of her repeated assurance that she would stand by them till their hour of liberation, and recalling to them her words of benediction: “I am the Mother of the virtuous, I am the Mother of the wicked. Whenever you are in distress, say to yourself: ‘I have a Mother.'”

A study in contrasts.