I woke up this morning with this question about the mystery fluttering in my head. I told Kim that I wanted to write something about it, and her first reaction was to suggest avoiding using the word mystery altogether, because it often evokes conventional religious concepts that would, for some, get in the way of a serious inquiry into what may lie beyond the scope of knowledge and thought. All right then, I will follow her advice, I set this term aside for the time being, and ask instead about the unknown and the unknowable. How does one even approach that which is beyond experience and the mental representation of experience?
It only takes mentioning what is beyond our perceptual and cognitive reach to trigger a primal fear that prevents grounded contemplation of the otherwise patent existence of what is not a creation of the human mind, past, present, or future. To abide with the unknowable implies going beyond tribe and self ―the known and familiar― and we generally feel that such transgression of both social sanction and devaluing of one’s own memory and habitual mental pathways could bring about ostracism, madness, or even death. For this reason alone ―fear ― it is easy to desist. This, even if one has a strong sense that if we do not find the way to embrace our paradoxical presence within the unknowable, we will never come face to face with our true nature, and hence remain unable to properly consider, and solve our multiple and interrelated mental and social problems.
Our unabated isolation and sorrow and the sorry state of the world make it only rational to wonder if there is not a mode of being unthinkably more meaningful and profound than the splintered and opaque mental and social reality in which we presently have our tribal and psychological being. However, regardless of the difficulty of our personal and relational circumstances, all we know is to stay well within the mental and social boundaries that were firmly established in our minds while still too young to question the wisdom of tradition and disregard the power of authority, and perhaps see for ourselves what is it to be a tiny conscious particle lost in the ever undecipherable stream of life.
Predetermined and exclusive knowledge have so conditioned our minds, that we generally live and die convinced that the narrow and shallow terrain of consensual knowledge, belief, and desire is the principal source of our existence and, therefore, all that could possibly matter. To be sure, a serious inquiry into the nature of our kinship with the whole of life requires contravening tribal ways and values and does not go anywhere unless we abandon the ideas, both positive and negative, we hold about ourselves, others, and life itself. However, given the dire circumstances in which we currently live, it makes total sense to ask whether this loss of status and existential singularity are as awful as they have been made to appear?
Since time immemorial, insecurity, conflict, fear, violence, and suffering have been a great part of human experience and, at every point in time and space this experience has made people wonder if there may be something beyond this interminable valley of tears. The yearning that grows out of fear and sorrow has produced throughout history quite a few relatively independent and contradictory versions of the “true” meaning of life, suffering, and death, and these conflicting truths are invariably connected to some sense of the unknowable and its presumably redeeming quality. Regardless of the validity of their experiential origin , these interpretations sooner or later hardened, without exception, into ideologies, institutional hierarchies and authority-based practices that, being opposed to one another as well as prone to internal dissension, only added to the division, conflict, and sorrow they may have been originally intended to remedy or transcend altogether.
Eventually, wide enough acknowledgment of the general incapacity of traditional religions to significantly improve the mental, social, and material conditions experienced by their adherents, eventually brought about a powerful wave of secularization that is still expanding today. The devaluation of traditional religiosity, and the extreme forms of individualism it brought about have profoundly changed the human mind and the character of social interaction, but in ways that are far from uniform, and not necessarily for the better.
In certain places and in certain social sectors, secular modernization has brought about a certain amount of equality and greatly improved living conditions. However, it has done so leaving behind multitudes, more often than not through outright injustice and exploitation. In our own day, billions of people are still living in the most abject conditions of poverty and ignorance. What is more, even those who have profited handsomely from the creation of relatively democratic institutions, and the advances brought about by science, technology, and greatly expanded industrial and commercial schemes, experience insecurity and mental distress often exceeding that endured by their far less materially and educationally privileged brothers and sisters. The deeply intertwined egocentrism and cultural fragmentation that our species has endured for millennia have, if anything, been exacerbated by the advent secular modernity and the explosion of information that typifies it. The natural extension into the social realm of the reckless demands of egotism armed with enormous knowledge and power corrupts every institution, from the family to the governing bodies of nations and big corporations.
Secular institutions and societies are also characterized by significant efforts in personal development, both moral and intellectual and moral behavior, and these efforts do manage to modify certain thought and behavior patterns, though never enough to bridge the distance that separates human beings (and their respective groups of reference) and that is the cause of untold relational dysfunction and mental distress. The greatest reform efforts conceived and implemented at the personal, institutional, and societal levels are only intended to treat the failures of previous reforms and, for the most part, do so quite unsuccessfully. Fundamental problems remain at every place and at every level, because mental conditioning is inexorably transmitted from one generation to another through example and teaching. As a result of the influence of secular, modernizing trends, in most societies primary relationships have become significantly more brittle and ephemeral than they were the past, and the incidence of mental health problems and anti-social behavior has risen to new heights. This gradual and widespread degradation of mental and social conditions is largely ignored ― we are, after all, masters of evolving adaptation― but there is little doubt that our constantly growing appetites and the ingenious but often deadly practices we use to satify them are presently threatening, not just the wellbeing, but the very survival of billions of human beings. Those for whom this immense danger is not obvious, are simply not well aware of the constant political, religious, and economic tensions between different nations and groups (both secular and religious); the alarming proliferation of conventional and nuclear weapons; and the cumulative consequences of the constant damage we have for too long been inflicting on the air, land, and water on which all life on Earth depends.
A staggering 84 percent of the world's population remain intoxicated and demobilized by the moralities and post-mortem fantasies of traditional religions. (A fairly recent and comprehensive demographic study of more than 230 countries and territories conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life states that “Worldwide, more than eight-in-ten people identify with a religious group.” On the other hand, the people who inhabit and control highly exclusive and secularized sectors remain determined to attain, seemingly at any cost, ever greater scientific, technological, economic, and military domination. The central point point of this argument being, of course, that humanity as a whole, both religious and non-religious, seems incapable, or merely unwilling, to seriously entertain fundamental questions about the nature of the self and the greater significance of human life ―questions that no form, quantity, or quality of knowledge/belief can adequately answer.
Perhaps more than ever before, the modern human being, whether privileged or not, has encased herself on forms of mental representation, both actual and imagined, mechanically inclined to pursue slightly improved versions of themselves that exist necessarily in direct contradiction or open conflict with competing versions of the same impulse operating in other groups and other individuals. Obscured by all the noise and acrimony of a brave new world in permanent combat with an older and more traditional world that refuses to die, the unknowable reality of life has silently receded to the point that countless human beings no longer have any significant sense of it. “Whatever I cannot know or belief in, that is, whatever is not within the realm of representation and comparative evaluation with which I am conversant and comfortable, simply (for all practical purposes) does not exist.”
In our collective alienation (both secular and religious) from the undecipherable reality of life as a whole, we have reduced ourselves, and our astonishing participation in this infinitely larger and more complex reality, to the exclusive record of what we have each experienced and learned, plus whatever this same representational record may project onto the future as worthwhile acquiring, experiencing, and learning. For the mind conditioned and isolated by acquired images and ideas, to be is to know and to become, both exclusively. Unsurprisingly, no degree of success (self-realization) experienced in this mode of existence is able to bring about real freedom from the very inclusive presence of insecurity, conflict, fear, and sorrow constantly afflicting the species as a whole.
Those who for whatever reason are most aware of the chronic and pervasive nature of the awful mental and social mess we are in ―surely the most sensitive and intelligent amongst us― experience perhaps the greatest levels of anxiety and sorrow, in great part because they also realize that we cannot simply believe and learn (think) our way out of this situation. They are right and soon find that the distressing sense of impotence their heightened awareness involves is almost impossible to endure. The conditioned command of conformity appearing as security, sends most of them back to more familiar territor, that is, back to being who they know themselves to be, or to attempt to become someone whom they already “know” will be better. The wide availabity of methods devised to blunt feelings of fear and pain makes staying with what is actually going on mentally, socially, and ecologically, all that much harder. As part of our mental programming, we routinely place our trust on therapeutical and chemical remedies, mind-numbing forms of entertainment, and social reform initiatives that, in treating parts and aspects of our symptomatic stress and distress block direct and complete perception of the source and nature of our common affliction which, in turn, kills the possibility of a definitive solution.
How could the division, antagonism, fear, and sorrow created by predetermined and self-centered thought be ever eliminated, if the collective phenomenon of mental alienation from life at its root remains hidden behind countless personal entities each identified with whatever may be the fruit of its exclusive, and therefore necessarily puny cognitive grasp.
To clearly see that one is intimately implicated in this general situation, and that the contradictory ideologies, institutions, and methods that have brought it about cannot ever lead anyone out of it, is already to stand, undefined and therefore alone, within the realm of the unknowable. As already suggested, the separate mental self can hardly survive a realization that, by its very nature, is unrelated to the constant stream of images and ideas that make up and energize its fantasy of separate personal being and idealized becoming. In fact, a complete insight into the self as an isolated record of personal experience and formal learning that projects itself onto the imagined future can only occur in a mind that, by virtue of that very insight, is free of the stale limitations, trials, and tribulations of ethnocentric egotism.
Those who care to give long and profound consideration to the state of the world, the quality of their relationships, and their own mental state, inevitably come to see that the risks involved in a radical shift in consciousness are amply justified by the sheer inanity of staying the course dictated by tradition and habit. However, even this level of awareness may be thwarted by a strong need for guidance in how to go from one mode of being to another. More precisely: the questioning, but still heavily conditioned mind is prone to demand a method (or a choice between several alternative methods) that would facilitate —better yet, guarantee— safe mental transit away from the strictures and sorrows of the conditioned self and into the presumably boundless space of the unknowable.
The question of how to proceed is, in this particular matter, a wrong and dangerously misleading question. This, for the simple reason that no predetermined, known method could possibly lead to a complete departure from the defended narrows of the personally and tribally known. To ask for a method is to demand knowledge, authority, certainty, and the time presumed necessary for some “one” to go from state A to state B, and these are all elements characteristic of the self-centered process of knowledge and thought that is our fundamental problem in the first place.
Gradual change through which one moves away from a given set of psychological traits and/or social circumstances guided and motivated by a different set (already known as a significant improvement over the previous one) is, clearly, what we are more or less comfortable with. What is necessary, however, is the irreversible end of a state of consciousness that is itself the mental record, and the invariable outcome, of a very long cultural,and personal process of insufficient and outright dysfunctional change.
Conformity with a given tribal garrison and personal trench in the never-ending war for self-realization is naturally adverse to questioning the source and nature of separate being. Conversely, a profound discontent with things as they are, inevitably leads to the shocking realization that one is, along with everyone else, only part of a collective mental system permanently rigged to produce slightly different versions of the same knowledge-based psychological disorder and conflictive social segmentation. (A) mind is only lucid, fully awakened if it is in independent, direct, holistic, and passive (non-reactive) contact with the conflict and suffering that results from the chronic conditioning of the human mind by exclusive, fragmentary, and limited knowledge. This contact is impersonal, it has nothing to do with memory, fear, and the sense of time that constitute and fuel the process of personal being and becoming.
But again, while keen attention to fact and profound empathy may lead to an unprecedented manner of being, this will never happen if the mind is still held in the incantation of an idealized, and therefore already known future demanding that one do something to attain it. Self-centered thought can gain some idea of the nature of mental conditioning and social fragmentation, and it can also feel strongly about its awful consequences, but it is constitutionally incapable of passively holding a question that is all-encompassing, and therefore immensely vital but that, for the same reason it cannot possibly answer, ever.
This question can be very tentatively stated in this manner: Is our presence in the cosmos necessarily limited to the broken-up life and the traumatized process of personal thought and desire we inherit and so blithely lend ourselves to propagate?
No matter how noble and well-thought out, any future projection of a mode of being pre-figured by exclusive experience/knowledge will only add another chapter to the same dysfunctional mental and historical process, and thus annul the possible manifestation of an unthinkably new state of being. What is in order is not another attempt to partially and gradually modify oneself, but rather an abrupt and irreversible break in the mechanical continuity of tribal and self-centered knowledge and thought.
As we approach the end of this brief but difficult investigation of the known and the unknowable, let us briefly revisit some of its essential characteristics.
The first ingredient of the kind of insufficient or counterproductive change with which we are all familiar is a desirable goal that motivates and orients a movement away from what is no longer personally satisfactory, and towards what is assumed to be a better “me” in better circumstances meriting future realization. A second ingredient of false change is a source of authority warranting the worthiness of the goal ahead, and providing the sequential steps deemed necessary to reach it. A final ingredient is the effort and time involved in gradually attaining anything in the physical, psychological, social, and so-called “spiritual” realms.
As you might have already surmised from what has come before, all these ingredients: goal, authority, method, effort, and time are constitutive elements of the self-centered process of knowledge and thought that is the central cause of our endemic isolation, division, and conflict.
The eternally discontented self whose identity and very existence depend on the knowledge it has already accumulated and what it imagines would be good to experience, learn, and achieve in the future, cannot ever find the complete fulfillment it craves. The appetites of the self are boundless and the traditional means at its disposal ultimately only capable of dispensing further frustration, conflict, and grief. For the last time, the fundamental problem of humanity as presently constituted is the fake separate existence of more than seven and a half billion, and counting, contradictory versions of the same collective mindset that assures its continuity through the common desire of its individual constituents to attain exclusive forms of security and self-realization. More succinctly yet, the mental projections of different and opposed cultural fragments and their countless individual members only serve to maintain the antagonistic mental and tribal isolation that has forever been the scourge of the species as a whole.
All anyone can do is honestly and passively face the intrinsic divisiveness and insensitivity a false sense of existential separation and the futility of endlessly attempting to secure a state of exclusive fulfillment that does not exist. The truth is, there is no separation. A mind somehow free from secular and religious predetermination and self-projection, and therefore anonymous and uncluttered, is one with the unthinkable wholeness of life.