Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Malaise and causation: the question of interpretation

As many readers know, I have been sick for the past month plus with a digestive disorder. In the end, it turned out that I am infected with a tropical parasite. Fortunately, although debilitating, it's completely treatable.

What fascinates me is how eager some of my friends were to have it my disease was of some cosmic spiritual nature. I got all kinds of advice about how this plague was a sign of some deep inner malaise--wrong work of centers--my energy out of alignment--and so on. The idea that it could be something as simple as a microbe just wasn't good enough. (Even my gastrointestinal specialist crawled to this conclusion--which I intuited the very first week--at a snail's pace.) Interpretations of a metaphysical nature had to be slapped onto the situation willy-nilly in order to make it either interesting, or valid, or whatever it is that we metaphysical types think has to be done in order to comprehend a nasty, inexplicable situation.

Sound familiar?

I don't know about the rest of you, but when I get a parasite, I want a modern doctor to treat me with the appropriate drug. I'm not in the mood to sniff catnip or have people burn moxie sticks over me. I don't have anything at all against homeopathic medicine--some of my best friends practice it, and I wholeheartedly (tho sometimes, I admit, skeptically) support them --, but I think I'll apply it after all of the flagellates are dead, thanks.

Along the same line, yesterday, while I was at Costco checking out I heard one woman say to another, "Everything happens for a reason."

This statement seems to be exactly along the lines of what I was hearing from everyone who told me my parasite was some informative visitation from a higher plane.

Now, I do think that everything that happens to us can be turned to our advantage. I learned a great deal from both an inner and outer point of view from this little bug (well, more accurately put, these billions of little bugs) I am hosting. They became a teacher for me. At the same time, I am not sure that we can say "everything happens for a reason" with any degree of confidence when it comes to ordinary explanations.

Those of you who have been following the blog may see that this idea "everything happens for a reason" is closely related to Dogen's examination of cause and effect. From a strictly technical -- not even metaphysical -- point of view, cause and effect dictate that everything does indeed happen for a reason. The reason that things happen is that the thing just before them happened, and so on. As is famously said, "Time is just one damn thing after another," or, "Time is nature's way of making sure that everything doesn't happen all at once."

The law of cause and effect is very much in line with Gurdjieff's observation about people wanting things in life to be different. "For one thing to be different," he said to Ouspensky, "everything would have to be different. And the world does not work that way." (excuse the quotes -- in fact, I am paraphrasing. But that's pretty much what he said.) And we cannot, as is often popular, invoke the uncertainty of the quantum level to sneakily point out that things are inherently random and somehow may work out very differently at any moment. It has been irrevocably proven that quantum uncertainty levels out to a very nicely predictable average once we encounter physical reality. Uncertainty may provide the undercarriage for reality, but only after it balances itself.

So, indeed, viewed from our level -- the one where atoms have, more or less, made up their mind about what's going to happen next --nothing can be different. While we find, in Gurdjieff's "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson," that the course of the universe, and of man's individual life, may well be set within an irreducible matrix of cause and effect, we also see that from his point of view, man's participation in the experience of that matrix can vary a great deal.

The entire course of a man's life may be inevitable. How he takes it into himself is not.

I've spoken a number of times about the danger of our a priori assumptions -- that is, using a pre-existing formulation to interpret life, instead of using the experience of life to formulate. Hence, attempts to interpret life in any ordinary way using the statement "everything happens for a reason" are nothing more, in the end, than tempting the fates. In a universe of an infinite number of possible reasons, the chances of picking the wrong one are, well, just about infinite.

To me, the phrase ends up sounding more like a pacifier to suck on than a meaningful statement about how we are, and where we are.

I'll tell you a little secret here. It is absolutely true that everything happens for a reason.

However, it is not possible for the ordinary mind to know or even imagine what the reason is.

So when your friends (or even I) begin to explain ordinary things for you using metaphysical hooey--and don't think I won't, because I fall prey to this foolish habit just like the rest of us -- make sure you take it with more than one grain of salt. The reasons for what takes place are more inscrutable than we are capable of scruting.

All of this tends for me to underscore the constant interference of the ordinary mind, which insists on polluting our ability to experience in a more sensitive manner.

And on that note, I need to devote the remainder of my energy on this lunch hour to supporting the many smaller lifeforms that I am currently responsible for, pending the immanent arrival of their chemical eviction notice.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.


  1. The Pharisees would have a field day with this one.

    There is an interesting chapter in the New Testament, Luke 13, which is relevant. I am going to paraphrase what is written in that chapter because I have heard the story differently through an oral tradition.

    The Pharisees were always trying to trip Jesus up by asking him all sorts of questions which had rabbinical legal scrupulosities attached to them.

    One day they come up to him and they ask, "what about the 18 men who were killed when a wall fell in the town of Siloam? Whose sin caused their deaths, their own or their fathers?

    To the Pharisees, bad things that happened to people had to have religious cause and effect -- and a belief that the sins of the fathers could be visited upon the sons unto the seventh generation. So basically, they were trying to trick Jesus into proclaiming a legal stance, which they could then use against him.

    Guess what he said? Basically he said that the wall fell down, period. It was an accident and nobody's sin or lack of sin precipitated it.

    What a revelation! Things can happen accidentally and randomly! The hand of God does not have to intervene like a giant child knocking over his little toys because he is angry over something the toy did.

    The relevant chapter reads:

    Luke 13:

    Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.

    Or those 18 who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them -- do you think that they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."

    I too was guilty of trying to interpret your illness along some psychophysical lines. You visit China a lot and other places. It's no great surprise that you pick up a parasite. I have a friend who spent some time in Africa and suffered from malaria. Would anyone dream up some sort of connection with his psyche to explain the malaria? I rather doubt it. But we all sit in our Hightowers, waiting for somebody to come along so that we can exploit our genius by telling them what to do and what is wrong with them.

    What we all need is a medical procedure -- an ego-ectomy.


  2. The point being, once again, that yes all things happen for a reason. That you would wish to see that reason as entirely of the physical plane and occurring without your consent is the psycho-spiritual issue. Our concern is more that you persist in seeing only the duality and not the unity. Yes, we create the world, and yes we create parasites. As well as antibiotics. But it is the creation that was the issue and that "causation" works in the same way as all of heaven and earth: as above, so below.

    As for rlnyc here, he has missed the point of the passage. The lesson to the Pharisses was: It was NOT sin that caused the tower to fall. Not "sins" that were a failure to observe the "law". Not "sins" that mark some men as lesser than others. Jesus did not say "this is an accident".

    We do not live in an accidental, coincidental world. That was the point. Christ died on the cross; this was not simply Pilate coincidentally deciding to make an example of someone. Christ died out of his own intention. There is no more larger ego at play than that which would say "I am not responsible, this is coincidental".

    Consider this.

  3. Dear Kath,

    First of all I'm awfully glad to see other people entering comments on Lee's blog, and I have to be careful with myself lest I engender any conflict or dialogue where we might fall into the trap of disagreeing reflexively based on semantics and syntax and argue every jot and tittle. I can find myself doing that quite easily, and so I apologise in advance for what follows:

    Perhaps I HAVE missed the point of the passage. I thought it should have been clear that I was not putting the phrase "it was an accident" into Jesus' mouth. It was I myself implying that it was an accident, due to a reading of the relevent passages.

    That's why I included the actual passages in Luke 13 -- so that I would not be misunderstood.

    I consider myself a full-fledged member of many religions, including Christianity, Taoism, Sufism and Hinduism, and I enjoy a thorough scholarly knowledge of these as well as Yoga, Alchemy, Hermeticism etc..

    Within Hinduism there are six philosophical arms or viewpoints:

    One insists on ultimate unity and in fact takes its name from Sanskrit for the phrase "not two (nondual) end of Scriptural teaching", or the Advaida Vedanta. The Advaida Vedanta denies any duality as an elementary illusion and proclaims unity.

    But your phrase, "Yes, we create the world, and yes we create parasites. As well as antibiotics;" This sounds even closer to Christian Science than it does to Advaida Vedanta.

    In studying quantum physics one finds the same conundrum in the basic argument between Bohr and Einstein as to whether God plays dice or not. Perhaps he does, perhaps he doesn't. But why shouldn't he? One young whippersnapper physicist commented to Einstein, "Dr. Einstein, who are you to tell God what he may or may not do?"

    Of all the religions I have studied with great dedication for 50 years, I consider myself firstly a Gurdjieffian -- a student of Mr. Gurdjieff even if he died two years before I was born. I listen to him as my mentor and guide, my adopted Father or Grandfather, and I am truly his essence friend eager to lend my shoulder to his Work.

    With great generosity and compassion towards mankind and according to his general aim of helping men to find their consciences and reorient them to a new understanding of mankind's purpose and place in the Cosmos, and for men to acquire a new conception of "God," Mr. Gurdjieff declared with great verve that there is a thing called the "law of accident" under which most men fall.(in my use, the words man and men are genderless- by them i mean homosapien-sapiens)

    And he warned against the consequences of becoming free of this law.

    Even the very word happiness comes from a root etymologically which means "a chance falling towards that which pleases the recipient". Those are the haps.

    You think I have missed the point of the passage. Let us assume you are right.

    If as you say, "We do not live in an accidental, coincidental world", then we are RESPONSABLE! -- We automatically become "Christians" in the full sense and meaning of that word.

    We are then under a stricter law -- and yes, perhaps hithertofore there may have been accident, but now no more. We become responsible and time and error and "sin" are counted against us.

    According to Hinduism we have then entered into the world of the Samkya (ennumeration), where absolutely everything is real including our thoughts, dreams, imaginations, illusions, delusions, in other words, everything. Now you are responsible for everything.

    Kath, if as you say, "We create the world": why have you created such a crappy one that people are not nice to one another; that there are wars going on presently in several parts of the world; that there are tsunamis and hurricanes and tornadoes and droughts and torrential rains and floods and disease and illness and so on?

    Or is that only the "world" I have made, and you live in a different one where all is "perfect"?

    Kath, if we do not live in an accidental, coincidental world, and if as you say, we create the world (the use of the plural "we" being that of the Royal sense), then why are you such a cruel God?

    Do you enjoy the "world" that you have created? Is it our sins, or the sins of our fathers that are being visited upon us through your wrath? Or do you believe that everything is perfect if only we could accept it, turning a blind eye to suffering?

    Why do you permit this to be such a rogue planet that mankind despoils his own nest?

    You don't need to answer any of these questions. They may be seen as rhetorical. They are simply exhibits, like pieces of art to be looked at and pondered over.

    You may have the answers, but aha and alas, I have questions!



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.