Tag Archives: empathy

The Treacherous Terrain of Spiritual Utilitarianism

Imagine that you, a person who considers yourself firmly on a fulfilling spiritual path, have just broken your leg in a freak accident. While recovering in the hospital, you are visited by someone who, up until now, has been a dear friend. Unfortunately, that is about to change…

Your friend opens her mouth to comfort you and says, “It must be really hard to be dealing with this right now. But,” she continues with unnatural excitement, “You’ve given yourself such a wonderful soul growth opportunity!”

When you gawk at her with both incomprehension and a sinking feeling that perhaps you’d rather remain ignorant of her meaning, she simply ploughs ahead with the explanation you never had been waiting for. “See, before you were born, your soul chose all the lessons you were to learn in your lifetime. You chose to sign up for all sorts of traumatic experiences, including breaking your leg, so you could accelerate your spiritual development in this lifetime. Gosh, what a wonderful thing! Think of everything you can learn from it!”

Wonderful? Your doctor is running late on his rounds and you’re in need of more pain relief. After ordering your friend to leave in a voice which sounds unsettlingly more like a growl than a human, you sink back on the hospital pillows hoping for some peace. But it doesn’t come.

Despite yourself, you find you are very disturbed both by what your friend said and what her words imply. How can your friend actually believe her own words? And what if, an admittedly terrifying thought, your friend is right? After all, can anyone really prove her wrong?

Did you choose before birth that you were going to break your leg? Does everyone choose what happens to them before birth? What about abuse or cancer survivors, what about survivors of genocide. Surely, assuming there’s an afterlife; no soul would choose such a horrible experience willingly, no matter how sweeping the universal perspective might be. You think back to spiritual teachings you’ve heard in the past about the other side being full of light and unconditional love. Could anyone possessing unconditional love for themselves and all beings ever justify or permit atrocities to be done to themselves or others they love simply on the grounds of expedience? Talk about violence inherent in the system!

The above example is of course hypothetical, but the concept it describes is alive and well. It is a concept that is perhaps most popular in new age philosophy and spirituality, but is gaining supporters from people of spiritual backgrounds of all sorts. It is defended in books you never would want to pick up and read, and books by people who genuinely, purposefully, and passionately live their own spirituality every day with heart and dedication. In the spirit of respectful disagreement, I chose to quote someone of the latter sort to exemplify.

Lissa Rankin is a spiritual person I greatly admire, many of whose teachings and perspectives I have also come to adopt along my own spiritual journey. She is definitely not the first, and certainly won’t be the last to defend the plausibility of what I call spiritual utilitarianism, the doctrine that actions are right or acceptable when they maximize usefulness, here understood to consist in the greatest personal and collective spiritual development over lifetimes. Here is her eloquent and succinct articulation of spiritual utilitarianism found in her book, The Fear Cure.

Think of the greatest challenges you’ve ever faced—childhood
Abuse, the abandonment or neglect of a parent, illness or disability,
The loss of a loved one, betrayal, heartbreak, divorce, poverty,
being the victim of a violent crime, selling your soul for a paycheck,
Or whatever has hurt you the most. What if, instead of
Being a victim of these traumas, on some soul level, you chose
these challenges?

– Lissa Rankin, The Fear Cure

What if, indeed? Houston, we have a problem.

First, let us inquire into some of the practical and physical world dangers which could easily result from the widespread adoption of this view.

• Victim Blaming: It wasn’t his fault, she asked for it … literally, before she was born.)
• Apathetic Response-Ability: I can feel like a good person while I do nothing to help with (poverty, homelessness, that woman being harassed at work, that man being discriminated against for his disability) because everyone having these experiences chose to put them in their life. Who am I to interfere with their spiritual development? I’m off the hook.
• Complacency and Disconnection: If you really believe that everyone’s hardships, including your own, are a result of soul decisions you made before incarnating, compassion and empathy are optional, not necessitated. It is hard to be authentically present with your feelings if you think you have set up the circumstances of them in advance. If this is true in your own case, it is even truer when trying to relate to others who obviously chose their own suffering.
• Standard Problems for Maximizing Consequentialist Theories: Spiritual utilitarianism holds that actions are spiritually good/worthy if they maximize spiritual growth and minimize spiritual regression or stagnation. It is for this reason a maximizing consequentialist theory—that is, the good on this view is defined in terms of maximizing consequences and outcomes.

Spiritual Objections to Spiritual Utilitarianism
• Spiritual Utilitarianism is a System That Fosters Disconnection: The choice which spiritual utilitarianism posits occurs before birth is itself, after drawing out implications of the theory, a vehicle for separation. That is enough to call its claim to being a theory of spirituality into question.
• A Theory to Shield One From Vulnerability and Mortality: Spiritual Utilitarianism is a wonderful defense mechanism against confronting your own mortality or your own susceptibility to pain, illness, disability, loss, and hardship. Are you struggling with a disability or illness? You can try to console yourself with the thought that your higher self lovingly wanted this for you. Are you currently able bodied and are afraid of disability or loss? You don’t need to confront your fears or seriously question your inaccurate assumptions about others’ quality of life if they all asked to have such experiences. You can ward off fears of facing your own vulnerability in this way, too, believing that while the future is uncertain to you, your higher self already knows all about it. Defense mechanisms always sound like a good idea until you remember they are one of the most common barriers between you and genuine spiritual development, interconnection with all of life, and self honesty. Defensiveness leads to self-deception, which prevents a person from either fully shining her own light, or being able to fully give and receive love. When any spiritual concept or theory is used as a defense mechanism, it creates suffering, disconnection and isolation, and blocks openness, integrity, intimacy, love, and acceptance.
• A Superiority Complex: If you are happy and healthy, spiritual utilitarianism could easily lead you to conclude that you’re quite spiritually evolved, while those who are suffering have a lot to learn. But one of the most fundamental spiritual truths that exist is that we are spiritually equal. And one of the most fundamental physical truths is that we are equally susceptible to vulnerability. After these considerations, spiritual utilitarianism seems right out, as well as highly divisive.
• Spiritual Utilitarianism Permits Betrayal by your Higher Power: Should god/source/the one betray you in the name of expedience? Assuming for a moment such a betrayal is possible, spiritual utilitarianism seems to condone such a soul-devastating occurrence if it will result in your rapid spiritual development (somehow.) It might also be permissible for human beings, in the name of spiritual utilitarianism, to create suffering for others if that suffering is found to further spiritual growth. At first, this might sound crazy. But it is most definitely not, when you remember that the theory in question defines right action only in terms of the act’s consequences.

Questions That Need Asking:
Before taking any theory on board as part of your ethical outlook or spiritual practice/belief system, critical thinking is a must. Here are the questions I’ve asked myself about spiritual utilitarianism.

1. Generally, we think it wrong to sign off on something without another’s consent. The incarnate you will not remember her link to the soul who made the decisions for her life to come. How is choosing horrendous hardships for your future incarnate self any different morally from making the same choices on behalf of your imminently arriving future clone?

2. Suppose you want to learn a spiritual lesson and there is a rapid harrowing way of achieving it and a much slower gentle way of achieving it. Is it really ethical (or an act of self-love or compassion) to willingly harm yourself by subjecting yourself to the former rather than opting for the latter? My intuition is that such self harm is spiritually/ethically wrong, but such a decision would be praised for its goodness on the spiritual utilitarianism theory.

3. If it would maximize your spiritual growth through a particular soul lesson for you to cause grave suffering to another, should you do it?

4. Is suffering ever absolutely necessary? Are unconditional love and prechosen courses of suffering compatible?

5. It seems that the claim that we need to maximize spiritual growth is incompatible with actually achieving such growth. That is, a person who goes about actively trying to maximize her development will, by the very nature of grasping after outcomes, distance herself even further from the goal. Does the same self-defeating logic apply on the other side?

6. Is it possible for a soul to live authentically, allowing the divine to lead her, while insisting on choosing for herself ahead of time how her life is going to go, at a general level.

7. What if you’re not a utilitarian? If spiritual utilitarianism were true, would all souls have to adopt it? What if you, as a spiritual being, lived by completely different principles or took a different approach to growing and becoming more generally. Aren’t you allowed to conduct yourself according to your deepest truth, or is spirituality cosmically standardized? I shudder at the thought!

Personally, after working through all these implications of the spiritual utilitarianism theory, I am willing to see it sent off to that lovely place to which absurd, harmful, or groundless theories go when their time has expired. I am willing, as well, to bet that whatever happens after we die, choosing the pivotal events of great suffering for our lives to come is not part of it. We can thank the gods for that!

I will eventually be following this post up with another which aims to explore what, if anything, might replace the rather misplaced theory of spiritual utilitarianism as a plausible theory of spiritual growth and right action. Don’t be surprised if it has virtue ethics in it. I mean, my entire dissertation is on virtue ethics. What else would I advocate? Surely, it would be the very stuff I believe and live by.

Meanwhile, question everything.

I Wonder Why

Little girl next door
Screams, screams, sheds no tears … again
I’m wondering why

In Difficult Moments: Learning to Let Myself Be Seen

I would speak for you,
I would call the colors, help you name the sadness in your eyes.
I would sing the sky’s song to you,
And hold the space for you that has no words.

But right now, peering through the dark stained glass,
Full of the mists of weariness,
I wish that silence would blow across the marshes of my memory,
Seep into conversation, drowning out my own sadness.

Sometimes there is only inky confusion
Lapping at the shores of my life,
As if a wave could slip onto sand indecisively,
Curling up upon itself just before its journey’s over.

Shame and its isolation wash over,
Conveniently masked by grey tears I wish no one knew about.
We have all asked, but I just don’t know why.
Shifting tides, interrupted flight patterns of birds,

An afternoon of lingering loneliness,
Longing for laughter,
And I’m trembling against sharing the seeds of such sorrow,
That never lets itself be named.

It’s tempting to frame it for you in pretty packaging,
Hoping, halfheartedly, that this time the tenebrous tendrils, fog of forgetfulness
Will snatch the melancholy from my mind,
Before you notice what’s there.

But the icy wind blows fiercely through,
Tossing untried possibilities across the vacant field
Of this directionless day.
And I am haunted by the changes I did not make fast enough, well enough.

Why can I not look inside
And recognize this nameless grief as mine?
Defeated I stare across the divide to where I thought I’d be by now .
Me—–you; place-where-I’m-standing—–place-of-my- longing.

The season is coming to an end,
And I fear I have harvested nothing.
I return empty handed, it seems, but for the tears pooled in my palms
Settling into the lifelines on my skin.

Perhaps, in this way, I can still water my dreams,
While the silent cry, breaking in waves upon the world,
Floods the landscape in its pleading,
Still aching to begin, speaking wordlessly within.

So I stop constructing paper cranes out of my pain,
And unfold the creases, between us its map and the indecipherable key,
The empty spaces for which I have no words.
And we wander the pathways there that I have yet to tread,

Because this is how we remember,
Our lives are but a single thread.
Because this is love that holds us, even if it can’t be heard.
Our raw moments of connection are the knots tying us together,

And it takes everything I have, to step across, reach out,
But when I do, the illusions shatter
And I’m amazed to find that you understand, that the shadows are familiar,
That you too struggle to name them, to share the origins of tears.

I would speak for me:
I feel undone, discouraged, , alone.
Could you surround me in your present, quiet light,
Until the fog clears, until I’m assured once more we’re home?

Please, help me gather these broken pieces
On the edge of this unknown,
Where there is nothing left to hide:
And for a moment keep them safe for me, carry them with your own.

A Year Ago Today _ When Two Worlds Meet: Part 9

July 26, 2013

The fire crackles, contained neatly in its metal fire ring. I watch the flames in their leaping, weaving shapes and shadows before my eyes, telling of tales I cannot quite read, dancing a song I can watch but cannot hear. Above me, the stars are shining somewhere in the night. Night, the closer of the two, presses in on all sides, and moving slowly around the flames to keep away from the smoke I feel I understand what a planet must feel like, orbiting its central star, the only thing keeping it from folding into the blackness of vacuous space.

Most of us have gone to bed. I surmise it might be around 1 in the morning, or later. Only three of us are awake now. I’ve been talking to a young man who claims to be an anarchist but the only label I’ve managed to give him is “obnoxious.” He has invariably been irritating me all night, and I have a headache from talking to him. Fortunately, this is when White Fire walks over and sits down with us, seeking company and the warmth of the flames.

We are several groups of druids camping on an ancient mountain in Southern California, my own Seed Group, and a group from around the mountains in which we’re now gathered. White Fire is a member of the second group.

When he sits down, White fire turns to me and begins a conversation about the otherworld. I’m happy to talk to him. First of all, his voice is quiet and calm, a nice antidote for my headache. Secondly, the man who has been the source of the headache knows nothing about the otherworld, which means I am guaranteed that he will shut up for however long White Fire and I keep on with the conversation. Thirdly, White Fire knows something I do not, many things I do not: I feel it in my bones. I feel in my bones that I must speak to him: now.

“What do you know of the purple fog?” I ask.

“The purple fog is the twilight,” he answers in a way that makes me imagine him saying so with a smile and wandering eyes.

I shiver despite the warmth of the fire. I have written several poems about purple fog, being the twilight, thinking this was a grand metaphor, but never suspected that I could be drawing on an ancient truth, one that now I realized I always knew, if only by an ancient instinct.

We talk for twenty minutes or so about the twilight and the fog.

But I have a more urgent question. One I am a bit terrified to ask. Well, to be honest, I am not afraid of asking the question, but of finally finding an answer. I feel I will in fact finally have an answer tonight. It’s a question that has haunted me since 2010. I can’t let it go, and now I can’t ignore it, even if I tried.

If the question were a child, it would be jumping up and down, tugging on my arm, and squealing incessantly for attention. Fortunately, I have only to deal with the question, and not the image of the impatient toddler it is conjuring in my mind.

“Where in the bardic Gwersu are you at now, White Fire?” I ask for a start.

The order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids,
http://www.druidry.org,
of which we at the campsite are all a part, is divided into three grades, the bardic grade being the first and the one I am in. Gwers (gwersu plural) is the welsh word for lesson, and our study course contains 48 lessons, gwersu, in the bardic grade. I can’t remember now which number White Fire responds with, but I do a fast calculation and know he must know about what I am about to speak of, since the number he gives is past eight.

“Do you remember reading in gwers 8 about the fianna, and how they’re sleeping in a cave, and someone starts to wake them up, but only gets two thirds done with it before running away in fright and leaving them off pretty miserably?” I ask. My hands are folded much too tightly in my lap, while with an effort I try extremely hard not to conjure the picture of the fianna sleeping in the cave, even though usually I see a picture of the scene my words are conveying at any time whether I am talking about the otherworld or a washing machine. The picture would upset me too much.

“Yeah, I remember that story,” White Fire confirms for me. “Why? What do you want to know?”

I nod, take a deep breath. “What’s happening about it, do you know?” I am shifting around self-consciously, not sure whether I am actually comfortable having this conversation. I’ve never spoken about this with anyone. It’s the kind of thing most people would meet with concern, and perhaps a question about my health or sanity. But I remind myself I am speaking to a fellow traveler on a druid path, and so it is much more likely that I will be taken seriously and heard without a large dose of negative judgment. I continue by way of clarification, “I mean, is anything being done about it? This is a situation that can’t continue, especially if they really are worse off than before. I cant rule out the possibility. What do you know? Is anyone looking for them, are people on this already?” I am thinking to myself that usually I have this conversation about things like global warming or the conflict in the Middle East, or food stamp regulations, or the protection of children. I’m not thinking of this situation much differently, I realize.

“It’s already happening,” White Fire says quietly.

“Oh,” I exclaim half to myself and half to him. My relief is almost tangible. And then a thought suddenly crosses my mind, a question really: I’d said in 2010 that if I ever had a chance, I would finish what was started so that whatever waking needed to happen, I’d help complete the last third. Did I just now stumble onto the chance to do just that, I wonder?

What I do know is that I’m not going to be content to stand by and go about things as usual, leaving what might need to be done to other people. I want, need, to be a part of the solution. I feel quite strongly about this, but if I am honest with myself, I can’t fathom the reason why. Why given so many stories about so many ancient people, would this particular one not only catch my attention but spring me into action? I am sure, only, of the fact that it has.

“What exactly is already happening,” I ask White Fire. “Do you know anyone who has gone to the otherworld to get help from people there? What has been done already?”

“I don’t know,” he admits. “I only know that something is already being done. It’s been going on for a while. People are waking up. It’s happening everywhere. All around us.”

I picture nondescript sleeping people slowly waking up completely, getting to their feet awkwardly, walking into the sunlight, squinting and shading their eyes, attempting to move after being horizontal for an unconscionably long length of time. But I have to erase the picture rather quickly.

Instead, I begin to weigh the likelihoods of various scenarios which I might come to encounter. I allow myself to consider the logical possibility, albeit a small one, that the myth could have more reality in it than anyone would want to believe. In which case, I think fervently to myself, for the sake of the fianna, I hope that such a theoretical possibility can’t physically occur and this particular myth fully lives up to the literal falsehood by which the modern term “myth” is defined. On the other hand, the probability that the story speaks of a profound metaphor is much, much higher, and less cruel, in equal measure.

However, because my philosophically trained mind can’t rule either possibility out wholesale, I have to act. As soon as possible. I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know where I’ll have to go to do it, or if I have to go journey to a different world (which for me will be easier since sight won’t get in the way.) I actually know little about the fianna specifically, other than of their importance, but that does not matter either. What matters is their freedom, and if I can do anything at all.

And then White Fire’s words fall into place for me. Of course, I realize, the story is about shifting consciousness. This is about returning to ourselves. Perhaps the myth is meant to show those of us living now how we ourselves are sleeping, numbing ourselves out against pain, persisting rather than existing, going through the motions of living what we are told to become, rather than joining the dance of life as all that we are. If I was not cold despite the heat from the fire and my four layers of clothing, I am now. The person who told the story in the particular way she did in the gwers had not just conveyed the need to wake an ancient group of people: she called us if we would listen to awake to what of them we might find within ourselves.

In 2010 I heard, but I am actively listening now. What would it be to live as an awake person? I yearn to know. I want to wake up, I want to walk into the world tall and sure of my own belonging. I will look within myself first, then, before looking anywhere else. Even so, I have to make sure this is in fact the metaphor and the people in the story are actually okay. They do exist, I think, I am sure of it. And I am also sure that I would try to do what I could to help, rather than run from them. Running just seems so unnecessary, and a waste of time besides.

“Thanks,” I say to White Fire, sincerely, letting go of something I have been worrying over for three years now. I read once that actions define us, shape who we are. The fog of indecision lifts, and then a path is visible ahead, every moment a choice. And when all is said and done, choosing is easier than never making up your mind, no matter how hard the decision. Well, at least for me.

It is several weeks later, one late night back home in Berkeley, that I get the opportunity to be a part of what happens. Trying to take to heart what I’ve learned in the bardic gwers on storytelling, I decide I ought to memorize a story. The best story to memorize, explains the gwers, is one that speaks to you, that you always come back to. There is only one story fitting that description for me right now: the myth in Gwers 8. I set myself to memorizing it. As I go about what needs doing that evening, I recite the story in my head as best I can, and then when I have finished I recite it again. Without thinking, I recite it a third time.

Three is a powerful number, the binding number. I have spoken my intention three times, giving my word to it, but on this night I have forgotten that fact. I’ve got to go grab something out of my room, and that’s all I’m thinking about after I finish the third telling of the story. Concentrating entirely on the practicalities of the moment, I walk through the door distractedly. Halfway across the floor, I jump out of my skin, then try to recover from being startled as quickly as possible. I blink, a few times, bewildered, more than a little in awe of what I see. I don’t move.

There, as clear as day, only about a foot away from me, stand twelve people, in two rows. It’s hard to understand how they managed to fit in the space they are occupying, as they are all quite tall and imposing. They range from 5/8 to 6/5 in height, roughly. They stand very straight, very still. They are all male, and I notice, carry shields with intricate swirling patterns I can’t quite make out or understand, and are wearing large belts with swords hanging from them. They all seem to have chosen to appear as they were in youth, though based on what they are wearing I know they lived a very, very long time ago.

I’m having trouble meeting their eyes, I am more than a little daunted by the idea. But I am not having trouble recognizing them. I am unmistakably looking at twelve fianna warriors, who are now patiently standing in my room. What to do?

I decide the natural response would be to be afraid, but I dismiss the idea. Far from being scared, I realize, I’m excited to see them. First, I am full of relief and something like joy. They can’t very well be sleeping in a cave, I reason, if they’re standing here now. Besides, my thoughts continue, it is just plain rude to fear people I’ve never met before, and haven’t I been waiting three years to talk to them? Somehow I know I have been looking for them as much as they have been looking for me. Now, we have found each other.

And then I realize I am staring. I look quickly at the ground to stop staring, remember that this isn’t polite either, and so, with determination, I look directly into their eyes … and then I can’t recall why I just hadn’t done that in the first place. In pictures I say, “Hello. I’m Éilis. It’s nice to meet you.”

A year has passed since my conversation with White Fire. One incredible, transformative, amazing, mind boggling, awesome, healing, wonderful year has gone by. I started out wanting to help a group of people I barely knew get themselves out of a cave in which they could neither live, nor die. Instead, I found myself reunited with my family, my very ancient family. I walk my journey with them. I am home. I am more myself than ever before. And I will never, ever be the same. And every day as I am living, not persisting, standing tall in the knowing that I so holy belong here and now, I often wonder, as there is so much to wonder at, what now? Whatever it is, there’s no need to wait to find out. It’s already happening, after all.

The Activity of Being

The wind breathes life into the leaves
And they are dancing,
To the music of the sunlight streaming.

High above me, the birds are not afraid
To let others hear their songs,
And with them I would wander, sharing music of my own
If only elements were all I had to live for.

So many voices, drown out by airplanes and great rivers of cars.
And the light within each creature hardly seems to shine,
Lost beneath the tides of artificial illumination
They vanish as we take what belongs to them, make it ours.

Like the birds who greet the sky at dawn,
With their ancient song of wisdom,
I will scatter drops of melody upon this place.

Perhaps, one day, every life will hear
What long-ago we soon forgot to be ours,
And as silent time passes, we’ll add back our voices
Rekindle our shining, recognize our wholeness.

It is time to remember,
For being is the great activity
Moving us, moving through us all,
And in it we have never given up participation.

Among the two many reasons, the gnawing unknowings,
Even where shadows blossom and the kindred we continue not to claim are keening,
always wonder and belonging, to hold us like beloved children,
Call us to return. Call and await us at the center.