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Friday, August 22, 2014


In a lecture given in Boston in 1906 (and included in his book Pragmatism), the philosopher William James commented on the curious fascination a person feels in hearing deep things talked about. That "problematic thrill" we feel in the presence of vastness. Let a controversy begin in a smoking-room anywhere, he said, about free-will or God's omniscience, or good and evil, and see how everyone in the place pricks up his ears. Philosophy's results concern us all most vitally, and philosophy's queerest arguments tickle agreeably our sense of subtlety and ingenuity.

Does this still hold today? There are few smoking-rooms, but let's substitute your local watering hole, as there are quite a few bars and pubs in any given city. Visit one of these establishments and eavesdrop on the conversations going on at booths and on stools, and what are you likely to hear? A discourse on the purpose of life? The nature of existence? Consciousness?

Likely not.

What you will hear are men grunting lascivious remarks to female objects of desire, harangues charged with expletives and laced with profanity and idle chit-chat that rarely if ever raises above the latest sporting event or phone app. Indeed, with the population's attention fixed so unswervingly on smart phones, dialogues often don't even take place, unless fingertips taping on a touchscreen count as conversation. Ask a person questions concerning the nature of reality and it is likely they will spit back some hackneyed phrase from a billboard, bumper or sitcom, like "It's all about love," or "We're all energy." Which is fine and may be true, but isn't it sad that so many of us are uncomfortable delving beneath the surface?

James certainly would have thought so. He numbered himself among those who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is his view of the universe. He believed (living 100 years ago) that every man and woman had a philosophy, and that this philosophy was the most interesting and important thing about a person, determining as it does one's perspective and influencing one's actions. For example the person who believes in an afterlife, with actions punishable in hell and rewarded in heaven, certainly would behave differently than the atheist who posits total annihilation of one's existence at bodily death.

An ethos is a characteristic spirit of a culture, community, or era. A universal ethos is the absolute spirit, that which doesn't change, and so deserves the definition of truth. What is this ethos? What is your philosophy? Who are you? What is the purpose of life? And what is the nature of the universe? I ask you to write down your answer. Of course I could give you mine, which I assure you has been developed over years, with the help of books and aided by experience, burnished with intuition. Of it I am proud. But I'm sure you already know it. Of course I recognize any philosophy is just a concept and that concepts are not truths, only representatives of truths, but even as such they can help turn our attention from the unreal (the mirage that is the manifest universe) to what's real (the activating consciousness on which the universe appears like images on a movie screen). What you really are is beyond a concept, but since words and thoughts are our customary media, words will have to do.

The Greeks used to spend their days discussing the nature of the universe and a being's role in it. While drinking a lot of wine. Nowadays we watch TV or visit TMZ. No wonder Dave Eggers writes in his new book that young American lives today lack a sense of purpose.

A great sage (N. Maharaj) would often ask seekers this question. Who were you 100 years ago? In other words, who were you before you inhabited your body? And who are you after your body returns to Earth? The answer to each is the same. It is who you are today.

Now you tell me, what is that?

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