Keep Your Eye on the Path: Responding to Susan Blackmore
In her recent account, “Debating Deepak: Is this ‘spiritual guru’ really spiritual?” (May 9, 2012), Susan Blackmore raises questions that have fascinated me for over a quarter of a century. What is consciousness? How is the mind related to the body? What does it mean to lead a spiritual life?
Her answers come from a long background in Zen Buddhism, mine from the non-dual tradition of Vedanta (which predates Buddhism and is the deepest spiritual tradition in India). As soon as they read these esoteric terms, many readers – unless they already practice Zen – may wonder how such arcane discussions, which haven’t been settled over the last two or three thousand years – concern them in daily life. I sympathize, because I asked myself the same question thirty years ago as a young physician in Boston who had spent a good many years ignoring the culture that gave me birth.
Once I took a serious look, however, what I concluded is that consciousness is the richest aspect of human existence. It unfolds in four areas of life that potentially bring great personal fulfillment: work, wealth, pleasure, and enlightenment. As set down by the ancient rishis, these four areas (Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha) are all spiritual in the broadest sense. What is that broadest sense? Making each phase of life into its own ideal. Liberation or enlightenment sounds spiritual to almost anyone who hears the term. Wealth and sensual desires don’t. But as life unfolds, if the universe is benevolent and consciousness is our link to the universe, the ancient sages declared that the path to enlightenment leads through every kind of aspiration, including the worldly. Blackmore would probably laugh out loud at the notion of a benevolent universe, but given the choice between a chocolate croissant and a beaker of random electrons, she takes the croissant.
Readers who arrive at the point in Blackmore’s article where she declares that the “I” or inner self is an illusion must be very baffled. Common sense identifies each of us with a self. Everyday experience depends on knowing who you are. It’s very helpful to respond to your own name rather than your neighbor’s or your dog’s. But Eastern wisdom traditions cast doubt upon the self, the isolated individual “I.” Here Blackmore delivers the standard Zen teaching about self-as-illusion, but I’d like to inform readers that there are many other ways to state the argument, in both Eastern and Western terms. A Christian seeking to redeem his soul and experience divine grace has set out to unseat the everyday self, too.
Here I want to be practical. If you sit someone down and say, “Pin a note on your bathroom mirror to remind yourself that you aren’t real,” they won’t be helped very much. Quantum physicists realize that all matter can be reduced to clouds of invisible energy, but they still drive a car to work, and cars are solid, tangible objects. The same holds true for the self. Blackmore uses the word “I” as often as anybody else, even though her spiritual background informs her that “I” isn’t real.
Hers is the same situation as any seeker’s. She’s on a path, and as the path unfolds, “I” shifts until a moment of realization arrives. Getting to that moment may take many, many years, but only then can a person make much use of the-self-as-illusion argument. Vedanta prescribes a path that arrives at the same realization. I favor this path, known as Yoga, but I respect all other wisdom traditions and in fact wrote a book on the Buddha.
Blackmore gives no respect to the Vedanta branch of Indian spirituality, even though it is far more ancient than Buddhism, has been followed for countless generations, and in the end is just as philosophical as her beloved Zen. Tagging me with the aims of Vedanta is a high compliment, although she doesn’t intend it as one. As for my own financial success, such as it is, I haven’t snooped in Blackmore’s bank account, and she shouldn’t snoop in mine. (I might also clarify that ‘guru’ is a catch-all term sometimes applied to me by the press. I’ve never applied it to myself – quite the opposite.)
It’s customary in rebuttals to make feints and jabs that embarrass your opponent. Blackmore took advantage of this entertaining ritual, but I won’t. I write books that refer to science quite often, and I check out my facts with credentialed specialists in the field, usually at a very high university level. One advantage of being in the public eye is also a disadvantage: People know what they think of you already. I enjoyed debating Susan Blackmore and believe that I have better positions on the big questions than she does. That’s why debates exist. However, any reader who is seriously interested in “Who am I?” and “What is consciousness?” won’t get answers from barbed comments between debaters. There is a path to be walked, and although Blackmore has tried to elbow me off the path, the irony is that somewhere, some day, we will meet and nod in agreement, hopefully with smiles on our faces.
Infinity is big enough to encompass both Susan Blackmore and me. Or it was the last time I looked.
Published by Psychology Today