[This post was originally written as part of my post Moral Rules. I have broken this section out into its own post, however, since this particular section goes deeper into the balance of embodying/descending and transcending/ascending, which I feel is one of the most essential truths about being human, and something I regularly share about in online discussions.]
When the word “morality” has been used in American political life or in religious discussion in the last fifty years, it has often referred to sex for the sake of pleasure rather than procreation – specifically, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, porn, polyamory, and perhaps we could say, divorce too. Sometimes people use it more broadly to refer to not just sexual pleasure, but also whether it is OK to enjoy other forms of worldly pleasure, too – drugs, alcohol, music, television, movies, fashion, hot tubs, etc. It seems to me that the biggest reason why many of the people that I socialize with don’t like the word “morality” is because it has them think of grouchy, finger-wagging stuck-in-the-past fundamentalists telling them that they shouldn’t or can’t do those fun things.
In university, I had a professor of myth and religion explain that, as he understood it, there are two primary movements to the human soul. One of them is the “ascending” and ”transcendental”, where the Divinity, Reality, and The Good is outside of this world. With this motion of soul, our job is to deny the body so as to move up and out of this world to rejoin the True World of Oneness beyond. The essential feelings of this movement are purity and peacefulness.
In this view, God might reach in to inspire a holy text or part a sea every once in a while, but Divinity is basically a cosmic watchmaker who wound up the watch and then let it go, who made the world and is now outside of it. Unbalanced examples of ascending spirituality this might be puritanical Muslim, Christian, or Jewish monotheism, Platonic Gnosticism, Thai forest Buddhism, some schools of fundamentalist Hinduism, and new age-y people who get floaty and “spiritual” and forget to pay the rent. The Buddha apparently called this motion of the soul “The Error of Nihilism” – nihilistic, because it acts like the material world that we live in is not real and does not matter, all that matters is what lies beyond.
If we are imbalanced in this ascending, world-denying direction, we will claim that pleasure is sinful – since pleasure is the main thing that keeps us lost in this world of illusion and away from union with the One. Muslim jihadis, grouchy Christians, and austere Buddhist priests tell the rest of us that we should not drink alcohol, wear sexy clothes, or watch fun movies, not just to be demanding, but because they believe that getting lost in those pleasures are what keeps us tangled up in the meaningless illusion of this world, and separate from the blissful True World where Allah, God, and Nirvana await.
The other motion of our soul is “descending” and ”immanent”, where Divinity, Reality, and The Good is down here in this messy world (or could potentially be, with the right effort). The essential feelings of this movement are compassion and vitality. Examples of this include paganism/”wicca”/nature worship, tantric sexual paths/the polyamory movement/hedonism/love of pleasure, some forms of Shintoism, money-hungry materialism, the science-y atheist movement (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc), and many aspects of Unitarian Christianity. Another example is the way in which old fashioned Marxist/socialist materialism held that the most meaningful purpose and dimension of human life has to do with social, political, and economic change, and that notions of Heaven, God, or transcendence are nothing more than tricks that oppressors use to blind us to “real world” injustice, and how some modern leftist people see things that way too. The Buddha apparently called this motion of the soul “The Error of Eternalism” – eternalistic, because it acts like the world as it appears to us is all that is real, and that it will last eternally without ever disappearing back into a Transcendent Mystery.
If we are imbalanced towards this descending direction, then enjoying pleasure can often seem to be an irremovable simple part of our basic rights as humans, and attempts to do without it seem superstitious and emotionally cold. For some of us who get attached to the world, our pleasures sometimes becomes non-negotiable to us, and we will get angry if anyone asks us to do without having it when we want it. We come to resent religious authorities, with their seemingly puritanical, old-fashioned, life-denying, and just plain cruel rules that have to do with some imaginary place we’re all supposed to try to get to.
At its worst, with pure immanent descending, pleasure can then sometimes become an addictive swamp of worldly pleasures that we sink down into and lose ourselves inside of. It is relevant that twelve step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous prescribe developing a sense of a higher power – ascending towards a feeling of transcendent unitary spirit – as an antidote for addiction.
My professor of religion said that he felt that the most mature spiritual paths are those with that balance between ascending/transcendence and descending/imminence. That feels right to me. This means realizing that the imminent and the transcendent are both Divine – the dreamer (Divine God/Goddess) is the dreaming (Time/Change/Action) is the dream (World). In Mahayana Buddhism, this balance is captured in the popular saying, “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form”. In other words, the apparent-solid-realness of the things of the world we live in, and the fact that the world is ultimately an ephemeral holographic illusion being dreamed by Divine love-consciousness, are the same thing and are not separate.
Functionally, finding balance means feeling the world as an ephermeral Divine dream, but playing full out and loving normal life anyway – we can be in the world but not caught by the world. And as for pleasure, we can know that it is as Divine as anything else, and we can enjoy whatever pleasure comes along without pushing it away or avoiding it; we can also let pleasures go without clinging to or grabbing after them or doing anything else that might obscure our moment-by-moment experience of spacious, transcendent, boundryless Oneness.
I perceive that the word “tantric” is sometimes abused in modern California, but I think that when some of my friends use the word to describe their spiritual orientation, they mean it’s best definition, which is to say, aiming towards finding this balance of “spiritual” spaciousness and enjoying being an animal.
One of my favorite quotes is something William Blake wrote that’s something like, “A saint is not someone who has extinguished the fires of Hell, as is commonly assumed. A saint is someone who lets the fires of hell burn along merrily, but channels and guides them with the structures of heaven.” When he says “fires of hell”, he meant sexual desire, anger, pride, aggression, status-seeking, digging in to life and going for what we want – human passions. And the “structures of heaven” are self-restraint, patience, social consideration, letting go, reflection, being above/beyond status seeking, keeping in mind oneness, “spiritual” stuff like that.
That little saying reminds me of how fire inside a powerplant or in an internal combustion engine can light up a city or propel a vehicle, but when fire is unconstrained it can also burn down a building. We need fire for motion and energy, but it can also kill us if escapes its bounds. So it is with our passionate energies. I’d like to think that a balance like that between fire and structure is also possible for all of us around sex, pleasure, and other “descending” energies : being alive, passionate, turned-on, sexy people who enjoy ourselves, who also are mature, considered, patient, intentional, beautiful, and “moral” about how we express ourselves.
I personally am inspired the image of a tree simultaneously growing branches up to the purity and brightness of the unitary sun, while also growing roots down into the wet, dark, rich Earth.
A tree should desire to develop itself between the power of the sun, and the opposite pull of the earth’s centre, and to balance itself between the four winds of heaven, and to unfold itself between the rain and the shine, to have roots and feelers in blue heaven and innermost earth, both, this is a manifestation of love: a knitting together of the diverse cosmos into a oneness, a tree.
– D.H. Lawrence Phoenix II
My whole teaching consists of two words, meditation and love. Meditate so that you can feel immense pure silence, and love so that your life can become a song, a dance, a celebration. You will have to move between the two, and if you can move easily, if you can move without any effort, you have learned the greatest thing in life.