Chasing the Phantom

Why India?
September 2013

The ancient Greeks saw us, humans, as the playthings of the gods. Sometimes they took humans as lovers; at other times, they destroyed the lives of mortals just out of whim or used us as pawns to work out their own conflicts. In one story, a goddess named Eris, known to the Romans as Discordia, got miffed by not being invited to an Olympian banquet because she was known to cause trouble. She was, after all, the goddess of strife and chaos and, therefore, not popular at parties. She came anyway. Placing a golden apple on the banquet table she announced that it was for the fairest of the goddesses. Then she left. Her act set off a rivalry among the three uber goddesses, Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera, who then took their strife to the human realm. The result was the greatest war of legend, which ended with the destruction of a noble city, Troy.
           When, as a teen, I first read Homer’s description of part of that war and got to the scene near the end of the Iliad where Priam and Achilles, sworn enemies, are crying on each other’s shoulders, I wept too. What had been for me, up to that chapter, a glorification of war, was suddenly revealed as something quite different. The Greek vision suddenly became clearer to me: no one escapes fate; the only choice we have is whether we handle that fate with nobility and heroism or with craven ignobility.
           The war is set off when a prince of Troy, Paris, kidnaps Helen, wife of Menelaus, who is the brother of Agamemnon, the baddest dude around. How does Paris get manipulated by Aphrodite into his big desire for Helen, a passion so great, it has no regard for consequences? In truth, we just don’t know from where these destructive urges arise. There is just so much that we don’t fathom about the dark well of ourselves. Perhaps then it made some sense for the Greeks to blame otherworldly sources. Did Homer really believe in gods, or was he using them as metaphor for the forces of the human psyche that we don’t understand? Mythology is a valuable language for the attempt to represent the workings of the human mind. Indeed, that is why Freud and Jung borrowed so heavily from myth to try to create a science of the mind.
           Even before Homer, the West has long used art as a way to interpret the motives and consequences of human behavior. The sciences of psychology, psychiatry, and psychotherapy are only a little over a hundred years old in the West. In the East, especially in India, they are ancient. When the Greek tragedians were writing their plays, beautiful and insightful in their way, the Buddha was expounding a path to self-knowledge and liberation, and Pantanjali was writing down the Yoga Sutras, a terse manual of insight into the human mind and emotions that arguably no science in the West has caught up to yet.
           These two approaches, the artistic and the analytical, are different paths that attempt to reach a similar goal: understanding the human condition. Despite what Oscar Wilde said about all art being useless, I firmly believe that all real art has value beyond the aesthetic. Since even before the cave paintings of Lascaux, art had the power of magic, in the sense that it could transform human consciousness. Anyone who reads has been shaped by the power of words, ideas, and metaphors. And every picture or sculpture is connected to a story or has a resonance that might ring something deep within us – a bell that can continue to sound and awaken us all the days of our lives.
           The aim of the Eastern paths of introspection has generally been focused on the concept of liberation through the understanding and taming of the mind to prevent destructive acts to the self and others. This is based on the premise that most of us really have little understanding of how our day-to-day choices are made. The forces of unconscious desires and aversions are what drive us. We are always on the edge of chaos. The world is full of irrational hatreds that foment wars and genocides. Much of the world’s population has now been lured into adopting Western-style consumerism, which celebrates the lust for material possessions as a virtue. In the meantime, the earth is being ravaged by our unrestrained avarice. Crowds, without any shame, stand in line all night, and sometimes even riot, to get their hands on the newest “smart” gadgets. How can our hunger for baubles be so craven? How can Eris so easily have her way with us?
           The paths of introspection in the Eastern philosophies of Yoga and Buddhism have always had a close association with spirituality. Religion in India has put an emphasis on self-understanding. Although, as in Western faiths, much of the religious practice in Buddhism and Hinduism is largely unreflective ritual, at their core, Eastern paths, such as Buddhism and Yoga, have put more emphasis on individual experience than on dogma and faith. 
           Having been raised as a Catholic, where my experience with religious study was the mindless regurgitation of church doctrine, I was more than ready, by the time I reached adolescence, to move on to some spiritual practice that embraced reason rather than rejecting it. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, I had learned, all held in the highest regard the faith and obedience of a man, Abraham, who was willing to slay his own son because he heard voices in his head ordering him to do so (Genesis 22:2). I had read about crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, and genocides that were all committed in mindless submission to those who claimed to be acting on divine authority. I lost my faith because I could not accept a faith that had embraced so much madness and evil. This is not to say that I have not discovered sublime metaphors in the reading of the Bible and related scriptures. Still, I have also come across bits that I can only construe as propaganda aimed at empowering priests, popes, and mullahs to control others. After much thought, what else could I make of the story of a man willing to slay a child at what he believed to be God’s command? We have no way of knowing whether God is actually speaking to us or if we are just deluded. And neither did Abraham. But we can reason right from wrong, and we can open our hearts to empathy. These I decided were more important than blind obedience to authority.
           In my early teens, I discovered that Buddhism holds reason and even skepticism in high regard. This seemed so entirely different from my experience during eight years of Catholic schooling. The Dalai Lama has even stated that where Buddhist scripture conflicts with reason, that scripture should be abandoned. Mahayana Buddhism also puts great importance on cultivating empathy for others. Although I had heard much about God’s great love for humanity during my Catholic upbringing, I saw little expression of it in practice among the often dour and sometimes sadistic priests and monks that were my teachers. 
I journeyed to India seven times, in part to experience its ancient aura of spirituality. The first time I went to the East and spent months meditating and wandering in the Himalayas, I came back and thought that I had it together. I didn’t. It had been mostly a delusion. I discovered there that it’s pretty easy to fool yourself when you are not being tested daily by the world of strife, discord, and competition. So I went back to India six more times, hoping each time that I could be a little less naive. Although I had learned early not to fall for flim-flam gurus, of which there are many, I had been less immune to my own lies. My hope now is that each time I return from India, I am a better person, not only happier, but more compassionate, kinder, and useful to my fellow human beings. Every time I temporarily recluse myself from the world, whether in a monastery or the mountains, I need to remember that we don’t know who we really are – until Eris comes to the party.

Chasing the Phantom will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers under their Singing Dragon imprint in 2014. Any reader's comments on previews featured on this site would be greatly appreciated by the author.   Comment