A short commentary on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from The Meaning Crisis (Episodes 13–15)
When the Buddha said ‘life is suffering’, he didn’t mean that all of life is intrinsically joyless and painful, which wouldn’t be true. His provocations were similar to those of Socrates, who said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. Buddha tells us to contemplate impermanence and our lack of a stable identity. A life without ‘a way’ (dharma) is like ‘a wheel off its axle’ (dukka) — saturated with disappointment and pain. He provokes us to examine our sufferings and illusions and thus become capable of transcending them altogether, by taking up a heroic path.
Brilliantly, John Vervaeke, in his ‘Awakening from The Meaning Crisis’ describes Buddha’s Four Noble Truths as ‘provocations’ rather than dogmas. Furthermore, Vervaeke parallels buddha's thought to western philosophies such as stoicism. Marcus Aurelius, for example, recommended that each time they kiss their child goodnight, parents should imagine that their child could die tomorrow. Such radical provocations and practices are not about beliefs or eternal rewards, but about training in presence and wisdom in the face of our inevitable extinction.
Vervaeke differs from the shrill and angry ‘new atheists‘ who have dominated the cultural conversation for a while. Although he doesn’t promote Buddhism or Christianity per se, he takes religion seriously. Still, Vervaeke is in search of a post-religious, rationally informed spirituality, a religion beyond religion in his words. His position can be summed up, at least in part, by the title of Stephen Bachelor’s book ‘Buddhism without beliefs’.
But is there really such thing as a Buddhism without beliefs? For one thing, this sounds like a stated belief of the author, and is therefore a performative contradiction. It is true that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion that does not talk about God, and it differs in significant ways from Abrahamic religion. However, most Buddhists actually believe in all kinds of things like reincarnation, tell wild supernatural stories, and have diverse colourful ritual, engage in all kinds of practice, have priesthoods, gurus, and temples to pray in. Buddhists are as religious as everybody else. And religions, theist or non-theist, have mythopoetic ways of knowing and behaving that are not rational and scientific in nature.
Vervaeke is right to say that wisdom and realisation (which means making real) are more important than beliefs and mythology in the end. But I have my doubts that Buddhism is a rational, existential religion in the style of epicureanism or stoicism. And by making religion too rational we lose both the mythopoetic lore and the deeper subtle, transrational import of that religion. Furthermore, Buddhism and other religions are not merely therapeutic, in the American style, nor philosophical in the european style.
Finally, is Vervaeke’s post-religious society realistic or attractive? I am more in agreement with the sociologist Emile Durkheim and the philosopher René Girard, who said that all social behavior has its roots and essence in religion. That is why even the new atheists behave in a religious manner, with summer camps, stadium gatherings, priestly lab coats, and catechism of scientific progress. Everyone is religious in one way or another, and for better or worse. Even scientists. If God has died, we will, in one way or another construct Him.
The point is — and Vervaeke understands this — that we can’t have any discussion of the social world, without understanding the depths of religion. After all, Greek religion existed before Socrates and Greek philosophy, and all kinds of religions continue to animate us, after the enlightenment and the scientific revolution. Religion doesn’t go away. It is more stubborn and enduring than cockroaches.
Epicureans, Cynics, and Stoics
The Hellenistic period of the epicureans, stoics, and cynics, which began with Alexander the Great and ended in the birth The Roman Empire and Jesus of Nazareth, resembles our own in some respects. With the fall of Alexander and the subsequent fragmentation and destruction of Athenian city states, many people experienced what Vervaeke calls ‘domicide’, or the loss of a home. And being ‘spiritually homeless’ is obviously a contemporary issue.
If Buddha left the palace to go on a spiritual journey, The great Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, decided to stay: famously declaring that it was possible to be happy even within the palace. Stoicism is about cultivating character and wisdom within a worldly situation. It shouldn’t be a surprise, therefore, that stoicism, has become trendy today among spiritually oriented people with secular lives. And stoicism is popular today because it is a response to a meaning crisis.
Like the Stoics, Epicureans are less interested in reforming society than engaging in self- cultivation. A meaningful existence is gained through ‘making your life a garden’, in the epicurean view. The epicurean philosopher is less of a meaning-maker than a ‘doctor of the soul’, or someone who helps people in their search for health and happiness in this world. We begin to see the resemblance to today's self-obsessed consumer society, with its mass depression, rootlessness, and obsession with ‘happiness’. Epicureanism represented a therapeutic model in the decadent and fragmented, Hellenistic age.
Next, along with stoicism and epicureanism Vervaeke speaks about the cynics. Diogenes the cynic, who was like a precursor of the avant-garde artist, lived in a barrel, and did things like masturbate in the public square, as well as make a mockery of Alexander the Great. Famously, he walked around Greece with a lantern because knew that it was truly hard to find an honest man. Certainly, cynics such as Diogenes are appealing in our time, which lacks optimism and grand narratives. The cynics come to ascendance when we start to lose our sense making capacities. Diogenes, like us, didn’t have much faith in the worldly institutions of his day.
The cynics do however have something vital to add to the conversation. They are critics of our institutions: of man, and nation, and God. Better live in a barrel than with hypocritical moral codes and naïve beliefs. Better not invest in something that is doomed to fail, such as empires. By masturbating in public, Diogenes was criticizing the hypocrisy of public life, and showing the difference between moral codes and purity codes.
Vervaeke points out that cynics exposed the difference between these purity codes and moral codes. Today, for example, we are tolerant of gay sex, even when it offends our purity codes—we have learned to tell the difference. Gay sex might not be appealing to some but there is nothing intrinsically unnatural or immoral about it. Through relentless questioning of the purity codes of society, society progresses from its tyrannical and unconscious scapegoating mechanism, to a more liberal, free society.
Furthermore, purity codes and moral codes are always changing, which is why Diogene looked for the more enduring moral and natural laws. The point is: we should question our purity codes and refine our moral codes, and be aware of the difference. Cynicism, in the face of the collective superego of society—which mistakes purity codes for moral codes—is an important aspect of intelligence. We need to be cynics like Diogenes, rather than just accepting the received wisdom.
By the time of the Hellenistic era, the days of Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras — and the golden age of Greece — was over and the Christian era had not yet begun. The philosophy of the day reflected this ‘in-between’ state and was psychological and introverted in some important respects. There are parallels to the present time. Today we live in the shadow of the 20th Century, with all its massive innovation and mayhem, and we are approaching the age of machine intelligence. God is dead, as Friedrich Nietzsche declared, and the new god has not yet been born — or is at least is in infancy with the internet.
The shift from the having mode to the being mode
In one of rare moments of personal confession in the series, Vervaeke says something surprising and provocative:
“I do not think that John Vervaeke should exist for all time. I think that would be an ontological mistake of astronomical proportions. In some ways I’m tired of life and the ways I’ve been foolish, immoral, and have let myself and others down … and extending that through all eternity strikes me as a horrible evil to inflict on reality.”
Even though this statement is a horrible one—especially if we love John Vervaeke and would like him to continue existing as long as possible—is it not honest? The search for immortality of this body and mind is doomed to fail. Nobody wins. Nobody gets out alive. Everybody suffers old age, sickness, and death as the Buddha reminds us. The having mode doesn’t add up to a life of fullness and meaning. It is only those glimpses of the real and authentic being which make our life worth living.
Vervaeke’s point here is not morbid resignation or pessimism but just an admission that, as Heidegger wrote, ‘being in time’, the preciousness of our human life, is determined by the inevitability of death and endings. The historical, linear view of human life—of getting and achieving as much money, fame, sex, fortune, and immortality as possible—is bound to failure, even for the most successful at the game of life. It is futile to build a mausoleum or a pyramid to our own egos: it is far more noble to contemplate impermanence, death, while living as fully as possible.
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