Against Idealism

Bosch, The Last Judgment

Meditation intuitively teaches us of two worlds: the world of concepts and the world of truth. In the world of concepts, everything is mutable. Humans are all-powerful. We control life with our thoughts. We are the agents of change in every circumstance. In the world of truth, we have no more or less power than any other organism. Nature does not deem us any more important than anything else. Our lives are about existing, not optimizing. We are born and will die just like any other animal, and there’s not really any more significance to this process than any other natural process. There is no hierarchy of importance outside of our selfish humanistic desire to ascribe nature’s order to a ‘higher human purpose’. We are neither under nor over, we just are. We are eternally powerless despite our best attempts to convince ourselves otherwise.

In the world of truth, everything is always as it should be; reality fundamentally cannot be altered. The more we try to change what can’t be changed, the more we prevent ourselves from making peace with what is, and the more we hurt for it. The impulse to change currents of truth deeper than our own egocentric ideals is what I call spiritual arrogance. It has fueled human missteps for our entire history, from religious gnosticism to Enlightenment egalitarianism to modern materialism. It has also fueled a new sort of materialism, that of identity manufacturing. When we view the world in extrinsic terms, we believe we can change who we fundamentally are just by changing how we look, act or think. We can’t. The more people force themselves into a personal conflict between abstract concepts and natural truths, the more they will continue to suffer, no matter how good their intentions are. The severity of this suffering grows in accordance with the distance between ideal and reality. We see this phenomenon taking place every day— people believe their concepts are stronger than reality.

Imagine devoting your entire being to the belief that there were no atomic structures, elements, chemicals, etc, that everything was merely made of one blobby material. You could spend your entire life conceptually pushing this idea despite being obviously wrong. You could simply defend yourself the way countless people love to defend themselves today, “This is my experience, and it’s real to me.” People pretend that their egoism is benevolent just because it’s shrouded in the rhetoric of innocence and goodness, and yet it makes them suffer to no end. This is what we all do to varying extents. Some people, usually those without strong roots in truth looking for an escape hatch from reality, cling to these delusions more than others. We can learn an important lesson from the massive failures of hardcore idealists: how to curb our egotistical utopian views of nature and exist in harmony with it rather than conflict. I can’t think of a single instance in which nature hasn’t punished humans directly for opposing its fundamental truths.

The world of concepts dictates that we create our own truths. The real truth, on the other hand, remains immutable beneath the countless layers of comparatively shallow ideas humans develop on top of it. We can view idealism, then, as the process by which we bury the truth rather than uncovering it. Idealism is perceived as a beneficial trait in the modern world because it follows modern logical circuits: we must always be working to change natural truth into something more comfortable and flattering to the collective human ego. When we idealize, we take highly subjective individual experience, with all its delusions and pitfalls, and try to project it on the world at large. This impulse stems from being unable to submit to the higher order of nature. When all we understand is our own viewpoint, we think we are doing a great thing for the world by projecting it onto everyone else, despite not recognizing that what we are doing is false and unnecessary. People even surround themselves with other people who they share delusions with so as not to feel like they’re delusions. This is the most dangerous form of falsehood— collective conceptualization. Your spirit knows when you’re living a lie and will always make you suffer for it, whether you want to admit this or not.

The world of truth exists beneath the world of concepts, and so the two can never overlap. This is what Zen teaches: as soon as we conceptualize, the truth immediately slips away from our grasp like sand. When we sit and let all concepts come and go, they eventually fade away and we get brief moments of pure lucidity in which reality is exactly as it is. In these moments, there is no dreaming. There is no hope. There is no ideal. There is only the eternal void and the infinite power of nature. It’s humbling, not empowering. This is what spirituality is— not a lifting up of the self but a recognition of the fragility of the self in the shadow of the larger mythical forces of the universe. We can either make peace with this behemoth or participate in a futile ideological fight against it at our own expense.

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