The quest for metaphysical insight, vs the idea of human perfectibility: a first look
Spiritual teachings, of whatever form and type, all centre on the simple idea of the fallible human being. Then, taking this as their axiomatic basis, they proceed to explain how this fallible creature can, by following an esoteric path, be crucially improved, so as to reach a desired spiritual outcome. The precise characteristics of the necessary improvements differ from tradition to tradition, but the basic idea of religion as a means and a method to human perfectibility is to be found in every society, and in every age. This thinking behind it is so obvious, and so straightforwardly basic to human needs, as to make it slightly strange even to want to point it out, let alone to want to examine it further.
But if one steps back a little, and analyses the basic conception for what it is telling us, an interesting truth emerges. The obviousness of the whole line of thought rests on the fact that it is impossible to make a teaching meaningful and relevant to human beings without relating it directly to human existence in some way. There has to be some point of contact between the supposed endpoint of a teaching and those who might be interested in following it, so a basic phenomenology of the human condition – which identifies a serious human imperfection – is as good a place to start as any. It serves as a meaningful access point to any realm of human concern, with the logic being that there is a direct and lasting relationship between the fallible creature we start with, and the perfected being we find at the end.
At least, this is the case if we stick to any established conception of human spiritual perfectibility, of the kind both orthodox religions and New Age schools are keen to promote. And this is where matters become more complicated. Because if we pursue a metaphysical quest which takes impartial, objective ‘knowing’ and impartial, objective ‘knowledge’ as its guiding principles – as opposed to the unquestioning acceptance of a classical doctrine of the perfectibility of the human condition – we will discover, sooner or later, that despite a phenomenology of the human condition being a convenient starting point, we are compelled by our observations to move to a point where the pressing needs and desires of the incarnate worldly self are no longer the total focus of attention, and that ‘something else’ – something more elemental and inclusive – has taken their place. This ‘something else’ is the belated acknowledgement of the reality of the experiential matrix.
When a human being is observed as an objective phenomenon, and not as the crucial alpha and omega of all concerns, it will be noticed that the human being is always situated in some sort of context. This context is the immediate background, or setting, and it extends from the perceived boundaries of the self to the ends of the universe, in all realms, physical and mental. This is a slightly dramatic way of saying that, at a simple level, each identified human being exists as a (moveable and shifting) centre of their universe, but more importantly, that wider universe in which we find them is as necessary to their identification as is their abstraction from that context as the centre of concern. It is not possible to conceive – even in the imagination – of a human being not having some sort of context, or setting, or background. Even if we think of them free floating in space, empty space then becomes their background, or setting, or context: the object and background have to go together.
Now when we focus on an object, we tend to dismiss is situational background, and if we dismiss this background habitually, we come to believe that it doesn’t much matter, and we no longer take it into account. In certain circumstances this never becomes a problem, but when it comes to the metaphysical quest, it leads to a fundamental error in perception, and to the acceptance of a mistaken idea as to how best to proceed. And in real terms, it is the difference between day and night.
For example; if I contemplate a physical object, such as a tree or a house, I would not normally pay any attention to its context, as my attention is focussed on the object to the exclusion of everything else; it does not much matter that I fail to consider how much a different setting would lead to my having a completely different appreciation of the same object, because my attention – in this regard – is somewhat superficial, and my focus limited. But if I apply the same method to my idea of the human being, and focus entirely on my worldly self, disregarding the fact that I am not only a worldly self but also a self in an experiential environment, I have no chance of noticing that my totality is not simply the self, but the complete experiential matrix comprising myself and my experiential context.
So what ? might come the reply. What does it matter that I disregard my experiential context when considering my all-important incarnate worldly self ? After all, it is my human selfhood which is of primary concern, and to which all the religious and mystical teachings are directed.
It matters because the starting point for any accurate metaphysical inquiry is not the worldly self at the centre of the picture, but the picture as a whole: the experiential matrix in its totality. It is not the destiny of the self which matters to the exclusion of everything else, but the destiny of the experiential matrix, which consists of a number of features, capacities and characteristics, normally completely disregarded by any metaphysical teaching, and nowhere to be found in any of the thousands of scriptural commentaries. This has much to say about the human’s obsession with itself to the exclusion of everything else.
[It should be made clear at this stage that stressing the importance of including the experiential matrix in its totality as the basis of any metaphysical enquiry is not a plea for some kind of eco-friendly environmental agenda: this is not about including life as it is lived in the natural world; it is only about grasping metaphysical realities accurately.]
Basically then, to repeat: the phenomenon we ought to be turning our attention to – as the most important object of metaphysical inquiry – is not the worldly self which appears centremost and foremost in our experiential screen, but instead the experiential condition as a whole. It is not ‘me, myself and all my wonderful qualities’ which is the most interesting thing about experience, it is the experiential matrix as a whole, which in its totality contains both ‘me’ and my experiential setting. The experiential matrix represents the arrival, or the entry – somehow – of an as yet unfathomed ‘lucid quantum’ into an experiential matrix, and this lucid quantum then seems to become captured by experience, and is then unable to extricate itself. This is the essence of the mystery of the experiential predicament, as represented by the human condition.
Where to go, with this knowledge ? It is well worth examining from the point of view as to how anyone should best proceed with their metaphysical quest. It’s all in the implications. And, as was said earlier, as regards overall perspective, it is the difference between night and day.