A Central Dichotomy on the Inner Path

I was reading Urban Spiritual’s post on Community and Self.  That article covered an under-appreciated subject: the central dichotomy at the heart of inner paths.

I’ll start by laying out the groundwork. When we live our lives, we can choose to put our emphasis on one of two paths: the worldly and the inner.

The worldly is the way of most people.  It seeks external things like money, status and approval for happiness.  The inner seeks to find happiness outside of external things, whether it is by finding something positive within, defining non-external goals (like responding virtuously to events) or simply by experiencing the tranquility that comes from the removal of the stress of the (external) rat-race.

Yet, it is not that simple, for I am a creature of both the worldly and the inner.

The worldly does not satisfy, the inner does, and the worldly is only useful as a proxy.  That is, worldly things have no value, but I set them up as a proxy to which I attach an inner response, and then forget that this response is ALL THAT EVER MATTERED.  An object is valuable only because I invested it with value.  It’s like I gave someone the keys to my home, then spent the day begging for them back.

On the other hand, I experience the inner through this (worldly) body, and it has an impact on my inner experience.  For instance, it’s harder to find tranquility in the midst of physical pain, or when my basic needs are unmet.

So the question is less about where I abide (worldly or inner) but rather how much I abide in each realm.  I may or may never be completely inner, but I can abide more in the inner, and reap the rewards accordingly.  What’s more, my actions in one realm can be turned towards the other.  I can act in the worldly in such a way as to express my inner priorities; likewise, I can turn the inner to the worldly, by making my inner “achievements” a mark of status.

If I look more deeply at seeking the inner, just what am I seeking?  I am seeking to transcend the self — or what I normally think of as the self.  It may not be obvious, but it is true.  The worldly is pursued for the self, and the self interprets the world in terms of its demands.  Money, power, status are all taken in relation to the self and bolster it, while virtue, serving something higher and even looking critically at the self undermine it by refusing to feed it and doing things that may be antithetical to it.  So even if my goal on the inner is not to explicitly transcend my self, this is often what I am doing indirectly.

Yet, how selfish is this self?  If I was really, truly self-centered, then I would be a LOT happier.  Of the things the self demands, many — if not the vast majority — are social.  That is, the self often is more concerned with others than itself!  Why do the opinions of others often matter more than my opinion of myself?  Why is status, respect,  power so important, when it’s all about what others perceive?

So this self often competes with others, sees them as threats and tries to remain independent of them (to the extent of denying that they can impact it), while simultaneously seeking its happiness in their opinions and even defining itself in terms of what they think!

If this self were truly self-centered, would it seek anything from anyone?  Yet, this self-centered thing cannot even be properly self-centered.  It fails at altruism and it fails at selfishness.  It’s a no win situation. And I wonder why I’m often unhappy?!?!?!?

So is the solution to be purely, truly selfish?

If absolute self-centeredness means needing nothing for pleasure but what’s within, where does this leave me?  Ironically, I might actually be a better social being in some ways! If I cease to value the many worldly things I pursue, there is less potential for conflict with others.  If I cease to value my reputation, image, or what others think, I lose reasons to fight, lash out, or seek revenge.  Indeed, I would never need to try to forgive for I’d never have cared enough about any “offense” to cling to it.

Ironically, I may end up being more ethical without actually trying to be so.

Yet, how do I do this?  I live and act in the world, so this attitude must live through my actions — my actions must be informed by this attitude.  This means acting less for myself when in a social setting.  Yet when I do this, what motivates my actions?  If I’m not acting for myself, for what am I acting?  This is where an external standard, a guiding principle becomes useful.  What should this guiding principle be?

Well, why not altruism?  After all, if any set of actions is as good as another (from my perspective) then why not choose the ones that help others?  After all, I have nothing to gain from hurting others.

So if I focus inwards, the question of altruism (and basic ethics) no longer becomes why, but becomes why not?

So now my inner path is manifested in what I do in the external world — how I treat others, how I respond to others’ treatment of me, in short how much of what’s inside and outside gives testament to my belief that happiness truly resides within.

That being selfless is the ultimate expression of selfishness seems odd, but it is logical once I realize the self that’s the cause of so much pain.  Thus the inner path does not rely on goodness, but basic self-interest.  I just need that insight into the REAL problem.  I’m every bit as selfish as everyone else, but I have found a different path to “self-gratification”.

Of course this is easier said than done.  There’s still this tension of the worldly and inner, and trying to combat it can ironically make things worse.  If I fail to live up to my standards, I have a problem.  If I beat myself over failing to live up to my standards, I have two problems.  Yet I need to put forth a serious effort, right?

What can I do?

It is now that I turn to Jacob Needleman’s Money and the Meaning of Life.  Despite the title, the book is a more general philosophical/spiritual work.  Needleman argues that we are beings with two natures: worldly and spiritual (inner), and we face a dilemma.  Our two natures are opposed, and we make light of this opposition at our own peril.  Money is the focus of this battle because it is THE exemplification of the “worldly” in our society, so we can often gauge how worldly we are by our reaction to money.  In this regard, he argues that many of us don’t take money seriously enough in that we under-estimate the impact it has on us, and as a result it can affect us more.

Very well, what is one to do?

According to Needleman, we watch ourselves — AS WE ARE.  We face ourselves with total, brutal honesty.  We don’t try to pretend we are something we are not. In fact, our entire way in life, our entire spiritual practice is simply a complete honest observation of ourselves.  That is all. Forget ethics, forget trying to “find” anything.  Just watch honestly.  In doing so, we will face the dichotomy, the contradiction, the battle, and it’s in this facing that freedom lies.

Yes, when watching ourselves, we may experience freedom, not by stopping negative/shameful feelings, but in actually watching these feelings.  See, when we watch, we can develop a distance that detaches us from this feeling, and it is this distance that is freedom.  When we do this, we can experience another “us”, a “higher” self that watches even the most painful events from a detached perspective, as if it were watching someone else.  Many have experienced this “self” in times of great grief or incredible tension, and it’s this self, this watcher, this awareness, this attention that we cultivate.  We’re not trying to be anything, or rather, we’re just trying to be this self, but this self cannot be had through an act of will, but comes naturally through watching with total acceptance.  So ironically, to abide in this “higher self” one must only watch and not try to do anything for to try to be or do is the action of the lower self.  Attention is the only property of this higher self.

Yes, this is mindfulness all over, but with a strong emphasis on acceptance and not trying to “be” anything.  In many ways, this is the antithesis of the self.  If our self is a psychological image of ourselves, then this self can be anything.  It can be defined by the worldly OR the inner, which means our inner search can be subject to the same pitfalls as our external search.  If we try to “be” something, that is implicit acknowledgment that what we think we are is real.  The only way to deal with the self then is to see ourselves as we are, and not as we hope or want to be.  We see this construction of a self as a self, we see the ugly parts of ourselves (especially in reaction to things that matter to us like money), and in each moment, the light of awareness doesn’t undermine the self, but rises above it.

Of course, the experience itself may lead to lasting change (but maybe not), but the goal is to simply watch.  As long as we’re abiding in the larger self, the smaller self can suffer the torments of hell, and it’s nothing to us.

After all, to try to be something — even selfless — is the act of the self..

12 thoughts on “A Central Dichotomy on the Inner Path

    1. Thank you for reading. “I’m observing it” sounds like a good way of putting it. Another way I’ve read is simply to state the emotion “There is anger” rather than “I’m angry”. Of course the requisite thought should go with the emotion…

      I know what you mean about the rabbit hole. Very few things are worse than getting side-tracked and “waking up” to find a huge amount of time has passed 😦

  1. We’ve all seen articles about mindfulness that vaguely describe it and list off superficial “benefits” of practicing it. Yours is the first discussion I’ve seen that comes at it from a totally different place- not the self-help “worldly” angle but almost as a logical proof that mindfulness is, at the end of the day, the only way to truly live. Incredibly basic, but so deep that I bet most people only scratch the surface, never realizing what’s underneath. This is a magnificent interpretation of how and why mindfulness can be such a powerful force for change in someone’s life. If only putting it into practice daily were as easy and clear as your explanation of why we should do so. Good stuff.

    1. Thank you very much! One of the things I aim at with this blog is precisely this sort of approach. I think “spirituality” can be approached in a logical, precise, matter of fact fashion with few ontological commitments.

      Good point on scratching the surface. This is very subtle, and it’s easy to see something described simply and therefore miss how hard it is to live, and how deep the benefits can go.

      1. “I think “spirituality” can be approached in a logical, precise, matter of fact fashion with few ontological commitments.”

        Hear him! And amen. I couldn’t help but quote that excellent sentence!

        This central dichotomy is the meat of metaphysics. Worldly and Inner. Selfish and Selfless. Material and Mental. Us and Them.

        Crucial to keep in mind, I think, that our awareness is predated by that of which it is aware and ultimately incapable of being fully aware of it. The map is not the territory.

        Thanks again for a great post! Cheers!

  2. Very nice post! Here is where the middle way doctrine strikes again. If we break down the barrier between self and other then how do we distinguish between selfishness and altruism? If we all share the same identity, then to help another is to help ourselves.

    Too many words as usual, but here is a great passage.

    “In the Foundation of Morality, Schopenhauer asks the question: How is it that a human being can so participate in the pain and danger of another that, forgetting his own self-protection, he moves spontaneously to the other’s rescue? How is it that what we think of as the first law of nature – self-protection – is suddenly dissolved and another law asserts itself spontaneously? Schopenhauer answers: this is the breakthrough of a metaphysical truth – that you and other are one, and that separateness is a secondary effect of the way our minds experience the world in the frame of time and space. At the metaphysical level, we are all manifestations of that consciousness and energy which is the consciousness and energy of life. This is Schopenhauer:

    “The experience that dissolves the distinction between the I and the Not I … underlies the mystery of compassion, and stands, in fact, for the reality of which compassion is the prime expression. That experience, therefore, must be the metaphysical ground of ethics and consist simply in this: that one individual should recognise in another, himself in his own true being … Which is the recognition for which the basic formula is the standard Sanskrit expression, ‘Thou art that’, tat tvam asi.”

    John Mathews
    Joseph Campbell and the Grail Myth
    in At the Table of the Grail,
    Ed. John Mathews

    1. Very nice, and kudos on mentioning Schopenhauer — a philosopher who deserves much more recognition than he gets.

      Here’s a great one attributed to Albert Einstein:

      “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings
      as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

      If we stop looking at compassion as something we should do, and instead make it an attempt at seeing the bigger picture (a sort of “emotion-less” compassion), how would that play out?

  3. Einstein keeps surprising me. I ought to read more of his non-technical writings. Any suggestions?

    I don’t know about not ‘doing’ compassion. Maybe we need to practice it consciously (or self-consciously) in order to get to the point that it becomes a natural response to our situation, or until we arrive for ourselves at the place where we can see for ourselves the metaphysical truth that S speaks of. Here we get onto practice, which is where I start to stop talking.

    Agree about Schopenhauer. When I began to study these things I was amazed that most of it has been said already by well-known philosophers, but that few people take any notice of them. Maybe it’s because it is often said piecemeal, a bit here and a bit there.

    1. I don’t know of any works you should read, but this one is freely available:

      Regarding not “doing” compassion, I’m trying to express a sort of mental shift as to what it entails, but I’m doing a poor job of it :). In any case, I agree that one should practice it, and I think the practice is one of the components of not “doing” it.

      Very good call on a lot of the useful bits and pieces in various philosophical systems. It does seem that Buddhism’s real contribution is integrating these ideas into a whole, one that is concerned with sotoriology.

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