First, a thank you to Selfawarepatterns; his comments to my last article inspired me to clarify some of my positions with respect to inner paths (which may also be his suggested wording), thus leading to something of an overdue manifesto.
Let’s say I have an inner path (be it Buddhism, Taoism, or whatever) — and let’s call that path X.
Let’s say X works for me, but it doesn’t work for another person. Assuming the person practiced X properly, what am I to conclude? Two main possibilities come to mind…
- That X worked for me, but not for hims/her.
- That s/he was dishonest.
(1) is unsettling for many as it questions X’s universality. This in turn invites another question: how do I know that X really worked and wasn’t just a placebo?
(2) is also unsettling; not knowing if the person really practiced X, I am in no position to judge his/her intentions. Yet, if I conclude that X is universal, I must doubt the person for whom it didn’t work.
How do I reconcile these?
I don’t have to.
This false dilemma (and many others) are created by a fundamental mistake about these paths, one that cuts deep into how we think and act. When dealing with X, a useful slogan to remember is…
Phenomena, not Ontology.
What does this mean?
- Phenomena are how things appear (subjectivity).
- Ontology is how things really are (objectivity).
It’s the confused relationship among (1) & (2) and a confusion about what matters in our life that gets us into trouble.
We pay lip service to (2) but truly value (1). For instance, take happiness. Most people value it very highly. Yet happiness is not ontological, but a phenomenon. Whatever the objective facts about my body when I’m happy, it’s only the FEELING of happiness that I seek. If my bodily state is objectively consistent with happiness, yet I feel sad, then nothing will convince me that I’m happy. Conversely, if I think I’m happy, then by definition, I am and no one can tell me I’m not “really” happy, unless I really do not feel happy and am simply lying to myself.
In short, when we are in the realm of phenomena, the real/unreal divide vanishes.
This is critical.
Take my goals. I value them only because of their phenomenal impact. For instance, if I want a new car, it’s only because I expect a phenomenal reaction to this car; the ontological (objective) facts of the car are irrelevant.
However, this goes deeper for the phenomena/ontology duality is a false one. All I have are phenomena and ontology is simply an inference from phenomena. For instance, take the process of seeing a mirage of water, and realizing it’s a mirage…
- I see water (phenomena).
- I see and hear others saying they don’t see water (phenomena).
- I conclude the water is not there (phenomena).
Where is the ontology? It’s simply a particular phenomenal state in my mind (itself a phenomena that I label “mind”). In fact, to even claim something is not real, I have to posit a duality among my phenomena (which is my universe) and what’s “really there” which I can never experience. So really, the thing against which I measure phenomena is itself another phenomena.
Further, I never denied (1), only its ontological status.
Now I’m not trying to attack ontology. Ontology — like any other tool — can be used or misused. Further, that we cannot know what (if anything) lies outside of phenomena means we can’t deny ontology because this would imply that we know that nothing lies outside phenomena.
What I am trying to get at is this: X is not about being better, finding truth etc… X is about being happier in a transient, often disappointing world over which we have limited control. This is a phenomenal concern and as such, we should hold a ruthlessly phenomenal view towards X, and not let it be compromised by ontology.
Wondering if X is a placebo is an example of ontology corrupting a perfectly good phenomenal experience. What matters is the experience, not its supposed ontology. Besides, all our happiness is based on a placebo — I only seek things because I think they’re good, and getting something that I think is good is what makes me happy. Well, if I’m content to pursue happiness on those terms, why do I suddenly balk at doing the same with X?
All attempts at installing an ontology in X lead to problems, as they confuse my focus and raise the possibility of X being disproved (something impossible with phenomena). In particular, questions about whether X is a placebo, delusion, lie, or conditioned don’t arise in a purely phenomenal view. They only arise when the ontological dog pees on the phenomenal carpet.
Bad ontology! Bad bad ontology!
This is one reason why I really like the Pyrrhonists. They not only seemed to be more free from ontology than any philosophy I’ve seen, but they even argued that ontology itself was the problem!
This is why — despite being a big advocate of Buddhism — I have a very iconoclastic attitude towards it. I believe that veneration is often ontology in disguise as we’re now making statements about things we can’t experience, like the history of the path, the character of the founder, the mechanisms by which it works, and so on. However, iconoclasm invites throwing away all that; well if all the wrapping is gone, we either see what was inside the box, or realize the box was empty and move on.
Given that I write about inner paths, I believe they can help others. However, I acknowledge that this may not be the case, that not every path can help every person, and that my beliefs are inferences that like everything else in my life, are provisional and thus subject to change.