Part One: Know Your Enemy; An illusion is merely a poorly lit meaning

Welcome to this week’s edition of “Let’s Get Metaphysical.”  I’m your host, Malachi Constant.  Our guest this evening is Professor Ludwig von Helsing, whose latest book, “Dead But Not Tired”, has just been published.  Welcome back, Professor!

Professor von Helsing:  Delighted as always, Malachi.

MC:  Professor, on your previous visits and in your writings you have attempted to explore the rational, philosophical basis behind the work of Carlos Castaneda and his cohorts.  I’m sure many of our listeners would agree with me that those writings are fascinating but often difficult to reconcile with the world as we know it.  For instance, the world at large considers preoccupation with our mortality as a sign of morbidity or mental instability, while the sorcerers suggest that focusing our attention on our death ultimately frees us.

PVH:  Have you ever considered the circumstances under which you might willingly surrender your life?  For instance, if you were forced to spend the rest of your time in physical agony?  And if not life itself, how much of your awareness would you trade in order to be free of the pain?  Morphine doesn’t cure anything, doesn’t slow the cancer one bit; it removes pain through illusion, by convincing your body that there is no reason for pain.

Of course, the relief costs a great deal of conscious clarity.

MC:  Terminal patients are forced to choose what level of pain they are willing to endure to preserve their clarity.

PVH:  There is a pain, an anxiety, a fear, a dread that compels human beings to trade our awareness for the balm of illusion.  The feature of our existence which gives rise to this compulsion is the knowledge of our inevitable demise.  We are all terminal.  Our culture, our belief systems, all of our illusions about the nature of reality serve the purpose of relieving or masking our fear.

MC:  But any fan of Hollywood war movies knows that bravery is not the absence of fear, but rather doing what’s necessary in the face of fear.

We’ve seen it a thousand times:  the wise old veteran stiffens the spine of the trembling neophyte by admitting that he’s scared, too…that everybody’s scared.

PVH:  Yes, it is a curious paradox that banishing fear is not a sign of immense courage, but of cowardice.  The coward resorts to illusion to deny the source of anxiety, while the hero’s illusion allows the danger to be faced in spite of fear.  In other words, individual courage, like most human traits, is a subtle matter of degree.  The hero and the coward both handle their fear, but while the coward’s way suffers from blind desperation, the hero’s is graceful and awe-inspiring.

MC:  Can we ever be truly fearless?

PVH:  In the context of a perilous and predatory Universe, fear has a useful purpose.  It is hard to imagine any of us surviving very long without it!  We need fear, which is why we also need the ability to act in spite of it.  And because we need courage we also need equanimity, sobriety, because reckless bravery is also dangerous.  Think how often in your own experience you have seen fearlessness which is the result of ignorance, and the painful results that have often ensued.

MC:  “The Fool” card in the Tarot deck depicts a young man walking blithely along smelling flowers in the sunshine, unaware of the precipice that yawns beneath his next step.

PVH:  Yes, only a fool has no fear.  But an even greater fool lets that fear impose unexamined limits on their ability to live.

MC:  Which makes us all fools, to more or less extent.

PVH:  Precisely!  Our fear causes us each to embrace some level of illusion to shield us from the source of our fear.

MC:  We close our eyes during the scary parts!

PVH:  Our level of illusion, the strength and nature of our shields, is not something ordained by nature, but instead is largely a product of individual past choices.  Or as the sorcerers might rephrase it, a matter of energy, of our personal power.

MC:  The neuroscientist Terence McKenna said that the question faced by modern man was not whether or not to use drugs, but rather what level of drug use was appropriate.  His definition of drugs included not only the demonified illegal substances, but caffeine, sugar, alcohol, television, movies, consumerism, religion, patriotism, and so forth.

PVH:  The metaphor certainly applies.  But here would be the place to identify a basic value judgment we are making.  And make no mistake, in this mysterious Universe we inhabit there are very few “self-evident truths”–so we are in fact making an assumption.  We are going to assume that it is better to be aware than to be deluded.  This assumption is going to lead us into areas of acting and thinking which are fundamentally opposed to the unexamined self-gratification and pain avoidance strategies of the majority of our fellows.  It implies that we should try to determine what level of illusion is appropriate for us.  It implies that we must examine and choose our illusions carefully.  And it implies that “gaining personal power” is the process of shedding and changing the nature of our illusions.  In other words, a warrior is someone who seeks to be an exceptionally aware being.

MC:  Ok, Doc, if I’m tracking with you so far, you’re saying that like Neo we should choose the reality pill, that each of us is responsible for deciding just how deluded we are.

PVH:  Rather than being in charge of the asylum, the lunatics are each in charge of their own course of treatment.

MC:  Are you implying that no one is totally free of delusion?  Does anyone have the courage to see the world as it truly is?

PVH:  For us the world is an interpretation we make of our perceptual input. In this sense, we are incapable of seeing the world “as it truly is.”  The best sorcerers hope for is to base their lives on irreducible energetic facts, perceptions which may or may not be ultimate truth, but are as close to being true as it is humanly possible to determine.  This is the nature of the warrior’s way, not that one always wins or always knows, but that one always does your best.

MC:  But what criteria do we have for choosing our illusions?

PVH:  We have to recognize that an illusion is merely a poorly lit meaning. It is our meanings which are precious to us, because knowing that our life has meaning allows us to deal with our mortality.  Meaning is the only way that a being aware that it is going to die can avoid the indifferent despair of nihilism.  The meanings we give to our existence, however ill-formed and unable to bear close scrutiny, are the hard-won bounty of our immortality project.  By which I mean our personal strategies for finding meaning for our lives.

Our individual affinity for a given meaning guides us into strategies for attaining that meaning — depending upon the meaning, these strategies rely more or less on illusion to support them.  Discovering which meanings we have true affinities for and learning to listen to those affinities is the romance with knowledge.  The romance with knowledge is where exceptionally aware beings satisfy our appetite for meaning.  The lack of God-given meaning inspires exceptionally aware beings to engage the world in positive ways. We not only discover our affinities, we act on them, and we are unsatisfied with giving anything less than our best.  Exceptionally aware beings build their own meanings.

MC:  Yet even an exceptionally aware being’s strategies for finding that meaning will, as you’ve stated, rely more or less on illusion.  How much illusion is too much?

PVH:  The warrior’s way is the path of enhanced awareness.  Which is another way of stating our value: it is better to be aware than to be deluded.

Obviously, we want as little illusion in our strategy as possible.  Therefore the answer to the question of how much illusion I should lose is, “As much as I can stand.”  Or stated differently, I want “As little as possible.”

MC:  As Uncle Duke says in the Doonesbury cartoon, “Death before unconsciousness!”  But won’t everyone have a different tolerance for disillusionment, depending on their personal power and life circumstances?

PVH:  Of course!  And the beauty of the warrior’s way is that it has always recognized that each one’s journey is totally their own responsibility, that we each stand alone in the face of awesome, mysterious, impersonal infinity.

MC:   Well, Professor, it will come as no surprise to you or to our listeners that such statements hold small comfort for the majority of the human race.  If I may play the devil’s advocate for a moment, why should I bother?  Why not stay comfortably snuggled down in the blanket of my illusions?

PVH:  Again, Malachi, it is important to remember that we are not talking about universal morality here, we are talking about the ramifications of our value judgment.  Others will indeed make different value judgments, leading to far different conclusions.  As a warrior, that is none of my concern.  I am not responsible for others’ lives or beliefs.  I am totally responsible for my own.

MC:  And that’s a large enough helping for anyone’s plate. One of my favorite lines from Van Morrison goes, “You know I just can’t free you now–that’s not my job at all.”

PVH:  For exceptionally aware beings, the far more interesting question is, “How can I enhance my awareness?”  And since we must live with illusion, at least until and unless we’ve reached some ideal state of awareness where we have no illusory shields between us and Infinity, this boils down to asking oneself:

“What do I have to believe?”