Modern Tales of the Dioscuri: The Quest for Truth

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book More Than Allegory. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Phineus with the Boreads. Source: Wikipedia.

Chapter 1: The seer

Pollux and Castor sailed far, to a distant island beyond the boundaries of maps, in search of Phineus, the seer. Upon arriving, exhausted but exultant, they immediately sought an audience with the famed prophet. Pollux, carefully trying to disguise his identity as son of Zeus ⎯ whose fit of jealousy had caused the blindness of Phineus ⎯ was the first to speak:

⎯ Greetings, wise seer. My brother Castor and I are on a quest for the ultimate Truth. But we know not which course to pursue. Bewildered as we are by the myriad myths of man, we humbly plea for your guidance.

Phineus looked over the two brothers with compassion. He knew the inevitability of what was to follow. After a long sigh, he replied:

⎯ There are only two authentic paths to truth, young seekers. Man has no shortage of myths at his disposal. If his true motivation is to find peace, he must search for the myth that resonates with his heart and make it his life and reality. This, the path of the heart, is authentic to man's deepest being.

He paused, knowing full well what he was about to do to the son of his nemesis:

⎯ The other path is one in which many seekers before you have found their demise. It is the path of the absolute: The rejection of every myth in the quest for a truth as pure and untarnished by the touch of man's mind as a buried jewel in the bowels of the Earth. This path requires the rigorous cleansing of raw experience from the narratives constantly woven and projected by mind. Behold, for he who finds and polishes this jewel will know the absolute truth!

Castor ⎯ whose mother, like Pollux's, was Leda, but whose father was the mortal king Tyndareus ⎯ interjected:

⎯ How do we know which path to choose, great seer?


⎯ Listen to your deepest, most uncritical, most sincere motivation, young seeker! What does your heart truly seek? Peace...?

And then, turning slightly to glance at Pollux, he continued:

⎯ ...or the absolute truth? Listen to your heart and, above all, be honest to yourself. This is the most personal of all quests. In its pursuit, you cannot deceive anyone but yourself.

Pollux and Castor, confused but resigned, thanked Phineus and returned to their ship. The darkness of the night had already descended upon them.

Chapter 2: The choices

On the deck of their ship, bathed by the light of many stars ⎯ Gemini particularly conspicuous above their heads ⎯ Castor shared his thoughts with his brother:

⎯ I must be honest to my most sincere motivations, brother. Truthfully, what I seek is peace. The confusion and doubts of life corrode my very soul. If I can find safe haven in a myth whose validity my heart can accept, there my quest will end.


⎯ I respect the sincerity of your choice, brother. But truthfully, no myth can sooth my heart. I must know what is, not the narratives woven by my own mind, or the minds of lesser men.

The brothers then parted ways, each pursuing the path dictated by his heart.

Chapter 3: Castor's quest

Having scoured the known world for the many myths and traditions of man, Castor failed to find the peace he so deeply craved. He did find a handful of myths that resonated with his heart. But how could he surrender to a myth while knowing that it was just a narrative? How could his heart be soothed by something his intellect knew not to be the absolute truth?

Castor, diligent as he was, could observe his own mind in the very process of weaving narratives whose true motivation was to sooth his pain and disquiet. The narratives were inventions. Castor knew that he was consciously trying to deceive himself; and that such attempt was ultimately futile. A man cannot be both trickster and audience at the same time. The trick has no power upon those who know how it is done.

Chapter 4: Pollux's quest

Having spent years in seclusion in some of the most isolated islands of the Adriatic, carefully observing the dynamics of his own mind, Pollux sought diligently to separate the jewel of immediate experience from the pollution of narratives. He saw through the many subtle layers of narrative-making: stories built on top of stories, all ultimately resting on unexamined assumptions. He realised that removing the narratives was like peeling an onion: there was always another, more subtle layer underneath.

In his quest, he tried to find the most basic, raw factors of reality: He had a body; that seemed free of narratives. His bodily sensations in the present moment seemed as close to an apprehension of the raw truth as he could get. The past and the future were just stories. Extrapolating this line of thinking, he concluded that only a newborn baby could experience the absolute truth, before any narratives had raised their ugly heads. As a grown man, such a state was not available to Pollux, but it suggested to him that an absolute truth did exist; his ultimate goal was there, just tantalizingly out of his reach.

Yet, upon further reflection, Pollux began to question his own conclusions. The possibility of narrative-free apprehension in a newborn was itself a narrative; a story constructed by his mind, since he could not experience the state of being a newborn in the present moment. Could there really be such a thing as raw perception without narratives? Was the mind of a newborn truly narrative-free, or was it simply in the process of weaving its first narratives as it perceived the world for the first time? Was perception fundamentally concurrent with narrative-making? Could anything ⎯ anything at all ⎯ be perceived without being couched in a narrative, chaotic and inconsistent as it might at first be? Pollux realised that he was forever locked into the narrative-making processes of his mind, which constructed the very reality of his search for the absolute truth. His search was itself a narrative. Whatever there could be outside of that narrative was fundamentally inaccessible to him and, as such, as good as unreal.

Pair of Roman statuettes (3rd century AD) depicting
Castor and Pollux. Source: Wikipedia.

Chapter 5: The meeting

After many years, the brothers met again on the deck of their trusted ship. As it floated gently on calm night seas, under the light of the new moon, Castor offered:

⎯ Brother, I have failed in my chosen path. The soothing power of myth needs permission from the intellect to be accepted as the truth. Without such permission, it is sterile. Knowing, as I do, that narratives are not the absolute truth, my intellect cannot give my heart permission to bask under the light of its chosen myth. I cannot find peace. For this reason, wise brother, I shall follow your example and pursue your path towards the absolute!

To which Pollux, in horror, replied:

⎯ Seek not through my path, brother! It is a hall of mirrors. Nothing absolute will you find there; only reflections of yourself, layered in exquisitely subtle veneers. The intellect is an unstoppable narrative-making machine of unfathomable power. It constructs all of our reality, like a cocoon which we inhabit. In my search for the intellectual ideal of an 'absolute,' I have only found my own limits.

The brothers sighed longly, as they starred at the moon. They remained in silence for a long time, until Castor offered in resignation:

⎯ The intellect... that is the common thread of our failures, brother. My intellect won't give me permission to surrender to my heart's chosen myth. Your intellect weaves an impenetrable wall of narratives that insulates you from the absolute, if there is any...

Pollux did not reply. He knew his brother was right, but he knew also that they were their intellects. What else could they be? Their quest was doomed to failure from its very beginning. He had nothing left in him anymore; he was defeated.

Chapter 6: The dreams

That night, they fell asleep on the deck of their ship, under the moon's light. Pollux dreamed of Phineus. In the dream, Phineus sat by a rich banquet table, indulging his appetite and laughing hysterically at Pollux's dilemma. Phineus had taken revenge on Zeus simply by telling the truth when requested to do so. What an ironic twist of fate, Pollux thought, as he descended into a domain of restless hopelessness. Orpheus had deserted him...

Castor, in turn, dreamed that he was swimming naked in the sea, under the moonlight. He swam effortlessly, drifting along as if one with the waves. He could feel the water caressing his skin. There were no thoughts in his mind... only the sea, the moon, and the fresh air, as if they were aspects of himself. In his dream, he found peace.

Zen Buddhism and Christianity

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book More Than Allegory. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales. Source: Wikipedia.

Who am I to talk about religion? I am no theologian or religious scholar. Heck, I'm not even religious. So what compels me now to write something about two of the world's most significant religions? The sincere answer is: I am not really sure. Over the past weeks, after having finished the first draft of my fourth book – a very analytical, intellectual piece of work – I've found myself operating less at an intellectual level and more at an intuitive, heart-felt level. It is as though the completion of the draft freed me up to explore new avenues of being, and new ways to relate to myself and reality. In this process, it occurred to me that there is a striking similarity, even an equivalence, between Zen Buddhism and Christianity when it comes to the key manner in which these two religions help an individual relate more harmoniously to the world. This is what I'd like to talk about below.

Before you feel compelled to point out to me how these two religions differ dramatically in their respective worldviews and dogmas, let me emphasise what I said above: The equivalence I see is in the way they help an individual relate more harmoniously to reality; not in a similarity of dogmas. Moreover, I am aware that many scholars suggest that Christianity grew out of Buddhism as much as of Judaism, as the BBC documentary below suggests. But this is not what I want to talk about either. My point is completely agnostic of possible common origins. So let me get to it without further ado.

The source of all human suffering is the ego's inability, yet absolute need, to control how reality at large unfolds. This is a recipe for perennial frustration and anxiety since, deep inside, the ego is well-aware that it cannot control the world; that it cannot have everything it wants or stop bad things from happening. If you think carefully, you will notice that all suffering ultimately comes from this dilemma. If the ego could tell nature how to behave, what to do and what not to do, we would all be happy tirants. As a tiny, limited, but tireless aspect of nature, the ego is at war with what is, was, and can be. That's why we suffer.

Now, my key point is that both Zen Buddhism and Christianity help us tackle this fundamental cause of suffering in surprisingly analogous ways. To see it, one has to look past initial appearances.

Zen aims at stopping all suffering by disidentification with the ego. In other words, a Zen practitioner seeks to lose his or her identification with his or her own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and persona. A successful Zen practitioner will identify him or herself with what they call pure awareness; a formless, narrative-free, neutral, but universal witness. The practitioner will still maintain an ego, but instead of believing him or herself to be the ego, he or she will use the ego as a tool for interacting with the world, without identifying with it. The moment this goal – often called 'enlightenment' – is achieved, all suffering stops: Only the ego suffers, and you are not the ego! The suffering of the ego is witnessed as the suffering of a character in a movie. In a strong sense, the ego is demoted from king of the hill to a small, limited, yet useful servant of impersonal awareness.

Now let's look at the essential manner in which Christianity reduces the suffering of the faithful. Christian believers also suffer because of the inability of their respective egos to control the world: They can't have all they want, they can't stop illness, and they can't avoid death. Their religion offers a way to deal with this dilemma through a form of surrender to a higher power: 'My destiny is in the hands of God,' they will say. By handing over its responsibility and struggles to a higher power, the ego withdraws from its war against reality. But as a consequence, it also finds itself demoted from king of the hill to a small, limited, yet useful servant of a higher power. Do you see the equivalence? At the level of inner feeling, the end result is precisely the same as that achieved by Zen practitioners: The tremendous lessening of a burden – as if a huge load were lifted off one's shoulders – and the cessation of futile struggles against what is.

Zen seeks to achieve this end result through an extremely skeptical and radically empirical path: It entails no narratives, dogmas, or theories of any kind. Its masters simply try to point the way for you to achieve a state of mind in which you no longer identify yourself with your ego. Instead of wasting time describing what 'enlightenment' is, they focus all their attention on helping you reach 'enlightenment' yourself. As such, Zen has enormous intellectual appeal to me as a skeptic empiricist. It soothes my instinctual fear of falling pray to fairytales: There are simply no tales in Zen, let alone fairy ones. For the same reason, I believe Zen to have enormous intellectual appeal to anyone involved in science or philosophy. The price, however, seems to be a kind of dryness that may come across as non-empathetic. When one is suffering, such detached approach may be difficult to embrace wholeheartedly. As humans, we crave empathy and reassurance, which is authentic and legitimate. Moreover, disidentification with all thought and emotion may end suffering, but how bland does it make life?

Christianity, on the other hand, achieves the exact same result through a plethora of narratives, symbols, and dogmas. Instead of the barren landscapes of Zen, it provides one with incredibly rich and meaningful images that speak directly to the unconscious (see Carl Jung's book Aion for a discussion of the psychology of the Christ figure and related topics). Empathy, compassion, and reassurance abound. Instead of the abstract concept of formless, universal awareness, Christianity offers the image of a divinity who is concurrently a flesh-and-blood man (Jesus the Christ) and a formless, universal potentiality (the Holy Spirit). The Holy Trinity can make a difficult abstraction such as the Holy Spirit directly accessible to any person, regardless of education or capacity for abstraction, in the form of a man who is also God himself. How much easier it is for the ego to surrender to such a concrete father figure, handing over its struggles to Him, instead of accepting itself to be a mere illusion! The price of this richness and accessibility, however, is the difficulty faced by any rational person to accept the narratives of Christianity uncritically. And make no mistake: The power of the narratives is entirely dependent on their being believed at some level, even if not literally! One must, somehow, muster enough faith in the Holy Trinity – most easily accessible in the form of Jesus the man – for it to be of any help in achieving the surrender of the ego. This isn't trivial in today's cynical and overly rational cultural context.

I could go on to explore the implications of everything I said above, and to relate it to the appalling state of religion in today's society. But I'll refrain from doing so for now. After all, my motivation for writing this article was simply to point out a similarity between faiths that, on the surface, are so radically different. Perhaps analogous similarities can be found across many other faiths. If that is so, they are all pointing to the same key for the end of suffering: The surrender of the ego in face of the wider reality of mind.

What is there to do?

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

La Liberté guidant le peuple.

The other day I was discussing with a reader what can be done to prevent the growth of meaninglessness and isolation in the heart of our culture from crossing the point of no return. Although my conversation with her included more practical issues, like the alarming environmental deterioration and dangerous geopolitical trends we all bear witness to, I want to focus here on the psychological and 'spiritual' – a word I use with hesitation, since its meaning is so loose – health and wellbeing of humanity. On this specific point, my young reader felt strongly that vocal and decisive initiative should be taken by those with insight into the situation; that something must be done in the form of strong actions. It wasn't lost on me what she was trying to suggest regarding my responsibility in all this.

Yet, I am not inclined to revolutions or attempts to change people on a mass scale. By and large, I don't think they are effective. I believe change comes from within the individual, not from without. Once the impulse for transformation has manifested itself from within, then people can help each other transform by sharing experiences, ideas, philosophies, worldviews, etc. My work consists precisely in such an attempt to share my own ideas and worldview with those who already have the nascent drive to look at alternatives to our current cultural madness. Such sharing helps provide validated grounding for a new way to relate to reality and each other. But it only works with those who are already rejecting the status quo.

My attitude here can be construed as too passive; as too-little-too-late, which I suspect is my reader's take on it. A big part of me even acknowledges this. Shouldn't I then do something more proactive? Shouldn't I take more responsibility, as an inhabitant of this planet and a member of humanity, for changing our presently suicidal course?

I pondered much about it this weekend and finally found a way to reconcile my conflicting attitudes: Instead of trying to do something I will, instead, suggest what we could stop doing in order to improve our own psychological and 'spiritual' circumstances. Indeed, I believe that much of the damage arises from our own misguided actions. We blindly go about life doing all kinds of things that ultimately harm us. As such, perhaps the best way to stop the downward spiral of madness is not to do yet more things, but to stop doing a few things. In fact, it is a symptom of the madness of Western culture – which now pervades the whole world – that all useful thinking must translate into actions. Ours is a culture of do, do, do. However, when someone is pounding his own head with a hammer, the right course is not to look for a helmet, but to stop the hammering.

So here are my three suggestions – only three! – of things we could all, individually, stop doing to help improve our collective sanity and wellbeing. None of the three entries in the list below requires effort, since they are not proactive but purely passive. Yet, if most of us would stop doing these three simple things, I am convinced that our psychological and 'spiritual' health would improve substantially, both individually and collectively. And as a direct result of that, we might even find our culture and civilisation on a path back to meaning.
  1. Let us stop compulsively stupefying ourselves. We all feel, in the depths of our unconscious minds, that our ordinary lives are becoming increasingly empty and meaningless. The unconscious tries to correct the course of our lives through an array of signals, which we then diligently ignore through distractions: idiotic television shows, alcohol, shopping 'therapy,' compulsive money-making and status-chasing, compulsive dating, and what not. This is understandable in that nobody likes to remain exposed to the anguish and anxiety emerging from the unconscious in its attempts to force a change. But if those feelings are not allowed conscious room to be processed, acknowledged, and integrated, not only will they harm us even more from within – think of neuroses and even psychoses – we will not give ourselves any chance to find the meaning of our lives again. This tragic loss is unnecessary: The unconscious process often unfolds by itself when given the appropriate room in consciousness. All we need 'to do' is to stop stupefying ourselves and trust that the initial discomfort will be, in time, followed by a much richer and more harmonious life.
  2. Let us stop eating so much meat. No, I am not saying that we should all turn into vegetarians, just that we could perhaps reduce meat consumption. Now, why am I saying this? Not for the usual reasons, like better health, less environmental impact, etc. These reasons may all be true and good, but my motivation here is different: The conditions under which animals are kept and 'processed' (like objects) for food are dreadful under the best of circumstances, and often outright unthinkable. Here are some videos (viewer discretion advised). If you have the stomach, try this (no, really, if you have the stomach). Many more higher animals are killed for food every day than the total number of human beings killed in the whole of World War II. The enormous volumes of animals involved mean that they aren't 'nicely put to sleep,' if you know what I mean. This unfathomable and excruciating orgy of torture, distress, and death is being carried out on our account as you read this, because we provide the demand for it. And if all minds are one at the level of the collective unconscious – a point I argue in my philosophy – imagine how much outrage, stress, fear, anxiety, dread, anguish, and sheer pain is being pumped every day into our unconscious minds? Do you really think that you, as an individual, is completely insulated from this? Can you even imagine the magnitude of what we are doing to ourselves?
  3. Let us stop acting so much. Now, what do I mean with this one? Let's face it: We all act. We act at work, we act at home, we act at the gym, we act at the pub, etc. We act so consistently that we mistake the acting for living an ordinary life. We try to control the image of ourselves that we make available to others, motivated by a need to fit in, to appear strong, to look attractive, etc. In psychological terms, we all wear the mask of the persona. But since we know, deep inside, how much suffering, insecurity, and anxiety we actually live with, and since everybody else is acting too, each one of us ends up thinking that she or he is the weakest, most inappropriate and fear-ridden person on the planet. The acting causes us all unnecessary suffering. Show me a person who claims to have no significant fears or insecurities and I will show you a liar. We're all on the same boat; we are all suffering. But because we try to put up this image of strength and harmony, we add insult to injury by convincing ourselves that we are each alone in our suffering. This only increases our profound isolation and loneliness as individuals. We forget that the only real strength is the courage to present ourselves to the world as we really are, so we can live in authentic community and help each other out.
That's it. Three simple things we could stop doing today in order to change the world significantly.