Self-Mastery and the Eastern Path

In the last post in this series (which starts here, and continues here), I said the animal and spiritual sides of our nature disagree about what happiness is and, by extension, about what way of life is best. I concluded by wondering whether we’re therefore fated to be at odds with ourselves, driven partly by the pig within that just wants to feel good, and partly by the higher spirit within that yearns—as Aristotle famously claimed—to know. Is there a way to reconcile and harmonize these different parts of our nature? To become our own masters? This is a hard philosophical question, but the evidence suggests that harmony is possible, if uncommon.

In this post I want to suggest the likeliest path to reconciliation and harmony. As I reflected on this, I was struck again by a remarkable fact I’ve often wondered at, which is that in contrast to the spiritual arts cultivated in Indian yoga and Buddhism, the West has no traditions, and no practices, devoted to establishing harmony and (presumably) happiness in the soul. On the contrary, our whole way of life is an obstacle to spiritual mastery.  Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that studies regularly show people in Europe, and the United States especially, are more miserable than most peoples.

There are at least three ways of ordering our souls. First, we could follow the pig within, making our higher nature the slave of the passions and their pleasures. As tempting (and as common) as this strategy is for most people, it’s never been an option for serious human beings to choose a life of ignorance.

Second, we could follow our higher nature and use force to bring our inner pig under reason’s control. This path expresses the predominant approach in the West and reflects the influence of modern philosophy and science, which crudely divide mind from body and largely view the body as a dumb animal, a mechanism, really, and therefore to be governed tyrannically by reason. I say “tyrannically” because you don’t reason with machines, and you don’t persuade them. You operate on them and program them to work the way you want. To take but one example, consider the medical profession, which approaches illness with drugs, surgical interventions, and quick fixes. Physicians make little or no effort even to find out how their patients are living and feeling, much less  educate them about the care of their bodies and their health. This is because while the medical establishment is expert in the mechanisms of disease, it remains largely ignorant of the conditions and causes of health. Nowhere is this more evident than in its appalling ignorance of the mind’s role in health. (If I seem to be exaggerating, do yourself a favor and read Gabor Maté’s important and fascinating book, When the Body Says No.) Long story short, western medicine and science have little to offer those seeking to integrate body and spirit. The general strategy of using brute force to operate on and control the body and its desires may work to some extent, but the ignorance underlying this approach limits its power.

The third and superior path also puts our higher nature in charge, but instead of relying on force, we learn how to persuade the pig within to cooperate. I describe this last strategy at length in my book, since it’s how all journeys of mastery, from mastering a dog to mastering oneself, proceed: not by force alone and not by bribes, but by persuasion. This path recognizes that our animal nature and desires possess an integrity and even an intelligence that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

As part of this recognition, the third path doesn’t view the animal within as a pig at all. Instead, the animal within is better thought of as a dog. For we’re moving from a model of tyrannical rule to a model of cooperation in which we rule benevolently. This is the model of parents with children, teachers with students, and of course, masters with dogs. We can find authority for the dog in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates compares the spirited but non-rational part of our soul to a noble dog. Think of your animal nature, then, not as a brute that needs to be controlled, but as a potentially faithful friend—assuming you learn how to persuade him to cooperate.

It pains me to say this, but for all their theoretical wisdom the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle offer us little practical help in the present matter. Although they contributed profoundly to the art of education, they didn’t develop practical arts aimed at personal and spiritual mastery. In fact, it’s fascinating how little attention there is to actual practices, which raises a very interesting question: Why is the West so impoverished on this score in comparison to the East? More about this some other time.

In the Indian traditions of yoga and Buddhism alone (not to mention the martial arts developed in Asia) there is, arguably, more wisdom about how to understand and work with the non-rational—often unconscious—parts of ourselves than in the entire western tradition of philosophy and science and religion. No practice in the West rivals yoga for developing awareness and mastery of the body, breath, and mind. (Regular readers of this blog will recall that even vomiting is transformed into an art by yogis, who use it medicinally, but also as a way of opening an otherwise unconscious activity to conscious influence, thus extending cortical influence to the very center of the unconscious part of the brain, the medulla.)

Likewise, one of Buddhism’s bragging rights over western philosophy is its teachings on the practice of meditation. In addition to improving concentration, meditation reliably develops the power to observe and investigate states of the mind and body that otherwise remain sub-conscious for most of us; and to the extent that thoughts and feelings remain unconscious, we are frequently, and mindlessly, driven by them. Returning to the general theme of this series, meditation is an art that helps release you from the grip of ignorance and delusions about yourself and the world. This is a necessary step on the path to reconciling and harmonizing the soul. Only the comparatively recent development of psychotherapy in the West offers anything close.

To say that the arts of self-mastery lie mostly in the East is not to commit ourselves to yoga or Buddhism’s final vision of the cosmos or the meaning of human life. It’s simply to acknowledge that their spiritual tools are better than anything we have in the West—which is of course why they are becoming so popular and being adapted for use in every facet of the healing arts. For to heal means “to make whole.”

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