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Mystifying the East: Will the Enlightenment Fraud Survive the Information Age?

In a world where information travels faster and farther than a speeding bullet, wars are no longer fought only with guns and bombs; ideas and philosophies are a new arsenal and cyberspace is a new battlefield. Appreciating the potential for a global colloquium, it's a terrible shame that we have a half-witted president and so many anti-intellectual politicians at the helm in these early years of the Internet. Instead of rigorous debate in the spirit of finding alternatives to conflict, we have the same old lies of the past launching the missile technology of today.

But the Internet may turn out to be mightier than the belligerent sword, if properly funded and made available to all. Just ask yourself, if Iraq were online, would selling the war have been so easy? What more realistic and exact face to put on the cost of war's carnage than the faces of our chat buddies and distant storefronts?

For all the power of the military industry, it turns out that concepts and ideas, shared in the form of liberating questions between people who have a personal connection, store a more subtle and powerful influence than WMD's, and one that can alter the face of the earth's political and religious geography.

Nations steeped in tradition may be ruled by leaders desperate to maintain their political control, but attempts to keep the influence of the technological West from infiltrating their populaces may ultimately be vain. Even a thug like Saddam Hussein could have easily been bought out of his weak regime to open up Iraqi markets, schools, and government offices, complete with Internet access. Doing so would have cost him totalitarianism while earning him a place in the world and history; and it would have cost us a fraction that this vainglorious military conflict has spent, no Iraqi or American lives, and no no-bid contracts to Dick Cheney’s corporate friends. Oh yes, and Iraq would have maintained control over their oil fields.

But things are not all well at home, either. Like tyrants around the world fending off Western notions of progress, religious leaders in the West, eager to maintain their sway over the masses, uselessly battle against the host of ideas and philosophies that are emerging from the East.

Arnold Toynbee, a noteworthy historian of the last century, predicted that the new millennium would see India conquer the world, not through bombs and guided missiles but through the explosion of new ways of thinking about life and its purpose. In other words, when we Westerners mystify something, we don’t fool around.

Today, millions of books revolving around the idea of a purpose-driven life are bought and read in the West, providing hard evidence that the number of seekers in that are in fact in search of spiritual meaning is rising, mystification and all. To boot, what kind of global and all inclusive purpose -- one reflecting the very Internet technology that is connecting all of us -- can be found in the annals of Dark Age religions and the pages of Dark Age books? Case in point, the tribal nonsense in the book The Purpose-Driven life is statistically driving fewer and fewer to church on Sunday (thank the Lord).

Even before the turn of the millennium, shadows of Toynbee's prediction were already fast approaching, and Dark Age Western religions were feeling the heat. Advertising campaigns paid for by threatened churches in the West reflected knee-jerk reactions to the success of Eastern schools of thought and practice. At the time, I said to myself that if the churches are having a hard time competing with courses in yoga postures, what will church leaders do when the extreme exclusiveness of monotheistic faiths is made all the more glaringly obvious when placed side by side with the (apparent) inherent inclusiveness of Eastern traditions? They'll have to close down churches! That is, just so long as we don't import India's backwards caste system, or the version of Buddhism that looks a lot like Catholicism, or prayer wheels (oops, too late).

And there is the rub: the benefits of investigating, and applying a few, Eastern ideas in the West is probably inestimable. Just uprooting our dangerous Dark Age monotheism can beneficially revolutionize the world. But all that reflects a mystifying glow does not give light. The East went through its own Dark Ages too, much as Rome did, and discriminating between what illuminates and what creates more darkness in Eastern thought is imperative.

Of course, Eastern exports of ideas are not all good or all bad anymore than is Western materialism and technology applications all good or all bad, but human beings tend to lump things together. Hence, we have students of spirituality in the West who consider most anything coming from the East to be spiritual, or more absurdly, mystical in nature, while so many in the East believe that everything in the West revolves around the material. Each wants to copy the other, or at least a few aspects of the other. We mystify the East while the East romanticizes the West.

But even if we don't question and challenge Eastern religions, the wave of Eastern esoteric thought is perhaps stronger in impact and more destructive than war to the paradigms of the West. On the other hand, if we do question and challenge what we read and hear, reaping the benefits of that discourse, the outer ritualistic go-between worship that has held the West in an iron dogmatic grip for centuries will be history.

So far, that's not happening. We are importing every last Eastern go-between, but we are just calling them different things. We reject self-reliance whether it's Eastern or Western, but are happier with Eastern versions of thralldom because it's not the same slavery of our parents.

If you were to ask Western spiritual seekers what is of greatest value to emerge from the heritage of ancient India (inasmuch as modern India practically has absolutely no spiritual bent), there is far more mystification of the East than mysticism in the answers you get.

India's greatest contribution to the West is at once both its most pristine and highest philosophy and a science the rivals the greatest technological achievements that the West could ever impart to the East. This gift to humanity is the science of the mind, of experimenting with human awareness, and of controlling life and death and thereby investigating the individuated sense of self. It is the science of intuition, sense-introversion, or pranayama, and is the bedrock means to explore an avenue to infinite self-knowledge. It is the science that, above all else (except perhaps silk), was the prized export to Tibet, China, Japan, Palestine, Persia, and Egypt. All the mysticism of the world can fit in it, and all owe a great debt to it. It is the science that makes mystics. If mysticism underlies all religions, then pranayama underlies all mysticism, as it is simply the most sophisticated means to look within. More than that, all useful means to look within reduce to pranayama.

Considering the endless spiritual (ontological), psychological, social, and even political ramifications of this science, it is understandable that all things coming from India and the Far East would be perceived as having their own mystical glow merely through proximity with pranayama. Individuals who are totally unaware of its multifarious ramifications, and even individuals who have never heard of pranayama, are yet influenced by the millennial impact of its methods via the exemplars of various schools of thought who were, after all, students of the practice of pranayama.

In fact, I have to turn my face to hide a grin when I read the remarks on pranayama made by such well-respected teachers as Ramana Maharshi, who clearly didn't know what he was talking about. He touted his methods of self-inquiry without bothering to ask himself to what those methods, in terms of the motion of energy and awareness in the human body, reduced. Break apart every method, and you'll find that the parts of it that work to expand self-knowledge work because they direct the attention and awareness inward, away from the finite avenues to knowledge. So even the so-called exemplars themselves, mystified by the Western seeker until they emanated their own glow, often had as little clue as Westerners where to pay homage for past contributions.

Whatever spirituality or mysticism you embrace, you are only at best following in the footsteps of an individual who was a dedicated practitioner of pranayama. Indeed, if your spiritual role model was not adept at pranayama in one form or another, then you are perforce following an individual who had not developed a nonfinite avenue to knowledge because, again, all nonfinite avenues to knowledge reduce to the application of pranayama. Since there are plenty of such ignoramuses in the West, there is very little point to mystifying an Eastern one whose exotic face and garb make for easier digestion of his or her disempowering teachings.

Despite the fact that genuine spirituality is in a relatively small portion of Eastern thought, and the lion's share is superstition, power grabs, and blind people arguing with blind people in the middle of the Dark Ages, it is common to label even trivial cultural baggage out of Tibet, Nepal, Japan, China, and India as being infused with spirituality. I know a woman who, in her younger years, spent and overspent years of her life with a Nepalese man, going into the relationship with the absurd assumption based solely on his gene pool that he simply must not merely be spiritual, but an "advanced soul." It sounds like a bad joke to even hear such nonsense, but is it any less nonsense for us to blindly believe that someone who has a lama or rinpoche title is necessarily spiritual, not to mention enlightened?

Anyone who presumes to take on disciples and train others in methods and lifestyles of purported enlightenment must be challenged to show evidence of the development of a nonfinite avenue to knowledge. Evidence would, of course, require the acquisition of nonfinite power for reasons I'll get into later.

Now, let's be honest. No one will accept this challenge. Like politicians who want war at any cost, the same old lies of the Dark Age past are aimed at the vulnerable seeker of today who thinks to level such a challenge.

Assuming any teacher or groupie gets wind of it, the standard response will be, "Oh, this is his ego."

I love that one. Isn't it amazing how it's always the ego problem of the one with the justified criticism, even though it clearly makes the threatened little ego squirm with defensiveness? Allow me to get this self-incriminating reaction, which is about as original as a Republican talking-point heard for sixteenth time on a single Sunday morning, out of the way and say it is indeed my ego. Or, to paraphrase Harvey Kietel's "Cleaner" character in Pulp Fiction and sic a little Western no nonsense attitude on their self-sanctified derrieres, "Yes, I'm an egomaniac, now pretty please with sugar on top..." let's get past the spin zone and return to the issue at hand. Where is the evidence that the teacher in question is not limited to all the finite avenues to knowledge to which the rest of us already have plenty of access?

Another defense will surely be, "The infinite cannot be proven before the finite." OK, not surely, just among the more sophisticated gurus (though none immediately come to mind). This defense is accurate, which is why I called for evidence, not proof. This defense also begs the question, if there is absolutely no proof, what are we doing gathering around these people with unquestioning devotion, as if they are magical conduits to our selves? Can we get any more ridiculous?

Yes, of course we can. Once, a woman defended her guru, Adi Da, because he was such a good lay. Apparently, going down on her "god" changed her life. I'd like to think the choice to change her life and interpret the event was hers, but considering the cult in her head, that's probably asking for too much.

Another woman said Muktananda changed her life in a similar fashion. That's no doubt a very sad self-defense mechanism, but it is even sadder to think that millions believe his successor, Chidvilasananda, has any self-realization. It just goes to show that people will believe anything, especially when believing is made easier by an object of devotion steeped in an incredible amount of exotica. Considering the beliefs in our head, though, it's amazing we look for the incredible outside ourselves.

A third lame diverting defense I've received is, "Aren't there more important things to worry about, like your own spiritual life?" This question poses a false choice. Yes, there are other important issues, and there are other qualified people tackling them. Sometimes I tackle other issues, but the central issue I address is the danger of distancing our power toward centralized institutions or charismatic individuals. Being duped by Ravi Shankar into practicing his warped version of pranayama is no better than being duped by Christian fundamentalism. Very few cult leaders ask you to commit suicide, but others strip a lifetime from followers who never escape the mire of ignorance. I can't be the only one sick of it.

Neither East nor West has a monopoly on cults of personality. It's in our blood. The Lubavitch movement in Judaism reeks of personality worship, as does papal authority, which represents absolutely nothing. The Dalai Lama is not enlightened, and the world is a little brighter with Jerry Falwell dead. East and West have long since met.

If anything, an Eastern guru at least has the benefit of cultural backdrop. The adulation of Western writers such as Eckhart Tolle astounds me. I did my best to read The Power of Now, but I couldn't get through that repetitive, overblown, unoriginal, half-baked piece of trash. I skipped ahead only to find it defecates from both ends. He certainly read enough to know that self-knowledge and "power" paralleled the collapse of divisions in space and time, but it all goes downhill from the title (which could just as easily been The Power of Here). It should have been called The Power of Narcissism: How Moment-to-Moment Self-mystification Can Darken Your Life. And yet thousands practically canonize it! Obviously, we are comfortable with anything that deflects our attention away from challenging ourselves.

Eckhart Tolle was better off being honestly miserable than dishonestly successful. After reading his so-called enlightenment story, it became clear that either he is an incompetent liar or a very self-deluded man who doesn't have enough sincere friends and family around him. If that is enlightenment, we might as well all go straight to Wal-mart and buy ourselves televisions; and DVD players; and sign up for Netflix; and wipe clean from our memories any and all reference to guilt-inducing spirituality. Actually, we must do the latter no matter what enlightenment may be.

He's not alone, of course, in wasting everyone's time. The Secret is capitalism on crack and The Four Agreements is too rough as toilet paper but, alas, has no better use. Don't even get me started on The Power of Intention. Suffice it to say that from this moment on any book that has the word "power" in the title is probably going to be powerless to communicate knowledge and will merely disempower you of your money.

While plenty of Westerners certainly joined the Mystify-the-East Tour, one can yet maintain that Eastern culture is particularly prone toward slavish devotion. It starts with the prevalent parenting style, most likely, but poverty plays a role too as it perpetuates the vulnerability of the self. By adulthood, worshiping a guru is not far off.

But East or West, people who make their living off other people who believe them to be saintly, special, enlightened, or entitled should, as Orwell suggested, be judged guilty until proven innocent. Yes, that means that all of the above are guilty of hypocrisy, mendacity, and consciously misleading people until they provide sufficient evidence to compel the opposite verdict.

Due suspicion, by default, is the way to treat all politicians and priests (authors are a new priesthood peddling their own hocus pocus), so why do we repeatedly do the opposite, and only judge guilty those who threaten our sense of self or challenge our identity? Aren't saints and prophets, historically speaking, unpopular by definition? Isn't the popularity of a guru the first sure sign of a quack?

Jesus is a character of fiction to me, but even fiction can tell a tale with a larger truth. The next time you're on line for a hug, ask yourself who hugged Jesus (Judas did, and it ended badly!). His own disciples turned on him! In Islam's mysticism heritage, it used to be that a real Sufi was a murdered Sufi. Didn't the Hebrews routinely kill Hebrew prophets? In the past, mystics were assassinated before their time, but these days we like are spiritual leaders humble, peaceful, painless, non-threatening, non-political, and basically dead (as in useless to our best interests) before their time. The world at this juncture has no beneficial use for such spineless brown-noses.

Now to the substance, understanding how little stomach we have for it after a steady diet of imaginary deities. What is enlightenment, sans the mystification of the East? The key to understanding the term is in the word itself. Light is where the proper emphasis belongs, but pay attention next time to how self-proclaimed spiritually enlightened writers refer to the term allegorically, allusively, symbolically, and altogether distanced from reality. Physics cannot be separated from spirituality lest we sequester spirituality to a hinterland of self-delusion.

In physics, light is an infinite barrier. That's good news, because enlightenment in spirituality is supposed to be something infinite too.

Light is an infinite barrier because it would take infinite energy to accelerate mass to the speed of light. With infinite energy, matter hurtling through space would itself become infinite light.

In other words, it is impossible to reach the speed of light. That's good news too, because the ancient mystics were fond of saying that enlightenment was impossible. But what is the connection?

We are all born with finite faculties of knowledge. Our avenues to knowledge are limited, and the result of depending on them is a finite sense of self. A nonfinite avenue to knowledge is required for a nonfinite self-knowledge.

But the distinction between nonfinite and infinite in this case is important, and not just nomenclature. Our finite sense of self, conditioned as it is, is intuitively known. Our intuition of our self, while not based on a finite avenue to knowledge, is yet not infinite. It is merely nonfinite.

An infinite self-knowledge, if it is truly such, must be as impossible as reaching the speed of light. It must mean that the finite human being develops an avenue to infinite self-knowledge. If you think that it's easy or possible, go ahead and try it. You might as well build a spaceship that reaches light speed.

If your body were nearly approaching the speed of light, all clocks on the transport would relatively slow down. Time would seem to be flowing normally to you, but in fact the clocks of your breath and heartbeat and physiological impulses would also be proportionally slowing down.

More good news, as this is sounding like all those ancient Vedic mythic stories of the gods, for whom large spans of time flowed much more quickly (one of their days is centuries for us, etc.) and for whom every breath encompasses thousands of our breaths. The idea the ancient mystics had was to slow the breathing down to correspond to the breathing rate of a god so that the sense of self and the sense of time expanded until both became infinite.

Again, more good news, as every ontologist (Parmenides, Aristotle, Heidegger) realized the connection between our sense of being and our sense of time. But, sadly for Mr. Tolle, the power of NOW is the power to accelerate matter to the speed of light, for only then will one be in an infinite now.

If the impossible were to happen and you reached the speed of light, your breath would stop, your heart would stop, space and time would collapse, and you would become infinite light. "Be still and know that I am God," to borrow from the ancient Hebrew mystics, never made more sense.

Does any of this sound familiar? From the looks of the books we are buying these days, it may not. But it should, because it sounds like samadhi, or superconsciousness, as described by masters of pranayama. Utter stillness in an infinite here and infinite now, transcending space, time, and causation as infinite light, obliterates the individuated self and expands the sense of self to infinity.

Mysticism, with the purpose of enlightenment, is nothing more than mimicking being on a spaceship approaching and reaching the speed of light. We cannot materially become infinite light, but we can inwardly still the breath and accelerate the rate of mind in perfect concentration.

This is accomplished through looking within, the literal meaning of intuition. The ancients called looking within pranayama because they found that looking within meant, firstly and finally, nervous energy (prana) no longer being restricted (ayama) to the finite patterns of awareness that condition the sense of self. All of mysticism (acquiring self-knowledge without input from finite avenues to knowledge) is, at bottom, pranayama.

The breathless state is the nonfinite avenue to knowledge becoming an avenue to infinite self-knowledge. With repeated entry into superconsciousness, finite patterns of energy and awareness that condition the sense of self and limit the intuitive capacity dissolve; the ascetic knows the body, and indeed all the cosmos, to be infinite light.

If enlightenment is infinite self-knowledge, or to know one's self as infinite light, the cosmos, infinite being, and infinite knowledge, then there has to be some muscle to these words or else they become annoying platitudes. It's the muscle I'm looking for in the writings (and lives) of others but never find.

The muscle is exposed by the equation "knowledge equals power." Infinite knowledge must have corresponding infinite power for it to be genuine. A good start would be in the breathless state as overt evidence that an infinite avenue to infinite self-knowledge has been developed. Claims of infinitude without infinite power are distracting self-delusions functioning as entertainment. It is the pinnacle not of self-realization, but self-mystification.

If you're enlightenment isn't infinite, stop wasting our time. All who are guilty would be wise to dissolve into the woodwork and quietly cease reminding us that we were fooled.

I personally don't know anyone who wants enlightenment, when the real cost in sacrifice and the real challenge it imposes becomes clear. I've met plenty who want to think they want enlightenment. Toward that end, they enjoy thinking they are meditating, or looking within, while they are learning martial arts, handling flower arrangement, performing tea ceremonies, navel gazing, gardening, chanting, being in the moment, being 'mindful, short-circuiting their intellectual faculties, writing bestseller books, training others to buy the same delusions, glimpsing their cult leader, changing their accent or adopting insider cult language, carrying themselves with unwavering affectation, wearing strange outfits that ignore the weather three seasons out of four...you name it.

All this reminds me of an Asian friend in high school that underwent surgery to have Western myopic eyes. I wonder now if she would still have done that if I agreed to take her to the prom. She thought I rejected her, when really I rejected proms. These days, so many people try to squeeze themselves into roles so they look and fit in with Eastern sensibilities, as if they are any more sensible than their Western counterparts. Mirroring my teen friend's need to be accepted, people are made vulnerable by social uncertainties and the new brand of confusion and contradiction imported in Eastern religions. Rejecting and feeling rejected by the religions of their parents, they think the "master" title in the East means anything more than "rabbi," which ironically means "master" too. Are the babas from India any more fathers than the Catholic abbot (from avot, "fathers" in Hebrew)?

No, they are not. Let's face reality and stop mystifying ourselves by mystifying those with whom we identify. We all hear the stories of famous people caught with their pants down, and react in public ways that are all too predictable. Quickly getting married after being accused of molesting young boys does not erase the patterns of conditioning inhibiting the expansion of the self. If you've had sex with a gerbil, finding solace in Tibetan Buddhism, or whatever is the latest exotic craze, is a dead-end endeavor. We all do this sort of "hide-me-from-myself" thing too. If you feel the need to fit in, perhaps consider making a concerted effort to fit in yourself by looking within instead of grafting on to the organized graft your friend feeds. Getting over yourself will be a lot harder once you've grafted onto the comfortable sectarian identity.

I don't know who needs to hear these things, but someone does. The bestseller list and the increasing popularity of personality cults is strong evidence that we are looking in the wrong places for feeling right about ourselves. It's as if we are doing our best to escape the challenges of our day and our past, instead of engaging our own self-reliant creativity to face the changes in store.

The East is now a click away. Applying the same discrimination with Eastern personages and ideas as we do with Western ones will hopefully be mirrored by the Easterner that does not romantically follow the consumer paradigm of the West. The world seems to have become a lot smaller because of the Internet, and that's a good thing because it was never that big in the first place. But when everything is at our front door, it's all the more reason to choose our company wisely.