Archive for June, 2012

In our globalized world, uniting the essences of Eastern and Western philosophy is probably the most crucial step in attaining a modern and well-harmonized spiritual outlook on life.  In “Myths to Live By,” a book of essays delivered between 1958 and 1971,  the eminent scholar of mythology,  Joseph Campbell, makes two broad and crucial points about the dramatic differences between East and West in culture, society, religion and even art. 


His first point is that beginning with Greek civilization, Western society has been built on recognizing and honoring the human individual, involving the core belief that individual differences in personality are to be valued for the unique contributions they bring to human culture and learning. This validation of the individual has in turn led to the foundation of the sciences and to all of the breakthroughs we associate with real progress, which Campbell argues are to be attributed solely and exclusively to Western civilization.  By contrast, Eastern society, both in India and the Far East, finds no role for the individual except to perform the pre-defined social functions into which he has been born by caste or tradition.  Perfection of a pre-determined, more-or-less eternal social role is the goal of the individual in Eastern societies, not innovation.  Confucianism more or less provides a rule-book for the social roles of the individual within the family and society.  The more mystically oriented Yoga and the more naturally oriented disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism emphasize transcendence of the individual self within God, Buddha-nature and the Way of nature respectively.


Campbell’s second point is about the different Eastern and Western conceptualizations of God.  Since Westerners validate the individual, it is only to be expected that we view God as another individual; that is to say as the Other, as an outer Power with which we strive to form a personal relationship.  In the United States, many newer evangelical congregations have taken this idea of a relationship with God to its logical extreme, encouraging people to sit down, have coffee with God and have a chat with Him, as if God were the ultimate psychiatrist, best-friend and parent all wrapped into one big  package of unconditional love.  By contrast, Easterners believe that to find God we must look inside; that God is an inner Divine principle, and not a separate Other.  This much I knew before reading Campbell’s essays, but it was only after I read what he has to say about the lack of value of the individual self in Eastern culture, that I understood fully the Eastern conviction that our perception of ourselves as selves blocks our spiritual evolution by concealing the inner Divine.  Only by dissolving the self, that is to say the ego, can we find the God who is already within. 


Campbell then goes on to make a subtle third point about the different definitions of ego in Eastern and Western culture, a point which further elucidates why the West values the individual and the East does not.  Following Freud, Western culture defines the ego as a sort of traffic cop ruling over the desire-seeking id and the conscience-driven superego.  Like a judge in court, as events unfold and decisions are to be made, the ego constantly evaluates the evidence and rules in favor either of the id or the superego in an ever-unfolding sequence. Western culture thus encourages the development of the ego as the foundation of the mature, fully developed individual, who is then completely prepared to make his key and unique contribution to society.  Eastern society, on the other hand, draws no distinction between id, ego and superego.  All three wrapped together are merely ego, and it is the ego that is to be dissolved or destroyed, not its warring factions.  If the purpose of the individual is to perform his social role as perfectly as possible, not to evaluate stimuli and arrive at a new or innovative pattern of response, then the ego is of no more use to him than its two component factions.


What can we learn from these two extremely different world views as we strive to unite the concepts of East and West to form a new, more globally based form of spirituality?  We can learn to synthesize.  We can conclude that freedom is important because the individual is of key value to society, but also that the mature ego is not the entire being or worth of the individual.  The ego’s choices between the superego’s agenda and the id’s demands are not infallible and the ego itself, that is the traffic cop, can get wildly out of control, resulting in the individual becoming hugely destructive to society, rather than contributive.  We can conclude that our ego needs to be calmed by calling upon the Divine who resides within.  We can further conclude that we are not separate from God, but that at the same time it is legitimate to perceive ourselves as individuals with something  new and different  to contribute to society.  As such individuals, we can have a relationship with God even as we know and feel that He resides within.  Our deeply practical national forefather, Benjamin Franklin, knew as much.


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