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Derek Best has contributed to several publications, including Macleans Magazine Canada, and Omni Magazine, USA. He is has also produced many documentary films for Television. For many years, he has been interested in A Course in Miracles, a metaphysical thought system, and maintains the official website for that organization. "ACIM", he says "is central to my personal way of seeing the world." This site is strictly personal however. Derek has an eclectic range of interests, and writes about them here as the mood strikes him.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Both Sides Now.

Timothy Leary used to call it the "five and dime" syndrome. In the first half of the 20th century America saw a proliferation of stores selling cheap little toys, candies and knick-knacks for five-cents or ten cents, giving rise to the name "five and dime." Due to inflation, today's equivalent would be the "dollar" stores. Enough of the history lesson: the point is - the inside of a five and dime store is a very depressing environment (unless you are in love with cultural icons). Here everything is crass and cardboard and plastic and shrinkwrapped. All items are low-quality, stamped-out, second-rate, bare-bones, gaudy, tasteless, and -- well -- cheap! Lighting is bare-bulb vulgar, decor is non-existent, and the aisles seem filled with sallow haunted faces, picking through worthless bric-a-brac.

Leary, the self appointed guru of the psychedelic drug culture noted that certain aspects of the LSD experience are a lot like being trapped inside a five and dime store. All perception seems to take on a pallid meaningless hue. Everything seems cheap and tawdry, and the universe becomes a place of brittle plastic junk, devoid of meaning. That phrase "devoid of meaning" holds the key. In such a universe, all objects are reduced to pure form, and revealed to us as they really are: without purpose. It has been a long time since I read Dr. Leary but I recall he had the insight not to say that this aspect of altered perception was wrong or invalid, or any less real than any other. It was just the flip-side of beauty. Most people of course indulged in mind-altering drugs hoping for the beauty, and were frequently shocked by revelations of its tawdry underbelly. But one without the other is impossible. To perceive beauty entails the idolizing of form. Not to perceive it involves an inability to idolize form. The form itself is still perceived, but it becomes flat and meaningless. It conveys nothing. It is an empty shell, a hoax, an illusion, where once there was a world that seemed to have purpose and promise.

Depression often involves a sense of "flatness". Life holds no joy. Nothing gives pleasure. Have you been there? Of course we say that is not normal or natural, and we medicate it pretty damn quick! Can't have people walking the streets questioning the meaning of consumerism! It's bad for the economy. In a sense, today's pharmaceuticals are a more sophisticated version of Leary's. They are custom designed to lead us away from a particular type of "mis"-perception. The irony is of course that there is no correct type of perception: all perception is false knowledge. Even "vision" (as experienced by "visionaries") is a form of perception, thus a form of illusion. A Course in Miracles (as you may know) distinguishes most profoundly between perception and knowledge, telling us the two are mutually incompatible. Perception is of form, while knowledge is of purpose. Of "visions" the Course says:

The fact that perception is involved at all removes the experience from the realm of knowledge. That is why visions, however holy, do not last.

The implication of course is that knowledge is eternal, and whatever is not eternal is not knowledge. Thus the shifting sands of perception, whether drug-induced, or drug-reduced, or "normal" or "visionary" are all just temporary. Some are more useful and productive in a world of form, but none is right and none is wrong. All are false because none are knowledge.

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's cloud's illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all
-- (Joni Mitchell)

For the last few weeks I've been struggling with cars, people, and pigs. It began one day when I saw a picture of a pig on a TV farming show. I suppose I don't normally pay that much attention to pigs, but this one caught my attention. I knew what it was of course (i.e. it's label or symbol was "pig") but what I saw was - a self-propelled alimentary canal. At one end was a snuffling nose and mouth, and at the other end: an anus. The entire "pig" thing was just an elaborate explosion of form around this ugly pink tube, designed to enable locomotion and other bodily necessities for perpetuating the eternal foraging and excretion. But this was circular, for the foraging and excretion had no purpose other than to support the locomotive mechanisms, and the locomotive mechanisms had no purpose other than .... well you understand.

"No purpose" Now there was a five and dime theme to stick in the mind. It was ugly just becuse it lacked purpose. It was pure pointless form. There may be beautiful pigs and ugly pigs, but in their self-serving pointlessness, they are all obscene. Look at a pig sometime and explain to me "what is the point?"

Now look at a human being and answer the same question. We are not horizontal and we don't snuffle (mostly) but those are simple variations of form. Fundamentally we are self-propelled alimentary canals. We are ludicrus manifestations of form around a long tube, designed to support a bunch of corollary subsystems that make continued existence of the tube possible - for a few years. This is creation in all its glory??

Alright, I hear you saying I need to increase my medications. You are right. Modern medications have as their goal the selective tuning of perception so we don't perceive things this "incorrect" way. Instead we perceive in a way that makes us unquestioning productive members of society. We see roses and sunsets and rainbows, and birthdays, and graduations, promotions, inventions, engagements, bar-mitzvahs, weddings, mexican-food, italian-food, football, baseball, water ski-ing, bike-week, art-collecting, ebay selling, cable-TV, interior-decorating, kittens, puppies, babies, little piggies, "this little piggy went to market", and Santa. In short, all things to keep us busy and mindless. But the Course teaches differently ...

In all these diversionary tactics, however, the one question that is never asked by those who pursue them is "What for?" This is the question that you must learn to ask in connection with everything. What is the purpose?

It does seem to me that a car has more purpose than either a pig or a person. Both the mammals are just self-serving self-propelled feeding-excreting, warm-blooded blobs, one horizontal, one vertical. A car is very similar: it is certainly "auto-mobile" or self-propelled, and it is certainly largely concerned with ingesting fuel and belching out waste-products, but at least it serves the slightly greater purpose of carrying more than its own mass, thus being useful for transporting other pigs and humans around in search of food. Relax! I am joking of course - a car is not more important or valuable than a person. If it were, then our cities would be given over to cars, streets would be eight-lanes of traffic with no sidewalks for people. Stores, churches, schools, and office buildings would be accessible only by automobile, far beyond any reasonable walking distance, and would have to be surrounded by giant parking lots. Giant car dealerships would sprawl over hundreds of acres, and entire industries would develop around the manufacturing, selling, leasing, renting, insuring, and repairing of these four-wheeled demi-gods. People would install stereos and TV's and air-conditioners in their cars, and spend half their day in them, talking on little squawking gadgets to people elsewhere in other cars. What a sad world that would be. :-)

The point is of course that "purpose" cannot ever be expressed in terms of usefulness to the overall illusion. In that sense a doctor has far more purpose than a rock, and a cell-phone has more purpose than a cigarette butt. But in a larger sense all these components of form are equal and all have the same ultimate meaning, which is -- none. This places us firmly in Leary's five and dime store, in a universe where all form is without meaning: just hideous random brownian motion, bubbling and roiling out of the void like Joni Mitchell's clouds, and back into nothing. This I think is the quintessential dilemna of the existentialists. Their despair is justified. All aspects of existence are equally without meaning, so we fill our lives with idols that we worship as a substitute for meaning. Where the Course differs in this regard is in teaching us not to deny our despair and disgust, but to see it with forgiveness. It turns the ego's weapons on itself, gently deflating the meaning of all those idols and opening us up to true knowledge.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Toyotaman. said...

A doctor not more important than a rock? Don't you think your a bit out of touch with raelity? What else? A young child not more imporant than a pedophile? A tall building full of people not more important than a terrorist? Mother Theresa not more importsnt than Hitler? What kind of thought system is it that gives psychopaths equal rights with victims? If you were hurt badly in a car accident how would you feel if someone said the doctor can't come to you because theres a rock in the way and we dont want to move it. ?

12:00 PM  
Anonymous Jo-Ann said...

Pigs, ugly or beautiful. It’s all in how you want to perceive them or for that matter everything else in this world of illusion of form. Some like you Derek find pigs ugly and that’s okay, some want them as pets and then others for food or the blue ribbon they might win at the county fair. What you wrote…All aspects of existence are equally without meaning, so we fill our lives with idols that we worship as a substitute for meaning.

What does anyone of us want??? What is the meaning of anything here??? I would like to think that most of us are the same and truly want the same things in life, and that is Peace. Peace of mind. Peace of mind in a world of madness. How do we do that?? It’s a decision we make when we have had enough of this world. And… I don’t know what the right thing for anyone is but we all have a choice here in this world of the ego. We can identify with our bodies, (the ego) listening to it madness, questioning our self worth, wanting that special person to love us, judging and defending that judgment…or we can identify with the right mind and see things differently. When we do that we learn to forgive ourselves for thinking and perceiving wrongly. We learn to forgive ourselves for choosing the ego. This brings knowledge of Truth. When this happens we can join with like-minded individuals and this is the oneness that the Course of Miracles teaches us.

The Course is not for everyone and that’s okay. However you find your Peace is your purpose in your life.

Thanks for this subject, your humor and your Truth.

11:45 PM  
Anonymous Toyotaman said...

Humor, truth, love, peace ??? I think Ive stumbled on a hippie commune. Joanne seems to be saying if life sucks just see it differently and its beautiful. Your not taking any responsibiltiy for social change, just being passive and accepting. So if Sadam Hussein wants to kill a few thousand kurds we shouldnt complai we should just look at it differently.? Hey - the kurds should just look at it differently too. It has no meaning you say. I dont' get it, this isn't even pacifism. At least pacifism recognises what it choose to ignore. It does not see everything through rose colored glasses.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Annie D. said...

If purpose is related to weight-carrying ability then how about a horse or an elephant, or even an ant which I hear can carry a thousand times its own weight? This makes an ant much more important than a car. I don't know much about this course of miracles but I can't see anything "miraculous" about a car. It is just metal and has no place in the creation except to show the creative power of the human mind.
The greater "purpose" of humankind is spiritual and is God-given. To learn and grow and follow in Christ's footsteps and strive to become more perfect and love Him. In my opinion the bible leaves no doubt about this.

11:28 PM  
Anonymous marian said...

Interesting discussion. My experience with psychedelics, back in the day, was to see form as poignant. The whole tragic human 'experiment' as very poignant. There was a sweetness underlying the form, a beauty independent of all the tawdry uselessness. It shone through everything and made all of the cheap, useless crap quite beautiful.

But I get where you're coming from. I just think you might be making distinctions that are not necessarily helpful, and that may hurt you.

7:54 AM  
Anonymous marian said...

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the five and dime store has no inherent qualities other than what you project upon it, because in essence it does not exist.

So what you see is yourself.

8:04 AM  
Anonymous Brian said...

Derek,
I just read your post "Both Sides Now". Unfortunately, it was wonderfully astute, insightful and clearly written. I got a lot from reading it. I say unfortunately because I have been increasingly frustrated with my own seemingly endless diversionary tactics. In fact I was following the link to your blog for just such a diversion. The message awaiting me there is the same one, in many ways, that's been coming to me from listening to and reading J. Krishnamurti. I can no longer even question the "fact" of my constant running away and trying to escape from I don't really know what. But that that is my purpose these days, and it seems likely has always been, is indisputable to me now.

I listen to Ken a whole lot too, and what I get from all these wonderful and enlightened/enlightening sources (yourself included now) is to just watch, observe, be aware, don't judge, have compassion, respect the fear and its need for denial, resistance and projection, and (as my many 12 Step Programs advise) take it one day at a time.
I understand this completely, though it's nearly entirely an intellectual understanding. I'm also not saying I haven't "grown tremendously" over the years. But I feel these days like I can't punch my way out of a paper bag with this stuff. I'm watching everything I do seem to be another escape hatch and I'm powerless to do any differently. All I can do is choose somewhat less socially unacceptable (whatever that really means) escape routes. I am very uncomfortable being me these days. I don't have all the shenanigans I used to have to look at and condemn in myself and feel shame and guilt about. But I still feel that way. I almost want to go back to the old destructive days so I would feel justified in feeling this way. So I keep a few ways to act out, like caffiene, sugar, spending, politics, etc. But I know what they are.

So, if you ever feel like writing a blog about a day or week or year that you felt similarly I would love to read it. Maybe you have already and I tuned in to your blog too late. I'm sure I've read or heard the answer already but just wasn't ready (read that as willing) to let it in.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Derek said...

Brian,
Thanks for your message. If I were you, I would not worry about having only an "intellectual understanding." I've found that the ego loves to make us beat ourselves up over this. There are many paths up the mountain, and yours may be right for you. Others may suggest your understanding is not complete - but anyone who suggests that is certainly not wholly concerned with healing, so perhaps they too are still looking for the right way.

10:58 AM  

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