When I was an undergraduate, taking my first course in existential philosophy, I was introduced to the problem of Angst as a core theme — perhaps the core theme — of existentialism. I was probably too young then to really understand why contemporary thinkers considered Angst the chief problem of modern man. I understand it better, now.
I’m not a “Sassenach” (Anglo-Saxon, that is). I’m a Scot. My family is part of the Scottish diaspora. Even though I don’t pine for “the Old Country” like my grandparents did, I was raised in all those traditions even when they didn’t make any sense at all in the context of the New World. I was quite happy to shake them off. A lot of them were just phoney, pretentious, and even reactionary… that is to say, “clannish”.
I’m not nostalgic for things Scottish, nor do I feel any ancestral connection to Scotland at all. But I do have an interest in the secessionist movement, largely for the reasons outlined by Fintan O’Toole in a recent Guardian article.
Empire is no more! and now the lion and wolf shall cease. — William Blake, “The Song of Liberty“
I was reading, just a few moments ago, an article on the decline of the American Empire posted on the CBC: “How 9/11 hastened the decline of the American Empire“. The article is a summary of an Ideas radio programme presented last evening entitled “The Sorrows of Empire“. I haven’t listened to “The Sorrows of Empire” as yet, but I can anticipate what it might relate based on the précis.
I felt I needed to quickly comment on this. It is what it is, but it’s also not what it seems.
One of the most peculiar dynamics of globalisation is the proliferation of nationalist and secessionist movements. Scotland and the Ukraine are all in the news today, but there are active secessionist movements in Canada (Quebec), Spain (Catalonia), the Middle East, and elsewhere. Even in the United States. It’s a great example of what I call “ironic reversal” — an ironic reversal of “the end of history” and of the overt logic of, and expectations for, what is called “globalisation”.
In some ways, it represents a nice example of that double-movement or action that Carl Jung called “enantiodromia” — coincidence of opposites or reversal at the limit or extremity. Jean Gebser also made note of this double-movement of the times as early as 1949, in his Ever-Present Origin – his belief that the atomisation, fragmentation or disintegration of Modern Era was also an essential restructuration, ie, that its nihilism was also a genesis, the emergence of a new consciousness structure.
This morning I was reading something that is referred to as “the Four Mind Changers” or “The Four Transforming Thoughts” in Tibetan Buddhism, and I thought to myself… gee, that sounds a lot like what I wrote recently about the correlation or co-determinacy of knowledge, power, freedom, and responsibility. I was very pleased to discover that corroboration. And reflecting on these Four Mind Changers helped deepen even further my appreciation for the interrelationship of knowledge, power, freedom and responsibility.
When I was recently back in Vancouver, I visited one of my favourite used bookstores there and found a copy of Judith Lief’s Making Friends With Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality, I purchased it. My mother was appalled. She thought it was macabre and morbid to want to read a book on death and dying.
I haven’t read it yet, though.
But everything “spiritual” begins with death and the consciousness of one’s personal mortality. That is the rule, and there is no exception to that rule. Death is the guru. Death is what teaches you wisdom. Death teaches you how to overcome yourself and transcend yourself. “Dying to oneself daily” as the New Testament puts it is the root spiritual practice. Even Nietzsche’s philosophy begins with the awareness of death. It is the First Noble Truth of Buddhism — the reality of impermanence. Meditation is actually the practice and rehearsal of one’s personal death.
Our times are shot through with self-contradiction. This is precisely what is being referred to as “the new normal”: double-talk, double-think, double-standard, double-bind, these four which I’ve previously called our own “Four Riders of the Apocalypse”. Self-contradiction is the friction in which values become burned out and consumed; the millstones that grind down and pulverise values; the process by which “all higher values devalue themselves”, as Nietzsche described nihilism.