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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Empyreanism: The quest for awareness always starts within

Stephen H. Provost

Spiritual definitions have always been a bit of a sticky wicket for me. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring various beliefs, but none of them ever seemed quite right.

Most of them were theisms: monotheism, pantheism, polytheism, atheism. ... While I found something to admire in each of them, I felt a bit like Goldilocks trying to find the perfect fit in the home of the three bears.

The problem is, it was somebody else’s house.

Exploring the options

The teachings of Jesus the Galilean often inspired me, but the dogma that grew up around him seemed at odds with much of what he said. What do you make of an admonition to “judge not” when Jesus’ followers these days spend so much time sitting in judgment? To “pray in secret” when so many condescendingly announce, “I’m praying for your soul”? To turn the other cheek when so many self-proclaimed Christians clamor for war?

Indeed, monotheism seems vulnerable to abuse by its very nature: The temptation to disguise one’s one biases as “the will of God” and attempt to force or intimidate others into heeding them will always be there. Not all monotheists succumb to this temptation, but enough of them do that it made me uncomfortable identifying myself with such a movement.

I found polytheism fascinating. The myths surrounding many gods in various traditions offer amazing insights into human history and psychology. They shed light on our attempts to explain the world around us and offer evidence of the connections we share with other humans and with nature. But I couldn’t take them literally. The gods were, it seemed to me, archetypes that offered important knowledge, but not actual celestial beings.

Pantheism was appealing – except for the fact that, if everything is divine, how is that different from everything not being divine? A definition that is all-encompassing loses its meaning. And its power.

Atheism isn’t even a belief so much as a philosophical statement: “I am without god(s)” is what it literally means. Atheists will tell you as much, and that’s all well and good. But it’s a negative statement, and I realized I wasn’t interested in defining myself in negative terms anymore.

I realized, at this point, that all of these beliefs related, in one way or another, to god(s) – beings presumably superior to human beings. Humanism was different, but it focused (naturally) on humans, and I was attracted to a broader approach that recognized humanity as just one strand of thread in a much larger tapestry of the universe.

The kingdom is within you, and all around you.
— The Gospel of Thomas

The Thomas revelation

I started describing myself as “eclectic” to indicate I was open to strands of philosophy from various traditions, but the description that always resonated with me most strongly was a saying attributed to Jesus in the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, a work with ties to both Gnostic and mainstream Christianity:

“If those who lead you say, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will arrive before you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. But rather, the kingdom is within you, and all around you.”

That sounds a lot like pantheism, but there’s more here than meets the eye.

In some quotations, Jesus refers to it as the kingdom of God; in others as the kingdom of heaven. “Heaven” to the ancients meant the celestial firmament, or, metaphorically, the highest state of being. To say that the kingdom of heaven was within was to say that, inside each of us, there exists the highest state of being. But there’s something more: It’s all around us, too, if we only choose to recognize it!

Key to the kingdom

The key in discovering this celestial kingdom is recognition, or awareness, that it exists. Roald Dahl once said that “those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” That might sound like you’re setting yourself up for confirmation bias, but I’m convinced that’s not what he meant. The point is, unless you’re looking for something – even something ordinary like a loaf of bread in the supermarket – you’re not likely to find it except by a lucky accident.

The second-century philosopher Claudius Ptolemy, an astrologer and mathematician, referred to the highest heaven as the Empyrean. It was a place of elemental fire and perfect light. Hence the Latin name, incorporating the words for fire (pyr) and the prefix for within (em). The translation could be “in the fire” or “the fire within.”

Within us, and all around us. The kingdom of God. For Ptolemy – who was not a Christian but an Aristotelian – the Empyrean was the seat of God – pretty much the same thing Jesus referred to. Jesus, of course, wasn’t a Christian, either, since Christianity didn’t exist until after he died. The saying attributed to him in The Gospel of Thomas reflected an insight that transcended Christianity, Aristotelian philosophy or, really, any other belief system.

In fact, it wasn’t a system at all. It was, and is, a state of awareness and a gateway to achieving that awareness. The first step is to understand that the gateway to kingdom is within. This is because awareness always comes from within. Although it’s expressed in celestial terms, looking for the kingdom in the sky is futile: “or the birds of the sky will arrive before you.” This is why, I think, the saying is constructed the way it is, placing inner awareness of the kingdom before the declaration that it is also “all around you.”

The message seems plain: You won’t recognize the kingdom around you until you first become aware of and acknowledge it in yourself.

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
— Roald Dahl

Heaven or hell

That’s where it – and you – are forged “in fire.” And it may feel more like hell than heaven. That’s why, I suspect, some turn away from it. The light from the fire is too bright, and the heat it generates too much for them to withstand. To recognize the kingdom is to recognize self, and only through that recognition can one begin to acknowledge the kingdom that exists all around us. Perception is the necessary precursor of awareness.

And awareness is not a belief system or doctrine or series of commandments. It is pure, undiluted understanding. But to go back to Roald Dahl’s observation: the belief that understanding can be attained always precedes understanding itself. Those who wish to find this magic, this alchemy of the soul, must first believe that it is there to be found.

Not in the sky. Not in the sea. But in the celestial core of the self.

Suddenly, the Psalmist’s declaration can be read in a whole new light: “You are gods; you are sons of the most high.” Not offspring of some old guy with gray hair and a beard sitting on a mythical throne in some external heaven. But scions of the highest celestial reality that exists within us and functions as the seat of divinity. The seat of self.

The spirit within.

When I realized the implications of this – that awareness, and the quest to attain it, was at the core of my being – I understood why the various “isms” I had explored all fell short of what I was searching for. Those “systems” shared the same desire for meaning, but each began by seeking it on the outside – in the sky or the sea, as Jesus said, or in a “holy book,” a sermon, a culture, a set of commandments or social expectations.

Hard work or easy answers

It’s easier to exist in an external system than in the fire. The answers are provided for you. You haven’t found them yourself, and they may not even apply to you. They’re like prepackaged fast food that has lost most of its nutritional value sitting on a shelf in shrink-wrapped cellophane. If you’re diabetic and they’re full of carbs, they could kill you. If they’ve lingered on that shelf past the sell-by date (e.g., are no longer relevant), they can make you sick.

If you start by looking within – by figuring out whether you’re a diabetic or allergic to peanuts or at risk of a heart attack if you eat fried food – you’ll recognize the kingdom outside: what’s good for you. It’s scary to look within, and there are plenty of people on the outside with their own agendas who want to keep you from doing just that – so they can sell you their prepackaged answers and get you hooked on them.

They often do this by offering to replace the scary aspects of self with a different kind of fear: threats of condemnation if you fail to do as they say. But such threats are false, and facing false fears never fostered growth. It’s only by facing the seat of your true fear – inside you – that growth will occur.

I call this dedication to awareness Empyreanism – or Panempyreanism, because it exists “within us and all around us.”

When it comes right down to it, I guess that’s what I am: an Empyreanist. I decided I’m done trying to make myself fit in someone else’s house. Goldilocks has gone home.

Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.
— John Hurt as the War Doctor, "Doctor Who"

Our addiction to outrage only empowers the bigots

Stephen H. Provost

One unfortunate byproduct of the internet age is the rush to judgment: the pressure to decide – and boldly declare – just how despicable an act is before we know all the facts.

But if we can’t just blame the internet, not if we want to be honest with ourselves. The internet is a tool, one we use to justify our own laziness and focus our addiction to outrage. We want to be pissed off. We want to feel superior, to believe that we are best equipped to make decisions about other people’s lives.

When we aren’t.

That’s not the worst of it. Outrage is contagious, viral, if you will. Not only are people tempted into outrage by their own egos, they’re afraid they’ll be shamed shamed – right along with the original target – if they’re not outraged. If something isn’t condemned immediately, suspicion arises.

“You must be one of them. How could you possibly side with that (racist, sexist, homophobic ... fill in the blank) so-and-so? You must be just as bad yourself!”

It’s not hard to recognize the same kind of dynamic that led to communist purges in the McCarthy era. Supposed “sympathizers” were as bad the alleged communists. This isn’t far removed from grade-school scandbox mentality. Growing up in the 1970s, before advances in LGBT rights, kids on the playground were routinely shamed as “gay” if they failed to measure up to some social norm. And anyone who dared defend them was called “gay,” too.

The labels have changed, but the principle remains the same. The process has merely accelerated in the age of social media.

Mob ‘justice’

Mob mentalities weren’t built in a day. They were built in the amount of time it takes to film a video and post it on Twitter. It’s the psychological equivalent of arson: Drop a match by the side of the road and watch it incinerate everything in sight.

Case in point: CNN recently ran a story about Dominique Moran. I mention her name because it’s important, I think, to realize that people affected by our addiction to outrage are real people with real lives that can be turned to shit in the blink of an eye by nothing more than an accusation.

Moran is a 23-year-old woman of Mexican-American heritage, but according to the outrage culture, she was branded as “white” because it’s more convenient to be outraged at white people these days. We wouldn’t want to complicate the narrative, now, would we?

According to CNN, she was working at Chipotle when a group of black customers entered the store. Moran had seen video footage of the men “dining and dashing” in the past when a credit card was declined, so she required them to pay for their meal in advance. One of the men responded by accusing her of racism, then began shooting a video and later posted it online.

It went viral, complete with nasty name-calling and calls for her to be blackballed (“I hope you never get another job”) in the comment field. and She wound up being fired because, you know, outrage demanded it.

The outrage had taken on a life of its own.

Perfect storm

Modern outrage is the product of a perfect storm. On the one hand, you have a media culture built on the constantly shifting foundation of instant gratification. Social media enables it, and the news media perpetuates it. When you’re chained to a 24-hour news cycle, the pressure to be “first” in reporting accusations is immense – especially if it’s already trending on Twitter. If you’re out there “ahead of the story,” you’ll get more clicks, more viewers ... and more advertising revenue. The pressure inherent in “breaking the news” makes an earlier era’s rush to hit the newsstands first look like a walk in the park. And it makes mistakes all but inevitable. (For more on this dynamic, see my book Media Meltdown.)

On the other hand, there’s an understandable frustration with our legal system. When monied elites can run out the clock on justice by filing endless appeals, or use their resources to make legitimate accusations “go away,” is it any wonder mob justice becomes attractive? There’s a lot of truth to the old saw that justice delayed is justice denied, so it’s natural for social justice vigilantes to take matters into their own hands.

There’s just one problem. It doesn’t work. You wind up “winning” a battle with a straw man and losing the war against the monster.

At what cost?

The cost goes of our rush to judgment goes far deeper than Dominque Moran’s anxiety and lost job, or the other highly personal costs born by any individual who’s falsely accused. Because whenever we sacrifice an innocent victim on the altar of our outrage, it gives real racists, sexists and homophobes ammunition to argue that they’re being set up and persecuted. It uses real victims like Moran as an excuse to promote the kind of false victim mentality that attracts people to racist and sexist groups in droves.

If you’re a member of the outrage culture lamenting the rise in white supremacy, you might be part of the problem. When you point that finger to scapegoat Dominique Moran or some other person you’ve never even met, four others are pointed straight back at you. And if you refuse to admit it, the problem only gets worse – which will further fuel your outrage. And that of the racists on the other side. Vicious circle doesn’t begin to describe the damage.

In our rush to judgment against the Dominique Morans of the world, we give the real enemy – white supremacists, neo-Nazis, homophobes and their ilk – an excuse to dismiss credible accusations as merely another “left-wing conspiracy.” Worse, we give people on the fence an excuse to believe them. We can’t afford to do this.

The antidote to “justice delayed” is not “injustice imposed,” which is exactly what the outrage culture – fueled by media pressures and social media access – promotes. Our judicial system may be imperfect, and at times unjust or even corrupt. Still, that doesn’t mean we should turn the gavel over to social media vigilantes fueled by sanctimony, prejudice and their own fear of being demonized.

But that’s exactly what we’ve done.

Heaven help us.

Why I've stopped writing about politics

Stephen H. Provost

My parents told me, back in the’70s, that it wasn’t smart to talk about two things in polite company: politics and religion. So, what did I do? Like any child determined to reach his own conclusions, I did the opposite: I talked about them – at least when I got old enough to know what I was talking about.

And I proved my parents wrong ... for a time.

About 20 years ago, I started a group on the now-defunct MSN Groups platform called Faiths & Reasons. The idea was to create a place for where people of different (or no) faith could exchange ideas and talk about the role reason played in their spiritual lives. It did exactly that. There were very few self-righteous rants; most people played by the rules. They enjoyed examining why they believed what they believed and hearing why others had chosen different paths.

Eight years later, MSN closed that platform, but the social climate was already starting to shift away from what had made that group a success. The openness that had been the hallmark of Faiths & Reasons was quickly being frozen out by a growing avalanche of tribalism. This trend was driven by a number of factors, not the least of which was a focus on identity at the expense of ideas.

(Forgive me now if I talk about politics for a bit; it’s kind of unavoidable in explaining why I won’t be doing it in the future!)

On the political stage, the trend toward kneejerk tribalism was reinforced by the success of Gerrymandered districts, which created seats of power safely insulated from viable challenge. When you know you’ll be elected regardless of your viewpoints, those viewpoints tend to become more extreme and self-serving. “The base” is no longer something to be courted in the primaries, it’s an altar upon which to sacrifice any principles you might have left.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham illustrates this perfectly. Once considered a man of principle, he has been exposed of late as a charlatan who hid behind principle because it was politically expedient at the time. Now, it no longer is. Trumpian lies and insults are all the vogue, so he’s adopted that approach as well. When the climate changed, so did he, admitting that his first goal had never been to uphold some high ideal, but rather to be re-elected. By whatever means necessary.

Changes such as Citizens United and the explosion of “preach to the choir” media only amplified the move toward unthinking tribalism. The end result has been to avoid talking about principle and exalt identity. This is, incidentally, why Nixon’s specter of the imperial presidency is rearing its ugly head again in a the Trumpian age. Empires aren’t about principle. They’re about the identity of the emperor. Bow down or fuck off (have your property seized and be locked away in a tower – if you’re lucky).

A new, more bitter age

Faiths & Reasons was based on the idea that people could honestly share and disagree on principles without having their identity questioned. It worked well in its time, but that time has clearly passed. For the past decade, I’ve been trying to do what I’ve always done: challenge bias – my own and others’ – through civil dialogue.

I’ve been pretty damned stubborn about it. I’ve persisted even though I’ve been called names, dismissed and accused of being sexist, bigoted, closed-minded, privileged, naïve ... the list goes on. There’s a saying that “what you tolerate will continue.” Well, folks, I’m done tolerating this. I won’t be blogging or posting much on social media about politics in the near future.

These days, anyone who claims to be speaking his or her own mind is shot down as either crazy or a liar. Case in point: GOP Rep. Justin Amash posts a detailed (for Twitter, anyway) rationale for why he believes Trump should be impeached. Trump’s response was typical of what I described above – not to mention his own crass puffery: He dismissed Amash as a “lightweight” and a “loser” only interested in “getting his name out there through controversy.”

It would be easy to say, “Well, that’s just Trump.” But it isn’t. Trump is as much a reflection of our culture as he is a builder of it, and the signs go far beyond his toxic Twitter feed.

It’s gotten so twisted that people dismiss reasoned arguments as “talking points” – while relying on their own talking points to do so! Responding to Amash’s critique, Republican Party leader Ronna McDaniel basically refused to acknowledge that he even had a brain, accusing him of merely “parroting the Democrats’ talking points on Russia.”

It’s truly Orwellian when a knee-jerk toady accuses an independent thinker of being, well, a knee-jerk toady. But this is the world we’re living in, folks. And I won’t be suckered into participating that kind of doublethink anymore.

It would be bad enough if it were just Trump and lockstep Republicans, but there are true believers on the other side who demand that people be marginalized for deviating a single syllable from the party line, assuming that such deviations, intended or not, are signs of some latent and cleverly concealed “ism.”

They may be right. But they just might be wrong, too. And in the current climate, they never pause to consider the latter possibility, because they’ve committed themselves so strongly to their position that they can’t even begin to entertain other options. Maybe they’re wrong. Or maybe the situation they see as in such absolute terms is more complicated than they want to admit.

Process, not conclusion

I’m not creating some false equivalency here. I’m not saying, as Trump did, that there are “good people on both sides” in a confrontation between civil rights advocates and white supremacists. That would be patently absurd. I’m not talking about conclusions, but the process we use to get there: Do we arrive at our conclusions through rational thought or because someone else tells us that’s how we should think? In my mind, the second method is like cheating on a test: You deserve a big fat F even if you get the right answer!

If you react based on fear and outrage rather than based on reasoned analysis, you’re part of the problem, yet that’s how more and more people are reaching their conclusions these days. That’s especially true of politics. Politicians like to talk about “working across the aisle” and “having a dialogue” on race or immigration or whatever. When positions are already firm and unyielding, a dialogue isn’t possible. What we get, instead, is a shouting match.

Both sides become determined to bargain from a position of strength and avoid sliding down a slippery slope, so they dig in their heels and nothing gets done. The current trade war is a prime example. “Compromise” has long been dismissed as a dirty word, but if that’s true, what’s the point in negotiating? Successful negotiations will always be conducted in good faith, and today, neither side has any faith in the other ... beyond the assurance that, if they give an inch, they’ll get screwed.

If this were just the way politics operated, it would be bad enough, but the tribal mentality is permeating society on nearly every level in 2019. The cycle of outrage and distrust has become locked in, as politicians and the public reinforce it – locking out any hope of rational discourse.  It’s pointless to argue about the chicken and the egg: Politicians and the public reinforce this toxic thought with each other, thereby locking out any hope of rational discourse.

Switching teams

Sports serves as an interesting parallel: People continue to root for their chosen teams, even if they adopt a whole new playing style or trade for players they previously disliked. I’ve been accused of being a fair-weather fan for switching my allegiance from the Lakers, whom I supported for years, to the Warriors because I like their players’ attitude and enjoy their style of play. Does Magic play for the Lakers anymore? Does Kareem? Jerry West? James Worthy? If they did, I’d still be a fan. But the Kobe show paled in comparison to Showtime, and I’ve never been a fan of the drama that LeBron and Lonzo bring to the table.

So, I became a Warriors fan.

Similarly, I’ve been a Republican, a Democrat and an independent, and I won’t apologize for switching affiliations when I did. In each case, it was a reflection of either my own political evolution or a party changing what it stood for – or some combination of the two. (The Republican Party of today looks nothing like what it did under Lincoln, Eisenhower or even Reagan.) I place principle and substance over assumption and identity.

But our society doesn’t view changes in position as a sign of personal growth or independence. It sees such evolution as a sign of inconsistency, hypocrisy or weakness. Or, worse, betrayal. I don’t buy that. To my way of thinking, revisiting previous decisions is one of the most courageous things a person can do, especially in an environment such as this one. I’m going to continue to do that, no matter what others may think.

Out of step

I’m a person of nuance living in a world of absolutists who have won the day through an endless barrage of fear and propaganda, with an emphasis on reinforcing their identity as part of this or that “in group.” The tribe. People who, increasingly, believe it’s better to drink the Kool-Aid than question what might be in it.

I’ll operate on their black-and-white level in one instance only: I’ll vote. Because, ultimately, I believe that’s the best way to make a difference. I’m glad it’s a secret ballot, because that means I won’t feel like I have to walk on eggshells or justify my position to those who don’t care about the reasoning behind it in the first place. That’s exhausting, and that’s why I’m out. I’m not interested in preaching to the choir, nor do I want to get blasted for refusing to echo someone else’s ideas, down to the last dotted “i” and crossed “t.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that I can make a bigger difference in other ways that have nothing to do with the tribalism that dominates the current political scene.

My parents were right, after all. I still hope we can return to a world in which sharing ideas doesn’t have to be akin to walking through a minefield, but I’m not holding my breath it will happen soon. So, for the time being, I’m removing myself from the fray.

I’ve realized that my tribe isn’t a political party or a spiritual group. It’s not the people who share my profession or my hobbies. It’s not a “movement” or an “issue.” It’s those who think the way I do, who believe in assessing ideas openly and independently, rather than simply accepting the conclusions of the powers that be.

Just as in Faiths & Reasons, I know I’ll find them in the oddest and most unexpected of places, even if they may be, in today’s climate, exceptionally rare.

Note: If you want to know what I think about politics, I’ve written about it on this site extensively in the past. Also, you’re free to pick up my book, Media Meltdown: In the Age of Trump.