Asking Why

The great Herbert von Karajan was once asked what his reason was for preferring the Berlin Philharmonic over the Vienna Philharmonic. His reply was: “If I tell the Berliners to step forward, they do it. If I tell the Viennese to step forward, they do it. But then they ask why.”

With all due respect to him, “asking why” is actually what drives a lot of what is valuable in human culture. I’ve been very happy in checking out some aspects of the Western Mysteries, as some call them, and I do love Plato, but re-reading Franz Bardon’s Initiation into Hermetics is like stepping back in time. (Anything to do with it being a translation from German? ^_^). As the very first exercise explains, “You must devote the greatest attention to this thought control exercise because it is extremely important in magical development — a fact which you will later understand.” And so on throughout: no explanation or reasoning is given, the idea is “just do it, because I say you ‘must’ and you’ll get it later”. No model is given for explaining the ‘must’ either, no pattern of progress is charted, no real talk about the nervous system, no addressing of the feelings of the aspirant. Evidence that the exercise is a good way is not given and the idea that it should be needed it isn’t even considered. In a time where trust between generations is at its lowest ebb for centuries, that’s asking an awful lot of the average westerner’s obedience mechanism.

With the Glenn Morris approach, of course, the opposite is true. There is nothing done without good reason, and if possible evidential testing, to back it up. Apart from anything else that makes good consumer sense — people want to know what ‘latest studies show’, and cultural scholarship makes airy mysticism at least appear to have some backing. But clearly, there’s more to it than that. Just as with Platonic philosophy, so with modern psychology: a cultural movement based on not knowing has sprung up, based on thinking for oneself and testing in other words, on admitting that doing things ‘just because, and you’ll see’, is actually often highly problematic in human culture. It would certainly seem to have improved our understanding of the world, to keep that questioning open.

I’ve argued the evidential attitude is one which we still need to apply more thoroughly in all areas of spiritual life, as is the simple act of thinking and intuiting carefully about what is done, in the area of mysticism perhaps above all. ‘Simply obey’ is still an instruction that can lead to incredible mistakes, and all must at the beginning be warned against it. (Buddha, for example, took care to do so.) The consequences of unthinkingly following guru orders are well documented in such cases as Andrew Cohen.

Plato, having been absorbed into the Christian compost, could hardly seem more establishment to us, yet his Socrates was a why-asker nonpareil, doing nothing without carefully thinking through the conventional reasons for doing it, and mostly, discarding them as ridiculously inadequate. People got so fedup with the power his endless ‘gadfly’ behaviour exerted on others that a court convened to chasten him ended up ordering him to drink lethal poison, which he did without any sign of distress, as Plato tells it… I’ll save for another time more thoughts on Socrates, a person of considerable importance to this subject matter in my view, and on other examples of Attic philosophy and what it can mean for us now, especially perhaps on the ironized relationship of that mindset with religious traditions, and on the similar irony inherent in modern transpersonal psychology — a productive irony, I hasten to add, and one that can ‘save the soul’ from the mediocrity of a culture that will quite happily destroy it without a second thought.

Right now, we need only observe that this irony allows one to revisit the older ‘just obey’ stuff (which has resulted in mass neurosis in general, too, when it came from a guilt-instilling religious source) and see it afresh. With the help of reason, many things can be recalibrated as psychological and hence we can act freely with respect to them; admitting our ignorance gives us this option. Doing that has given me great respect for Bardon, as I have had respect for some of his students whom I’ve encountered. Interest in his system remains high, and with good reason. What is most interesting of all, I think, is that Glenn actually worked out a similar progression to Bardon’s, without ever having read Bardon’s work. It’s also very unlike the pure-chi-work system of someone like Mantak Chia, say, even though it would quite happily make use of Chia’s energy skills, and also unlike the ‘just sit and meditate’ approach. It is a constellation, a cocktail of practices that work in a harmonious sequence. This is the reason Bardon’s work is still in the Reading List.

Glenn liked to talk about being a ‘hobbyist’. That didn’t mean he was uncommitted by any means. What it did mean was that he was very happy to go to anyone and learn from them, considering it a personal encounter rather than a lifetime loyalty – although he had the latter for Hatsumi Masaaki, no question. (His loyalty was to people, I think.) He then used psychology as a big bag to hold everything else, to talk about everyone from Patanjali to Freud. He found some of what had once been locked up by the head of the family/temple/dojo, and only unlocked for a couple of lucky qualifiers, was now on Amazon for 11.99, and he took full advantage of that too.

The similarities between his way and Bardon’s are:

1. The need for a psychological approach to self-knowledge, determined by the student at least partly, as part of a bigger package of practices including energy and meditation.
2. The use of the four-plus-one-elements model, both energetically and in terms of psychology.
3. The requirement of an initial attainment in pure mental meditation before serious energy work is begun.
4. The mastery of kundalini prior to doing major astral projection.
5. A focus on sense concentration exercises.

So the shape of the two practices has much in common, yet more or less developed independently, which itself is interesting evidence. Learn relaxation, purify and heal the psyche, meditate so that you can watch thoughts and leave thought behind. Then learn sense concentrations, awaken energy and build it. The body and soul are rejuvenated and the social masks are doffed. Initial enlightenment experiences follow, and these are the preparation for OBE and also union with the All, etc. Comparing this approach to that of Chia or Frantzis, say, I personally find they lack that multidimensionality, that way of operating on the whole human being at once, by using all those different sorts of exercises in a natural progression. Perhaps the simple fact that multiple methods make for interesting variety could help explain why Glenn’s way, like Bardon’s, seems to work.

A lot more could be said about each of these 5 items, but perhaps the major point to make is that Glenn’s approach was reasoned when it came to understanding them. (It was also well-written, something I welcome in this age of spiritual garbage, and no, Bardon’s work, unlike Crowley’s, has no literary merit.) Everything Glenn did was about having continually asked why, and he himself had no one fixed teacher. Consequently, he believed in (and enjoyed) ceaseless researching and never following only one way. He did have very good psychological ways of talking about the process, but — again like Socrates or Plato — never made them into one big congealed model.

I’m still working on the psychological angle, and it’s absolutely clear that just about every psychological system can have something worthwhile to add to the process of “enlightenment”. This I think is amongst the more fascinating and productive aspects of kundalini awakening at this time — observing the process from the psychological angle, as well as the physio-energetic and the mental-spiritual, seeing that what happens does make the most enormously deep sense, and trying to describe how, in such a way that it works for others too, and in that sense replicates.

As time goes on I’ll give my own thoughts on the psychology of kundalini, but one thing’s for sure — I expect everyone to continue asking why.

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2 responses to “Asking Why

  • spiritinquire

    I strongly agree with you on the importance of asking why, and in every aspect of life.

    I was just having a conversation this week with my father about leadership at work. He was saying that it is very problematic when a manager doesn’t tell their team WHY something has to happen a certain way, only that it does. When the WHY is left out, people can’t possibly be expected to understand the importance of the world.

    Organized religion often scares me because too many people don’t challenge it. “WHY do we do such and such ritual?” “Because God wrote it down in this book here.”

    My spiritual position is to ALWAYS ask WHY. That’s why I’m “spiritual inquiry” :)

  • Jason Wingate

    Ha, yes indeed.

    Organized religion often scares me because too many people don’t challenge it. “WHY do we do such and such ritual?” “Because God wrote it down in this book here.”

    Well sure, and another problem is unjustified huge claims about perfection etc. that no-one is allowed to question.

    I like the way your father says it — Plato would agree with him! If you know the reason, you own the action, I guess.

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