Reviewed by David Lorimer
This rather striking image conveys something of the tone of what the author calls the unadorned reality of the awakening process, in contrast to the spiritual merry-go-round that he thinks is simply a distraction from or avoidance of the real work. He makes this remark at a party of well-meaning friends, all of whom consider themselves spiritual and ethical but whose lives are effectively an expression of distraction, escape and spiritual materialism – in other words, like most of us, they are making a compromise between the ultimate demands of a spiritual calling and the need to fit into society. In this respect, Jesus was extremely radical, calling for his disciples to leave their families and for rich people to give away their wealth – he expected real transformation, a second birth, while more comfortable churchgoers prefer to be saved rather than transformed. This keeps them in a state of soothing dependency rather than undergoing the agitation of finding the truth out for ourselves and becoming our own authority.
The central figure in the narrative is Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. For McKenna, he embodies the breakthrough archetype with his single-minded, obsessive pursuit of the whale: pursuit of truth, truth at any price. The uncomfortable message of the book is that few people are prepared to pay this price, but if we don’t then we are skimming along the surface without plumbing the depths of life. The reader understands this process of spiritual autolysis through a selection of emails from a woman called Julie, who used to be a journalist covering spiritual matters – she lit plenty of candles and practised yoga and meditation, but this did not lead to the transcendence of the ego. For McKenna, this involves negation, even vastation: ‘seeing what needs to be killed, killing it, and cleaning up the mess’ or processing the loss after releasing any sense of attachment that forms a component of the ego. The process is one of stripping and cutting away, dismantling and deprogamming the ego and its inherent sense of separation. In this way, extreme suffering is a potential spiritual opening, as one also learns from near death experiences.
A vivid example occurs in a conversation between the author and his friend Barry who talks about another Catholic friend in a desperate state. Barry wants to know how he can help, but for Jed this kind of rescue and reversion to normality is not at all desirable. Suffering, loss and death are life’s wake-up call and he is not interested in helping anyone feel better: ‘I dwell in an infinite pitiless void’. In this sense, if he is not upsetting people, he does not feel he is doing his job properly (this becomes very amusing in some exchanges with a publicity agent about the message of his books). He does not take the view that there is anything wrong that needs fixing since ‘I reside in a perfect universe where nothing can ever be wrong. We all do, I just happen to know it.’ Truth has no confines and is beyond opposites while duality and ordinary life is a form of dreaming, from which most people have no wish to wake up. For him it is also vanity – there is no right and wrong, no better or worse – in a slightly different sense to the message of Ecclesiastes. McKenna advises Barry’s friend to stop struggling, clinging and resisting but rather to release and break through by breaking down.
McKenna further explains this in terms of the hero’s journey, with flesh on one side and spirit on the other. At some point, an event can put us into freefall and thus into the process of death and rebirth. We experience fear, doubt, denial, avoidance and resistance. This death of the ego is what mystics refer to as dying before we die, and it is a process described by Monika Renz in Transition, her book about actual dying that I reviewed in the last issue. This is not only the overcoming of a sense of separation quintessentially characterised by fear, but also the realisation, expressed in a quote from U.G. Krishnamurti (not Jiddu) that ‘understanding is a state of being where the question isn’t there any more; there is nothing there that says “now I understand!”’ As McKenna puts it, the desired answer is always the removal of the obstruction a correct question represents. Further on, he quotes Krishnamurti again with the subtle insight that ‘what prevents you from understanding what you want to understand is this very thing which you are using to understand things’. Ignorance is the essence of the separate self. At one level, this represents the dialogue between the left and right hemisphere, where the left claims that understanding can only be linear and analytical, while the right intuitively grasps the whole. At another, the realisation that oneness is not graspable and expressible but can only be experienced.
The argument of this book stands in stark contrast to self-help books in general, since its premise is that we should dismantle rather than improve the self. Many other writers encourage the move from ego to Self but the question is whether they are in fact keeping the ego structure intact at a higher level. There is arguably nothing intrinsically wrong with this – it just doesn’t complete the process described by mystics that includes a dark night of the soul leading ultimately to the unitive life. Although the move beyond opposites is well described in this book, the emphasis on destruction and deconstruction leaves the reader in an almost amoral state of not caring and considering all events quite impersonally. For me, there may be great wisdom in this approach, but the embodiment of love and compassion are missing. Buddhism and Christianity both emphasise the marriage of love and wisdom and the Sage or Saint embodies both. Clarity is not enough; indeed, it is just harsh without the accompanying expression of love.
Reflecting on this review, I remembered that (p. 235) there was an interesting passage where McKenna explains his view that by our standards dogs are the most advanced beings on the planet. I’m not sure about being self-realised, but it is certainly true that they are loyal, love unconditionally, forgive instantly, are empathetic, always in the moment, not carrying the past or fretting about the future. Quite something to live up to!