Conversations On The Leading Edge
Of Knowledge and Discovery
With Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove
Real Philosophy :
An Anthology of Universal Search for Meaning
SPIRITUALITY AND THE INTELLECT
JEFFREY MISHLOVE: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is "Spirituality and the Intellect." You know, so often we think of spirituality as dealing with the realm which is beyond the intellect, beyond ego, beyond time and space itself -- a realm touching the infinite, the divine. The intellect, on the other hand, is concrete, is tangible; it deals with numbers, with concepts. And yet, clearly these two realms somehow intersect, somehow have an important role in which they overlap and interact with each other. My guest today is Professor Jacob Needleman, a member of the Philosophy Department of San Francisco State University. Dr. Needleman is the author of numerous books, including A Sense of the Cosmos, The Heart of Philosophy, The Way of the Physician, a novel called Sorcerers, and also The New Religions. Welcome, Jacob.
JACOB NEEDLEMAN: I'm glad to be here.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. Let's start with perhaps the greatest figure in all of philosophy, that of Socrates. Socrates seems in his life to bridge this gap between the spirit and the intellect, and most people would agree that he is one of, if not the greatest, philosopher; and yet he never left any writings whatsoever.
NEEDLEMAN: Well, he was a philosopher in the original sense of the term, which is a lover of wisdom. That's what the word means -- to love, to seek wisdom. And wisdom is not just something in the head. Wisdom is a state of the whole human being. A person who is wise not only knows the truth, but can live it. So the philosopher Socrates was someone who seeks to be wisdom, not simply to know facts and propositions and ideas. He was a teacher of wisdom in that sense, a seeker.
MISHLOVE: One has the sense -- and I imagine you feel this quite acutely yourself -- that contemporary philosophy, academic philosophy, has deviated a great deal from the path that was set down by the ancient philosophers such as Socrates.
NEEDLEMAN: The whole culture has deviated from that. We've all deviated from that. The whole modern culture tempts us and draws us into just one part of ourselves, and Socrates and Plato after him taught that only the completely integrated being is a true human being. So yes, academic philosophy has deviated from that. But almost all of our lives, we no longer have that in our hands.
MISHLOVE: And if our culture as a whole is really moved away from this sense of being whole people, then I guess we have to look at alternatives to the mainstream culture -- to the esoteric or counterculture examples, perhaps, which I know you've explored extensively -- to get a handle on what was once mainstream ancient wisdom.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes, we have to look. Many people are looking, and many things are breaking through that we didn't know about or take seriously before -- from ancient times, from the East, from God knows where. This seems to be a time when everything is pouring in. And certainly we need some new life, new understanding, in our culture.
MISHLOVE: What is your sense, if I can put the question to you directly -- you're a professor of psychology --
NEEDLEMAN: Professor of philosophy.
MISHLOVE: I'm sorry, my mistake. I knew that. You're a professor of philosophy, but you speak to many groups. You speak to physicians, you speak to people in many different communities -- students, amongst others. How can you communicate this sense to people of what philosophy is?
NEEDLEMAN: I'll tell you, it's a very strange thing. And it may even sound sort of obvious, but I don't think it is. I've discovered it in my work with groups like you've mentioned -- doctors, businesspeople, psychologists, religious educators, young people. Real inquiry is a tremendous moral transforming force. And that's what Socrates was -- he was inquiring, searching, questioning. And he knew how to do that. It's not just questioning and looking for a quick answer or an explanation, but the process of inquiry -- of questioning, of opening -- opens something in the human being which has not been touched in our culture. So it's really not a question of whether you're in this field or that field. Everybody who is human has in themselves the potential of passionate inquiry after truth, and that's the transforming force. Now that's what I'm doing, no matter where I am. I'm trying.
MISHLOVE: It may have been a bit serendipitous that I referred to you as a psychologist, because it seems as if what you're really talking about is the psyche itself -- the ancient term which refers to the soul.
NEEDLEMAN: Absolutely. It was never separate. Philosophy and psychology were always together, and it's only a modern thing in our culture that there has been a separation between the search for wisdom and transcendence, and the study of the mind, one's own mind and all its possibilities, not just the pathology. So it's true; the twentieth century is the time when philosophy and psychology got separated off, but it never was that in the past. So yes, I would like to think of myself as trying to be a psychologist, in the ancient sense, as well as a philosopher.
MISHLOVE: When we deal with the realm of the intellect, with the realm of concepts, you've introduced a very interesting distinction I'd like to bring up, and that is the difference between a concept and an idea.
NEEDLEMAN: That's a tough one. It took me a lot in my book to explain it.
MISHLOVE: It meant a lot to me when I read it.
NEEDLEMAN: It's hard to put it in a quick description. A concept is a kind of mental tool for organizing data and facts. It's like an aspect of a computer, or a filing system, and very useful. But it's part of a rather automatic part of the mind which the human being has, which is very useful. An idea is like an expression of a fundamental reality -- a force, in a way. Sometimes it takes its expression in words, an abstract formula; sometimes it's in images; sometimes it's in geometric forms, in art forms. So the verbal expression of ideas is only one way of communicating, of speaking about something that goes beyond just the isolated intellect to understand. It's very hard to put this quickly in any other way. But ideas come from a deeper level of the human mind. Concepts are the ordinary mind functioning as it should to organize, cut, dry, put in file cabinets, and do all that.
MISHLOVE: In other words, normally when we think of the work of the intellect we're thinking about concepts that it deals with. Ideas are something that the intellect is also engaged in, but ideas penetrate deeper; they have a greater transformative power.
NEEDLEMAN: Absolutely. They're meant to be accepted by the intellect, but they need to penetrate down into the heart and the guts, and that's what concepts don't do particularly.
MISHLOVE: And ideas, I suppose, are not measurable in the way that concepts are. They can't be manipulated the way that concepts are manipulated.
NEEDLEMAN: No. If they are, they get twisted.
MISHLOVE: A great idea might be the one that's been left to us by Socrates: "Man, know thyself."
NEEDLEMAN: That's a great idea. Many of those kinds of things. The idea of God is an idea, and it points to something that may or may not exist. I think it does, that it's real, but it's an idea. It didn't just appear automatically like a rock or a stone. Somebody had this vision of the idea of God, or the idea of the universe -- oneness, many in one. Or in ancient Chinese, the idea of the yin and the yang -- the two, the constant interplay of two forces in the universe. This is an idea. Now the head can figure out the conceptual way of doing it, but it can never really understand it, because with ideas, to understand it you have to experience it. That means you have to be immersed in it with your whole being. So it's a very big difference, ideas. And you're right -- there's been a tremendous confusion between ideas and concepts, and therefore the conceptual mind has tried to do all by itself what only the mind of the whole person is able to do, and that's been a problem with our whole society, I think.
MISHLOVE: Let's look at the other side of the equation we're discussing tonight -- spirituality. I think of spirituality as somehow a contact with something beyond time and space, with something infinite, with something not part of this physical realm quite. Is that a definition that you're comfortable with?
NEEDLEMAN: Yes. Of course, not part of the physical realm that the conceptual mind grasps. Not part of time and space as it is constructed by and understandable by the conceptual mind alone. But there may be other levels of time and space, and there may be another meaning to physical reality. But yes, basically I would agree with you. It refers to something, you might say, higher or deeper than we ordinarily can understand and experience.
MISHLOVE: One of the notions that you introduced in your book, The Heart of Philosophy, is that true philosophy involves a kind of agonizing, or a remembering -- I don't quite remember the word that you used, but it has to do with the dual nature of man -- that part of us is here in this physical body, in this three-dimensional world, and another part of us partakes of the infinite, of the absolute, of the Platonic or spiritual realms. The fact that we have these two parts to us creates an inescapable tension. And real philosophy is in effect its coming to terms, grasping that tension and really beginning to deal with it.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes, we're creatures in two worlds -- the world beyond this one, and this one. And Socrates' understanding of philosophy is one of the ways to help us remember, feel, hear the call of something in us that is from a much greater reality. It's what he called remembering -- the way of remembering. It helps us to remember that there's something much greater in ourselves. At the same time, we live in this world, we're egos, we're people, we're physical. So this human condition of being both the high and the low together, both the inner and the outer, of being two things at the same time -- that's what distinguishes human beings from all other creatures. And it's our task, as you say, to deal with it -- well, at least to face it, to live it.
MISHLOVE: I use the word to agonize over it.
NEEDLEMAN: It's a kind of suffering.
MISHLOVE: There is an inherent suffering there.
NEEDLEMAN: But it's creative suffering. It can be.
MISHLOVE: It seems as if the existential philosophers write about this a lot -- angst, or nausea.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes, but you don't get the sense of great hope with the existentialists, at least some of them. You don't get the sense that there really is a deeper, higher reality. With much of what we call existentialism -- the sense that we are human beings poured like metaphysical freaks, cast adrift in a meaningless universe, and suffering this weird thing called freedom, which brings us this angst and this suffering, and knowing there's no meaning outside ourselves, but still having the guts to stand up and say, that's what I am -- that's existentialism of a kind. That's not what we're speaking about. We're speaking about a vision of human nature which really says there is meaning, great meaning, inside us and outside of us too. And the suffering is that we feel it exists, but we're out of contact with it, and we need to find a way to open to it. It's not exactly existentialism.
MISHLOVE: To contrast existentialism a little bit with what I guess you might call the positive thinking philosophies, there's a view that everything is really all bliss, everything is all perfect already. This comes from many circles of people who are spiritual thinkers. I think Christian Science is one among many who take this attitude towards life. How do you feel about that as a philosopher? Is it too simple-minded?
NEEDLEMAN: There's an ancient and deep truth there, that can degenerate when it's taken in a simple way, in a stupid way, just as the view that this is a tough universe and everything obeys laws and you have to pay for it, can degenerate into some hard, cynical view. Basically the great traditions have always taught that there is something in us which is godlike, and that there is an inherent joy within us; and that yes, like the Buddhists say, you already are the Buddha; or like the Christians say, Christ has already forgiven you, the kindgom has already appeared. But that doesn't mean we are in touch with it. Those who are, have a very deeply well earned joyousness. But those who just take it as an idea, and as something attractive emotionally, may make it look foolish. It can become a very foolish thing, where somebody is saying everything is just fine while the house is burning. Things are not so fine. Even in Buddhism -- the house is burning, the Buddhist says, and you've got to get out of that burning house and realize your inherent Buddha-ness. So yes, when you say, what do I think of it, in its authentic form it's a deep truth. In its perverted forms it can be silly -- just as it's a deep truth that you have to work hard and suffer for understanding, but in its perverted form it makes everything impossible, cynical, tough, as scientism does sometimes -- there's nothing out there, we're here, we're cast adrift, we're going nowhere. Both views are perverted -- what you might call the daydream view, and the nightmare view. They're both fantasies.
MISHLOVE: Somewhere in the middle, then, there must be a place in which developing the intellect to grasp our dual nature -- our physical nature and our spiritual nature -- becomes important. I guess the Buddhists might have referred to this as right thinking.
NEEDLEMAN: Absolutely. The intellect is a very important function in us. It's been twisted, it's been used wrong. It's like an extraordinary tool that's not being used right, or like a computer that's in the hands of a maniac. This is an extraordinary thing, and it's very much part of us. There are many levels of intellect, but even our ordinary level can be used in a different way. For that, we need to have more real experience. The intellect functions well when it feeds on deep, true experiences. And our level of experience is not good. So the more we can have real experiences, the more the intellect has reality to work with. As it is we live on fantasies.
MISHLOVE: What would be an example of a real experience?
NEEDLEMAN: Well, any real impression. Even a philosopher like David Hume, who in many ways is considered to be a cynic, or at least very skeptical, had the idea that impressions are the basis of thought. So we need to have impressions -- for example, the impression of sitting here and talking to you. Am I really experiencing you? Am I really experiencing being here? Usually we're not.
MISHLOVE: As opposed to having some kind of mental chatter going on, which is already interpreting.
NEEDLEMAN: Exactly. It's already interpreting. Or the kind of experience you have, maybe, in emergencies, or shocking situations, or sudden joyous -- or say, when a woman gives birth to a child -- this sense of: "This is real. I am here." Experiencing that. That's a kind of food for the mind, for the whole being.
MISHLOVE: It seems as if what you're saying is that in order to really cultivate our intellect we have to get beyond the habitual interpretive or intellectual responses that we've learned, so that we can refresh our thinking process.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes. You have to be aware that there's an interpretation, a commentary, going on all the time. And we have to get free of that commentary. And that's not something you do just by thinking about doing it.
MISHLOVE: In a sense now you're talking as a psychologist, I think. This commentary, this part of our stream of thought, much of it must have been conditioned since childhood. We think in certain ways. We have patterns of looking at the world and understanding it. And the job of philosophy, or the job of true intellectual development, is to rebuild ourselves, as adults, I suppose.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes, and we rebuild ourselves, I think, partly by becoming freer from the commentary, so that we can take in the nourishment of real experiences, which is a kind of nourishment of what used to be called the soul, but we don't have a name for it now.
MISHLOVE: So insofar as we might expose ourselves to opinions that challenge our own at every level, I suppose this is how we kind of dislodge our habitual patterns.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes, if we're willing to accept the suffering that comes from having our opinions challenged. We need to learn to welcome that. That's part of what I started to say, at the beginning of true inquiry. But we're very attached to our opinions, and so that's difficult. That's what Socrates taught -- to blast yourself free of opinions, so that behind the opinion is the possibility of real vision, real knowing. That's Socratic, I think.
MISHLOVE: I think it might be useful to talk a little bit, then, about the life of Socrates, and how he dealt with the kind of opposition that he must have engendered.
NEEDLEMAN: His life is a mystery. It's one of the great spiritual legends. We don't know about his life. We know what Plato wrote about it, and what one or two other people wrote about it -- Xenophon and others. It's a life that has become a legend, like the Buddha's life even -- even, up to a point, like Jesus' life. We know he stood for this inquiry, the development of the soul, the self -- what we would call the deep self today. The soul -- we wouldn't use that word maybe. He was always trying, according to the legend, to engage people in this kind of exchange which I'm calling real inquiry. That was his life, and that was his only aim. People came to him. Many people were shocked by it, offended because he blasted your opinions away. He made you see you didn't know what you thought you knew. And that's the precondition for real learning -- to realize I don't know anything. Eventually, for one reason or another, he incurred strong political opposition and was put on trial. He was very popular in many ways, but he was put on trial, he was condemned to death, and he was given an opportunity to escape because the people trying him knew that it wouldn't be very good to have Socrates as a martyr. They wanted him to escape. He wouldn't. He made them choose: "I'm standing for the truth. Will you kill me?" He didn't escape, and he died one of those rare intentional deaths, which I would distinguish from suicide. An intentional death is a death full of meaning, which transmitted something not only to his pupils, but to thousands of years of people. He took poison voluntarily instead of escape, and he stands for somebody for whom the pursuit of wisdom is more important than life itself, physical life.
MISHLOVE: And it's interesting that this really becomes clear at the moment of his death. There's almost a sense, as you speak, that somehow death is the point at which real spirituality and real intellect join -- at least certainly in Socrates' life.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes, I think there are degrees of that. I think for some people, for some great people, that's what happens. But I think there are little deaths all along in our life, that can become real for us all. But yes, in Socrates, Buddha, Christ, people of that kind, their death becomes the full flowering of their life.
MISHLOVE: When you talk about little deaths, the word that comes to my mind is sacrifice. We need to make sacrifices, and when we do those in the name of pursuing an inner truth, and giving up something -- maybe something we desire, a material desire -- that somehow that way our intellect becomes more aligned with right thinking, with the world of spirit.
NEEDLEMAN: Yes, I agree. But we have to be very precise about what we have to sacrifice, because there's lots of wrong sacrifice, which is a form of fantasy, dreaming, even masochism. But to really sacrifice an attachment, particularly an attachment to a thought, and to feel that that brings intelligence, that's a mysterious thing. So sacrifice is right, but it's the beginning. What do we really have to sacrifice? We have to sacrifice our illusions, our dreams. Not necessarily our desires; our desires are probably OK. It's our attachment to the desire that's a problem. Anyhow, we could go on with that.
MISHLOVE: Well, it's an interesting line of thought. You mentioned earlier that so much of what we hold onto is illusory. We have a term, it's called enlightenment. In the eighteenth century it referred to a kind of rationality which was really in touch with reality. And then we see it in the spiritual traditions, referring to, I guess, a form of consciousness which is in touch with a higher reality. I see that there is a joining there.
NEEDLEMAN: That's a good point. There is a joining. But the Enlightenment ideal has, I think, turned into a kind of promoting the best functioning of ordinary intellect. That became enlightening, enlightenment -- using your ordinary reason. But at its root I think you're right. It's something, consciousness, which is another force than just thinking. Consciousness is not the same thing as what we call thinking. This is something the modern era in the West simply never understood. And it's a truth which probably, maybe, the originators of the Enlightenment understood. I doubt it, but maybe. But certainly the ancient masters, the spiritual teachers, have always understood that what we call thinking is not the same thing as what you're referring to as consciousness. Now that's a revolutionary idea in the modern Western world, because we've tended to identify the highest part of the human being as the thinking faculty when it's really operating well. But that's not the highest part of ourselves; far from it. There's something much, much higher. And those higher states of mind, of consciousness, have with them a quality of thought which is very great. Buddha was a great thinker. Christ -- we don't often think of him that way, but he was a great thinker, like Socrates. He wasn't just somebody walking around, looking and acting in an extraordinary way. He also thought, he pondered.
MISHLOVE: But being a great thinker, having thoughts like that, comes from having one's whole being attuned --
NEEDLEMAN: Exactly. Attuned to something greater, something finer. Yes. That's what the great masters like Socrates, Christ, Buddha, Moses were. That's what they represent.
MISHLOVE: And what I gather from reading your writings in many, many fields -- whether it's business or medicine or philosphy, or psychology -- is that it's the ultimate purpose of any discipline, when it's really practiced in the most -- you could say the most efficient, but also the deepest way -- is to help bring about that alignment, that attunement of being.
NEEDLEMAN: It can be. This is the ultimate purpose of our lives, in my opinion. So any discipline that doesn't contribute in some way to that in some way, though it can be a very wide circle we're talking about here -- if the ultimate purpose of human life is to become attuned to this greater we're speaking about, then of course every discipline in one way or the other has to contribute to that.
MISHLOVE: Well, Professor Jacob Needleman, I certainly get a sense from you that you live the philosophy that you talk about. It's a pleasure to have you with me.
NEEDLEMAN: You mean the time is already over? Well, that's good.
MISHLOVE: Thank you very much for being with me.