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Sick Enough for Religion

One should note that Joseph often cried. In fact there are no less that eight references in the Torah to him doing so. One who has suffered greatly in bad times will cry easily even in good times. The brothers, … Read More

By / April 1, 2008

One should note that Joseph often cried. In fact there are no less that eight references in the Torah to him doing so. One who has suffered greatly in bad times will cry easily even in good times. The brothers, on the other hand, who had not suffered in their lives, did not even cry when the situation demanded that they should. And as Joseph even cried at the distress of others, he was worthy of attaining his high rank.

- Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966) in Oznayim La-Torah

“You are not sick enough for religion,” the scholar of mysticism Louis Dupre once taught us, quoting someone I don’t remember. Maybe he said it himself; his lectures were always tinged with wisdom and melancholy. At the time — defensive, closeted, Orthodox, arrogant — I rejected the remark. I’m not religious because I’m deficient in some way, I thought, or trying to compensate my way back to normalcy. I’m religious because I want to rise above it — to a height of holiness, to the summum bonum of human experience: mysticism, union with God.

I had the same feeling on my first meditation retreat, years ago, at Elat Chayyim. It seemed like the prototypical Californian jewppie was sitting next to me, sobbing and crying to pat Jewish Renewal melodies. “But I’m not one of them,” I thought. “I’m not here to feel okay. I’m here to be with God!”

And one more time, a few years later, on a six-week retreat, I heard one of the teachers say, “At the beginning, if you asked me why I was doing this, I would say it was to see God. Now I would say it’s to end suffering.” What Buddhist arrogance, I thought. As if God is the delusion and feeling better is the truth.

Well, these days I wonder. Sure, for many people, religion is straightforward: it fulfills social functions, brings us together, marks important moments in life, and so on. But what about those of us who make it the center of our lives, who are god-intoxicated, who love the richness of spiritual experience? Do we just have better taste, for the richest and deepest? Or are we indeed “sick,” needing something more intense than the normals, or scarred, or still suffering, after all these years?

And what about those of us for whom contemplative life may not be that important, but still, we feel, it’s important that prayer be spiritual, or religious holidays be meaningful, tied to the seasons of the Earth and of our lives? What are these needs that spirituality (as distinct from religion) is being asked to fill?

For a start, let’s recognize that it’s not spirituality in particular; art, literature, theater, good food all have the same dual nature. On the one hand, all these things celebrate, elevate, sanctify, and raise us up. On the other hand, maybe for some of us, “raise us up” is just “bring us to a level of okayness where less sensitive people are all the time.” Maybe those of us who need a film to be really meaningful and transporting are seeking this intensity simply because we’re in need of more intensity. Like an alcoholic who needs four drinks to feel a buzz, we need a really good play, or meal, or prayer service to feel… good.

In this regard, it’s interesting to set two of Aldous Huxley’s great works, Brave New World and Island next to one another. Both are novels of the future, the first dystopic, the second utopian. In 1932, Huxley had his utopians eating soma, a kind of mega-antidepressant that made them feel better through fantasy; the drug was a crutch, and contemptible. In 1962, Huxley’s islanders eat moksha medicine, a psychedelic that helps them see the unitive truth of all reality; now the drug/medicine was elevating, and praiseworthy. Huxley himself saw the latter book (his last, as it turned out) as an answer to the former; moksha medicine was the truth to soma’s lie. But notice how the spiritual experience plays such a similar role to the palliative one.

As I’m sure Huxley would hasten to point out, moksha medicine helps the residents of Pala see clearly, get along better, and live more meaningful lives, whereas soma just keeps us sedated. But in real life, things are a little messier. While many meditators are motivated by their work to change the world and alleviate suffering, many are indeed working on their own suffering first and foremost; it may indeed be primarily palliative in nature. I’m not about to judge them, to pretend I’m any better, or to tell them they’ve got it wrong, because I’m not sure they have, and I’m not sure how different I am. And as for the experience itself, reductive psychologists of religion would say the unitive experience of which Huxley and generations of mystics speak is nothing more than a neurological event, perhaps reminiscent of the soothing reassurance of the mother’s breast, or womb. You’re not accurately perceiving the totality of all; you’re just regressing and feeling good.

Maybe it is true that all this spirituality, all the niggunim and spiritual pearls, all the experiences and the meaningful words of Torah, are really just to make us feel better. If so, it’s not surprising that some people need a little, some people need a lot. Maybe one does need to be sick enough for religion.

Of course this makes me feel very sad, and if you’re a spiritual sort, perhaps you feel similarly. All of the beauty and poetry of spiritual life, its energies and marvels — just because Prozac hadn’t been invented yet? All this supposed work on the soul is really just soothing the self, arguably in a more roundabout way than popping a pill and getting on with life?

So, at the risk of further self-justification, let me offer three responses — none of which will actually deny these claims.

The first is to acknowledge that, in some traditions, ending suffering is indeed the goal — but let’s distinguish between ending suffering and simply feeling better. Ending suffering means seeing it clearly and uprooting it at its source. Feeling better just means covering it over. Is there a difference? Yes.

In the political realm, for example, it certainly feels better to ignore the problems of healthcare, poverty, injustice, and the rest. It’s not hard to find a rationale for these problems, and wash it down with a gin & tonic at the country club — and it’s sure easier than admitting how one’s benefitted from privilege, unjust societal structures, and an economic system that systematically oppresses people.

That sort of ignorance is not possible on the path of really ending suffering, which requires a close confrontation with the truth; you can’t just sip a gin & tonic when you’re seeing clearly the causes and effects of your own actions. Nor is ignorance compatible with any notion that truth is, itself, of value, that it’s better not to lie to ourselves all the time. Nor is it compatible with any form of authentic religious consciousness. Simply put, all forms of feeling better are not created equal.

Second, and relatedly, what’s nice about Theravadan Buddhist insight, as contrasted with mystical experience in some of its Western forms, is that the bells and whistles of experience actually are beside the point. Unitive, shmunitive. The point is to see clearly certain characteristics of reality, and by seeing them directly, clearly, and unambiguously, be released from certain delusions. Yes, the bells and whistles, which come from a concentrated mind, can be helpful along the way; they make it all a lot easier. But they’re not more than that. (By contrast, in the Buddhist-Jewish world those same bells and whistles are sometimes deified. For instance, the rapturous joy of the first jhana, or concentrative absorption, is associated with devekut, an experience of God.) So, if someone wishes to reduce all of mystical experience to psychological regression and neurological excitement, fine. It’s only a byway on the path of truth and compassion anyway, and insight does not depend on mindstates. As Lama Surya Das said, “Truth is about getting free, not getting high.”

Third, and most importantly, the formula of “you’re not sick enough for religion” implies that it’s better to be healthy. Maybe, as the epigraph from Rabbi Sorotzkin suggests, tears are not a sign of deficiency but of nobility of character. If you’re not crying, you’ve got something wrong with you. You are meant to cry, because life is cruel and death is worse. Obviously, you’re not meant only to cry; the epigraph is praising Joseph for his empathy, not his gloominess. But the notion that the well-adjusted human being is one who is happy all the time is precisely the kind of American bullshit that has gotten us into so much trouble lately. Well-formed human beings have emotional depth, and that includes a wide range of tones and feelings. If you’re not moved at the sight of a glorious sunset, you’re not “just fine, thanks”; you’re inadequate. If you don’t sometimes feel like our civilization is in decline, and taking the planet down with it, you’re not “well adjusted” — you’re ignorant. And if you don’t, along the way, feel joy, sadness, curiosity, awe, amazement, delight, ecstasy, energy, indignation, love and pain — you are missing the point of life itself.

The implication of “sick enough for religion” — not in Dupre’s formulation, but in the wider sense I’ve developed here — is that religion, art, therapy, and medication are all cures meant to return us to some base level of well-adjustedness, and those lucky ones who are there already don’t need any of it. But that flattened-Freudian model, if followed to the letter, would indeed lead to a nation of soma-eaters: pacified, happy, barely human, and capable of intolerable cruelty, as long as its papered over and out of sight. And, sure,that may be where we’re headed today.

At times, I admit I envy those people who seem to have a perfect fit between what they want and what society has to offer. Straight, Christian, conformist, satisfied by economic advancement — it must be lovely to have such a congruence between self and world. It must also be nice not to have the neuroses, complexes, flaws, idiosyncrasies, and the taste for spirituality that I seem to have in spades. I can’t say I really feel superior to people who are happier than I am. My maxim, and my koan, is still Langston Hughes’s poem “Luck”: “Sometimes a crumb falls from the table of joy / Sometimes a bone is flung. / To some people, love is given. / To others, only heaven.”

I think it’s an open question whether philosophy, literature, achievement, spirituality, mysticism, and art are but consolations — or recompense.

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