Sunday, June 14, 2015

From James Bond to Upanishads: Getting Past Childhood Illusions

Psychologists, mystics and science fiction writers have all talked about how much our lives seem to be re-enactments of stories – especially, stories we learned in childhood, which we seemed to forget, but somehow dominated our lives anyway.  But we can change that, by going back to the original stories and re-evaluating them based on more complete, adult knowledge (if we have it!).

This past week, I returned to my childhood memories of reading the Upanishads, which some people call “the New Testament of the Hindus.” I had to update a lot of my memories and impressions. But before I get into that... first... a bit of an older story, about a time when my life seemed to be dominated by James Bond movies.

In the 1960’s, I really enjoyed those movies. Beautiful places by the water, neautiful women, high technology, lots of excitement. When I went to my “first real job,” at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, in the summer of 1968, I was happy to see how much it looked like those movies... really nice beachfront area, lots of high technology inside, so close to the beach that we could actually go to the beach over lunch breaks, almost every day.  And there was a beautiful intelligent woman in the small library inside for classified documents in my section.

But then, it started to become TOO much like the movie. Honest to God, the beautiful woman turned out to be part of a Communist Party cell, working to get out the Pentagon Papers. (Google on Pentagon papers and Ellsberg and you will see I am not making this up. But I am not saying everything either.) The usual mechanisms for taking care of this gently did not work either.  

And then in 1969, there were two attempts to kill me. In the first one, I was supposed to be asleep in a new apartment. (I have the address in my files.) But I felt very strange as I prepared to sleep. I was 50-50 about whether I believed in psychic stuff or not at that time (because of a VERY compelling experience in March 1968 which I was only just then coming to fully accept). I certainly knew I was not anything like Spiderman... but the tingling sensation was really overwhelming, unlike anything I ever felt before. But I was skeptical still, and I had nowhere else to sleep; it was dark, in a place totally new to me.
So I put stuff back in my suitcase, and walked in the dark to a pay phone, where I called my mother – who, like her family, had a lot more natural psychic sensitivity than I ever had. She was pretty clear – “If that’s what you feel, don’t just ignore it. You can find a place to sleep somewhere.” I didn’t have money or a map that I can remember, but I trudged across a big grassy field towards a residential looking tower. I was ever so happy to find it was a student dorm, largely unoccupied in summer, more than willing to  accept a new  resident (assigned to a two bedroom suite with a roommate) even at such a late hour. The next morning, it was in the newspapers how someone had broken into the room where I was supposed to be, found no one, broke into the only other room on the floor, and murdered the person they found by stabbing them through the covers.

That was quite a wakeup call. And the next day or two, there was another one. I will resist giving more details – except two. At some point, I went to proper authorities, and reported an hour or two of detailed evidence which they recorded. I also had a chance to speak to the guy who ordered this, and asked why in the world... he said simply: “Because you knew too much.”

But before that... I realized I needed to fully tell myself NOT to get too much into James Bond movies. I resolved: “I will never give up my attraction for high technology, beautiful places, and beautiful Russian women. But I never want to get close to people killing people ever again. The guns are not for me, either sending or receiving, absolutely and emphatically, ever.” That was the right resolution for me, and I am happy that my track in life changed quite firmly. I did not ask for universal instant disarmament for everyone... only for me and my life.

It was many years after that that I met and married Ludmilla. For her, “From Russia with love” was always primarily a love story. It was amusing for a few years that we would hear “From Russia with love” on speakers in some places, and look at each other and smile. So eventually, we relived the childhood memory by playing the DVD of that movie at home – and it instantly changed the color and power of our remaining memories. The characters were so insipid and so hard to empathize with – and that was the end of that. It is a lot easier to associate Luda with Natasha in the Avenger movies than with... but let me end that train here. Reliving memories can change them, and that is what happened to me last week with the Upanishads.

The Upanishads were also a powerful part of my childhood,  more powerful than any movies. From age 12 to age 16, when I forcibly rejected any psychic or spiritual concepts of reality, I was still deeply interested in the question of the meaning of life – of the meaning of MY life, and of ethical philosophy in general. My starting point was mathematical logic, and “metamathematics” in particular. I lived in the shadow of John Von Neumann, especially. I came up with some abstract logical way to try to answer the question “What should my utility function be?” – what should be the goal, the telos, the purpose of my life?  I started it with the question “who are you?” When I was 16, in my senior year of prep school, a bright new kid in school looked at what I was saying and said,” You really should read the Upanishads.”

And so I did. I was taking mathematics courses at Princeton at the time. The bus came earlier to Princeton than my class, so I had time to eat lunch in that town, and visit the undergraduate library. I remember a long, long shelf full of Upanishads in English translation. I was even allowed to check out one of those volumes, in hard red binding, and take it back to my dorm house to read. I became very excited; my friend was right, the original upanishads talked about a Greater Self and lesser self very much like my abstract (nonmystical) theory of ethics... and I was hooked. I did notice some hairier less theoretical stuff, along the lines of yoga and psychism, in later sections, but I attributed that to he general decline of the top culture and paid less attention to it. I was excited; I felt someone else had similar ideas; I returned the book to the library. Later that year, my theory came crashing down, and I came to agree with a letter I received that year from Betrand Russell. (See for that story, and my current views.) No more Upanishads. By the way, that year I also met Robert Oppenheimer as part of a group; friends of his and mine told me about how he learned Sanskrit ever so quickly, in order to read the Upanishads in the original.

But later, as I learned more about all the cultures of the world actively exploring first person experience, I remembered about the yoga parts. Again, that is a long story, but last week I decided to go back and see what I could learn in the Upanishads themselves, beyond that simple part I learned so many years ago.  

My first step was a google search. Wikipedia seemed to confirm my basic memory, that the Upanishads say a lot about “Atman,” a kind of Greater Self – which I now identify more with the noosphere than with any formal abstraction. (Again, see www, for more explanation of that.) It was amusing to read about one or two hundred “minor Upanishads,” mostly specific to narrow sects of Hinduism, all written much later, as if a local preacher in Alabama were to write his own version of the Bible tuned to push his own specific views.  But next, I asked how to FIND the 13 principal Upanishads (in English translation). The reviews at Amazon were heavily biased by devotees of one group or another, even for translations of the principal Upanishads, Thus I ended up buying the classic original translation by Hume (not THAT Hume), with a long introduction. (A kindle version is available free on the web from Liberty books; it can be found in google but not google scholar!)

Reading Hume’s translation was very informative but very sobering... in a way like watching “From Russia with Love” as an adult. Hume was ever so positive about the Upanishads; he even gave prominent speeches in India to the Independence Movement. But as he gave the details... well, not quite so simple and helpful as I had hoped.

There is a tendency for mystics to struggle to find The Original Source, past all the contaminations of people like the Emperor Constantine, whose version of the Bible is infamous among true Christian mystics with deep knowledge of history. But it is not as if people in 1000 BC were all-knowing. Long traditions can be helpful exactly when they grow in the right way, building knowledge more and more over time. It was clear that the early stages of Upanishads reflected very humdrum polyglot paganism, and self-serving priest kings, just like what one may find in many parts of the world, without much special. But the Upanishads are a mosaic of very different things, as Hume notes. There are few passages worth extracting, like the section on the inner Self Hearing and Speaking... which reminded me of a book by Pete Sanders... adding a few “extra chapters” implicitly. The power of poetry linked to experience in those passages has some special value. And there are a few good,  juicy quotes about folks who get too hung up on worshipping stuff like the Golden Calf. And yes, the more enlightened passages about seeing and hearing through the Greater Self do point a better path than those versions of Buddhism which ask people to “be here now” to the exclusion of very important other disciplines of the mind.  

The Great Debate about Monism versus Dualism sounded interesting, but I saw nothing beyond what was in wikipedia for useful content. Having a clear scientific picture of what these words mean gets rid of a lot of nonproductive groping with froth.

On the whole... I see no reason to go back over any of these 13 upanishads in real depth (except again one or two passages)... too much blatant mythologizing and fantasy. I get indications that some later work in the yoga tradition (or perhaps even things cited in Hume’s long introduction) would be more interesting at this point. Yes, I have already looked at Patanjali and Ramakirishnan, but there is more there...

Best of luck...

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