The Arrogance of the Mind, and the Nature of Reality

20130311-114700.jpgRabbi Mordecai Twerski of the Talmudic Research Institute, Denver CO

I have been doing a lot of scientology- and cult-related reading over the past two months. Lawrence Wright‘s book, Jenna Miscavige-Hill‘s book. I have also read R.J. Lifton’s book on the Aum cult, and Robert Kaufman’s book — the FIRST Inside Scientology. I am re-reading A Piece Of Blue Sky, and also Kate Bornstein’s memoir. Also in the mix, a book called “Rats“, and Ken Wilber’s Grace and Grit.

Also, of course, Tony Ortega‘s blog and the endlessly informative, entertaining, inspiring, and frustrating comments there. OTVIIIisGrrr8! continues to give me insight into the special brand of crazy in the RTC. Marty Rathbun‘s blog is in a liminal space that I find fascinating and informative. Then there is Jesse Prince (who I simply LOVE and want very much to meet and hug and conversate with) sharing music and humor with his friends on fb as he makes a remarkable journey back from the threshold of hell. My comments on the blogs are easy to find, and if you are my friend on facebook — well, you either know me personally, by my real name, or you are one of my favorite artist/activists.

So, that’s what I’ve been up to. And I will have some posts coming soon about the things I’ve been reading. But for now, I want to share just a little something I learned a very long time ago, from one of my most cherished teachers — a Rabbi who taught a class entitled “Contemplative Judaism” when I was a student at Naropa. Rabbi Mordecai Twersky, long-time head of the Talmudic Reasearch Institute in Denver, Co.

How an orthodox Jewish Rabbi wound up teaching a class at Naropa is an interesting story in itself. Reb Twersky explained it to us in the first or second session of class. Basically, it was a part of his process of growing into a true wisdom teacher and leader, as prescribed by his mentor and teacher. His challenge was to learn how to effectively convey his own understanding of truth as a Rabbi, to those who do not share the same basic assumptions and language that are common to all orthodox Jews.

In other words; it is easy to make your ideas clear to others who are already inclined to see things the same way as you. But true wisdom and intelligence transcend cultural programming. If you cannot express your wisdom in a way that is comprehensible to those who are truly outside your group and do not share your language and assumptions, then it is NOT a universal truth. Getting to the essential, universal core of a philosophy means understanding how it can be relevant to anyone, well enough that you can translate it into the language of those you are speaking to. In teaching us, The good Rabbi was coming to a new depth of understanding himself. I admired that.

The most important lesson that I learned from Reb Twersky was about “the arrogance of the mind”, and the importance of religious practice as a way of surrendering to a higher authority of understanding. As someone who was identified at a very young age as having a high IQ and took great pride in my academic accomplishments, and also a seeker hungry for durable truths, this was strong medicine for me. The idea that the mind has limits, profound limits, but also an arrogance that will refuse to acknowledge those limits, was galvanizing to me. Still, in my view, this did not logically correlate to the necessity of religion and submission to a higher authority. So, I had a question for the Rabbi.

Obviously, there was a time in human history when there was no lineage of Rabbis or gurus or any other teachers, and no body of critiques, commentaries and concordances to any scriptures. What came before religion? What are the roots from which these traditions spring? What is the original, archetypal authority from which all religions must draw reference, if this philosophy holds true? What is the ultimate, basic authority, to which the mind MUST surrender its arrogance in order to remain healthy?

The Rabbi seemed a little taken aback by my question. He sputtered, and chuckled, and then he got very quiet and still and I knew I would get a real, considered response to my question. He said, “Um, well … Nature.” That was all he said, and all the answer I needed. I said “Ahhhhh! Yesssss… thank you!” I got it, and he knew I got it. My final paper for that class was all about this exchange and what I took from it, and he let me know that he appreciated my asking the question, and was glad I got so much from his answer.

Do YOU get it? It is all you need to know about the true value of direct experience versus perceptions and concepts of that experience. Language versus sensation. Ideals versus intention and impact. For a Rabbi, the obvious answer of what is the original authority would be “G-d”. But in order to convey his meaning to someone with whom he cannot assume a shared belief in the divine, he had to dig deeper and speak in terms of what can be directly experienced, in common, by us both.

For further clarification, let’s hear from Nick Herbert, quantum physicist and tantrist. In this post, Nick points out that quantum theory is the most reliably accurate in terms of predicting phenomena, yet it requires that we give up “reality”. Meaning, that comforting sense that science “proves what is real”. Read the post, and follow his link to a report on a most remarkable meeting of our leading scientific minds and their inability to agree on the nature of reality, based on their theories.

“All of the participants were leading thinkers in this field so it would be easy to imagine that they would generally agree on how to interpret quantum mechanics and the foundations of physics.

Not a bit of it. Zeilinger and co put 16 multiple choice questions to 33 participants at the Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality conference in Austria in 2011 and found that opinions diverged wildly.

For example, in answer to the question “Do you believe that physical objects have their properties well defined prior to and independent of measurement?”, 48 per cent replied “no”, while 52 per cent replied “yes, in some cases”. A further 3 per cent said “yes in all cases” and 9 per cent were undecided (respondents were able to select more than one answer).”

–Source here

Just to clarify: only 3% of these globally recognized leading physicists were willing to say that “real” things are what they are, whether or not we see them as such, or see them at all — all the time. The rest are suggesting that at least some of the time, things are what they are because, and only when, we observe them as such. In philosophy, this might be regarded as a logical error bordering on solipsism. But the science of particle physics, which has also brought us Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and the Higgs boson, regards this as the “cautious” position.


So, my point is that this is the arrogance of the human mind: that we habitually dismiss possibilities and make dogmatic statements based on our certainty that we know what is real. The hard truth is, our thinking must always submit to our direct experience, and experience shows us that we have NO right to claim to know what is “real” and what is “impossible”. What we do have, are enormous opportunities to learn and expand our awareness and intelligence, by meeting our experience with an open and humble mind.

Keep watching, keep seeking, and keep learning.



[ Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. First-time commenters, you are not being censored, I have to moderate your first post — I’ll get to them as quickly as I can.] 🙂


Loaded Words


Here’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The power of language, and what we commonly refer to as “loaded words”. What does that term mean? There are many definitions of the word “load”, incuding the most obvious one in this context: “To charge with additional meanings, implications, or emotional import”. This is what most people mean when they say a word or question is loaded. But when we look at the way we use language, another meaning becomes obvious. Words function as weapons, and they can certainly be loaded — in the ballistic sense of inserting an explosive charge.

Loaded words are words with explosive potential, or the potential to wound others. People often use loaded words or ask loaded questions as a way of waging verbal combat. In the world of blogs and comments, this is what “trolls” do. Loaded words and questions are a good way of provoking a desired reaction in others. Sexist, racist, or homophobic terms, polarizing political statements, religious judgements, personal insults, and so on. Words become ammunition, and slinging them accurately, to have the desired impact, is the point. Trolls do this as sport, with no concern for the power of language to inflict lasting damage. Think of it as a kind of target practice, aiming to provoke.

However, it is possible to use loaded words with a constructive intent. Sometimes it is even necessary. For example, in the course of waging an information war against a greedy and destructive organization. One that is doing grievous harm to people while manipulating language to hide their practices. As a scientology watcher, I find myself sometimes using loaded words in my comments and observations. When you enter the arena of belief, psychology, and the promise of spiritual growth, there is a lot of explosive potential. I try to choose my words very carefully, and there are a couple of loaded words that I use deliberately in discussions on scientology. I would like to talk a bit about those words: “cult”, and “evil”. As well as one other word I have come to recognize (thanks to Derek Bloch’s comments) as quite loaded for scientologists, “responsibility”. I am not aiming to establish definitive meanings for these words, but rather just to acknowledge their explosive potential and when it might be used for a positive purpose.

Let’s start with the word I use most often — “cult”. This is an important word for scientology watchers. One that some writers on the subject avoid using, for various reasons. I have heard many persuasive arguments against using this word. Including the simple fact that it is a loaded word, and thus can be a barrier to constructive conversation. The argument that resonates most for me is the idea that it simply reduces the victims of such groups to caricatures — robots or “kool-aid drinkers” who are too mindless to avoid their fate. When people hear that word “cult”, according to this argument, they just stop caring.

I get that. Some people will just turn away from the whole subject because it is so weird and foreign. It seems the natural human impulse is to turn away from what makes us uncomfortable. But I think it is a mistake to deal with this response by avoiding the word. A cult is a very specific type of group dynamic. There are varying definitions, but there is a point where these definitions converge — a cult is generally not a group that people want to join. No one signs up for a group that calls itself a cult. This makes the word itself a very valuable red flag. You can steer people away from a group that is doing harm by calling that group a “cult”. The word itself is ammunition in the battle against abuse by such groups. My primary objective in using the word is to indicate a danger in joining the group in question. If it feels like a bit of a slap, so much the better to get your attention.

Yes, some people are insulted when the term is applied to their group. It is true that it belittles an affinity group or belief system to call it a cult. That is the point. When I apply the word “cult” to a group, I want to reduce it’s value in the perception of others. When I use this word in reference to scientology, I intend to make sure the person I am speaking with does not seriously consider joining up as an option. When I say, “scientology is a cult and a scam”, I am saying “no matter how benign or appealing it seems, stay away”. Perhaps those who are offended by the word will be inspired to look more deeply at the reasons why some feel it is appropriate, or even necessary.

Moving on, let’s talk about a word that I use infrequently and usually with some caution: “evil”. I am generally reluctant to use the word because it is a strong word, but not clearly defined. So it tends to confuse matters more than it clarifies. But I have learned it is helpful to distinguish evil actions and evil intentions. I am reluctant to talk about evil in terms of intentions, or the internal character of a person or thing. I have no problem with talking about evil in terms of actions, or the impact someone has on others.

The word “evil” has certain religious and moral connotations. In religious discussions, the word is used as a statement on the essential nature of a person or thing. Evil things must be avoided or eradicated, because the very substance of them is corrupt or decayed, from a moralistic point of view. In the tribal sense, outsiders and their foreign aesthetics and values are often regarded as evil, because they evoke fear and confusion. In either case, labeling a thing as an evil makes it fair game for elimination, without remorse or hesitation.

So the word can be used to manipulate perception, and control group behavior. Many ugly examples of human behavior in history came to pass when someone sold people on a particular idea of evil, identified that evil in others, and then called for the elimination of that evil. Our sense of what qualifies as evil can be irrational, based in a visceral response to the unknown the identified “outsider”. It’s impact is atavistic, because in our modern conceit we feel we are beyond such simplistic dualities as good and evil. We don’t have practical criteria rooted in our modern lives. This only makes it that much more powerful as a trigger, as leverage in a manipulative process.

To avoid such abuse, a pragmatic approach is very important in confronting evil. A focus on actions and impact, as opposed to intentions or essential nature. It is very easy to make that distinction between intentions and actions as a scientology watcher, when you see accounts from the victims or witnesses of their worst practices. There are really too many horrors to enumerate in the history of scientology, but here’s a story, from Jesse Prince on a.r.s., that can stand for all:

“It was the summer of 1992 and I was desperately trying to leave the Int base any way I could. I was living with others who were also trying to leave. We were all kept in an old house known as the Old Gilman House, or OGH, which also served as the ‘isolation house’ for physically ill Sea Org members.

“A Sea Org member of ten years plus, Diane Morrison, who was approximately 30 years old, had been diagnosed with cancer. Scientology is paranoid about X-rays and gamma rays, and they refused to let Diane get chemotherapy. The two Scientology doctors, one was LRH’s personal physician, prescribed a course of vitamin therapy and auditing to cure Diane’s cancer.

“Finally, one of the doctors told her to let go so she could just die. Diane stopped eating and drinking after that, and she turned into a walking skeleton. She was in constant pain and would moan and scream day and night. Her husband, Shawn Morrison, drove her, screaming and moaning, to his mother’s house where she was laid under an air conditioner. Diane died within two days. She did not die of cancer. She died of starvation. Shawn was upset because he had to miss post time to drive Diane to his mother’s house.” {-source here}

Reading that, it becomes clear that what matters is not the beliefs or group identity of the people involved, but rather their actions. No one would argue that this is a tale of good deeds done by a good group of people. Most people would agree that the doctor, especially, did an evil thing. Believing in scientology and embracing the “tech” of LRH is not evil. But encouraging someone to kill themselves because they can’t be cured with vitamins, in order to preserve your beliefs; that is evil. A woman with potentially treatable cancer dying of starvation because she was told it was her only salvation — that is evil.

Whatever you believe, if you are inflicting suffering on others, depriving them of their well-being, sowing the seeds of this behavior in others and/or providing the means for them to do it, that is the cause for concern. These are the concrete elements of evil. The word is useful, for the purpose of designating as a society when one has crossed the boundary from narcissism to actively harming others. Be selfish or foolish in any way you must, but not at the expense of the life and liberty of others. If you cross that line, we as a society have a responsibility to stop you.

Which brings me to the final word I want to discuss today: responsibility. If you are not familiar with Derek Bloch’s story, you should be. He is an ex-sea org member, abandoned to the cult by his parents when he was a child. Shunned by most everyone he knew and loved in the cult when he told the truth about himself and his experience. If you have any doubt that the COS deserves the label of an evil cult, Derek’s story will convince you. But he got out, and has become an eloquent and powerful voice testifying to the impact of LRH’s tech on the mind and heart of a human being.

I have learned a lot from him, and in particular, I have learned that for scientologists, “responsibility” is a very loaded word. It is a word that is often used as a weapon, as a way to push your buttons attached to being a “good scientologist”, or the idealism that lead you to embrace the cult in the first place. Ethics correction often involves being verbally harangued about your responsibility, in a way that is designed to lead you to capitulate to the demands being made on you. Admit your crimes! Report on your loved ones! Give us the money! Once you recognize that you are responsible for your own problems, and for suppressing others, and for not clearing the planet, you have lost your sense of self and it is very easy for others to drive you to do things you otherwise would not.

Of course, it is not only scientologists that are vulnerable to this word. Responsibility is a confusing subject for most people, and another easy lever for manipulation. Madison avenue understands this, and many advertisements targeting parents will play on this weakness: “responsible parents use our product/service, why don’t you?” Politicians often exploit our desire to evade responsibility, by offering scapegoats or volunteering to run things for us. An effective tactic, because the word can be a heavy weight on the psyche, one we would rather not be reminded of.

Again, a pragmatic approach, as opposed to a moralistic one, is helpful. When responsibility is a moral burden, one that reveals the flaws in your character or judgement that you must answer for, it is an uncomfortable thing to be avoided. People will go a long way to avoid answering for actions of which they feel ashamed. But when responsibility is literally about the ability to respond, to make a difference or mitigate suffering or harm, it is empowering and desirable. Confronting others or ourselves on matters of responsibility should be about what we have done, and can do about a situation. This approach is the one most likely to motivate others to act in ways that make a positive difference. Isn’t that the point?


Interesting sources:

on cults

Excellent panel discussion on BBC Big Question: Religion or Cult?

Steve Hassan mind control info site

Cult definition on Wikipedia

on evil:

Wikipedia definition of evil

General thoughts on the subject

From a criminal-case perspective

On the power of language:

Korzybski on language and perception

Bob Wilson on language and hypnosis

A very old Bob Wilson on language and liberation