As one looked at that dead leaf with all its beauty and colour, maybe one would very deeply comprehend, be aware of, what one’s own death must be, not at the very end but at the very beginning. Death isn’t some horrific thing, something to be avoided, something to be postponed, but rather something to be with day in and day out. And out of that comes an extraordinary sense of immensity. — J. Krishnamurti
Krishnamurti attempted to show how we tend to avoid or, worse still, deny our potential for what he called “immensity” — the natural capacity to touch, explore, and actually live the vastness from which we all arise, and which, consciously or not, we all embody.
But instead, we choose (or are driven by our cultural training) to become ghosts, long before our physical bodies are dead. The Tibetan Buddhists, in one of their more resonant and enduring insights, speak of what they call pretas — hungry ghosts with massive bellies and narrow throats — beings possessed by an insatiable desire for consumption, who are never fulfilled but always striving, grabbing, taking, killing, consuming. Pretas rule our governments and corporations; they feed us our news and our entertainment; they teach and test our children; they drag us into one war after another all in the name of the freedom to consume.
Therefore, the personal way of true freedom — of touching one’s natural body of peace and non-violence — occurs amid the separation from the collective and its obsession with consumption. Such freedom can be found in the contemplation of an autumn leaf and in the realization of the unity of life and death. This is really where the consumptive ghost longs to go; for the endless desires of the preta are — beyond all his lies and all his delusions — for the very thing that he already has. So the preta, while he is all too painfully real — he exists in corner offices on Wall St., in the marbled halls of power, and in electronic boxes of 65 inches or 6 — is a body of hallucinations; a painting of Hieronymous Bosch come to life.
So a ghost can be, like the preta, a phenomenon of walking death. It can also be an apparition of death walking. This latter is the type of ghost familiar to western cultures: the spirit that remains stuck within this world. But this kind of ghost, strictly speaking, is not really a spirit; for a spirit is a personal consciousness with a cosmic awareness or grounding. A ghost, by contrast, is a degraded, lonely, and corrupted consciousness that persists under a single delusion, viz., that it is still of human form. A spirit is self-aware of its disembodiment, and in that awareness, is not isolated from its new, formless world. Thus, in my private metaphysics, a ghost is not a spirit.
Now, why open such a discussion? Everyone knows that ghosts do not exist. Well, in fact, everyone doesn’t know: nearly half of Americans believe in the existence of ghosts. The problem with such surveys is often in the presumptive sense of meaning in the questions. For instance, in those survey questions, the meaning of “ghost” is defined as “the spirits of dead people.” So it is assumed that we all understand what is meant by “spirits;” when that is in fact one of the most violently disputed points of global conflict. The following discussion, then, is a private matter, which is not to be taken seriously. But I will attempt a sincere treatment of this topic, because I think it deserves more respect than it typically receives in our media.
We live in a culture where confusion tends to reign between symbol and substance; the sign and the road; appearance and reality. Our measurements are so precise; the shades of meaning and direction so fine; the gradations so stark in the identification of wealth, importance, appeal, and affiliation, that it is easily imagined that we have this reality thing tied up in a bundle and nailed down with our keywords, soundbites, surveys, and algorithms.
But under the intense gaze of the best science of our era, this conflation of symbol and reality comes undone. Here’s an example of what I mean: since the 1970’s and the refinement of atomic clocks that are capable of accuracy and consistency to billionths of a second; a single basic experiment has been done to prove out Einstein’s theories of relativity. Two clocks are placed — one on the ground, at rest; another in an airplane. The clocks are switched on simultaneously as the airborne clock takes flight. Around the world it goes: as the circuit is completed, the clocks are simultaneously stopped and read. The clocks show marginally differing times, because (as Einstein predicted) the faster you go toward the speed of light, the more time slows.
Now if we should reach a point where we can approach the speed of light, the atomic clocks from that experiment will spread farther apart than they can now. But they will still be clocks — simple devices that measure not the world, but our relationship to it, which is inevitably, after all, a relationship with ourselves. Under the gaze of our new sciences, the separation, the alienation, the great divorce between man and nature — inevitably dissolves; as inner and outer, before and after, time and space, merge into a great unity. The preta dies.
This is not only different from the way that we have looked at the world for three hundred years, it is opposite. The distinction between the ‘in here’ and the ‘out there’ upon which science was founded, is becoming blurred. This is a puzzling state of affairs. Scientists, using the ‘in here–out there’ distinction, have discovered that [it] may not exist! What is ‘out there’ apparently depends, in a rigorous mathematical sense as well as a philosophical one, upon what we decide ‘in here.’*
What science has discovered, and continues to reveal across so many areas of study, is that we are not faced merely with a problem of a “ghost in the machine” — Ryle’s phrase for the Cartesian splitting that Zukav (above) calls the “in here — out there” model of life and the universe. For we must get the machine out of the ghost as well — that is, take our thinking and feeling about ourselves and our world to another level of awareness, where there is neither ghost nor machine. To do so, we must, in both our sciences and in our ordinary lives, expel equally the mechanical and the spiritual from within; then see what remains for us to work with. Once again, Krishnamurti, from one of his last journal entries:
We never seem to learn about this movement, that it is one movement. The outer and the inner are not two separate movements. The waters of the sea withdraw from the shore, then the same water comes in, lashing the shores, the cliffs. Because we have separated the external and the inner, contradiction begins, the contradiction that breeds conflict and pain. This division between the outer and the inner is so unreal, so illusory, but we keep the external totally separate from the inner…The outer and the inner are one, a unitary movement, not separate, but whole…Learning about [this] is not a matter of time…not a gradual process, for then time again becomes divisive. Time acts in the fragmentation of the whole. But to see the truth of it in an instant, then it is there, this action and reaction, endlessly — this light and dark, the beauty and ugliness.
Therefore, when you see a ghost, walk straight into (and through) it. This will show the ghost that (a) you are not afraid of it; and (b) that it, the ghost, is not real as either a physical phenomenon or a personal presence. From this beginning, you will have earned enough of the ghost’s attention to begin to teach it some of the finer points about its state of being. But you need to begin with those crucial steps into the ghost’s faux-body; or nothing that follows will make sense to it.
I don’t deny that ghosts exist; but I do deny that they are real. Every ghost is a shadow of being trapped within a cage of illusion, which becomes its identity. The ghost rejects the unity of outer and inner because it only wants to be outer. It clings to the bars of its cage and denies the space that would be its true dwelling. The delusion that death is the negation of life still sticks to its nebulous body. Thus, the ghost’s essence is isolation — an irrevocable loneliness that the existentialist philosophers of a century ago mistakenly assumed was the inevitable condition of being human.
So you can find ghosts anywhere; but sooner or later you’ll have to meet the ones you see in stagnant water; in the bathroom fixtures; in the glass of a picture frame with its back to the sun; in the roof’s black tar after a rain; in the cell phone’s cheap chrome backing; the bumper of a car. Any mirror will do.
But sight is a poor sense to this purpose; feeling is truer if grimmer; it admits of no distortions. I sense the ghosts in the small bones of my feet; in the bloated darkness of my bowels (the small and the large types alike); in the gray stains that coat my lungs, with their muffled sound like the tired flapping of coffin hinges in the winds that blow beneath the pinestraw.
If you can sit very still and walk right through them, you will find how cold and weak they are, like the handshake of a corporate middle manager or the fleeting blips of a computer’s boot sequence or a bureaucrat’s gaze into a triplicate paper form. There they are: everything you’ve been trained to believe, fear, demand, claim, regret, divide, or follow. They all tell you the same thing, that every breath and every step is into the grave — the Big Nothing that you already are, and which is the sleep with no dreams; the account with no money; the gas leaking from your butt whose scent offends the Nose of God; the universe’s next Dark Age that will descend after the last of the photons die.
To pass through them, clean and unharmed, needs so little effort and creates such a sublime confidence. Once their cold and bloated hands have released you, you will ride through this life and all the life that follows it like Mirabai, the great poetess of India:
I have felt the swaying of the elephant’s shoulders; and now you want
me to climb on a jackass? Try to be serious.**
*Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, 1979. In the quoted text, Zukav is referring primarily to the “uncertainty principle” of quantum mechanics; but also to the wave/particle duality of light, and to what is known today as “quantum entanglement.”
**Mirabai, “Why Mira Can’t Come Back To Her Old House”; from The Winged Energy of Delight, ed. Robert Bly, 2004.