God’s in His Heaven–All’s Right with the World

By Jin-yeong Yi

“What is the best consolation in sorrow and in misfortune? … It is for a man to accept everything as if he had wished for it and had asked for it; for you would have wished for it, if you had known that everything happens by God’s will, with his will and in his will.”

—Seneca

“For I am already that which I seek. Whatever I seek or think I want, however long the shopping list may be, all of my desires are only a reflection of my longing to come home. And home is oneness, home is my original nature. It is right here, simply in what is. There is nowhere else I have to go, and nothing else I have to become.”

—Tony Parsons

“A man who moves with the earth will necessarily experience days and nights. He who stays with the sun will know no darkness. My world is not yours. As I see it, you all are on a stage performing. There is no reality about your comings and goings. And your problems are so unreal!”

—Nisargadatta Maharaj

“The Lord is everywhere /And always perfect: / What does He care for man’s sin / Or the righteousness of man?”

—The Bhagavad-Gita

As the world comes to an end–of another year, that is–most of us probably have our heads full with anticipation and apprehension of what lies ahead.

I’m still a pessimistic atheistic nihilist, but I like to indulge in possibilities, so please humor me by considering some ideas that I’ve been turning over in my head.

Since you are here, I invite you to take a moment to look back on the past year. Did you make any decisions you regret? Embarrassing behavior, poorly executed plans, wasted opportunities? Would you go back and change anything if you could? Now take a longer moment to look back on your life up this point as a whole, and ask yourself the same questions.

I’m probably not wrong in guessing that there were a lot of things that didn’t go your way, and that even if things went your way for the most part, you’re still not completely content–you want more of this and less of that.

Some of you may be deeply depressed–to the point where you wish to die or at least depersonalize so you can comfortably observe your life in third person.

Many commentators on Neon Genesis Evangelion complain about Shinji’s constant whining about his woes, but I’m sure most of us can sympathize to some degree: how many of us never find themselves in circumstances and situations they would rather not be in–mundane, tedious, frustrating, arduous, painful, pointless?

Doesn’t the world look awful right now? Doesn’t it look downright hopeless at times? Wars, economic depression, poverty, pollution, overpopulation, ethnic-religious-political strife, concentration camps, environmental destruction, natural disasters, child abuse, breakdown in human relationships…how many libraries can be filled with volumes on what we consider to be wrong with this world? And worst of all, doesn’t it all look meaningless? And even worse…ultimately beyond our control?

As Joseph Conrad lamented in a 1897 letter to Cunninghame Graham:

“It evolved itself (I am severely scientific) out of a chaos of scraps of iron and behold! — it knits. I am horrified at the horrible work and stand appalled. I feel it ought to embroider — but it goes on knitting. You come and say: ‘this is all right; it’s only a question of the right kind of oil. Let us use this — for instance — celestial oil and the machine shall embroider a most beautiful design in purple and gold.’ Will it? Alas no. You cannot by any special lubrication make embroidery with a knitting machine. And the most withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself; made itself without thought, without conscience, without foresight, without eyes, without heart. It is a tragic accident — and it has happened. You can’t interfere with it. The last drop of bitterness is in the suspicion that you can’t even smash it. In virtue of that truth one and immortal which lurks in the force that made it spring into existence it is what it is — and it is indestructible!

It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions — and nothing matters.”

Now put such judgments aside for a moment and consider this possibility: that life is a movie written and directed by a cosmic Director–call It God, or Brahman, or Consciousness, or whatever suits your fancy. Suppose that this Director is perfect–It knows exactly what each scene calls for. All of the details are impeccably balanced together. A perfect movie is in the making as we speak–and we are starring in it.

As most of us would agree, a good movie does not necessarily mean a good life for the characters. A director getting his or her way often entails a character not getting his or her way. If movie characters were capable of thinking independently, not a few of them would probably question the decisions made by a director, unable to see how all the pieces fit. If a good director knows what’s best for his or her movie, think how much truer this would be of a perfect Director.

You may not be satisfied with what you are, but as far as the Director is concerned, you are perfect for Its purposes. Your hair color is perfect. Your skin color is perfect. Your height is perfect. Your weight is perfect. Your IQ is perfect. Your knowledge is perfect. Your ignorance is perfect. Your beliefs are perfect. Your likes and dislikes are perfect. Your joys and sorrows are perfect. Your pleasures and problems are perfect. Your thought process is perfect. You are exactly where you are supposed to be, doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. Every single decision you’ve made hitherto is perfect, and every single decision you will make hereafter will be perfect.

If your role is to succeed, you will succeed. If your role is to fail, you will fail. If your role is to die a peaceful death after a long and happy life, you will die a peaceful death (in your sleep, perhaps) after a long and happy life. If your role is to die a violent death after a short and troubled life, you will die a violent death (by your own hand, perhaps) after a short and troubled life. Either way, you will have fulfilled your role–there’s no way you cannot fulfill your role. Your every move, your every line–all of it is without flaw. No matter how insignificant you may be, you complete the picture–that is why you are here.

What you were yesterday was perfect. What you are today is perfect. What you will be tomorrow will be perfect.

If you are uncomfortable with this idea, then allow me to ask you another question: what are you, really? Are you a character in this movie? Or are you the One Who is running the show?

This blog post, written by someone whose writing skills clearly leave much to be desired, is perfect. Your opinion of this blog post, dear reader, whether it is positive or negative, in agreement or disagreement, is perfect.

I am perfect. You are perfect. The world is perfect. Life is perfect. Everything is for the best.

Whether or not we know this. Whether or not we accept this. Whether or not we are at peace with this. God’s in His heaven–all’s right with the world.

It may be so. It may not be so.

It’s possible, isn’t it?

See also:

Ramesh S. Balsekar – A Duet of One: The Ashtavakra Gita Dialogue

The Bhagavad-Gita

Meister Eckhart – Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense

I am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Eckhart Tolle – The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment 

Dennis Waite – How to Meet Yourself…and find true happiness

Paramahansa Yogananda – Why God Permits Evil and How to Rise Above It 

Thanking God It’s Friday (with Reservations)

By Jin-yeong Yi

George Bellows - Dempsey and Firpo

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that… [U]ntil you start believing in yourself, you ain’t gonna have a life.”

—Rocky, Rocky Balboa 

During the daily grind of work, one repeatedly recalls the scene in the Shawshank Redemption where Warden Norton, having had Tommy murdered by Captain Hadley, pays Andy a visit after leaving him in isolation and darkness for a month.

Andy: I’m done. Everything stops… Get someone else to run your scams.

Norton: Nothing stops. Nothing. Or you will do the hardest time there is. No more protection from the guards. I’ll pull you out of that one-bunk Hilton and cast you down with the sodomites. You’ll think you’ve been fucked by a train. And the library? Gone. Sealed off, brick by brick. We’ll have us a little book barbecue in the yard. They’ll see the flames for miles. We’ll dance around it like wild Injuns. You understand me? Catchin’ my drift? …Or am I being obtuse? 

“Nothing stops.” Although Norton here is presumably talking about the money laundering operations, I also detect a profound, metaphysical truth hidden in his eloquently twisted speech: nothing in Nature stops. Its laws are forever in effect, and they are constantly bringing forth and setting into motion objects and events. The cosmos is one wild ride, and we are powerless to stop it.

The Warden’s words can also be interpreted in a third sense, which has to do with the nature of work. If Norton is an archetype of the tyrannical executive, then the scene in question can be read as an illustration of the totalitarian grip that the demands of modern society have over our lives, particularly in the form of the modern job.

What I realized during my first job was that the workweek is a lot like a boxing match, with three chief differences being that 1) it is more psychological than physical, 2) it is one-sided in that you are only receiving the blows, not dealing them, and 3) it goes on for an indefinite number of rounds–often dozens upon dozens of rounds. Your spirit is subjected to blow after blow, from the morning commute to the office to the eight hour workday to the evening commute back home. The traffic hits you, your customers hit you, your boss hits you, your colleagues hit you, an unexpected illness hits you, your family hits you. You can never hit back. You can trying throwing a punch, but you can never hit anything but the concrete manifestations of what the world throws at you–you can never actually hit the world itself. All you can do is weather the blows as best as you can, for as long as you can.

In Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin says, “I can never enjoy Sundays because, in the back of my mind, I always know I’ve got to go back to school the next day. It’s like trying to enjoy your last meal before the execution.” Substitute ‘work’ for ‘school,’ and boy, how relevant and spot-on it is! When the workweek draws to a close, we gratefully say, “Thank God it’s Friday,” but in the back of our minds we know that a weekend is just another brief rest period, in which we hastily ice and patch up the wounds of our weary and battered spirits before the bell rings for the next round.

Nothing stops. Nothing.

The Shawshank Redemption and the Prison of the Real

By Jin-yeong Yi

Park in France (photo by Georges Noblet)

“[A fundamental mistake of man is] to think that he is alive, when he has merely fallen asleep in life’s waiting room.”

—Idries Shah

“What if you slept, and what if in your sleep you dreamed, and what if in your dream you went to heaven and there you plucked a strange and beautiful flower, and what if you when you awoke you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?”

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Why is The Shawshank Redemption the #1 film on IMDb? People regularly question the wisdom of the multitudes on this count, as can be seen from posts on the movie’s forum.

Having watched it for the third time last weekend, I can say with confidence that The Shawshank Redemption is the film for our age–for all ages, past and present.

Freedom, or at least the idea of freedom, is tremendously important to most people. Did Patrick Henry not say 238 years ago,

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”

The thought of freedom is constantly on our minds, and the word is constantly on our lips. In this light, it’s no mystery that The Shawshank Redemption would strike a chord with so many people. We don’t need freedom to survive, but we need freedom to feel that survival is worth the trouble in the first place.

Once during a visit to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine (I can’t remember which) in Japan, I was conversing with a fellow exchange student who was an atheist and an individualist anarchist. At one point he asked me, “How do you define freedom?” As an aspiring Orthodox Christian at the time, who was inspired by the lives of the saints, I could only think of one answer: “Freedom is freedom from vice.” My interlocutor conceded that there was some merit to my definition, but he was obviously dissatisfied. We drifted away from this subject shortly after. (Interestingly, we watched The Shawshank Redemption together with some other people during a short sojourn in Kyoto.)

Years later, after having accepted atheism and nihilism, my definition of freedom changed radically. Now I define freedom as having no restrictions on the will, having no barrier between fantasy and reality. In other words, to be free is to be able to do anything one can imagine doing. My definition of prison expanded to the same degree. Now I define prison as a state in which freedom is restricted in any way whatsoever. Prison is not merely political–it is metaphysical. It is the boundaries of time and space, the laws of nature.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert mentions the theory that life is a prison. Life is not a prison; life is what is being trapped and suffocated in prison, its potential stultified by its walls.

Some might argue that prison is nothing more than a matter of perspective. The unhappy fate of Brooks could be adduced for this view. However, if the message was that prison is completely internal, that prison is in the mind and nowhere else, then the film would not have been about Andy escaping Shawshank, but instead accepting it and finding peace within its walls. Prison is very real, as real as anything–and only part of it comes from within. The question is: is freedom real?

Despite the fact that the chief villain in The Shawshank Redemption is a piously Christian man without an atom of compassion or empathy, I do not view the movie as being antireligious or anti-Christian. I do, however, see it as being heavily naturalistic. There is no God who cares, no liberty, no justice, no miracles. Andy Dufresne is innocent of the crime he is charged with, but Lady Justice is not omniscient and there’s no God to rectify human errors…and “justice” is a human construct to begin with. There is no Lady Justice. There is only Lady Luck, and she’s blind as she is indifferent.

Furthermore, Andy is a man of science rather than a man of faith. His weapons of choice are not scripture and prayer, but the practical tools of logic, mathematics, physics, and geology. He is well-versed in the rules of reality. And it is with this knowledge that he is eventually able to win freedom.

But this film is not about science. It’s about something that is innate in humanity, something that existed long before science did.

Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “Beauty will save the world.” Beauty is one of the things that keeps Andy going, whether it is the sublime beauty of a Mozart record, the sensuous beauty of a Rita Hayworth poster, the noble beauty of a genuine friendship, or the transcendental beauty of a cherished dream.

One day, Andy fortuitously receives a recording of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro given as a library donation. Understanding the power that music has to sustain and revitalize the human spirit, Andy risks severe punishment to play the record on the public address system. Why exactly he decides to do this is not completely clear, but my guess is that he wanted to remind everyone in Shawshank State Penitentiary that their tiny world is not the entirety of the universe, that life and its possibilities extend far beyond what their eyes can see.

Mozart’s music flows out of the speakers like cool, pure, crystal-clear water in a hot desert. Red describes the moment thus:

“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”

Free from worry, free from fear, free from the confines of language, free from the world and its petty rules. All the walls and shackles vanish, leaving only a glorious moment, however transient, in which fantasy and reality unite.

The message of The Shawshank Redemption does not seem to be that only the Andy Dufresnes of the world can find redemption. If it was, the film would be relevant to only a small segment of humankind. Not everyone is blessed with Andy’s ambition and determination, to say nothing of his level of intelligence and education. The key to redemption is, if nothing else, something that just about anyone can find within themself: hope.

Returning from two weeks in solitary confinement, Andy joins his friends in the mess hall, and the following dialogue takes place:

Y-y-you couldn’t play somethin’ good, huh? Hank Williams or somethin’?

They broke the door down before I could take requests.

Was it worth it? Two weeks in the hole?

Easiest time I ever did.

Bullshit. No such thing as easy time in the hole.

That’s right, a week in the hole is like a year.

Damn straight.

I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company.

So they let you tote that record player down there, huh?

[Taps head, chest] It was in here…and in here. That’s the beauty of music; they can’t…get that from you. …Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?

I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though. Didn’t make much sense in here.

Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.

Forget?

Forget that…there are…places…in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s a…there’s something…inside…that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.

What’re you talking about?

Hope.

Hope. …Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside. You better get used to that idea.

Like Brooks did?

Pace Red, it can be argued that the “inside” is where hope has the most use. Hope is not necessarily false expectation; it can be the feeling that maybe, just maybe, things will turn out better than expected. Hope is not a belief in the inevitability that one’s dreams will come true; hope is a belief in the possibility that one’s dreams will come true. Hope is the inner flame that give one the strength to persist, to endure in the face of all odds. As Andy later tells Red:

[H]ope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies. 

If one wants a basic guide to life in the prison of the real, one need not look any further than The Shawshank Redemption. Its advice is simple and sound: educate yourself and keep your wits about you. Be good to others. Retain your integrity and self-worth. Fill your life with beauty. Persist. Above all, never, ever accept prison as an absolute. Keep hoping and dreaming…until the bitter end.

Beauty and hope are intertwined. Like hope, beauty may, in the last analysis, be nothing but an emotional reaction, but in any case it gives me the feeling that maybe, just maybe, true freedom is not only possible, but that it is also waiting on the other side.

Ring of dark matter (Hubble Space Telescope)

All these landscapes are timeless,
And this is all just a part of cosmos,
But all is mine and past and future is yet to discover…
Much have been discovered, but tomorrow
I will realise I existed before myself.

I will be reborn
Before I die.

I will realise planets ages old,
Created by a ruler with a crown of dragon claws,
Arrived with a stargate…
A king among the wolves in the night…
An observer of the stars.

—Emperor, “Cosmic Keys to My Creations and Times”

The Master, Motorcycles, and Meaninglessness

By Jin-yeong Yi

The Master motorcycle scene

“The formula for my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

One evening my brother-in-law and I went to see Paul Anderson’s The Master at the cinema. Afterwards, as we were driving back home, we discussed the scene where Lancaster and friends are in the desert, where they choose an arbitrary point in the distance and ride in its direction by motorcycle.

“That pretty much sums up [the pointlessness of their religious movement],” my devoutly Christian brother-in-law chortled. “Pick a point…and go for it!”

I thought about what he said, and I realized that, while the motorcycle exercise was indeed pointless, it was, in the grand context of things, not much more pointless than the other activities we do from day to day. I realized that the scene ironically did a good job of illustrating how a nihilist approaches the problem of finding purpose in life.

To have a goal is to have a certain end to work toward. If you are a working adult in a country with a relatively high degree of personal freedom, chances are that you have a number of hours each day in which you have nothing to do but what you will, empty stretches of time that you need to find some way to fill.

Let’s assume that you are a working adult with no hobbies. You have nothing to do after returning from the commute except watching TV or drinking at the local bar. But one day, you wake up and decide that you’re sick of having nothing except work and trivial pleasures to look forward to, so you decide that you’re going to take up an avocation to complement your vocation.

But where to start? There are so many options, and nothing in particular strikes your fancy. Learning death metal drumming looks about as appealing as learning computer programming, you have as much interest in studying Finnish as you do French, and you have as much motivation to write a novel as you do to paint a picture. You can’t think of a compelling reason to choose one goal over another.

What to do? You pick a point, any point, and go for it. Roll a die or flip a coin if you have to. Then you stick to your chosen course and don’t stop until you’ve reached your destination. It’s OK if the destination is arbitrary, because you just might be rewarded by the journey you take to reach it.

In Memoriam: Roger Ebert

By Jin-yeong Yi

“We are masters of life and death, we rationalists. It has been a fine adventure, this half century of conscious existence, with all its labor and trouble and injustice. Huxley once sincerely replied to Kingsley, who sympathized with him on the death of a child, that they were proud and happy to have had the child just those few years with them. That is the spirit. An hour of sunlight is better than none. To have been born and lived and died is, for the man who knows how to live, a privilege and an opportunity that he might never had had. You have had the joy of seeing your children slowly rise through the phases of blossoming and ripening around you. You have known the fragrance of wine and flowers, the delights of art, the fascination of science, the joy of battle in a good cause…. How can any man have the effrontery to grumble that the feast is not eternal?”

—Joseph McCabe, “The Myth of Immortality”

Another day, another death. Roger Ebert passed away this morning at age 70, ending an 11 year struggle with cancer. I admit I was surprised, because I had been going by a vague assumption that he would manage to pull through somehow.

His last words to his readers, which were penned not two days ago, could hardly have been more fitting: “I’ll see you at the movies.”[1][2]

His death is one of countless reminders that everyone is on their way out.

It may come as a consolation to some that he was prepared for his fate well before it came.

From ABC News:

“After a series of surgeries and painful recovery, in 2010 Ebert mused about death, writing, in part, ‘I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear.’

He added, ‘What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting.'”

That’s the spirit, Mr. Ebert. Thank you for all the reviews. See you at the movies.

Notes

[1] “Roger Ebert, renowned film critic, dies at age 70” by Alan Duke 

[2] “A Leave of Presence” by Roger Ebert