From Theodicy to Mysticism: A Personal Account

One morning, several years ago, after awakening from a restful sleep, I sat upright on my bed for a few moments. And then, something amazing happened: I awoke from what I had just awoken to. I awoke, in other words, from subject/object consciousness and the other dualities that constitute our ordinary experience, and entered into a new realm of knowing.

The limits of language require that I say that “I awoke,” but it would be more accurate to say that something, which has had many names — the Self, the It, Consciousness, the Universal Dreamer, Vishnu — awoke. Yes, it awoke from a long, crazy, fifty-seven year old dream called Mark Dillof. It was what led up to this awakening that I shall now recount, for it might offer some valuable clues to those seeking answers to life’s profoundest enigmas.

My early morning awakening didn’t come out of the blue. Rather, it was the paradoxical consummation of a long struggle to answer certain terribly perplexing questions. These questions reached crisis proportions about five years ago. They revolved around the problem of suffering, as do all existential questions.

Gautama Buddha sought to understand the How of suffering, its origin and causes. His analysis of the nature of self, desire and suffering made him the most insightful of psychologists. Rather than seeking to understand the How of suffering, I was totally perplexed by the Why. I pondered a most ancient puzzle, one of biblical proportions: If God is good, how is it that He permits evil? In other words, I was interested in suffering’s meaning, purpose, and justification, assuming it had any.

The various answers — proposed by philosophers and theologians to the question of suffering’s meaning — are referred to as “theodicy.” There exists a quotation, attributed to Epicurus that sums up the skepticism that might emerge in regard to a justification:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Simply stated, if God is not the cause of human suffering, then what happens to us on this Earth is arbitrary, random and meaningless. There would be, then, no “special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” nor any “divinity that shapes our ends.” But if God is responsible for the evil in the world, then He is evil, in which case He isn’t God. Epicurus’ logic has led many a skeptic to become an atheist, for neither solution is acceptable. That didn’t happen to me, because I couldn’t abide the notion that suffering, and life itself, was meaningless. And yet I found the various theological answers to the question of human suffering to be unconvincing.

And so it was that about five years ago my questioning became intense. After a few months of pondering the question, I experienced an unsettling shift. Instead of me pursuing the question, it became evident that the question was pursuing me. Everywhere I went, the question would follow me, and would often arrive at my destination ahead of me.

The question was not just intellectual, for there was a powerful pathos to it.  Looking back on those two years of intense searching, I remember that a certain image would sometimes appear to me, that of Anne Frank, the young girl who had died in a Nazi concentration camp, and who we know from her diary. I could neither make sense of her death, nor could I abandon the question. In that sense, my question became akin to a Zen koan, for koans are questions that can neither be answered, in their own terms, nor can they be abandoned until the sheer pressure of this unresolvable situation causes the mind to reach a new level of answer to the question.

After two years of intensely examining every justification that I could find for human suffering, and finding every answer to be insufficient, the moment came when I realized that there was no justification. Were I a man of faith, I would have concluded that there is a meaning to human suffering, but that I could not discern what it was, for “we see through a glass darkly,” and “God moves in mysterious ways.” But, for whatever the reason, I’ve never been able to abide in faith. Consequently, my inability to attain an answer left me in dark despair.

Enter the Dragon, Enter Shankara

I must add that I had been reading a good deal, over the years, including a fair amount of mystical literature, most of which left me al the more confused. But there was one such book, The Crest Jewel of Discrimination, by Shankara — a 9th Century Hindu Advaita, philosopher — that sat like some food in my stomach that I could neither digest nor eliminate. Consequently, over the years, a thousand times I would pick up Shankara’s book in yet another effort to discern its meaning, only to end up throwing the book against the wall in frustration. In any case, Shankara was known for his philosophy of nondualism, for the mindboggling idea that the world that appears to be a great multiplicity is really — on some level — really one and that we, as subjects, are not separate from it, but one with it.

I mention Shankara’s mystical book, for I had been reading it the evening before. And so, I was doubly frustrated, for I could neither discern the meaning of nonduality, nor had I found a meaning for human suffering. And so I fell asleep, which brings me back to the very next morning that I had began discussing, at the beginning of this essay. When I awoke, Shankara’s philosophy made “sense,” as did the meaning of human suffering.

The solution to the enigma of suffering was not at all what I had expected, for the very terms of the question had shifted. As Albert Einstein stated: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking as we were when we created them.” What justification, then, had I discovered for human suffering? As might be expected, any answer reaches the limits of intelligibility, once self, world suffering, justification and explanation are seen as ultimately mental constructs and therefore illusory.

More importantly, what solace has mystical insight provided me, in the face of life’s suffering? I’ve only found real peace of mind when I’ve returned to that elevated level of consciousness. Alas, consciousness is wont to drift downwards. Then, whatever insights are gained at the higher elevations become like an ever fading memory of happier times. Thus the consolations of philosophy — especially those to be discovered at the mystical heights of the spirit — require reascending the mountain of consciousness, to one’s highest level of awareness. The task then becomes staying there, for increasingly long periods of time, and forging ahead to new altitudes.

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2 People have left comments on this post

» TonyDetroit said: { Jan 2, 2011 - 10:01:26 }

We are all seekers, but some are more dedicated and courageous than others.

» mdillof said: { Jan 2, 2011 - 10:01:37 }

Yes, Tony, that is very true. I remember Nietzsche writing somewhere that what prevents people from knowing the truth, more than anything else, is a lack of courage. Thinking has always been a dangerous enterprise, as it undermines the foundation of one’s beliefs. People rightly fear the metaphysical vertigo that can come from reaching the edge of the world, the limits of one’s worldview.

I think that what makes some people go forward in their seeking is a lust for life, for a real life, for one that can only be achieved by asking deep questions, dangerous ones. They are the type of people that refuse to settle, and so they continue to question, until they finally find what they are looking for.

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