Archive for August, 2007

In the now

Friday, August 31st, 2007

There is an old story about a group of ancient Greeks, a group of mercenaries known as the Ten Thousand. They were part of Cyrus’ army when he was defeated at the battle of Cunaxa on the Euphrates by the Persian King Artaxerxes. They were led by the Athenian general and historian Xenophon. For months they struggled through hostile lands and over alien mountains, despairing sometimes of ever seeing home again. Until, at long last, on scaling the last mountain they saw, in the distance, the Black Sea. And a great cry went up, “Thalassa, thalassa.” (The sea, the sea.) They were as good as home.

I remember once in the American Mid-west looking around me and thinking – go for a thousand miles in any direction and you still will not reach the sea. For someone born and bred within yards of the Atlantic it was a very claustrophobic feeling. For me, as for the ancient Greeks, to be by the shores of the sea was to be in touch with home. The waters that lapped the eastern shores of America were the same waters that surged round the shores of Europe.

To be in the now is like being at sea, the same sea that touches simultaneously every coast in the world. To be present to this moment now is to be in the same now, the same present moment, of every single person. It may be the only thing we share, but share it we do. Many, perhaps most others, are not present there with us. They are, perhaps, wandering the alien mountains of the mind, or captured by fantasies, or enthralled by dreams, or preoccupied with their obsessions and compulsions, infatuated with money, or sex, or power, or just drifting. But for many this now is real, unforgettable, palpable reality. It may be raw and bleeding; it may be ecstatically happy; it may be of the utmost significance, but whatever it is, it is unmistakably real. This is the now that we share, whether we realise it or not. This is the now which is pregnant with possibilities. It is the fulcrum on which we move our lives.

But some, very many people, are imprisoned in this now by suffering, by pain, anguish, grief. If they could escape from it of course they would, but such is the centripetal effect of suffering that it draws all our attention, all our energy, away from wider perspectives into the affliction from which there is no escaping. For many more of us our awareness of these people in this now which we all share — that they are hurting, that they are in despair, that they are facing torment and death — this awareness is distressing. We feel for them. We would, if we could, help them, but we feel so powerless.

Tibetans have a practice they call Tonglen. It is a form of breathing meditation, a way of exercising compassion. Compassion means, literally, to suffer with. As one breaths in one breaths in all the pain, anguish and suffering of those with whom we share this present moment. As one breaths out one breaths out peace, gentleness and love. We may be separated by thousands of miles but we are all linked by this present moment now. We are linked by our common humanity. We are linked by the Spirit who lives and breaths in us and comes to the aid of our weakness. In this now we all touch Reality.


Thursday, August 30th, 2007

I am reading a book about Zen meditation by Elaine MacInnes which is very helpful, especially in its insistence on being in the body in the present moment. Only this is real. The past does not exist, nor the future; only the present moment. If one is to become aware of Reality it can only happen in the present moment. One of the reasons why falling in love is such an exhilarating experience is because when one is with ones lover one is wholly in the now, in the present moment. All the senses are absorbed by her, her beauty, the music of her laugh, the shape of her, the texture of her skin, her smell. Past and future no longer matter. All that matters is this magic now when all ones senses are captivated by this object of every desire and the prospect of possessing her, of being oned with her.

However, such an experience can so dominate the attention that all perspective is lost. Meditation allows us to place some distance from the attention and objects of desire. In meditation there is no object of desire. There is no object. Dualism runs right to the heart of the psyche; mind-body, body-soul, subject-object, I-Thou. Sartre describes the tyranny of The Other seen as a constant threat to the ego, which is tender and diminutive, hesitant to reveal itself lest it be dominated by, or worse, rejected by the other. And yet, paradoxically, the longing to annihilate this rift runs equally deep. Hence the desire to possess the other if possible. Failing that to overcome or annihilate the other. Failing that the only recourse is into a private stronghold, walled and barred against the outside. The experience of enlightenment, on the other hand, is that there are not two. There is neither ego, nor other. Tat tvam asi. That art thou.

The trouble when one gets to my age, especially if they have a health problem which makes them aware of impending mortality, is that they become aware of all the things they have not done and of the things they have done but now no longer can. The imagination becomes filled with regretful nostalgia, wishful ‘if only’, and a longing to be able to live dozens of lives so that one could do all the things one desires. But it is not to be. I can see how this could generate bitterness and mordant regrets. I can see why the idea of reincarnation might be very attractive, if only one could carry over memories from life to life. But all this is due to a failure to understand what the process of life is, where it leads and what it means.

Life is not about experiencing for the sake of experience, nor about savouring and enjoying the new, the exciting, the exotic. Nor is life about cultivating the ego, expanding and embellishing it so that it can stand on its own in an alien universe. Life is about love. Only love can annihilate the gap between the ego and the other and make the two one without diminishing either. On the contrary. This is why love is at the heart of all religions.

Descartes was right in a way in assuming a split between mind and body. Though I think the split is not so much between mind and body as between being in a world of fantasy and ratiocination and being a physical and mental unity of awareness. Zen meditation is concerned, I think, with getting back to that original awareness before self-awareness allowed us to construct a mental world of fantasy and concepts, of day-dreams and wishful projections. We live too much in the head and the mind is a cork bobbing on a sea of emotions, feelings and moods. Meditation helps us to get out of the head and to be fully in the now so that we are physically present in our actions and not, as so often, miles away.

But why should inhabiting the now be so important? Why should one go through years of discipline and long hours of meditation simply to be fully present to oneself? Part of the answer is that only the now exists and our actions and reactions can only take place in the now. Too often the remembered past and the imagined future colour, distort even, our perceptions and determine our actions. To live in the now is to be fully present to oneself, to the others we meet, to the world we inhabit. It is also, though I haven’t quite worked out why, to be aware of the limits of existence and therefore of the transcendent.

In a sense, the fantasy world of the mind is a timeless world. The past and the future can be made present at will and the present can be made to disappear. Being timeless there can be no progress. The process of becoming is held in abeyance. It is a sterile place. The world of the now is a world that is constantly becoming, a world of a multitude of possibilities. It is not closed in on itself but open. It is open to and aware of the stream of life, open to the kaleidoscope of nature, to the actions and interactions of others, to being. Being in the now is not the total absorption in a task, or an activity, or a sensation, so that one is hardly aware of anything else. Being in the now is to be present to the now and, at the same time, present to all that is going on within and without.

(MacInnes, E; Light Sitting in Light: A Christian’s Experience of Zen, Fount, London 1996)


Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

The reason why Buddhism is so concerned with detachment is because it frees one, not just in a physical sense, but also to be able to experience. Thomas Merton, in his Asian Journal, was struck by how often he encountered ordinary Tibetans going about their everyday tasks humming a mantra. Normally our minds are filled with trains of discursive thought in a reciprocal dialogue with the senses. Thought initiates feelings and emotions; bodily feelings and emotions initiate thoughts. There is a constant interplay which only ceases when the attention is absorbed by a particular task or social interaction. Even there, habituation often allows thoughts and feelings to gain a foothold and interfere with the task in hand.

In meditation, at the beginning at least, the object is to break the thought-feeling interaction and simply become aware. Focusing the attention on the breath, or the mantra does eventually lead to simple awareness. It also leads to something else much more subtle. This simple awareness is a limit situation.

According to Karl Jaspers limit situations are dramatic events, like the birth of a child, marriage, or death of a loved one, in which we become aware of the limits of existence. The fact that we are aware of the limits as limits means that we have in some obscure way seen beyond them. A horizon is only a horizon because we can see beyond it. We are not normally aware of the limits of our existence just as we are not normally aware of the limits of our field of view.

In that simple awareness of meditation, in that, often boring, non-eventful state, we are aware, very dimly perhaps, of the limits of existence, of the horizon of our being. We have acquired an awareness of transcendence. During the day, whenever we are doing anything which does not require mental attention, the mantra, which has being saying itself quietly in the depths somewhere, surfaces and becomes conscious. Once again we are in touch with transcendence and everything falls into perspective. All this is very gentle, very subtle and is easily swamped by feelings. Hence the need for detachment. To quote Peter Harvey:

The citta of one on the Buddhist path should not be at the mercy of outside stimuli, nor of its own moods etc. but should be an island of calm, imbued with self-control, self-contained. It should no longer be scattered and diffused but should be more integrated and consistently directed towards one goal, nibbhana. (Harvey, P.; The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism, Curzon Press. London 1995 p. 55)

I think this process of becoming one-pointed and detached is a return to innocence. Particular memories, attachments and feelings are all aspects of a component of the personality. They are personality-factors. While they are alive and active they designate something of what we are. Time does not heal the wounds of the bad deeds of the past as long as the roots that gave rise to them are still alive and active, and they are active as long as the memories and attachments still have the power to move us. So they have to be exorcised. The process of detachment involves a review, more or less drawn out, of the past. Memories are paraded before the eye of the mind until we can look at them with neither desire nor loathing. To quote Harvey again,

He or she is thus very self-contained and self-controlled, with a “diamond-like citta”, unperturbed and “unsoiled” by anything. His or her senses are not tied to their objects and he has perfected “dwelling alone” by letting go of everything, such as the personality-factors, with no attachment or repugnance. (op. cit. p. 63)

The result will be to see everything like a child, fresh, new, full of wonder, filled with beauty and joy. This is not an easy process. It will involve much suffering. I think the only thing to do is to take each day as it comes, sometimes perhaps, each hour and look no further than the present moment. There is a very telling comment by William Johnston – ‘Buddhists speak out of the experience of enlightenment, Western theologians talk out of books.’ (William Johnston; letter to The Tablet 21 February 1998)

Sanctifying Grace

Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

Reading Zaehner on nature mysticism. References to Sanctifying Grace leave me feeling uncomfortable. What is sanctifying grace? I believe it to be the relationship between God and the person. What is the difference between the relationship of God to the person in Sanctifying Grace and his relationship to the person who has no SG? We need a definition of person and soul. God is the ground of being and therefore relates to each being in an ontological sense. This relationship is not normally perceptible.

As Person and Subject, God relates to persons in a personal way. This, likewise, is not normally perceptible. Is this relationship what is meant by SG? Are the various kinds of mystical experience perceptions of this relationship?

What does it mean not to be in a state of Grace? Does being in a state of Grace mean openness to Being? This entails living authentically and relating to others with openness and love. If so, there are no, conscious at least, obstacles to the development of the relationship between being and Being.

Does not being in the sate of grace mean being egotistical and selfish, closed to Being, seeing others either as threats to one’s ego, or as opportunities to be used, manipulated, exploited or possessed? In which case there is no understanding of the unity and interdependence of being, nor of the dependence of being on Being. Individuals are seen as unitary and fragile, competing for existence in an, if not hostile, at least an indifferent universe. Such people cannot develop as persons because their basic orientation is closed and inward looking. They are not able to take the risk of opening themselves in love to achieve transcendence and, ultimately, what Christians call salvation. Not unless something jolts them out of their blindness.

My unhappiness with the term sanctifying grace is that it reifies and makes almost a commodity of what is, essentially, a relationship. Not to be in SG is to refuse to recognise and respond to Being. Traditional Catholic theology would limit this relationship (SG) to the sacraments. Individuals come into existence (are born) and have, of necessity an ontological relationship with God. The personal relationship, if that is what SG is, only comes into existence at Baptism. This relationship is then deepened and developed only through repeated reception of the sacraments.

It seems to me improbable in the extreme, given the nature of God and the nature of the human person, that the personal relationship between them should be conditioned by and limited to the rituals of an institution which has only been in existence for a fraction of human history and has never touched more than a fraction of people. Theologians talk about SG as a unique gift which derives from God alone. It is not something naturally human. St. John, on the other hand is quite clear that to love (he makes no qualifications) is to know God, ‘for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God.’ (1John 4:7)


Monday, August 27th, 2007

I have been reading about Padre Pio. It struck me that he was a throwback to a fathers-of-the-desert type of spirituality. He had a fuga mundi attitude and a preoccupation with extreme forms of ascesis (vigils, the discipline etc.). He wrestled with demons who used to smash up his cell and throw things at him. He had many preternatural gifts, stigmata, perfume, bilocation. He was not at all what you could call a psychologically well-balanced person. Now it is interesting thing that in the middle of the twentieth century he could become an icon of holiness alongside Mother Teresa. She had a universal appeal. Padre Pio attracted the more conservative Catholic signs-and-wonders brigade.

The interesting thing in all this is the perception by many that the supernatural dimension is filled with good and bad spirits, that there is constant warfare between them and that we mortal humans are caught up in this war. It is easy to stereotype good and evil, both people and our own internal feelings, and paint them large on a cosmic canvas. People are hungry for signs and wonders. It is all too easy to exaggerate internal struggles and project them outwards. It is also only too easy to blame forces beyond one’s control for one’s own failings and it is comforting and reassuring to have the protection of spiritual amulets and talismans.

All this assumes a worldview which is two-dimensional, the natural and the supernatural. Between the two is an, almost, unbridgeable gulf. From time to time messengers, angels, are sent to communicate important information. These are received by a few select people. There are also special people who are granted visions and mystical knowledge. Again these are few and select. For the vast majority the natural world is the domain of our experience and the only knowledge we have of the supernatural is second hand. Hence the importance of the Church. It is the guardian and guarantor of what has been revealed. It is the administrator of the Sacraments. These are natural things, oil, water, bread and wine, which, when used with the proper rituals, communicate supernatural grace to individuals; essential if, after death, one is to achieve eternal bliss in Heaven. This supernatural grace is not usually experienced, only by mystics and other spiritual giants. But, if it is to be received, it has to be believed in. Faith is essential for salvation. Hence the importance of people like Padre Pio, and the children of Fatima, and all the other people whose experiences and visions bolster this worldview and reinforce faith.

This is not, however, the only worldview and the more one examines it the more this becomes clear. According to the Religious Experience Research Unit, formerly at Oxford, now at University of Wales, Lampeter, perhaps as many as 60% of people have religious experiences of one kind or another at some time in their lives. These are not limited to believers or church-goers. This should not be a surprising statistic if we accept what the Bible says, that we are made ‘in the image and likeness of God’. There must, therefore, be something of God in us, naturally. These experiences are varied but there is a common theme running through the majority and that is of unity, what David Hay calls relational awareness. For most ‘primitive’ people – American Indians, Australian aborigines – the natural world is shot through with the supernatural. These are not two separate dimensions but rather two aspects of the same. Both Hinduism and Buddhism hold that there is only one reality. For most people the view of this reality is distorted by ignorance, or by maya, the illusion that the ephemeral and transitory are real and permanent. For both these religions the purpose of religion is to help people become aware of and pierce the hidden assumptions which blind them to reality as it really is. Not easy.


Saturday, August 25th, 2007

I have been reading Nelson Pike’s Mystic Union: An Essay in the Phenomenology of Mysticism. As the title suggests it is a philosophical approach and he is very clear; asks very sensible questions and takes nothing for granted. His problem, and I think it is a problem generally, is that he does not give enough attention to emotions. This is understandable. Emotions, like mystical experience, are entirely subjective and are not available to others, unless mediated symbolically through art, music, language and metaphor. Ideas and concepts can take on an objective existence of their own. They become what Popper called World 3 objects. As such they can be studied and they can be evaluated according to the criteria available to World 1 and World 3. But this does not get us very far. Towards the end of the book, after pages of exhaustive analysis, Pike comes to the conclusion that ‘theistic experience is possible’.

Although emotions are not available for objective study we cannot leave them out of the equation. Somehow they have to be integrated into the various human ‘sophies’ and ‘ologies’. Because ultimately it is emotions, feelings, which bestow meaning and significance. We know this. We have always known this. If something does not feel right then no amount of thinking, rational logic, will make it right. Now, the question is – why should subjective, ephemeral feelings be the arbiters of meaning rather than ‘eternal’ truths? When feelings endorse what we believe to be true there is a harmony and a sense (feeling, again) of unshakeable certainty. The resulting sense may be of peace and security, or it may be of the pointlessness and futility of human existence. But there is a solidity, a certainty which is not easily shaken. When feelings and beliefs conflict then there is discordance, a disharmony which may result in worry and anxiety, and in the suppression of feelings, or in the suppression of beliefs. Either way, all is not well.

Whatever else it means, being human means being a psychosomatic entity, a unity. Platonic and Cartesian dualism, just from my own limited experience, are not valid options. My body has a far greater impact on my mind than the other way round. Dualism provides a solution to the problem of existence after death. The death and decomposition of the body simply means that the more important spiritual element can migrate to another body, or to another mode of existence. But if one is a psychosomatic unity then death presents a problem. There is no arguing with the finality of death and the decomposition of the body.

This is where dualism is so handy. It provides a neat, simple and readily understandable solution. It offers hope in the face of the terrible reality of death of the body. There are all sorts of supporting factors. People have out of the body experiences, near death experiences, mystical experiences in which the body is somehow transcended. It is even possible to visualise an existence apart from the body, as a mind aware of all that is going on. But, and this is where the problem of the emotions makes things complicated, emotions are physical. They are bodily feelings that emerge in the amygdala and proceed to the neo-cortex. They impose themselves on the rational mind. They are almost entirely independent of the rational mind and very little affected by it however much the mind might want to impose its will on the emotions. According to Joseph LeDoux

Neuroanatomists have shown that the pathways that connect the emotional processing system of fear, the amygdala, with the thinking brain, the neocortex, are not symmetrical -the connections from the cortex to the amygdala are considerably weaker than those from the amygdala to the cortex. This may explain why, once an emotion is aroused, it is so hard for us to turn it off at will.

Two questions emerge – to what extent are emotions the result of physical factors? This is important because if it were possible for the mind to exist apart from the body would it be able to feel emotions? The idea of existing in a blissful state of apatheia is not satisfactory. (Anyway bliss is a feeling.) If it is emotions which convey meaning and significance what is the point of existing as a passionless centre of awareness? One might as well be a computer.

The other question is – what is a person? Do the two alternatives, an embodied spirit, or a conscious psychosomatic unity exhaust all the possibilities? My feeling (feeling again) is no. Both of these possibilities reify what is more a process than a thing. A person is never a fixed entity but a constant process of becoming. Secondly, neither take into account the extent to which a person is constituted by relationships. To be human is to relate. I, as a person, am not circumscribed by my skin. My being extends into the being of others as does theirs into me. And not just other persons.

But enough. The more I write the more I realise how little I understand. There is a gulf between between the rational arguments of people like Pyke and LeDoux and the experience of countless others. How kind of Pyke to acknowledge the possibility of theistic experience, something that for so many is an undoubted reality. And do we now fully understand the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of emotions and feelings? One of the Upanishads says somewhere, “He who speaks does not know, he who knows does not speak.”


Friday, August 24th, 2007

When I am meditating, apart from the times when I am caught up in one distraction after another – which is sometimes most of the time – apart from these times I find myself face to face with nothingness, the void. The mind shies away from this, hence the tendency to be distracted. But it is important to face it, to confront it, to merge with it. This happens rarely but when it does I feel myself on a threshold, a frightening, terrifying threshold – like standing at the very edge of a high cliff and feeling the yawning emptiness below draw like a magnet and you step back because you don’t trust yourself. So we shy away from nothingness although it is the threshold to truth and reality.

It is a bit like a baby waiting to be born. It is conscious but not yet self-conscious. It cannot think, nor can it anticipate, but if it could the prospect of birth would be a scary event even though there is nothing, and everything, to fear. The womb is a warm, secure environment. It presents no challenges, imposes no choices or decisions, no demands are made. The baby is about to be violently thrust out of this environment, which is all that it has ever known, into the unknown.

We all fear the unknown precisely because it is unknown. Such is our deep-rooted insecurity we are more willing to believe that it will be peopled with terrors than with warmth and love. Why are we so insecure? Partly, I suppose, because we are not self-sufficient, we depend so much on others who, like us, are themselves insecure and dependent. We do not have a firm and unyielding basis for our existence, we suffer from the three brute facts of contingency, powerlessness and scarcity. And so we tend to do two things which are really not very intelligent. We shy away from the nothingness and we try to find security in material things.

The real me

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

What is it that makes something truly significant? This has been popping up in my thoughts one way or another these last couple of weeks. It struck me that only what we experience is real, real for us. I can understand what exercised Bishop Berkley now. Reality is continually expanding and contracting according to our state of awareness. One of the bad things about being ill is that the preoccupation with bodily pain and discomfort shrinks the circumference of perception to the limits of that body. The universe becomes a bed of pain. The glory of the night sky, the extravagance of sunsets, the light-hearted laughter of children, the lazy buzzing of flies on a summer day, all these cease to have existence and meaning. Only the constricted and contracted me exists, only what goes on within the tight circumference of the body is real.

This raises the scary question of which is the real me. Is the real me just a fluctuating bubble of awareness which has had its moments of expansion and will one day shrink until it disappears without even a discernible pop. You can see this in old people as they sit for most of the day in their armchairs, dozing and gazing vaguely and the television. Their world is confined to fading memories of ancient excitements. The mind recoils and refuses to be so extinguished, even though it knows that it has no control over what happens to it, even though it is aware that one by one its memories are slipping into the dark pool of forgetting. Let them out of sight for too long and they slide away unnoticed and are gone. Is this it? If it is, nothing is real. Meaning is the feeling of this moment. I cannot accept this but on the other hand this is what experience shows me. Is there another experience? Can one break out of the confines of this oh-so-limited and puny body/mind?


Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

What is meditation about? It is always a struggle between two modes or being – feeling and rational. I think much of the time we are in feeling mode. Our feelings of like and dislike shape the routine activity of daily life. Performing a task involves the rational mode. As often as not feelings can either hinder or enhance rational mode activity. Yesterday — was trying to change the oil in his motor bike but his feelings about dirt, difficulty and discomfort kept getting in he way of a simple mechanical task. Likewise the pleasure of teaching, sparking off and drawing out ideas and conclusions, enhances doing theology. RM and FM are two sides of the same thing. Meditation helps one become aware of how these two interface. The focusing of the mind during meditation, the being aware of switching from one to the other and of the intermingling of the two is something that can carry over into the rest of the day. This is the meaning of mindfulness. But mindfulness is only the beginning. The task is to become aware of the underlying reality. It is a bit like being at the cinema. We are so caught up in the sights and sounds of the drama on the screen that we lose awareness of our surroundings, of the projectionist, of the streets outside, etc. Even if we are aware of them they are not as interesting at this moment as the drama on the screen – even though they are real and the drama is fiction. Fiction it may be, but when it absorbs our attention it is more ‘real’ than reality. This is one of the hurdles of meditation – getting through the boring phase of bringing the attention back from one distraction after another until one achieves simple self-awareness. To continue the analogy – the film and the cinema only exist because of the social infrastructure that produced them – a world of real people engaged in tasks, projects and creative activities, involved in all kinds of human interaction. The goal in meditation is not just to become self- aware in the minimalist sense of mindfulness but to become aware of the underlying Reality which has given rise first, to me and second, to my mental world.

(Re all this cf. McGinn on Augustine’s mysticism: Mcginn, Bernard . Presence of God: v1 The Foundations of Mysticism (The Presence of God: a History of Western Mysticism). SCM Press, London, 1992. p. 233)


Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

Thinking about that tag of Aquinas – whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver – or something similar. It is obvious at one level. A dog sees things as a dog, a cat as a cat, etc. It is less obvious when it comes to people. It is noticeable in matters of race, nationality or gender, it is less obvious and more difficult to explain when it comes to attitudes to life and questions of meaning. What is the difference between a saint and an ordinary person? It is not the case that both see life similarly and that one chooses the path of heroic virtue and the other does not. It is more subtle than that. The difficulty for the ordinary person (if there is such an animal) is that he cannot see things other than as an ordinary person. The challenge is first to become aware of this limitation; to come to see that there are other modes of being, some better, some worse, and that it is possible to change modes. Better in what way? Better in the sense of being more happy and fulfilled, in the sense of knowing, in the sense that one comes to be rather than to have, is proactive rather than reactive, in the sense that one draws nearer to the truth.

(Quidquid recipitur secundum modum recipientis recipitur.)