Archive for August, 2007


Monday, August 20th, 2007

Just finished reading Ursula King’s book on Teilhard de Chardin.* I like what TDC seems to be saying about mysticism. Religion is about more than the encounter with God. The emphasis on this and on the coming of the Kingdom, on the Parousia, or the next life has contributed to preoccupation with the ‘other world’ and the denigration of this one. It has focused on spirituality with the emphasis on ‘spirit’ at the expense of body. In Catholicism and in Orthodox Christianity this has led to an ideology which puts forward, or has in the past, worldly detachment, celibacy and asceticism as the ideal way of life. The early monks saw it as the imitation on earth of life as it would be in heaven.

This dualistic worldview, body/spirit, earth/heaven is the result of early Greek thought on Christianity.** Jewish thought was dualistic in the sense that it saw Heaven above and earth below. Although earth reflected the glory of God it was not God’s natural domain. God is the wholly transcendent other, although his shekinah does manifest itself from time to time in particular places and in particular people.

TDC puts forward a new kind of mysticism which is non-dualist but which embraces the whole continuum from nature mysticism to transforming union. Why do I like this better? Because it includes religious insights from other religions. If you accept the Christian position as put forward by the Catholic Church then the other religions are either wrong or only partly right. It is very hard to accept that the religious insights of so many sincere seekers of the truth over so many thousands of years are all wrong. Especially since the Church’s own attitude to its teaching is so paranoid.

Our common ground is our individual experience of humanity, of the search for answers to questions concerning identity and meaning, and of the search for fulfilment and happiness. So, in what sense then can it be said the mystic knows something he did not know prior to the experience? So much of the accounts of mystical experience have to do with feelings – love, peace, joy, certainty – all these are feelings. Feelings are the dominant and most important aspect of mystical experience. Feelings validate the experience. They give it meaning and significance. They are the salt and seasoning without which the experience would be bland and unremarkable. The mystic, like the poet, is a person of intense and deep feelings. You only have to look at Pascal –

Dieu d’Abraham, Dieu d’Isaac, Dieu de Jacob,
non des philosophes et savants.
Certitude. Certitude. Sentiment. Joie. Paix.

and at John of the Cross

El amado en la amada transformada.

Language becomes difficult and inadequate here. Knowledge and emotion are so intertwined that they would seem to be two sides of the same coin. Feeling brings knowledge to the attention, it categorises it, validates it and gives it meaning. I know thousands of things but only those that are accompanied by feelings, good or bad, matter. To have no feelings, to be bored, to be apathetic is to be less than alive. We are constantly searching for experience with feelings attached. The stronger the feelings induced, the more vital and important is the experience. Boredom stalks us, lurking at the edges of empty moments, threatening to dissipate our reason for living. Hence the frenetic search for newer, more vivid and exciting experience. Meditation tries to focus on the intersection of knowledge and feeling, to observe the interaction of one on the other. It stares boredom in the face. It has to penetrate boredom and nothingness.

* King, Ursula. Towards a New Mysticism: Teilhard De Chardin and Eastern Religions. Collins, London 1980.
** cf. Mcginn, Bernard . Presence of God: v1 The Foundations of Mysticism (The Presence of God: a History of Western Mysticism). SCM Press, London, 1992.

Questions of meaning continued

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

Thinking while shaving – what, if any, metaphysical significance is there in pouring water, wetting the shaving brush and lathering my face. Are these simply inconsequential events as meaningful, or meaningless, as the falling of a leaf, or the meanderings of an ant? Or do they have a resonance? And what about human actions? Is there any difference between a tree falling on a house and killing three children, a pilot mechanically pressing a button which drops a bomb from 30,000 feet on a house killing three children of whom he is not aware, and a man with a gun and malevolence in his heart who kills three children? How do the lives and deaths of these children resonate throughout the cosmos? Does the manner of their deaths have a significance and if so what and why? Are their deaths meaningful only for those directly affected by them or are there other factors of which we are not aware?

The big questions keep intruding. The news, the situation in Iraq, floods, kidnappings, murders, abuse, poverty, decrepit old age, my own impending mortality – either human life is an absurd and very sick, very unfair joke, or there is some meaning. But I cannot see any meaning, or imagine what such meaning might be. I cannot see what could justify some of the appalling and meaningless suffering we see and hear about. Nor looking back on my own life, or looking at the lives of others can I see what lasting value they have.

And perhaps that is the clue. In the visible and material sense there is no lasting value. Only the exceptional few have left their mark on history and continue to influence the minds of people today. Are these the only lives to have value? What about the billions of others, with their hopes, fears and aspirations, their strivings and loving – do they count for nothing? On the evidence available the answer must be yes. They are gone, gone, utterly gone, as though they had never existed. If the life of ordinary people has worth it is not measured by monuments or books, it is not something tangible, not something that can be demonstrated.

We all have moments of supreme significance when life is filled with meaning; when we touch and are touched by the lives of others – sometimes just a few others, sometimes thousands – but in the long perspective these moments are as ephemeral as wisps of mist, concealing rather than revealing reality. And it is in these misty shadows that we are comfortable and would, if we could, remain. But that is not possible. Eventually we all face the reality of mortality, an irrevocable closure that calls into question all that we have lived for. What is the point of anything if it is only temporary?

Love rejects this cold logic. Although the prospect of looming death and suffering sadden and depress, our love for others (and ourselves), our love for the astoundingly beautiful world we live in, our love for God, whose translucent presence we have felt from time to time, this love cannot accept that life itself, any life, all life, is meaningless and has no value. Or that the closure of any one life is the end of life, or meaning. To love is a blind acceptance, a stubborn in-the-face-of-contrary-evidence acceptance. It is an acceptance based on hope and faith, and on the imperative to love itself, that our lives, all lives, life itself, transcends the here and now.

Questions of meaning

Friday, August 17th, 2007

The question of meaning does not arise much in ordinary daily life. The helter-skelter of daily existence, plus the pressure of relationships, do not leave much time for existential speculation. At the time these provide meaning enough. This is what life is about – relationships, job etc. What is difficult to understand are those people whose lives are not full of meaningful activity. It is as though they were being carried by a tide and then were washed up on a sandbank where there is nothing to do. There they wander aimlessly, occupying themselves with little tasks and excursions, or else they sit passively in front of the television. Boredom stalks them like an uneasy ghost. How can anyone be bored? How can anyone meander aimlessly, mind unused, dull, passive? Yet they do. On either side of the sandbank the tide of life surges and eddies – going where? That is the question. Is it going anywhere? Is there a stream of life, flowing, broadening, deepening, pouring itself into… what? A pleroma, a nirvana, the Kingdom of Heaven? And then what? Or, is there merely the tide, ebbing, flooding, surging, its waves whipped up by fractious winds, but going nowhere? That is what I want to know.

What we are doing when we are swimming in the tide, setting goals, striving for them, reaching them, going onward? Are these activities of as little, or as much, or more importance than the activities of animals in their pursuit of food, mating and reproduction? Are human activities, by virtue of being human, of a more profound existential significance and, if they are, what is it that makes them so? Are all human actions of equal worth? How do the total concentration of meditation, or making love, or abusing a child, or changing a nappy, or placing a part in a factory assembly line, or staring boredom in the face, how do all these compare in the eternal scheme of things? Are there actions which carry existential significance, good or bad, and what is it about these actions that makes them so. And are there actions which are of no significance? If so it is as though the people cast up on the sandbank were living in a vacuum.

Viktor Frankl describes the existential vacuum in this way – at the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal’s behaviour is imbedded and by which it is secured. Such security, like Paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices. In addition to this, however, man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behaviour are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism), or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism). There are various masks and guises under which the existential vacuum appears. Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by the will to power, including the will to money. In other cases it is taken by the will to pleasure and a search for hedonistic compensation.

What matters is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. It is like asking a chess master, ‘What is the best move in chess?’ There is no such thing as the best move outside the context of a particular game with a particular opponent. Similarly in life. Each person’s existential situation is unique. As each situation presents a challenge, a problem to be solved, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. One should ask not what is the meaning of life but rather recognise that that it is s/he who is being asked. Each person is questioned by life itself and can only answer in the context of his/her own life.

Body and mind

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007

I keep thinking about the relationship of body and mind. It struck me the other day that it is no coincidence that the Noble Eightfold Path has six prescriptions which concern the body and only two, the last two concern the mind. Formerly, when I read it, or about it, I tended to take the first six for granted. Of course this is the right way to behave. How like the Sermon on the Mount, and so on. The interesting ones, though, are the last two, and especially the last one – right concentration. This is the one that gets you to enlightenment. But now I am beginning to realise that they are all important. There has to be a unity of body and mind and the first six are the foundation on which the final two depend. It struck me too that they go very deep.

Thinking further it occurred that Paul’s experience, described in Romans 7 when he found that his body and his will were not under his control and he did the things he did not want to do, is an example of this. It is no good trying to achieve right mindfulness if the body and the senses are dictating the agenda. But how to achieve control over them? With Paul it was a conversion experience, or perhaps more than one, and even then it was never complete and he complained about a thorn in the flesh he could not eradicate.

I think it has to be the first seven steps of the Path all working together. The thing about meditation, or mindfulness, is that it is not really effective unless it pervades the whole day and all its activities. Unless it does this it remains a struggle with the body, with distractions, feelings and moods. When it does begin to permeate the day, mindfulness is there catching these moods and feelings as they begin to arise and is able to put them into context before they become full-blown and powerful. Why struggle with an emotion or feeling in the full flood of its surge? You will either lose and later feel guilty and base, or you will have an exhausting emotional struggle and in the end feel empty and unsatisfied because you desperately wanted to do something but were not able to. It inevitably leaves behind an itch yearning for satisfaction and, sooner or later, it will be satisfied. There will come a moment of weakness and you will succumb. This is what Paul experienced and what we all experience. Even after Paul’s conversion experience, long after he could say, ‘I live now not I but Christ lives in me’, he had to struggle with ‘the thorn in the flesh’. Mindfulness allows us to be aware of thoughts and feelings as they arise and before they grip the attention.


Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

I think one of the problems with meditation is that external stimulation is at a minimum. What stimulation there is soon becomes habituated and ceases to register. For the mind then imagination, fantasies and daydreams can have a more, and a richer, reality than concentration on breathing or mantra. And so it becomes a continual struggle constantly bringing the mind back to attention.

A vague idea is running through my mind. One of the drawbacks, this is very tentative, of the Christian tradition with its anthropomorphic focus is that objects of devotion are often mental constructs, fantasies. Mystics, and those who have a religious experience, glimpse something of the reality behind these constructs. Others who have done some theology may be aware of the gap between the credal formula, the object of worship, and the transcendent reality. But for most the religious life is something that involves the whole person and especially the emotions and, while these intellectual considerations may be acknowledged, it is the emotive life which really matters and which gives flavour to living. To base this emotive life on mental constructs and fantasies seems to me to be laying up trouble for oneself. I am sure that much of the accedie contemplatives suffered from in the past, and perhaps John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, are due to this weaning away from a fantasy life.

In this respect Buddhism has much in its favour. The problem though is that we all need an emotive life, preferably one that is rich and satisfying. Can one find it in the austerity of a contemplative life? Perhaps yes. Perhaps it frees from fantasies, both those of the mind alone and those we project onto others, so that we can relate to others with greater inner freedom and with less clinging and grasping to a wishful desire that they be what we want them to be. We can acknowledge the other in all his/her uniqueness.


Monday, August 13th, 2007

The more I think about it the more I come to realise the importance of LeDoux’s theory of the emotions being hardwired into the amygdala.* We are led by our feelings. Normally we respond to the tasks that have to be done – job, looking after children etc. In my case, with the whole day in front of me, I have to set myself tasks. I write in the morning and, in theory, walk, or garden and do reading and research in the afternoon and evenings. Whether I do any or all of these depends on my mood. And so I often arrive, as this morning, with a feeling of having wasted the last few days and accomplished nothing. This tends to lead to a feeling of depression – that my life is non-eventful and nothing is being achieved, that my life now has no meaning, that I am wasting my time etc., etc.; a general feeling of uselessness and purposelessness.

All this went through my mind this morning during meditation. I had just been reading Kadowaki on karma and sunyata (emptiness). One reads ideas but one is very slow to see how these ideas might exist in the reality of one’s own life. I think I am still too much of an idealist, in the Platonic, or Hegelian sense – that power does reside in the conscious mind, if only one can learn how to access it. I now realise that a) the conscious mind has no control over the emotions and b) that emotions and feelings shape the what, the how and the meaning we attach to living. All the conscious mind can do is to choose to ignore or to go along with the push and pull of the emotions. I see I am being very Platonic here in assuming a tripartite structure in the mind. I am not sure how independent the will is of he emotions.

Previously I had gone along with Freud and Jung and accepted that the unconscious is the repository of unwanted, or too-uncomfortable-to-bear emotions and memories. I thought that all one had to do was allow these to be aired, look at them objectively in the light of day, and their power to hurt, or to control would be dissipated. I think this may be true for memories. I know that in meditation allowing forgotten memories to come to the surface and dissipate robs them of their power to hurt. I had thought that this then gave control over that particular feeling, be it anger, or hate, or lust, or whatever. I now see that is not the case. Memories can be healed but the feelings are still there, autonomous and powerful. Given the appropriate stimulus they will be triggered with all their power. If one doesn’t want the feelings then one has to avoid the stimuli – what in traditional spirituality used to be called the occasions of sin. This has all sorts of drawbacks. I remember an old monk telling me that whenever he went out he had either to wear his habit or a dog-collar. He didn’t trust himself not to do something sinful otherwise. So avoiding the occasions of sin may help avoid sin but it does not help one to grow, to become integrated and whole.

I am beginning to understand what Zen calls the Great Death. In meditation one is face to face with naked feelings. Because there is no escape into day-dreaming, or ratiocination, the impact of feelings can be very powerful and often make the continuing of meditation impossible, or seem to be impossible. Not to go along with their impulse, simply to sit, focused on awareness of the body and all that it is feeling, is like dying. One is detached from the body in the sense that one is not responding to instinctive impulses, and yet totally attached in the sense that the body is the focus of awareness. Then, in this attached detachment, aware of bodily and mental limits as limits, the possibility of a beyond all limits arises.


Original sin

Saturday, August 11th, 2007

Reading Kadowaki: Zen and the Bible* on the similarity between Zen and Christianity. He compares the Buddhist ‘elusive passion’ (klesa) with the effects of original sin. As an aside he says that original sin cannot be known from experience. It is a datum of revelation. He goes on to say that man went against what he was originally meant to be. All this I find surprising and hard to accept now, though once I took it all uncritically. Many questions come to mind. How can one know what was ‘originally meant to be’? Even if one accepts the original paradisical situation of man as a revelation of what God intended can one go on to say that its passive, non-self-conscious existence was God’s final intention for man? Surely the state of ‘original sin’ is no more than the alienation which must inevitably result from individual self-consciousness. Again we come back to the question of what it means to be a human person.

*Kadowaki, J. K., Zen and the Bible: A Priest’s Experience, Routledge, London 1980


Friday, August 10th, 2007

Reading William Johnston on the Dark Nights* – it is interesting how much John of the Cross has to say about sexuality. I would like to read more on the psychology and the philosophy of sex, not Freudian stuff, but something more balanced. There is no doubt that it is something that goes right to the very depths of the psyche. It is more, far more, than a mere biological function. It has to do with identity but it also has to do with how we relate. Identity, in that we are all sexual persons and our sexuality determines the mode in which we relate to others and to life itself. Pornography and rape are symptoms of a sense of isolation such that only through fantasy or violence can the person concerned try to achieve a feeling of union or completeness but, because of the nature of violence and fantasy, this is forever frustrated. Philanderers, I suppose, are people who find mere sexuality unsatisfactory and are either trying to make up for lack of content through sheer volume, or are seeking the ultimate union.

Whatever, our sexuality both opens up our yawning incompleteness and points a way towards fulfilment. We are, however, such complex beings that achieving the balance of body, mind and spirit is very difficult. Any overemphasis in a single dimension can lead to disastrous consequences. It is interesting that William Johnston, following John of the Cross holds that sexuality has a spiritual dimension and in mystical experience this is transformed. This is quite counter to the traditional Western and Eastern Orthodox traditions which rigorously exclude any form of sexual expression, going so far on Mt. Athos, for example, as to forbid even female animals. Is it the case that so powerful are sexual feelings that it is felt the only way they can be controlled is to exclude them totally? Not healthy. In the East there has always been a tradition which focused on the spiritual dimension in sexuality – Kundalini in Hinduism and Tantric Yoga in Buddhism. I think the West has always looked slightly askance at these as though people were trying to have their cake and eat it too. On the other hand celibacy and contemplation do go together remarkably well and in all traditions a celibate religious life has an honoured place. Perhaps the Indian tradition has the right balance with its four ages. In the first two sexuality finds its full physical and emotional expression in love, marriage and bringing up a family. In later life, when the children have become independent, the person turns towards contemplation, withdrawing more and more from involvement with others. In any case it is a topic that needs exploring and certainly forms a major part of what it means to be human.

*William Johnston, Mystical Theology: The Science of Love, Harper Collins, London 1995


Thursday, August 9th, 2007

Following on from yesterday it struck me this morning that praying for the poor, the suffering, the ills of the world is, although undoubtedly well intentioned, a cop-out. It is counterproductive. Do we really believe that God is going to do something? Many believe in the occasional miracle, and Lourdes and similar places have their devotees, but no one really believes that as a result of our prayers the wicked will be put down and the poor exalted; that the world will be changed. This kind of prayer is a cop-out. It is a sop to our conscience. It lets us off the hook of practical activity. There is nothing I can do about Iraq, or Darfur, or Palestine, or unemployment, or the thousands of injustices meted by the rich and powerful on the poor and disadvantaged, but God is all-powerful and, in theory at least, he could, if he was so disposed, alleviate the situation. My prayers might help in this regard so I’ll say a few prayers. This sort of logic might make me feel a little better but it will do nothing for the suffering and, if I think it through, it is not logic but wishful thinking.

Just imagine if we all believed that our prayers will do nothing to alleviate the ills of the world. Imagine too that we have not become anaesthetised to the sufferings we see daily on our TV screens, that we burned with anger and indignation at the lies, corruption and hypocrisy ever more evident in public life, that we wept for our children searching for a way in an anarchic and materialist world. We would do something.

I think there are two kinds of prayer. There is the prayer that is contemplative, the gradual and progressive unfolding into Reality, the realisation of the True Self and there is the prayer of petition. This latter can widen, I think, the gulf between the individual and God. It can diminish the individual and exalt the Deity, enfeeble and inhibit activity. The prayer that is the deepening awareness of the indwelling Spirit empowers.


Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

Meditation is a struggle to concentrate. There are so many things which come pressing in on the mind, worries, anxieties. Like little terriers, they will not let go but come back again and again to worry and gnaw. In prayer one can pour out all these worries and anxieties, pains and hurts in a wordless flow to God, to Christ. Off-load it all. Here you are. This is too much for me. You take care of it. This can be very satisfying and therapeutic. But meditation is not like this. There is no off-loading, no passing on to another. In meditation you are intensely aware of all the hurts and worries and you just have to let them go. There is no philosophising, no rationalising. These can help to make sense of life but they do not change anything. In meditation there is simply you, sitting, experiencing. I am beginning to understand what tanha means. It is not just wanting or craving. It is being tied in to, hooked to something which, however much you may want to, you cannot let go. It becomes a real effort to detach, to focus, to try to let them go.

The question arises – to what point? What for? Is not this, the ‘real’ me, inextricably part of my relationships? What other me can there be to find? One has to leave the ‘real’, the day-to-day me behind in search of … what? This is the scary part. In the moments of concentration and calm there is nothing, just the raw experience of sitting, breathing. Where does this raw experience lead?

I came across this in Dumoulin’s Zen Buddhism in the 20th Century.

The individual shell in which my personality is so solidly encased explodes at the moment of satori. Not, necessarily, that I get unified with a being greater than myself or absorbed in it, but that my individuality, which I found rigidly held together and definitely kept separate from other individual existences, becomes loosened somehow from its tightening grip and melts away into something indescribable, something which is of a quite different order from what I am accustomed to. (D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism: Second Series p. 36)

This is an echo of William James – “the further limits of our being plunge into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely ‘understandable’ world.” (Varieties of Religious Experience p. 506)