Archive for January, 2008

Darkness

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

The feeling of being lost, of being adrift without oars and out of sight of land, persists. Meditation is, when it is not a struggle with distracting thoughts, simply being there – which raises the question of what it means to be. To be with people – fine; to be doing something constructive – fine; to be engaged on a project – all fine; but just to be, poised before – what? God? He is not an object of experience and I am wary now of making assumptions – even assumptions disguised as acts of faith. Poised before nothing. Eckhart would approve I think. But this ‘nothing’ has a way of leaching determination out of the will, of deflating courage and of knocking the props out from under endurance. Hence I feel deflated, dégonflé, crevé, épuisé. (Why are the French words more expressive than the English. Perhaps it is something to do with the lingering, falling last syllable.) There remains only hope that sometime the darkness will give way.

Self

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

Reading  Steven Collins’ book Selfless Persons* on the meaning of annata in Therevada Buddhism. Gradually the ideas are becoming clearer in my mind. There is no denial of the phenomenal or psychological self. What is denied is that this self is an enduring or eternal entity. What is not denied is that there are no eternal, or enduring entities – if entity is the right term. I suspect it isn’t. Our view of ourselves is much too static. The transitions from past to present and from present to future elide so that it seems there is one continuous ‘I’. Being a person is a process just as a wave is a process. The wave emerges from the calm waters under the influence of the wind. The wind transfers some of its energy to the water so that what was indeterminate and featureless takes on form and movement. The waves run until their energy is dissipated. Sometimes they augment each other, sometimes they cancel each other out. No one ever thinks of separating out a wave and regarding it as an independent individual. Waves cannot be separated from the process of which they are a part – the sea, the wind, the sea bed, the shore, the moon.

Similarly with being a person. To see a person primarily as an individual, abstracted from the process which makes him/her a person is to misunderstand. Is this what Buddha is getting at with anatta? Not that there is no individuality, nor that there is no self who is the thinker of thoughts and doer of deeds, but that there is no enduring self separate from and transcending experience. The problem though is that we are ‘self’ conscious. Self is the thought that thinks, the eye that sees, the hearer of sounds, the feeler of sensation. It is not usually ‘there is thought… there is vision, sensation etc.’ but ‘I think… I see… I feel’. It is almost as though ‘self’ and ‘consciousness’ were a conjoint pair and it was not possible to have one without the other. Through meditation, however, there comes the realisation that the self who experiences belongs to and is part of the experience. Each experience is composed of thoughts, sensations and emotions and the self, which is the subject of a particular experience, belongs to that experience alone and not to any other experience – though memory provides an illusion of continuity. Sometimes looking back we say, ‘I have changed.’ or ‘I was not myself then.’ or ‘I have grown up.’ This was Descartes’ mistake. He thought he was doubting everything, every idea, feeling, sensation. The one thing he could not doubt, because it was being experienced, was thought itself. He assumed that because there was thought he was thinking. Therefore he, Descartes, existed. An understandable assumption, but an assumption too far. If he had rigorously pursued his doubt, questioning even the fact of thought itself, he might have noticed how tight was the bond between the self and the thought and that as the kaleidoscope of thoughts passed before the attention thought, self and emotion formed an indissoluble trinity. Any change in the perception of one was accompanied by corresponding changes in the others. The self which thought was as fluid and mutable as the thoughts themselves. Strictly speaking Descartes’ conclusion should have been ‘Cogitatio, ergo esse.’ So we are left with a mystery, the mystery of being.

*CUP, Cambridge 1982 

Absence and presence

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

For the last few days I have been going around with almost a sense of astonishment that God is not visibly apparent. All my reading and thinking is on religious experience. What it is, and the how of it, tug at my thoughts throughout the day. In those moments when the hands are occupied and the mind is free, or when walking, the Jesus prayer starts to say itself and God is unseen, unfelt but nonetheless very real. But, why not apparent? That nags at me. Yesterday morning at meditation it struck me that I come to meditation with the attitude of wanting to get somewhere, to achieve peace, to have some sort of experience, but I get nowhere. And then it struck me – how arrogant, wanting to impose my wishes on reality, wanting my conception of how things should be to be, to prevail. Just stop and let reality be. Get out of your head and observe what really is and not dream of what you would have be. And then I think – no, that’s too passive. When I do that I find myself in that existential now where the only perception is that there is nothing more to perceive, where there are no directions and the horizon of existence is lost in darkness. It is not possible to stay there for very long before one is pulled back into the ephemeral world of thoughts and feelings and would be desires and the thousands of pragmatic necessities of daily life. I don’t want to stay in the ‘now’, I suddenly realise, because I am afraid of getting lost. Perhaps that is the key. ‘I’ needs to get lost. It is ‘I’ who stands in the way. 

I think, shall I take a vow to do this or that – to meditate twice a day, not to indulge myself? Although vows are the norm in the religious life I do not think they are the answer. I think consciousness of the necessity to keep the vows would become the central issue, especially when the temptation to break them was strong, and vows are not the issue. Again it is an imposition of my idea of what needs to be done on reality. I would be doing this or that in order to keep a vow and not because it was the right thing to do. The necessity of keeping the vow would loom large on the horizon of awareness obscuring much. I have an intuition that God is apparent but that we need to learn to be aware of him. The clues to his existence are everywhere but they are subtle and we do not notice them, prevented by our preconceptions. Awareness of God is not just for an ascetic elite achieved after rigourous training. Union with God is built in to what it means to be human. He is the ground of being and the culmination of the human process. 

Mount Sinai

Monday, January 28th, 2008

A dream last night that, on waking, left me with the thought that it was trying to tell me something. I was somewhere – it must have been Egypt, although there was nothing obviously Egyptian to be seen. Someone offered me a lift to Mount Sinai. It was apparently only an hour’s drive away. I thought – I’ve always wanted to go there. We walked towards it and came to the edge of a high cliff. Looking out across the desert we could see Sinai in the distance. There was a range of mountains with what I recognised as the characteristic shape of Sinai standing higher than the others. It looked surprisingly green. Thinking about it now I am not aware that Sinai has a characteristic shape but in the dream there was a moment of recognition when I saw it.

Then my companion started down the cliff, taking great leaps and slides. He reached the bottom and started walking towards the mountains. I called out for him to wait but he took no notice. I started to look for a way down but it was much too steep where the other man had gone – long precipitous slopes between the ledges. I did not feel agile enough to go leaping and sliding as he had done. I was afraid of getting hurt. I ranged along the cliff but everywhere else was higher or steeper. Then I woke. At first the dream did not seem too significant and then I began thinking about it. Why Mount Sinai? 

The desire to get to Mount Sinai, the site of the theophany to Moses, seems obvious. I am desperately seeking my own theophany and, in my low moments, seem to be getting nowhere. Others seem to be able to go there easily but the obstacles appear too daunting to me. I am afraid to let go and leap forward. The trouble is in the dream I could see the way clearly with all its difficulties. Awake, I can see neither the goal nor the way to it.

Without a why

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

I feel as though I am in a dream, as though nothing I am engaged in is really real. The worst part is, as in a dream, that I cannot get a grip on what is real. It is not just that God is absent and the yawning gulf of his absence is a felt emotion. God has become a meaningless word. There is nothing to be absent. There is no emotion. There is this fuzzy, hazy, cotton wool shrouded existence and nothing else.

After living for so long in a warm and comfortable cocoon of my own making I am now exposed to the elements, faced with uncertainty and nagged by anxiety – all on a homely domestic scale – nothing major or life threatening like that faced by billions of people down through history and in the world today. All the time a little question has been niggling away on the edges of my attention – Where does God fit into all this? 

The God I have been accustomed to dealing with has been, partly a mental construct (of memories, of experiences and speculative thoughts), partly a void beneath the surface of reality (with all the terrifying attraction of the plunging fall of a high cliff beneath ones feet), but most of all, the focus of a deep and persistent yearning. He seems to have no place in this mundane world of practical things, of tasks and shopping, work and leisure. He does not enter into our plans, is not a factor in the negotiations and decisions of our daily lives. Moments of prayer, meditation and worship are, more often than not, a hiatus in the daily course of events, a suspension of important and necessary activities. We have become completely secularised and there is no longer a link between the secular and the sacred. There is no longer a sacred.

And yet beneath all this, soft, half felt, an undercurrent runs, of yearning and desire – an impulse to love, to be and be with –  all without a who and without a why.

The problematic nature of the self

Friday, January 25th, 2008

 

Reading McIntosh’s Mystical Theology* – it covers precisely the ground I have been thinking about lately. On the problematic nature of the self there is no doubt that Kerr** is correct. We are constituted by our human interactions – but what else goes into the mix? Is it entirely a case of co-dependent origination? Surely this is the efficient cause. What are the material and final causes? The final cause is where transcendence fits in. The origin of self lies in human interrelationships. Where those relationships are positive, co-operative and loving they are productive. Where they are negative, exploitative and selfish they are destructive. The primary dynamic is not physical, or biological but love, or some similar élan vital towards co-operation and creation. But the question still remains. Individual selves emerge from the matrix oriented through self-transcendence towards Ultimate Reality – we do not know the what and the why of this process. We do not know the relationship between the self and ultimate Reality, or indeed whether the term relationship can properly be applied. Indeed, so fundamental is co-dependent origination and the creative role of human interaction that it may be the case that this preoccupation with the individual self is an aberration. What is important is God. We need to get away from the preoccupation with inner states which keeps us locked in the prison of the existential self. But this is difficult because they are what we experience. God, by definition, cannot be part of our experience. Our experience determines the way of our living, usually. We are reactive because we do not understand what we are, or where we are going, or rather, we understand ourselves only in terms of the history of our personal experience. The transcendence of this empirical self is at worst a theory, at best a belief based on a few transitory glimpses. In the end reasoning fails and we are left before the MYSTERY – a luminous darkness, tremendum et fascinans, as Otto puts it.

[* McIntosh Mark A.; Mystical Theology, Blackwell, Oxford 1998]

[**“What constitutes us as human beings is the regular and patterned reactions that we have to one another.” Fergus Kerr;  Theology after Wittgenstein, Blackwell, Oxford 1986 quoted in McIntosh p. 21]

Void

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

I find myself increasingly at an impasse faced with the imponderable mystery of what it means to be human, to be me. The more I read and the more I think, the more I find myself standing at the edge of an impossibly high cliff, so high that no ground can be seen below – depths receding into depths of impenetrable darkness. What has led me to the edge of this abyss and why am I here? Why can life not be a comfortable round of gentle pleasure and easy satisfaction? Why am I thrust out of the sheltered valleys of companionable society onto this solitary peak? It seems I have been climbing, searching for an answer, only to find myself faced with a great void. There is nowhere further to go, not even a glimpse of another peak beyond – nothing. Nor is there any going back. The imperative to search, to go forward is as great as ever. In any case to go back would be to give the lie to the mystery within, the dream that is not a dream, the urge to be. And so I stand looking into the nothingness. Perhaps I should throw myself off and into the darkness. But I don’t know how to do that. I cannot leave the solid ground beneath my feet. I am weighed down by my heaviness, unable to launch myself forward, unable to go back. And so I stand, looking out into the void, trying to block out the siren calls and the mocking jeers from the comfortable valleys behind.

Experience

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

One thing all religions are very bad at is answering the question why. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Of course they cannot. This is why we have generated mythologies, but while these might have satisfied a need in pre-scientific days they no longer do so. At one level they were superseded by theology – fides quaerens intellectum – and this seeking understanding is something that goes very deep. Today the purely intellectual pursuit of understanding is felt to be non-productive, perhaps, as someone said, because no sooner do you master one philosopher and stand breathless with admiration at the wonderful edifice he has constructed, than you come across another who demolishes him. Experience is what matters today and I suppose today’s theology needs to be experientia quaerens intellectum.

Ultimately our human experience is all we’ve got and this experience is riven with impossibilities and contradictions. There is in each of us a yearning, sometimes barely felt, sometimes of excruciating urgency, to transcend the limits and constraints of here and now, to consume and be consumed, to possess and be possessed, to love absolutely.  

Journey to the Inner Mountain

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

I have been reading Thomas Merton’s journal – my bedtime reading – the one written at the time of his affair with M. What I find really interesting is not what he has to say, but what he does not say. It is full of the events of his daily life – the books he is reading, what he is writing, life in the monastery, his comings and goings and mainly his relationship with M. Sometimes he talks about enjoying the peace and silence of his hermitage. But he does not talk about his prayer, nor about his relationship with God. OK, perhaps that is understandable at a time when he is having an intense relationship with a woman, a relationship with an important sexual dimension. For a celibate monk who had hardly spoken to a woman for years this must have been completely bouleversant. (Sometimes the French word is so much more appropriate.) How could such a thing happen to a monk/hermit after years of prayer, ascetical living and solitude? And happen so easily and quickly, with him rationalising it and seeking to justify it as loving God in and through her. The obvious thought is that for some time before this his prayer and his sense of his relationship with God must have been very stark and empty. He was finding little, or no emotional solace in it. (I haven’t read the previous journal to this so I don’t know. I guessing.) But this is to be expected and he, of all people, knew this. After the initial honeymoon period there comes the long journey into an increasingly arid and empty desert. This was his chosen way to God. He could have chosen love and family life, but that is a journey through a different landscape with its own difficulties. He chose the starkness and simplicity of abandoning everything in pursuit of the All. In fact, he did not abandon everything. He had quite a privileged position for a monk, a life of writing and research with access to pretty well anything he wanted to read and to a wide circle of people. Nor did he deny himself little trips out with friends and visits to restaurants and bars. All understandable and no doubt it kept him a rounded person. But it meant that instead of striking out into the desert he hovered on the fringes still a way to go to the inner mountain.

I think too that after a long time in what Belden Lane called the fierce landscape of the inner desert the expectation of arrival any time soon diminished. The journey was going to go on and on. Little consolations along the way, instead of being seen as distractions, or diversions, were welcomed and savoured. And this is where I think he got sidetracked. One has to give up all thoughts of arrival. The goal is not a goal. One has to give up all thoughts that one makes this journey in order to arrive at a terminus. There is no goal, no terminus. There is only the dark and empty desert. This is how Lane puts it –

In the practice of contemplation, one comes eventually to embrace an apophatic anthropology, letting go of everything one might have imagined as constituting the self – one’s thoughts, one’s desires, all one’s compulsive needs. Joined in the silence of prayer to a God beyond knowing, I no longer have to scramble to sustain a fragile ego, but discern instead the source and ground of my being in the fierce landscape of God alone. One’s self is ever a tenuous thing, discovered only in relinquishment. I recognise it finally as a vast, empty expanse opening out onto the incomparable desert of God. [Belden C. Lane, The Consolation of Fierce Landscapes, OUP, New York 1998 p. 11]

Dumb intuitions

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Thinking about what it means to be human is like weaving a vast tapestry. My mind is full of so many strands, a great skein of different ideas, and I cannot see how to weave them together. The key is the material/spiritual interface – the human mind. Many deny that there is a spiritual dimension. Reality is what can be detected and measured. Others are dualists and hold that the two dimensions are different orders of being. For them the problem is the interface – how is it possible for the two to interact? Others are monists and hold that the two dimensions are two aspects of the same order of being. For monists and dualists empirical investigation is confined to the material dimension. Perception of the spiritual is a purely subjective experience and not open to objective verification. Such is the grip that science has on our minds that, although subjective experience has been accepted as valid basis for belief for practically the whole of human history, only objective verification can carry the weight of certainty – it is said. This in spite of anomalies – religious experience, ESP, OBE, NDE, premonitions, etc. Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic resonance falls into the same category. Those who try to explain the mind purely in terms of brain activity do so out of context. It is like trying to explain the dramas that appear on the TV screen in terms of electronics alone. Both exist in a social context and owe their origin and function to this context. We need to take account of the reciprocal relationship between self and others which shapes and is shaped by the mind. Although this relationship may be mediated by photons, sound (words), physical contact, pheromones, etc., the relationship itself is not a physical entity open to empirical examination. 

Perhaps, the scientist might say, I am being too hypothetical, by adding an unnecessary, abstract (non-physical) complication. The physical links are the relationship, they might say. Any changes in the two poles of the relationship are due to this physical link between them. I remain unconvinced, partly for the reasons James spelled out in his critique of Rationalism

… if we look on man’s whole mental life as it exists, on the life of men that lies in them apart from their learning and science, and that they inwardly and privately follow, we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial.  It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words.  But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions.  If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits.  Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely KNOWS that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.  This inferiority of the rationalistic level in founding belief is just as manifest when rationalism argues for religion as when it argues against it. [James W.; The Varieties of Religious Experience, Longman, Green and Co., London, 1916  p. 73]