Yes begets no, good begets bad, left begets right – such is the symmetry of verbal things. Yet symmetry begets asymmetry. So to assert a truth is to invite its denial; to praise a value is to invite a scoffer. It hardly seems worthwhile to assert or deny at all. Yet silence begets noise. So when I wish for silence I often speak and when I speak I wish for silence. Thus, if I speak of big things, may I do so humbly and may my words reach toward a rarified clarity or an unresolvable ambiguity.
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
For a few centuries now there has been an accelerating pace of technological change, which has also led to an accelerating pace of social change. Some people call this change progress, and I would certainly not totally disagree with that assessment. But I would caution that the perception of progress is greatly distorted by a certain bias, a bias I am not sure has yet been clearly articulated.
In every change there is something gained and something lost. The distortion of technological change is that what is gained is gained rapidly and is relatively easy to quantify, while what is lost is lost slowly and is qualitative. The quantitative improvement makes a far greater impression on us than the qualitative loss.
As an example, in the late 19th century in America, houses often had large porches and during the hot summer hours people spent time on these porches. From the porches people could communicate with neighbors walking by on the sidewalk or with other neighbors sitting on their porches. These interactions enhanced a neighborhood’s social culture. When air conditioning came along, the early adopters could stay inside on the hottest days to escape the heat. But they probably also expected that the porch culture, and its enjoyments, would still be there if they wanted to go out and participate.
Air conditioning provided an immediate and quantitative relief from the unpleasantness of the heat. But over a period of many years, as more and more people installed air conditioning, the porch culture diminished greatly – and the enjoyments that had come with it also diminished. It may well be the case that the early adopters of air conditioning years later complained about the loss of the porch culture without even suspecting the role that air conditioning had played in it. The loss was slow and its causes not immediately clear.
One could refer to many such examples, but I will explore just one more – photos. In the early years of the 20th Century, when my parents were born, photos were relatively rare. I thus only have a few photos of them when they were young. But I value those photos and have examined them closely trying to derive every piece of information I can from the few available.
Photos are now ubiquitous. Many children will have thousands of photos taken and saved by the time they are adults. Again we have a rapid and quantitative gain – but the question is, will any of these photos be treasured? Indeed, will anyone even bother with them as they are so common? The rare is valued, but not the common. It is very possible that what seems now a great a treasure of photos, will end up largely ignored.
I speak to many young people today who are keenly aware of the wonderful new things their digital tools and toys provide. As a person who grew up in a world where we made our own entertainment from the outdoors, our friends, and a lot of imagination, I am keenly aware of how much young people have lost. The entertainment we made for ourselves was a wonderful old thing, and the new digital entertainments seem shallow and shoddy to me in comparison.
Okay, I've turned into a sentimental older person who is slowly becoming a Luddite. But the point here is to say “when evaluating progress, recognize that it generally takes a good deal more effort to account for what has been lost than what has been gained.” If you fail to make that effort, you very well may be blinded by progress.
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
“To speak of my anima and my soul expresses the personalistic fallacy. Although these archetypal experiences of the personal give salt and substance to my personal individuality, making me feel that there is indeed a soul, this “me-ness” is not mine. To take such experiences literally as mine puts the anima inside me and makes her mine. The more profoundly archetypal my experiences of soul, the more I recognize how they are beyond me, presented to me, a present, a gift, even while they feel my most personal possession. Under the dominion of anima our soulfulness makes us feel unique, special, meant – yet paradoxically this is when we are least individual and most collective. For such experiences derive from the archetype of the personal, making us feel both archetypal and personal at the same instant. “
From Revisioning Psychology
James Hillman is one of my favorite thinkers/writers. I often agree with him, often disagree. It is in the areas that I disagree that I enjoy him most. Wrestling with his thought when I disagree is almost always an educational experience, an occasion for a growth of understanding.
Hillman frequently criticizes spirituality. His reasons for this are very complex, well thought out, interesting. Ultimately, though, I think Hillman is in fact the most spiritual of psychologists – it’s just that his spirituality cuts much deeper than most of the tender-minded spirituality of our time. The above quote (where the emphasis are mine), is one example. It would be interesting to do a lengthy compare and contrast of this piece with something like Emerson’s The Oversoul, but here a few brief comments will have to do.
In the so-called “Perennial Wisdom”, it is a common place that the spiritual traditions from all over the world have in common a particular experience -- I will term it the experience of non-duality, though the different traditions characterize it under many terms and symbols. In brief, that experience is a direct experience of the contingency of individuality and the experience of the “otherness” that is the real foundation of our being. This is sometimes characterized as a unity with God, Nature, the Tao, etc. “Unity,” however, is understood to be a kind of poor approximate for this experience, which ultimately defies all words – “The Tao that can be spoken is not the real Tao.”
Hillman’s quote above (unintentionally I think) provides a somewhat novel formulation of the perennial wisdom. The “otherness” in this case is archetypal experiences of the soul. This otherness, paradoxically, is precisely that which gives "me" my experience of “me-ness”, yet this otherness is common to all – we all get our sense of individual “me-ness” from a collective source. The self, which to a large extent is created out of words, states “I have the experience of these archetypes,” but in fact it is the archetypes that give rise to the “I”.
It is this illusion of the “I” that the various forms of perennial wisdom seek to penetrate – “Thou Art That” is the formulation of The Upanishads, which are probably the earliest and most comprehensive source of the perennial wisdom.
One last note, “the anima” is symbolized as feminine; Hillman’s formulation can be seen as a return to the perennial wisdom as experienced under the aspect of the Goddess, rather than its common later formulation under some form of male personage. The whole body of Hillman’s writing, in some ways, is a great call for a return to the Goddess – not the sentimentalized Goddess of the New Age, but the all encompassing Goddess, represented by Kali and Hecate, that contains all the horror and ugliness of life, all the beauty and goodness, and finally represents a wisdom that comes of giving honor to all that is encompassed in living deeply.
Monday, December 30, 2013
Apparently some people are quite impressed with themselves when they make the momentous discovery that the God of the popular imagination is no more real than Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. Having made this discovery they declare themselves to be atheists. That the notion of God in the popular imagination and the institutionalized churches is not the final word about God seems never to occur to them.
At the level of thought, the reasoning of the atheists, and the support for that reasoning provided by modern science, certainly trumps the feeble attempts to refute that reasoning provided by believers. That there are ways of knowing outside of such reasoning, however, seems not to be considered.
In the popular imagination, God has a form. In the institutionalized churches, people who declare themselves ministers of this well-formed God, tell us about his will and suggest that we can influence this will with work and prayers. They even suggest that God has emotions, that God loves us. A form requires a limitation in space and time; words require a constraint on possibility, emotions are transient – I will leave what that infers to the reader.
In the realm of art, it is generally understood that average works are not worth much. It is only the most exceptional works of art that have lasting value. I would ask the atheist to consider the possibility that spirituality may be much the same. If you wish to deny God, is it not “reasonable” to seek out the rarest, must exceptional concepts of God, before coming to a conclusion? There is a problem here though: it takes a rather exceptional viewer to penetrate a great work of art; likewise, it takes a rather exceptional cognitive ability to penetrate a great spiritual teaching. Cultivating that cognitive ability may take a life time.
Reasoning is a great and very useful item in our box of cognitive tools, but it is not a particularly good tool for penetrating great art and even less so for penetrating great spiritual teachings. “Restrain the turnings of the mind” – this, Pantanjali declares to be the goal of yoga; it is also, I would suggest, a necessary part of any kind of spiritual approach. To penetrate a spiritual teaching requires a focused, quieted mind and the act of penetrating such a teaching results in an even more focused, quieter mind. Spiritual works speak to an intuition in the heart of silence. This intuition is one of the ways of knowing outside of reasoning that I spoke of above.
And what of God? There is a Zen koan that tells of a master who holds his staff out and says: “If you call this a staff, you affirm it; if not, you negate it. Beyond affirmation and negation, what would you call it.” This is the problem with words. Every verbal affirmation engenders a possible negation – in that great round that the Buddhists call Samsara, such affirmations and negations chase around like cats and dogs. To leave Samsara, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven within you, you must find that which is beyond affirmation and negation.
A medieval monk called God “a cloud of unknowing.” In one way or another, the exceptional teachings all declare the wisdom of “knowing that you do not know.” They speak of the Mystery that resides at the source of being, and yet of the certainty that presents Itself in the heart of humblest silence – that Thou Art That. A presence within the humblest silence is not much of an argument to pose against the reams of erudition and evidence put forth by the verbose scribes of atheism – but it has convinced me utterly. That is why I am not an atheist.
Friday, December 6, 2013
Nature has indifferently brought us forth, sure enough. It has also provided us, like all other extant living things, the tools to survive and prosper. We have done pretty well for ourselves, it seems; why would we expect more?
Cheetah’s are uniquely fast and humans are uniquely articulate – Nature indifferently gave to the one its speed and to the other its power of thought, even though Nature is indifferent to uniqueness.
We are not indifferent, however. We care. That we can care about Nature does not require that Nature cares about us. But that we can care -- about other people, other creatures, Nature – well, from whence did humans derive this talent if not from the processes of Nature?
Hidden in the so-call “big bang”; hidden, perhaps, in the darkness prior to the big bang, lay the potential to bring forth beings that cared, beings that were not indifferent. We are fruit of that potential. This ever present and currently actualized potential – is it not a most curious fact about Nature?
One can imagine (for Nature has also endowed us with an abundance of imagination) that Nature wanted to see, so it evolved into creatures with eyes; it wanted to care, so it brought forth creatures with sensibility and sensitivity; it even wanted to be able to explore itself, so it brought forth creatures with brains big enough to build precise telescopes to search the depths of its endless space.
Perhaps we satisfy some deep itch lodged in that originating potential of which we are the fruit when we study and contemplate the great questions of cosmology. There is no way of knowing; but such imaginings can, I think, remind us that we are without exception part of Nature’s great process -- and perhaps allow us to feel how wonderful it is to be able to care about Nature’s abundant indifference.
Monday, November 25, 2013
A Prayer for Thanksgiving Day
Lord, let me more than a consumer be
on this commercial-ridden holiday.
Let your Light shine within me
and satisfy me and satiate me,
that there be no lingering hunger
even after I have eaten my fill.
Let my football-addled t.v. go dim
that I do not waste this day
or any other day
watching silly sports or any silly thing
on these shallow, soulless screens.
Lord, let your Light shine through this day
and through the darkness of Black Friday
and through the darkening days till Christmas
that I may crave no more than I already own,
even if all I own is this windy prayer
to your unsubstantiated presence,
of which I am substantially thankful.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
We are waves on the ocean -- so goes an old metaphor. Ephemeral, yes! But is there any more to the metaphor?
A wave is a movement of water. Less than the water, perhaps -- the water was there before the wave rose and is still there after it subsides. More than an abstract imagining, though -- like sound and light waves, the waves on the water can be represented through mathematical abstraction, but you can’t surf on a mathematical wave. Not quite matter, not quite an abstraction, a wave is a form, a shape the matter takes for a brief time. The water makes a wave sensible, but the wave is something other than the water, something not quite sensible.
We are like waves. We are a form that matter takes for a brief time. We are not the matter – the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and various minerals that comprise a body. The ashes of a cremated person have no more resemblance to that person than has any other soil of the earth. Nor are we but an abstraction, a sign pointing toward something else. Like the wave of the ocean, matter makes us sensible, but what we really are is not quite sensible. Upon death, the material corpse, like the water that comprises a wave, remains; but we are gone, as the wave is gone when it crashes upon the shore.
Perpetually the waves arise and travel toward the shore; perpetually life arises and travels towards death. In essence each wave, each life, the same; in particulars each different.
Old Plato might have said that each wave is a brief, not quite real, appearance of the Great Wave, the eternal archetypical wave -- and each person, a brief but not quite real appearance of the Great Person, the eternal, archetypical person. Is there any truth to what Plato says? Who knows, though it seems worthy of a moment's contemplation on our journey towards the shore.
For we are the form that can contemplate forms. We are the form that can sit by the ocean and imagine our self a wave. And we are the form that can surf – that can catch the wave and a give it a ride, balanced and attentive; like one metaphor riding another.