Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Brief History of the Enduring

A central concern of spirituality is the pursuit of the enduring amidst this world of change.  The flowers of the field last but a day, but the old oak has been there longer than anyone can remember.  (The word “endure” has the root drus, which is cognate with the Greek word for "tree" and the English words for "oak," "truth," and "trust.")  The ancient-seeming oak is itself but a flicker compared to the constellations of the sky.  A forest people may have found the oak to be the epitome of the enduring, but agricultural people found the constellations, with their rebirth of the ever changing season, as the epitome of the enduring.

In the West, we can pick up the great debate about what was enduring with the Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides.  Heraclitus noted that all is change, but there is a timeless order to change, a logos.  Parmenides argued that the real can never change, so all change is merely appearance.  The timeless reality was thus supersensible.  Democritus believed that what was really real and enduring was matter, and matter was composed of timeless tiny bits, atoms, and all change was the arrangement and rearrangement of atoms.  Pythagoras noted the timeless truth of mathematics.  Working with the mathematical notions of Pythagoras and the Parmenidian idea of the supersensible, Plato argued that there was a timeless world of forms or ideas, and the ephemeral world (the world of our senses) in which these ideas take on material form.  The Christian idea of an eternal heaven and degraded life on earth borrows much from Plato.

On the surface, it might seem that modern science is much closer to Democritus than Plato.  But in its notion of timeless “laws” science is following in the Platonic tradition.  Newton’s discoveries of the timeless laws of gravity were generally embraced by the European spiritual traditions.  But the scientific discovery of “geologic” time, which required a revised notion of time and endurance, has not sat as well with those traditions. 

While scientists like Einstein could take spiritual comfort in the timelessness of the fundamental laws of physics, in the 21st century even this notion is under attack.  In theories like Lee Smolin’s cosmological evolution, even the laws of nature are not truly lasting.  Here, the only thing that can be considered truly timeless is some shadowy cosmological potential for being

Oriental spirituality has taken a different approach to the pursuit of the timeless.  Where the Occident looked outward, the Orient looked inward.  The originators of the yogic tradition of India (which has very little in common with what is practiced as yoga today) noted that a distinction could be made between the movements and turnings of the mind (citta vritti in Sanskrit) and that which was aware of these movements and turnings.  Where Western dualism split the world between matter and ideas, Oriental dualism split the world between consciousness and the contents of consciousness (Purusha and Prakriti in Sanskrit).  The yogic traditions provided the methods for decocting a purified consciousness from its muddying movements. The experience of purified consciousness is the epitome of the enduring in much of Eastern spirituality. 

As inheritors of a global culture, we now have access to both the Western and Eastern spiritual traditions; we can explore and compare the various understandings.  But as inheritors of a triumphant consumer culture, many may wonder why bother?  The ephemerata of the consumable world are so various, so interesting, that we may think that they are quite dependable.  Was it not their lack of trust in the ephemeral nature of pleasure that caused earlier people to seek something more enduring?  

Does our consumer culture offer a better product than the old spiritual traditions?  Or does it mostly offer cleverly packaged distractions that keep us from confronting the deeper issues of life?  Obviously, I believe the later to be the case, and feel ever blessed that I can occupy myself with the timeless ideas of Western philosophy and science as well as in the deep states of timeless rapture offered by the Eastern traditions. This is one of the alternatives available to us even though we can't find it for purchase at the local mall.