Probing the Now, the Center, the Simple, the Eternal (2.08.09)
When we say "lead a spiritual life," we are not talking about a conventionally religious life per se; nor do we wish to confuse it with any kind of new age excuse for narcissistic navel gazing, which never bears sound fruit -- or only bears fruitcakes like Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins. Rather, what we are really talking about is vertical transformation and the conditions that make this transformation possible. Those conditions are embodied in religion, but it is clearly possible to practice a religion and miss out on the transformative element.
This is one of the reasons I am attracted to ancient Christianity as opposed to so many of its modern and postmodern versions, such as fundamentalism. If you read the accounts of the original practitioners of the "Christian way" (as it was then called), it is obvious that they were drawn to its transformative aspect. In other words, it is hardly as if they merely heard a nice story about a man who rose from the dead, and said to themselves, "I like that. I think I'll become a Christian." Rather, there was something far more dramatic and experiential going on, and this is vividly reflected in the writings of the first 500 years of Christianity, right through Augustine -- who is hardly comparable to a dry and dusty academic theologian.
For example, in his Confessions, Augustine recounts several mystical experiences of direct contact with God. Of the most famous one, he writes of how "we did gradually pass through all corporeal things, and even the heaven itself, whence sun, and moon and stars shine upon the earth. Yes, we soared higher yet by inward musing, and discoursing, and admiring your works; and we came to our own minds, and went beyond them, that we might advance as high as that region of unfailing plenty.... There life is that Wisdom by whom all these things are made, both which have been, and which are to come..."
He concludes with an observation and a speculation: "If to any person the tumult of the flesh were silenced -- silenced the images of earth, waters, and air -- silenced, too, the poles of heaven; yes, the very soul be silenced to herself and go beyond herself by not thinking of herself -- silenced be dreams and imaginary revelations, every tongue, and every sign, and whatsoever exists by passing away," then "life might be eternally like that one moment of knowledge that we now sighed after..."
So while religion obviously involves "faith" and "belief," these are not intended to be merely static and saturated "containers." Rather, properly understood, they should be fungible into a different sort of experiential knowledge and should facilitate a real transformation. In other words, it seems that dogma is not the end of religious knowledge, but only the beginning. Truly, we believe in order that we may know.
In the past, I have discussed dogma in terms of Polanyi's analysis of scientific knowledge, which he compares to the cane of a blind person -- to a probe in the dark. If you can imagine being blind for a moment -- which, of course, you are -- think of how the cane would quickly become an extension of your hand. At some point, you wouldn't even be aware of the cane's impact on your hand. Rather, these raw sensations would be instantaneously transformed by the brain into a three-dimensional image of your spatial surroundings. At the same time, it would expand your world and allow you to move through it in such a way that you could further expand your world by degree.
Clearly, scientific knowledge works in this way. Consider, for example, the equations of subatomic physics or quantum cosmology. In the case of the former, this mathematical language allows us to extend our senses and "see" beyond the illusory, solid material world the senses give to us. Likewise, the latter allow us to "visualize" the temporal arc of the cosmos, extending back to a time long before human beings even existed -- in fact, to the very time that time supposedly came into existence.
But you will notice that we always convert this scientific knowledge -- again, think of the probe in the dark -- into a human vision. When we think of a "big bang," that's what we think of, even though, if you could somehow have been there at the moment of the big bang, you wouldn't see any banging, for the same reason you don't see it happening now. After all, the cosmos is still banging away at this moment -- i.e., it is expanding -- but we don't experience this through our senses. Rather, we only know it by using the scientific equations as a probe in the dark to extend our senses.
But the universe is not merely a form of our sensibility. In other words, no matter how far science extends its probe into the dark, it is still going to be a human hand grasping a slightly more elaborate cane. And, needless to say, the universe is what it is, regardless of -- or in addition to -- what we say or think it is.
To put it another way, science extends our senses forward, backward, and below, in so doing "widening" our conception of the cosmos, both spatially and temporally. But religion serves a different purpose. It too is a probe in the dark, but it specifically probes the inward and the upward. This is the great confusion of both scientific fundamentalists and religious literalists. The former imagine that the horizontal probes of science exhaust all that may be probed, whereas the latter imagine that religion is meant to probe the material world. Thus, for example, they attempt to use Genesis to probe the horizontal, just as scientists imagine that they can explain anything of a non-trivial nature about the vertical by relying solely upon their sensory probes.
This is something I actually understood when I began studying psychoanalysis. I began doing so at a time when psychoanalysis had fallen out of favor among strict scientific types, who regarded it more as a "mythology," even a sort of cult invented by Freud. What I realized is that the concepts of psychoanalysis are precisely analogous to probes we may use to explore consciousness, as we try to extend our knowledge from the well-lit area of the ego, across the subjective horizon into the darkness of the unconscious. There are a number of different psychoanalytic schools, and they each "work." Why is this? How can this be?
I believe it is because it is not so much the explicit theory that counts, so long as it may be used as a probe to explore the unconscious and to widen that part of consciousness that we have "colonized." The unconscious is just as dark and silent as the subatomic world is until we have developed a "language of achievement" with which to probe and illuminate it.
I don't want to get sidetracked into a discussion of psychoanalysis, but let us transfer the same general idea to religion. To try to understand psychoanalytic concepts as an objective description of the mind is to misunderstand them, precisely. Again, they are subjective probes we use to reach into the darkness of the unconscious mind. Likewise, there is no question in my mind that a religious system must be similarly understood as probe we may fruitfully use to reach into eternity, the vertical, the interior, the great within, heaven, whatever you wish to call it. Even if you don't consciously realize you are doing this, this is what you are doing when you "indwell" in religion. You are expanding your consciousness and thinking about things that are otherwise unthinkable in the absence of religion.
Indeed, this is why religion persists and will always persist, because human beings, alone among the animals, have a built in need to reconcile themselves to the vertical, on pain of no longer being human. I was thinking about this the other day, in considering the first humans who awakened to the vertical. In fact, in every sense, "awakening to the vertical" is synonymous with "becoming human." I am currently reading a book, Before the Dawn, that I will soon be reporting to you on. It goes into the latest research on human origins, and I wanted to use it to update or correct any outdated information in Chapter 3 of One Cosmos.
The author confirms one of my main points, that anatomically modern humans emerged by approximately 100,000 years ago, and yet, there was no evidence of what we call genuine "humanness" -- which coincides with the discovery of the interior world -- until it suddenly burst upon the scene some 50,000 years ago. Just as we have forgotten the experiential intensity of the early Christians, it's easy to dismiss the intensity of what it must have felt like for the earliest humans to awaken to the vertical.
Consider some of the famous cave art that emerged in Europe after our great awakening. What force prompted our furbears to do this? Consider the fact that some of these caves are accessible only by long tunnels that extend deep into the earth, and are hardly wider than a human body.
Someone -- again, compelled by what mysterious force? -- had to be the first to wriggle down that tunnel into unimaginable darkness, where he was eventually released into an underground cavern. His newly awakened soul then felt compelled to adorn the walls of this cavern temple with beautiful, fully realized works of art -- with mankind's first "masterpieces." Upon seeing the Altamira paintings, Picasso -- who was in a position to know -- famously remarked, "after Altamira, all is decadence." For this was art in its purest sense, in that it was obviously completely divorced from any commercial or egotistical motives. Rather, it was a purely spontaneous attempt to probe the interior reality to which humans had gained unique access, and to reconcile man to the vertical.
Now, where was I? Something about leading a spiritual life in the modern world. Now that we have more of an idea of what spirituality is intended to do, we are in a better position to come up with a way to organize our life around that endeavor -- to create conditions in which we may experientially "probe the vertical," so to speak.
Frithjof Schuon has said that "The chief difficulty of the spiritual life is to maintain a simple, qualitative, heavenly position in a complex, quantitative, earthly setting." When we chase after the exterior world and its phenomena, this has the effect of both externalizing and dispersing our consciousness, when the essence of a spiritual practice involves centration and interiorization -- as mentioned a couple of days ago, living "from the inside out."
In externalizing and dispersing our consciousness, science tends to get lost in time, in phenomena. But the vertical is only accessible in the present moment that is given to us. A kind of remembrance must take place in this present moment -- vertical remembrance, which is what prayer, meditation, and contemplation are all about. This is what Schuon calls the "liberating center," but it is only available to us through 1) centration, by whatever means necessary, and 2), ascent (of the awakened soul) and/or descent (of grace).
It follows that a simple life, free of needless distractions, is best. I see it very much as creating stable boundary conditions so that something higher may emerge from the lower -- just as we can only speak meaningfully by relying upon stable rules of grammar, or create music by relying upon fixed scales. This is why I mentioned yesterday that my outward life may not look like much -- trophy wife and accessory baby notwithstanding -- but is in fact a continuous interior adventure that would be impossible if my life were more complicated. The one would eclipse the other.
Well, that's all for now. I would be happy to field questions.
*Oh, and by the way, just to make it clear, so we don't confuse this with some sort of outright withdrawal from the world -- real charity should be a necessary consequence of living from the inside out and therefore sacralizing the horizontal, so to speak.