Friday, July 14, 2006

Setting Your Compass on the Face of the Deep

Everything is a mystery of the face to face and the within. OM Abba! --Father Henri Lasaux/Swami Abhishiktananda

(What follows is a reworking of something I wrote in the past in light of what we have been discussing about child-rearing and human development. I'm probably going to begin doing this more often, that is, going through old posts, separating the eternal from the ephemeral, and seeing what I have. As you know, I dash these things off first thing in the morning. Being that the key to good writing is good editing, many of my posts really shouldn't have seen the light of day to begin with. But they generally do contain some seeds that are worthy of further attention and nurturing.)

Ever since the scientific revolution, we have tended to divide the world into a public sphere of objective, measurable reality and a private sphere of ephemeral, subjective perceptions. In this view, the external world is considered the fundamental reality, while consciousness is reduced to an epiphenomenon, so that all our perceptions of the world--its colors, sounds, and textures--are meaningless, revealing nothing intrinsic to the cosmos. All subjective qualities are reduced to quantities--for example, our perception of the redness of an apple is reduced to a particular frequency of light, or music is reduced to vibrating air molecules striking against our ear drums.

As I wrote in One Cosmos Under God, "science begins with the one world we experience with our senses (where else could it begin?), but quickly saws off that familiar limb by 'excluding everything that can be imagined or conceived, except in abstract mathematical terms,' consequently relegating everything outside mathematical description--the very world it started with--to 'an ontological limbo.'" Only this second, abstract world is considered to disclose valid information about the universe, whereas all of our initial impressions of color, sound, texture, beauty, and meaning supposedly reveal nothing real about the universe, only about our own nervous systems.

But one of the fundamental teachings of any spiritual view is that the universe has a within that is accessible to humans. In other words, the universe is not simply an exterior, made up of discrete parts that are external to one another. Rather, by looking at the parts in a certain way, we may discover a wholeness in the world that in turn reveals its interior dimension--and therefore its meaning. Parts show us only the exterior of the cosmos, while wholeness shows us the great within (and vice versa).

The human face is the gateway to the primordial within. As infants, our whole world is oriented around the mother's face. Obviously, in looking at a face, we don't first attend to a nose here, an eye there, and a mouth there, and inductively leap to the conclusion that a face exists. Rather, without even knowing it, we attend to the face as a whole, and can instantaneously distinguish one face from another and one expression from another.

In attending to the mother's face, the baby knows that the mother has an interior, and through her changing expressions, only gradually begins to discover his own interior. Autistic children, for example, do not see whole "faces," but only a collection of parts, so that they are never ushered into the intersubjective Withinness of the cosmos. Instead, they are condemned to a bizarre and frightening existence of living death--immersed in a sea of things that move and have independent existence, but which reveal no meaning. Ironically, in the strict scientific view, one would have to say that people with autism are more in touch with reality than anyone else, since they truly live in the world of meaningless objects described by science.

You may have noticed that most trolls have this “autistic” quality. They generally think I delete them because they disagree with me, but more often than not, it is because they just don’t get the point of what I’m writing about. They think they get it--after all, why shouldn’t they? They only know what they know, but cannot know what they don’t know. It requires a level of cognitive and spiritual maturity to appreciate the “wholeness” of what I’m writing about. You certainly can’t look at a single post and try to tear it apart. Rather, it is a whole way of looking at the cosmos that attempts to take everything into its view. It is to look at the cosmos as a face--perhaps a visible face of the invisible God. I say “a” rather then “the” face, for the latter would amount to pantheism and cosmolatry. God has other faces aside from the cosmos, including scripture, the uncorrupted intellect (which is a mirror of God), the conscience, and certain other inexplicable “inclinations” within us. There are many ways to see the divine light.

Just as the face allows us to access the within of the person who animates it, the wholeness of the cosmos allows us to see within it. (One of the central points of my book is that modern physics reveals the cosmos to be an internally related whole, not just a collection of exterior parts.) Paradoxically, we can know the interior only by focusing on the exterior. Just as the face is the meaning of its features, the meaning of existence can be discovered by dwelling in its outward features.

I remember when my father died some 22 years ago. He had suffered an abdominal aneurysm and underwent emergency surgery. He made a somewhat miraculous recovery, but three months later it became infected and burst again. I had left the hospital and returned just after he had died. The nurse asked if I wanted to see him. I instinctively recoiled at the thought, thinking that it would scar me with unpleasant memories for life. But something made me go in anyway. In looking at his face, the immediate and powerful impression was that he was simply not there. It was only an outside. Something deep within me knew in an instant that his “within”--something with real ontological weight--had left and was elsewhere. Instead of scarring me, it comforted me.


Poets have always understood that by indwelling in nature we can intuit what dwells within nature--we are always swimming in a sea of clues that point beyond themselves to a hidden reality to which the clues point. By attending to things and events in a certain way, we allow them to "speak" to us, and this in turn informs us about their nature.

The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins coined the term "inscape" to refer to this more intense experience of observing things in such a way that their intrinsic qualities emerge. He believed, for example, that by allowing one's attention to be drawn to a bird in flight, a tree, or a landscape, we allow their character to act upon us through a union of the inner and outer worlds. Similarly, Goethe argued that we discover the true nature of things through a contemplative kind of looking he called "seeing with exactitude." By doing this, we can open ourselves to what the cosmos is telling us about itself.

This has obvious theological implications. For example, what is scripture but an exterior narrative that tells us of the within--the inner nature--of God? Likewise, what is the Trinity but a way to think about God’s within, his inner life? Just as it is a mistake to view nature as an object, one makes the same mistake in viewing scripture only as a historical narrative of external events. Rather, those events have a within which is their true teaching. As a matter of fact, this is probably the simplest definition of esotericism: inner religion.

It can also be argued that the figure of Jesus--or the avatar principle, if you want to broaden things out a bit--answers the deepest human longing to "see the face of God," and thereby know his within most intimately. Again, the whole point of the gospels, if you are a Christian, is that their external narrative reveals the interior of God. You cannot dismantle or deconstruct the gospel stories, for this would be like disassembling a human face to try to understand its expression. We see by a sort of interior light when we dwell in faith, for faith is actually a holistic foreknowledge of as yet undiscovered truths--knowledge of approaching discoveries on the interior plane of things. And the discoveries tend to be inexhaustible. There is no end to them, any more than there is an end or "edge" to our consciousness.

As the poet Novalis put it, "The seat of the soul is where the inner world and the outer world meet." If you are feeling boxed in by the materialistic paradigm of modernity, know that you may escape it any time through the many inscapes that surround us.


Of course, it is true that the semitic religions advise against idolatry. However, in my view, idolatry is the exact opposite of what I am talking about. For idolatry involves reducing the Absolute Subject of God to a a mere object in the relative world. An icon of the sort used in Orthodox Christianity is the opposite of an idol: it is a membrane through which the transcendent, unseen energies of the divine penetrate and cast their luster into this world. Truly, the icon is situated at the frontier between the immanent and transcendent God. In meditating upon it, it is another way to know God’s within. (At this moment I am listening to another piece by Arvo Part. It is giving me chills because it is the sound of God’s interior--perhaps even the sound of heaven.)

Those iconoclasts who do not countenance the countenance--Muslims, for example--are missing the point. It was long ago decided that the use of icons is not only appropriate but fundamental to Orthodox Christianity. According to Bishop Kallistos Ware, the seventh ecumenical council in 787 proclaimed that "since Christ became true man, it is legitimate to depict his face upon the holy icons; and, that since Christ is one person and not two, these icons do not just show us his humanity in separation from his divinity, but they show us the one person of the eternal Logos incarnate."

Among my darshan images is a traditional icon of Jesus hanging right above my desk. One of my friendly nonlocal operators, or what I like to call "I-amissaries" from across the father shore.

I wonder if Muslims do not see the face of God because they cannot see the face of God. Perhaps because children are treated so cruelly, they cannot conceive of the loving face of God. Perhaps the ancient Greeks as well. Although Plato could conceive of “the One,” it could never be “stained” or contaminated by any human qualities--perhaps to keep it safe from them.

But one thing we can say with certainty about God is that he is a person because he is at least a person--just as we can know that humans are animals because we are at least animals. But we are animals with something infinite and absolute thrown into the mix, just as God is human and much more. The “much more” is his awesome and mysterious within.

Interestingly, the anti-icon forces were probably influenced by contemporary Islamic and earlier Jewish ideas regarding the depiction of God. But icons are not worshipped. Rather, they are revered in the same way a Jew reveres the Torah, not as an "idol" but as a reflection of God. Easy for Jews to say, because they have always been more literate than the rest of humanity, so they looked for evidence of God’s within through scripture. One of the purposes of icons was to provide "opened books to remind us of God," especially for the toiling masses who lacked the leisure or literacy to crack a real book. This is one great advantage Christianity had over Judaism in spreading the idea of monotheism--the whole story could be presented to the pagan mind in the form of stained glass windows or a pop-up book.

Ever since he was a lad, a reader informs me that he had an affinity--an inexplicable attraction, in the sense we have been using the term--toward the being he understood to be Jesus. This mysterious attraction occurred whenever he consciously thought of Jesus. In my opinion, the attraction was probably mutual without him realizing it, but that's another matter.

The reader pointed out that there have been countless depictions of the "face" of Jesus, probably none actually being an exact or even a close likeness. Nevertheless, "at the risk of becoming an idolator," he imagined the face of Jesus in his mind's eye.

Now why, my dear bobbleheads, why should this little experiment have brought real tears to his eyes, along with a wholly unexpected flood of feeling and emotion? The feelings clearly weren't rehearsed or "affected." Feelings of being an "unworthy sinner," feelings of regret, a desire for reparation, a profound sense of gratitude, thankfulness at having an unseen mentor and invisible but often sadly ignored influence in his life.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that in Judaism, tears--especially this particular type of tears that we don't seem to have a word for--are considered a gift of God. For example, the narrators of the Zohar--the mystical text underlying kabbalah--weep whenever they grasp a profound spiritual truth. Or think of the "wailing wall."

These purifying tears signify many things. For example, they reveal the primordial wound through which vertical energies intrude into our enclosed little world of illusory self-sufficiency. The heart must be "wounded" in order to allow God's energies to flow, while penitential tears are a kind of transpersonal "blood." (What did Leonard Cohen sing? There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.)

Furthermore, it is said that the gift of tears is a form of transpersonal touch, specifically, of contact between image and likeness. Again, we are born in the image of God, but spiritual work involves the never-ending task of becoming the likeness. When image meets likeness--when we are "touched" from above--there is often a spontaneous production of tears. The flow of these vivifying tears is mysteriously associated with "life"--the higher Life, not mere biological life. A saint is always on the verge of tears. And no one is more alive.

For these tears ultimately represent a "crucifixion" of the heart, life emerging out of death, a mingling of sorrow and joy, burial and resurrection, a rose blooming on the cross of the heart. Jesus actually sweats real blood when face to face with God in Gethsemane. And what happened when his heart was pierced by the Roman centurian? Blood and water flow: exterior and interior life co-mingled.

The 'I' of the morning of Easter is of another order... The saving name of Christ is aham asmi, I AM. And the deep confession of faith is no longer the external 'Christ is Lord,' but so ham asmi, I am He. Like him at once born and not born. The Father in relation to the Son--to me--to all. The Son in relation to me--to all. Myself in relation to every conscious being; born in all, ceaselessly, and yet always face to face.” --Swami Abhishiktananda


Anonymous said...

Hi Bob,

I love your blog and I read it every day, but I must respectfully take exception to your take on the autism as an "existence of living death".

The oldest of my two sons is autistic, and when he was first diagnosed three years ago I didn't know just how autistic he was. I didn't know if he would grow out of it (which a few autistic children miraculously do) or he would be institutionalized all his life.

I prayed to God to heal his mind and I attacked the situation head on as a parent. My wife and I went through about two years of daily screaming violent hell with a child who had no boundaries or empathy, and almost no ability to verbally communicate. (He would actually talk a lot, but he would just repeat exactly what we said without comprehending what was said.)

But we stood our ground and consistently disciplined him and tried to teach him, and we got a language specialist and a special baby-sitter who had a heart for special needs children.

Amazingly, about a year ago, his mind just bloomed and he became able to carry on a conversation. It took him a year longer then most kids to begin asking "why" questions, but now he can't stop. He wants to know everything there is to know, even though he can't synthesize knowldege quite as well as a neurotypical kid. He also shows empathy at some level, and has learned to say "I'm sorry".

Anyway, he's well on his way to living an independent and productive life, though he's going to have a different learning style and a few personality quirks that his friends and future spouse will just have to adapt to.

But I don't know where he'd be if, when he was first diagnosed, I actually belived that he was "condemned". That sounds so final, but in fact there is a lot that can be done for a child between the ages of two and five -- that critical window of time -- to help them compensate and "work around" their autism. The children who are genuinely "condemned" are the children of the parents who go into denial and don't attack the problem head on and try to change things.


Jake C said...

In other words, there was a sudden shock of understanding. Eric's son suddenly saw faces, heard words, felt emotions, without having to wonder what they were.

If there is hope for him, then perhaps there is help for the spiritually autistic as well - those who see an icon, hear the Word, or feel the presence of God, but cannot understand what they have experienced.

For some reason, I remember a story from the biography of Frank Zappa - his wife found him listening to some classical piece or other and crying. He said to her that, as a composer, he understood exactly how music played on his emotions - he heard the chord changes and the tricks of melody and rhythm - but despite all that insider knowledge about how music works, he couldn't stop it from affecting him.

Gagdad Bob said...


Yes, I'm not speaking of particular clinical cases like your son, but just the general state of autism. Nor am I talking about mild cases, such as Asperger's and the like. Really, I was just using it as a metaphor or pedagogic devic--not necessarily to be taken literally.

Gagdad Bob said...

By the way, I certainly didn't intend to insult autistic people by comparing them to our trolls, who not only lack social intelligence, but whose lives revolve around obsessive anger at me and my blog. They simply cannot stay away. Many autistic people are quite lovable. Not so our malignant hostrollities.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jake C,

Well, perhaps that "shock of understanding" did happen and maybe it was just that his mind continued to wire itelf up and suddenly was able to make connections that it couldn't before. Either way, I look at him as a sort of miracle child.

Interestingly, one of the "treatments" for autism, called Applied Behavioral Analysis, involves many hours a day of rote repetition designed to get the autistic brain to wire itself together just by doing things over and over. It's seems like a way to try and get this "shock of understanding" to occur by stimulating the brain over and over in a structured way from the outside in.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jake C. and Bob,

Perhaps the people we call "leftists" really are spiritually autistic.

Autistic children do seem to live in a world of objects that are always moving but reveal no meaning. However, that does not keep the autistic child from attaching meanings to the objects, sometime quite irrational meanings. Also, the autistic child can also be a merciless control freak and try to dictate every movement of the objects, particularly the people objects.

One way to adapt to a world without meaning is to fabricate your own meaning and then brutally impose it on the world around you.

Sounds like leftists to me.

Dan Spomer said...

Thanks, Bob.

Mark L. said...

Bob, today your post helped trigger something in me... you might say it tripped a latch allowing the door to crack open and Light from the “inscape” came flooding in... or from within... and/or from without... from everywhere really. A most vertical experience...

I printed out your post at work so I could read it over lunchtime. After lunch I couldn’t get out of the restaurant fast enough. Not because the food was bad but because, as I say, your post triggered something...

I sat in my car and cried... no, I sobbed. I sobbed and bawled to the point of convulsing I was so overwhelmed with feeling the Presence. I know you know precisely the feeling of irrefutable clarity that comes at such times when Grace strikes. Perhaps thats a strange way of putting it; “Grace strikes”... it comes so gently, yet the ominpotence behind the gentleness is so disarming, but absolutely nothing is more revitalizing. I don’t know... I’m just saying the gentle loving touch of Grace sure packs an enormous whale of a punch. When the Almighty gives a hug a felluh can’t help but tear up.

Anyway, my steering wheel became my “wailing wall” this afternoon. That’s what happens I guess from reading your book and your posts every day for a couple of months. Stuff starts to sink in. And as its sinking in it’s bubbling up as well.

Thank you for not molly-coddling delicate sensibilities. Thanks for even being a jerk sometimes. (Ha! “Be a Jerk for Jesus!”)

You are doing good work, Bob. Thank you. Thank you and bless you.

Hoarhey said...


I wonder if Frank was crying because the music truly did affect him or because he couldn't control the way it affected him?
The first reaction could be a grace issue the second possibly a control issue.

Gagdad Bob said...

Thank you, Mark. I am both touched and humbled.

Every so often I do manage to get off a "clean kill," as Petey calls it.

Jake said...

Kill Your Illusions:
Embrace Vertical Reality

- to-be-printed bumper sticker

Mrs. G said...

Dear Mark,
I am not sure if you'll see this, but I had a similar experience once of being hit with Grace in that way. I know exactly what you mean.

I was meditating in a public place...the Self-Realization Center in So. Cal. I asked God why He never answered me all those times I asked Him to reveal Himself to me as a child. As clear as could be, I got the response. "Didn't I send you Mrs. Collins? And Bob?"

I started sobbing in the way you describe, which was very uncomfortable because I was in this small, but public little shrine.

I was very touched by your post, as was Bob. Thank you for letting him know about your reaction. He is a good vehicle for the Divine, in my experience. And thanks for pointing out the "being a jerk for Jesus" phenomenon. LOL That's very handy!

Leslie G

Michael A. said...


I think it was fear. Frank was hearing the Master's Voice, but he knew the mechanics of musical composition too well to believe that it really was Him. On an intellectual level, he couldn't accept that anything Divine could come out of a human mind or human hands. And on the spiritual level - well, he thought the idea of God was a load of s___ made up by control freaks who wanted to tell people what to do. Whatever was speaking to him in the music, it couldn't be God, because he KNEW that music was a wholly human production, and a non-existent "deity" couldn't possibly have anything to do with it.

I don't know if Bob can further analyze, but FZ seems to me to be a clear case of stunted vertical growth.

Mark L. said...

Dear Leslie,

I'm so glad I scrolled back to see if there were anymore comments on this thread... Now I wonder if you'll see this.

Thank you, Mrs. G, so much for your kind words!

Today during brunch with a friend I almost cut loose again with the tears. Fortunately he has received the "sacred sucker-punch" quite a few times himself.

Ah those "Ah Ha" moments... such a blessing.

Thanks so much again and bless the whole Godwin household!