I took this photo with a disposable camera – after accidentally frying the digital one I'd brought on the first day of the trip – and it's one of my all-time favorite shots. It's a reminder to me that holiness and human imperfection are inseparably tangled up together.
"When we get caught up in the minutiae, the details that make us all different, there's two ways of seeing that. You can see the texture of that person, the qualities that make them unique. Or you can go to war about it – say, That person is different from me, I don't like you, so let's battle."
~ Mahershala Ali
"I've come to believe that part of being who I am is being uncomfortable."
~ Claire Hoffman
The dilemmas related to attentional fitness are similar to the more familiar dilemmas that make physical fitness easier to discuss than to turn into habits. A mindfulness teacher has to sell you on the possible outcomes, but also has to steer you back again and again to the slippery path that leads to them.
"Wisdom does not loom large in the modern psyche. It has been replaced by knowledge, which does not pretend to emotive value; in its least appealing forms, it even eschews such associations. It is strictly about things and the manipulation of them; and, unsurprisingly, it’s directed outwardly, towards the technologies of life and not their meanings. So we have many people who, externally speaking, are able but not wise; active but not prudent.
And perhaps this defines our society and our age as much as any other set of words: activity without prudence, or, imprudent doing.
To have prudence is to have foresight, to attend to. But attention is born from within, not from outward circumstances; and in the great esoteric traditions, as well as the traditional religions, attention is of a divine origin, not a worldly one."
~ Lee van Laer, on "Inner Wisdom," from Parabola Magazine, Spring 2014
People like Meister Eckhart professed this kind of understanding of the relationship between God and humanity, the relationship between creator and created. The purpose of the mystics, whether they're Sufis or Jewish mystics or Christian mystics or what have you, the purpose is to break down the wall that separates us from God to have an intimate divine union with God. And so that's why some of this language would sound familiar to a lot of people of different faiths....
I think that if you believe that our experience of the world goes beyond just the material realm, that there is something beyond, that there is a transcendent presence that one can commune with, then it's only natural to want to reach out to this transcendent presence, to want to experience it in some way. That's what religion does.
I mean, you have to understand that religion is nothing more than just a language made up of symbols and metaphors that allow us to describe to each other and to ourselves the ineffable experience of faith. I mean, when we talk about God we're talking about something that is, by definition, indescribable, indefinable. You need a way to talk about God and so what religion does is it provides a readymade language that allows you to be understood when you're talking to your own community.
See also (from Shinzen Young):
I think there's some kind of excess energy. We tend to think of love as closing out the world and we can only see the face of the beloved. You know, everything else goes quiet or goes numb. But actually what I experienced was that — and I've experienced it again with my children — is that the love demanded to be something else. It demanded to be expressed beyond the expression of the participants. You know, it kept demanding more.
That excess energy, I think, is God. And I think it's God in us trying to return to its source. I don't know how else to understand it. But if I think of myself as having returned to faith — and I do think of that, although I feel like I'm a desperately confused person. When people look to me for advice or direction on faith, I just feel sometimes like it's hilarious. You know, I think we have these experiences and they are people reacting against the word spiritual these days. But I don't know what other word to use at this point. They are spiritual experiences and then religion comes after that.
Religion is everything that we do with these moments of intense spirituality in our lives, whether it's whatever practice we have, whether it's going to church, whether it's how we integrate sacred text into our lives.
Being religious or taking on some sort of religious elements in your life, you're not necessarily saying I agree with everything that this religion says. What you are saying is that I've had these incredible experiences in my life of suffering or joy or both and they have demanded some action of me and demanded some continuity of me.
And the only way that I know to do this is to try to find some form in it and try to share it with other people.
"I thought, well, I'll be. That's weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. That's where the pain comes from. We do that to each other, and we do it to ourselves. Then I saw emergency rooms. I saw divorce court. I saw jails and prisons. I saw how we create Hell on this planet for each other. And for the first time in my life, I did not see God as the inventor of Hell."
~ Carlton Pearson
"It is probably the case that our very ancient ancestors—before the arising of civilization, when we were still in a tribal state—lived an awful lot of their lives in a meditative state just naturally.
And then, with the arising of civilization, that becomes lost and it's necessary to create conceptual frameworks and specific practice techniques to get back there."
~ Shinzen Young
I loved the Buddha’s teachings. I found them invaluable and still do. However, I mistook Buddhists for the Buddha and lost my way. Still, I was lucky and my eyes opened one day to the contrived righteousness of communal life. I understood that it was time to move on. Technically, I was free, under no physical and only gentle psychological pressure to stay. However, it took me a full year to extricate myself, to let go of my need for love and validation from this group, to give up the image of myself on a holy and righteous path and return to the plain truth that purity is an illusion, that there is no security and that I had to pursue my mundane way alone.
That in fact, I’d been alone all along.
There is life after a spiritual community. There is such a thing as natural community, not contrived to support your fondest wishes but to commiserate with on life’s hard byways. There is no preexisting group out there waiting for you. Real community forms organically, spontaneously. Prepare yourself for it by traveling light. People of like mind are not found in any particular monastery, school or social group. It’s rare to meet others with whom we truly commune. We know that. You know that. Locking yourself into a gated community, pretending you’re safe and sound, is a sure way to not bump into anyone intimately.
Get out there, vulnerable and honest. Admit you’re alone on your path through life and you’ll sooner or later meet fellow-travelers. You’ll share your insights as equals. Some of them may for a while become mentors or guides. Bear in mind though, that relationship will deteriorate the minute you abandon your discernment, the instant you stop taking your own risks.
Otherwise, how will you know when they’re speaking nonsense, as from time to time we all do? How will you realize that they’re manipulating you, as they might if they see you can’t hold your own? They might even be doing it because they love you.
How would you know what sort of love that is?
"What we need to learn is how can we live together with people whose views we don't actually like very much? That's the far greater challenge, without attempting to convert them or dismissing them and denying their right to exist parallel to us. It's really about the stranger...It's basically saying we have a shared humanity even with people who don't seem to take the boxes that we have put in place in terms of recognizing what a good human is."
~ Alain de Botton
I've been sick lately and I actually had a bone marrow transplant back in October and was in the hospital for quite a long time. And one of the things, poetry died for me for a while. I found that it just wasn't speaking to me. I think I had certain expectations that took me awhile to realize were false expectations. I think we often talk about poetry getting us beyond the world, taking us to the very edge of experience and then getting us into the ineffable. I have to say, when I was faced with the actual ineffable, I didn't want poetry that gave me more of the ineffable. What I wanted was some way of apprehending the world that was right in front of me that was slipping away.
I wanted the world in front of my eyes, and the poems that I found useful were absolutely concrete, sometimes not at all about religious things and not at all about spiritual things, but simply reality and reality rendered in such a way that you could see it again. There's a great quote from the mid-20th-century literary critic R.P. Blackmur. He was talking about John Berryman. He said that his work, you know, "adds to the stock of available reality." It added to the stock of available reality, and that's a good way to think about what a real poem can do. It suddenly makes the amount of reality that you have in your life greater. You're able to apprehend more of it.
...Physics is so fascinating to so many of the contemporary poets. [mabye because] there is some kind of reality that's being revealed that we can only reach through oblique ways. You know, I think it reaches way back. It's why I'm drawn to mystics like Meister Eckhart and more contemporary ones like Simone Weil and language of Apple Faces, where you state something, but the statement sort of unstates itself. So that Meister Eckhart said, you know, "We pray to God to be free of God." We ask God to be free of God. And I don't think he wanted to, you know, give up his religion. The idea wouldn't have occurred to him, but he wanted to give up that idea of God as being this thing outside of our consciousness.
I think one thing poetry can do is take us to those places where reality slips a bit. You know, what we think of as reality slips a bit, like those equations in physics and suddenly we're perceiving something differently than before. And it's not — it's not all airy-fairy mysticism either. It's quite angular and hard-edged and that's what I think the analogy is with physics and with physical science.
...We tend to think of love as closing out the world and we can only see the face of the beloved. Everything else goes quiet or goes numb, but actually what I experienced was that — and I've experienced it again with my children — is that the loved demanded to be something else. It demanded to be expressed beyond the expression of the participants. You know, it kept demanding more. That excess energy, I think, is God and I think it's God in us trying to return to its source. I think it's — I don't know how else to understand it, but if I think of myself as having returned to faith, and I do think of that, although I feel like I'm a desperately confused person and when people look to me for advice or direction on faith, I just feel sometimes like it's hilarious.
But I think we have these experiences and they are people reacting against the word spiritual these days. But, uh, I don't know what other word to use at this point. They are spiritual experiences. And then religion comes after that. Religion is everything that we do with these moments of intense spirituality in our lives, whether it's whatever practice we have, whether it's going to church, it's how we integrate sacred text into our lives. Being religious or taking on some sort of religious elements in your life, you're not necessarily saying I agree with everything that this religion says. What you are saying is that I have had these incredible experiences in my life of suffering or joy or both and they have demanded some action of me and demanded some continuity of me, and the only way that I know to do this is to try to find some form in it and try to share it with other people.
...The way I've defined it to myself is I think of belief as having objects. Faith doesn't have objects. Faith is an orientation of your life or it's an energy of your life or however you want to define it. But I think it is objectless.
That has helped me to at least understand those terms somewhat and to explain to myself why I do need some sort of structures in my life. I do need to go to church. I need specifically religious elements in my life. I find that if I just turn all of my spiritual impulses, if I let them be solitary as I am comfortable in being, I'm comfortable sitting reading books and trying to pray and meditating, inevitably if that energy is not focused outward, it becomes despairing. It turns in on itself and I will look up in a couple of months and I find that I'm in despair. So I think that one of the ways that we know that our spiritual inclinations are valid is that they lead us out of ourselves.
"Faith precedes belief systems. That means that faith is the consent or surrender to the divine reality — or to the ultimate reality or whatever its name is in the different religions — before it's broken down into different belief systems which are bound to be influenced by the cultural conditioning of the person or the reformers who worked on that religion. So faith, when it becomes contemplative, begins to perceive the oneness behind all the religions — before the experience of God was broken down into various belief systems. " ~ Father Thomas Keating
Excerpts from "Alain de Botton: Atheism 2.0," TED Talks, July 2011:
There are many, many gaps in secular life and these can be plugged. It's not as though either you have religion and then you have to accept all sorts of things, or you don't have religion and then you're cut off from all these very good things. It's so sad that we constantly say, "I don't believe so I can't have community, so I'm cut off from morality, so I can't go on a pilgrimage." One wants to say, "Nonsense. Why not?" And that's really the spirit of my talk. There's so much we can absorb. Atheism shouldn't cut itself off from the rich sources of religion.
We need to be polite about differences. Politeness is a much-overlooked virtue. It's seen as hypocrisy. But we need to get to a stage when you're an atheist and someone says, "Well you know, I did pray the other day," you politely ignore it. You move on. Because you've agreed on 90 percent of things, because you have a shared view on so many things, and you politely differ. And I think that's what the religious wars of late have ignored. They've ignored the possibility of harmonious disagreement.
One of the most common ways of dividing the world is into those who believe and those who don't -- into the religious and the atheists. And for the last decade or so, it's been quite clear what being an atheist means. There have been some very vocal atheists who've pointed out, not just that religion is wrong, but that it's ridiculous. These people, many of whom have lived in North Oxford, have argued -- they've argued that believing in God is akin to believing in fairies and essentially that the whole thing is a childish game.
Now I think it's too easy. I think it's too easy to dismiss the whole of religion that way. And it's as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. And what I'd like to inaugurate today is a new way of being an atheist -- if you like, a new version of atheism we could call Atheism 2.0. Now what is Atheism 2.0? Well it starts from a very basic premise: of course, there's no God. Of course, there are no deities or supernatural spirits or angels, etc. Now let's move on; that's not the end of the story, that's the very, very beginning.
I'm interested in the kind of constituency that thinks something along these lines: that thinks, "I can't believe in any of this stuff. I can't believe in the doctrines. I don't think these doctrines are right. But," a very important but, "I love Christmas carols. I really like the art of Mantegna. I really like looking at old churches. I really like turning the pages of the Old Testament." Whatever it may be, you know the kind of thing I'm talking about -- people who are attracted to the ritualistic side, the moralistic, communal side of religion, but can't bear the doctrine. Until now, these people have faced a rather unpleasant choice. It's almost as though either you accept the doctrine and then you can have all the nice stuff, or you reject the doctrine and you're living in some kind of spiritual wasteland under the guidance of CNN and Walmart.
The secular world is full of holes. We have secularized badly, I would argue. And a thorough study of religion could give us all sorts of insights into areas of life that are not going too well. And I'd like to run through a few of these today.
I'd like to kick off by looking at education. Now education is a field the secular world really believes in. When we think about how we're going to make the world a better place, we think education; that's where we put a lot of money. Education is going to give us, not only commercial skills, industrial skills, it's also going to make us better people. You know the kind of thing a commencement address is, and graduation ceremonies, those lyrical claims that education, the process of education -- particularly higher education -- will make us into nobler and better human beings. That's a lovely idea. Interesting where it came from.
In the early 19th century, church attendance in Western Europe started sliding down very, very sharply, and people panicked. They asked themselves the following question. They said, where are people going to find the morality, where are they going to find guidance, and where are they going to find sources of consolation? And influential voices came up with one answer. They said culture. It's to culture that we should look for guidance, for consolation, for morality. Let's look to the plays of Shakespeare, the dialogues of Plato, the novels of Jane Austen. In there, we'll find a lot of the truths that we might previously have found in the Gospel of Saint John. Now I think that's a very beautiful idea and a very true idea. They wanted to replace scripture with culture. And that's a very plausible idea. It's also an idea that we have forgotten.
If you went to a top university -- let's say you went to Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge -- and you said, "I've come here because I'm in search of morality, guidance and consolation; I want to know how to live," they would show you the way to the insane asylum. This is simply not what our grandest and best institutes of higher learning are in the business of. Why? They don't think we need it. They don't think we are in an urgent need of assistance. They see us as adults, rational adults. What we need is information. We need data, we don't need help.
Now we've given up with the idea of sermons. If you said to a modern liberal individualist, "Hey, how about a sermon?" they'd go, "No, no. I don't need one of those. I'm an independent, individual person." What's the difference between a sermon and our modern, secular mode of delivery, the lecture? Well a sermon wants to change your life and a lecture wants to give you a bit of information. And I think we need to get back to that sermon tradition. The tradition of sermonizing is hugely valuable, because we are in need of guidance, morality and consolation -- and religions know that.
Another point about education: we tend to believe in the modern secular world that if you tell someone something once, they'll remember it. Sit them in a classroom, tell them about Plato at the age of 20, send them out for a career in management consultancy for 40 years, and that lesson will stick with them. Religions go, "Nonsense. You need to keep repeating the lesson 10 times a day. So get on your knees and repeat it." That's what all religions tell us: "Get on you knees and repeat it 10 or 20 or 15 times a day." Otherwise our minds are like sieves.
Religious view says we need calendars, we need to structure time, we need to synchronize encounters. This comes across also in the way in which religions set up rituals around important feelings.
Take the Moon. It's really important to look at the Moon. You know, when you look at the Moon, you think, "I'm really small. What are my problems?" It sets things into perspective, etc., etc. We should all look at the Moon a bit more often. We don't. Why don't we? Well there's nothing to tell us, "Look at the Moon." But if you're a Zen Buddhist in the middle of September, you will be ordered out of your home, made to stand on a canonical platform and made to celebrate the festival of Tsukimi, where you will be given poems to read in honor of the Moon and the passage of time and the frailty of life that it should remind us of. You'll be handed rice cakes. And the Moon and the reflection on the Moon will have a secure place in your heart. That's very good.
Oratory is absolutely key to religions. In the secular world, you can come through the university system and be a lousy speaker and still have a great career. But the religious world doesn't think that way. What you're saying needs to be backed up by a really convincing way of saying it.
So if you go to an African American Pentecostalist church in the American South and you listen to how they talk, my goodness, they talk well. After every convincing point, people will go, "Amen, amen, amen." At the end of a really rousing paragraph, they'll all stand up, and they'll go, "Thank you Jesus, thank you Christ, thank you Savior." If we were doing it like they do it -- let's not do it, but if we were to do it -- I would tell you something like, "Culture should replace scripture." And you would go, "Amen, amen, amen." And at the end of my talk, you would all stand up and you would go, "Thank you Plato, thank you Shakespeare, thank you Jane Austen." And we'd know that we had a real rhythm going. All right, all right. We're getting there. We're getting there.
Let's look at art now. Now art is something that in the secular world, we think very highly of. We think art is really, really important. A lot of our surplus wealth goes to museums, etc. We sometimes hear it said that museums are our new cathedrals, or our new churches. You've heard that saying. Now I think that the potential is there, but we've completely let ourselves down. And the reason we've let ourselves down is that we're not properly studying how religions handle art.
The two really bad ideas that are hovering in the modern world that inhibit our capacity to draw strength from art: The first idea is that art should be for art's sake -- a ridiculous idea -- an idea that art should live in a hermetic bubble and should not try to do anything with this troubled world. I couldn't disagree more. The other thing that we believe is that art shouldn't explain itself, that artists shouldn't say what they're up to, because if they said it, it might destroy the spell and we might find it too easy. That's why a very common feeling when you're in a museum -- let's admit it -- is, "I don't know what this is about." But if we're serious people, we don't admit to that. But that feeling of puzzlement is structural to contemporary art.
My view is that museums should take a leaf out of the book of religions. And they should make sure that when you walk into a museum -- if I was a museum curator, I would make a room for love, a room for generosity. All works of art are talking to us about things. And if we were able to arrange spaces where we could come across works where we would be told, use these works of art to cement these ideas in your mind, we would get a lot more out of art. Art would pick up the duty that it used to have and that we've neglected because of certain mis-founded ideas. Art should be one of the tools by which we improve our society. Art should be didactic.
Books alone, books written by lone individuals, are not going to change anything. We need to group together. If you want to change the world, you have to group together, you have to be collaborative. And that's what religions do. They are multinational, as I say, they are branded, they have a clear identity, so they don't get lost in a busy world. That's something we can learn from.
So really my concluding point is you may not agree with religion, but at the end of the day, religions are so subtle, so complicated, so intelligent in many ways that they're not fit to be abandoned to the religious alone; they're for all of us.
We take other people's ordeals seriously as an emblem for our own, lesser humiliations. A believer notices Christ's crucifixion and takes interpretive , imaginative liberties with it. A believer says, "I'm not being crucified, but this fever — this divorce — this foreclosure — this lawsuit — this insult feels like Calvary."
Maybe just knowing that you will eventually die feels like crucifixion. Maybe knowing that you will become a bloated, disfigured corpse, and that someone who doesn't care about you (hospital attendant, mortician, heir) will move your dead body into the proper position for a dead body to occupy — maybe this knowledge, that a stranger or a lover will one day find your body disgusting and smelly, and will want to dispose of it quickly, is a way of taking Christ's lynching personally.
The turn toward religion — and toward the salvific of suffering (imagining that humiliation can be alchemized, redeemed) — reveals a perfectly human wish to seek correspondences between lower and higher, left and right, blighted and whole; whether religious or not, we aren't wrong to ask that small events find their meaning through comparison with larger events.
Meditation has nothing to do with contemplation of eternal questions, or of one's own folly, or even of one's navel, although a clearer view on all of these enigmas may result. It has nothing to do with thought of any kind — with anything at all, in fact, but intuiting the true nature of existence, which is why it has appeared, in one form or another, in almost every culture known to man.
The entranced Bushman staring into fire, the Eskimo using a sharp rock to draw an ever-deepening circle into the flat surface of a stone achieves the same obliteration of the ego (and the same power) as the dervish or the Pueblo sacred dancer.
Among Hindus and Buddhists, realization is attained through inner stillness, usually achieved through the samadhi state of sitting yoga.
In Tantric practice, the student may displace the ego by filling his whole being with the real or imagined object of his concentration; in Zen, one seeks to empty out the mind, to return it to the clear, pure stillness of a seashell or flower petal.
When body and mind are one, then the whole thing, scoured clean of intellect, emotions, and the senses, may be laid open to the experience that individual existence, ego, the "reality" of matter and phenomena are no more than fleeting and illusory arrangements of molecules.
The weary self of masks and screens, defenses, preconceptions, and opinions that are propped up by ideas and words, imagines itself to be some sort of an entity (in a society of like entities) may suddenly fall away, dissolve into formless faux where concepts such as "death" and "life", "time" and "space", "past" and "future" have no meaning.
There is only a pearly radiance of Emptiness, the Uncreated, without beginning, therefore without end. Like the round bottomed Bodhidharma doll, returning to its center, meditation represents the foundation of the universe to which all returns, as in the stillness of the dead of night, the stillness between tides and winds, the stillness of the instant before Creation.
In this "void", this dynamic state of rest, without impediments, lies ultimate reality, and here one's own true nature is reborn, in a return from what Buddhists speak of as "great death".
[Thanks, Whiskey River!]