And The Mechanisms of Enlightenment
An essay interrupted by a list of references
There are no mechanisms of enlightenment.
So let’s consider what’s given–the way things are.
Note that this blog for May 1, 2014 is background material for a workshop series described in the Performance Schedule folder.
Every generation arrives into a made world. As Kurt Vonnegut said, we just got here. But even the made world is a small fraction of the way things are. Breath comes unbidden. We do not decide to metabolize food. Language and culture are received without evaluation. Our bodies and their transience are not consequences of rational analysis. Our lives are not composed, written, engineered or programmed. They flow, given and unbidden, complex and undirected. Each life flows in its own path of relationships. Each of us is a path but none manages the its flow. All flow and breathe together. And the breath is troposphere, the fuel of cells, the fluid of flight. John Muir wrote, “The rivers run not past but through us.”
We experience moments of enlightenment when an event, practice, or story heightens our attention to the way things are. In Frameshifts and other works, I wrote about such experiences, which often come as little annunciations. These works form the basis of a series of workshops, called Healing Breaths, to be presented in June as a ministry of the Church of the Holy Comforter in Richmond. (See ad in the Performance Schedule folder.) For me, the making of words and music for the last fifty years has been a centering practice. Results have varied–piano improvisations, stories, poems, songs, and operas. I called it all folk art because it served a local interest (mine) and operated, in Roger Butterfield’s phrase, “below the level of historical scrutiny.”‘ The work focused the mind, synthesized experiences, and reinterpreted some religious stories, but rehearsal was the foundation. In writing, I continually rehearsed what to say until I was satisfied with its sound and sense. The same was true of composition and performance. A “hearse” was originally a kind of rake, so “rehearsal” literally means “raking over.”
As raking prepares soil by scraping tracks and grids for seed and lifting out twigs and other obstacles to growth, so rehearsal lays tracks and grids for smooth performance unimpeded by self-consciousness. So it is with performance both on stage and page. Rehearsal links bodily memory to intention. Whether the result is a convincing performance in a stage role or the shifting away from self by what Brother Lawrence called the “practice of the presence of God,” I have found that both are matters of rehearsal. I suspect that in the gridded fabric of my cortical neurons the tracks which embody a created role are no different than those which embody my self. I cannot claim to be expert or adept at meditative practice. I can only share my own arts of breath–arts of words and music which were admittedly personal, local, and folk arts. For me, this practice has been a divine walk, a daily invitation to the annunciations from the beloved reality of the worlds inside and around us. For an explanation of the previous sentence, however, I offer the works themselves.
In the Healing Breaths workshops, participants will use my rehearsal-based centering practice. My practice and works are offered for communication and communion, not commerce. Some participants will want to practice Healing Breaths after the series ends or to continue meeting and sharing their works. That will be their decision.
In the workshops I try to give as I received. Both breath and imagination are given and unbidden. One can take what is given as if it were a right or one can rake it to get under it, remove obstacles, understand it, plant in it, grow in it, and embody it in some way. This practice is not a mechanism for enlightenment, however, but a guide. Guides may help, but the ultimacy of enlightenment must be personally discovered.
Of course, enlightenment is not simply about a personal quest. This quest has serious social consequences and in traditional societies is therefore guided by the group through stories and practices of divine paths. These practices ensure trust, cooperation, compassion, wise judgment, and social cohesion, protecting groups both directly from individual excesses and indirectly from group excesses such as persecution. Although enlightenment is individually experienced, it can reform the group. From individual discoveries come the more tolerant rules, helpful inventions, articulate expressions, and leadership to awaken a group to its connections with others. Enlightenment takes different forms. For groups blinded by faith, enlightenment may be critical reason. For societies dazzled by information, enlightenment may be the Buddha’s advice to be satisfied with what is given. For cultures swollen with greed and opportunism, enlightenment may be Jesus’ story of the farmer so satisfied with excessive preparations and investments for the future that he missed an appointment with eternity.
Enlightenment is evoked and strengthened through participation in the divine stories of the groups in which we are rooted. This is why I wanted to offer Healing
Breaths as a ministry of the church to imagination. As an artist, I want to communicate and commune with others. Entertainment is part of this, but no more than the props, the rhyme scheme, or voicing of the instruments. To entertain is simply to hold something between the performer and the audience. Production values matter less to me than the
content of this “between-ness” or relationship of imaginations. For audiences deeply rooted in the same traditions, the communion is deep. Humor is understood. New ideas are evoked. Barriers are broken. New interpretations are considered. Obstacles to actions of justice and mercy are raked away. For other audiences, not rooted in the traditions, the work, written or performed, bridges differences.
If the workshop series has participants, I’ll have more to say about it. For now, I have described Healing Breaths as a personal practice offered freely to others, but not as a method for manufacturing enlightenment.
Humans exaggerate their importance. As transient animals rooted in particular societies they nonetheless produce innumerable ways to seem permanent, godlike, and independent rulers free to automate inconvenient tasks and ignore limitations. Some, like Gilgamesh, intent on securing immortality, or Orpheus, checking up on how well he’s done so far and thereby losing everything, seem to lose track of themselves and live in a trance. Of course, the stories of Gilgamesh and Orpheus were told to remind us of the dangers of such exaggerations. Surrendering to how things are rather than how we want them to be is a part of all such myths.
It is natural to live in harmony with the beloved reality of how things are; yet humans are so committed to their ways of knowing–the meanings and significances they find in everything–that they live in a trance of all-knowing independence and control from which they can be only occasionally awakened. These brief encounters with the vast interdependence of their transient existence are holy moments because they are separated from the usual trance of power and self-knowledge. Every person’s experience of the holy is unique. The words, images, and practices of others can only serve as guides. As Karen Armstrong said (in The Spiral Staircase), we live through such moments linearly in time but return to them repeatedly in spiraling, transforming awareness given to us unbidden as we surrender to the way things are. The transformation comes not from fastening rationally onto a doctrine but from opening to the gift that was always present. Every path is different, she says, and “The great myths show that when you follow someone else’s path, you go astray. . . The hero must fight his own monsters.” Jesus said that each person must bear his or her own cross. As one is guided into a holy story or practice, like the Way of the Cross, one embodies the hero and awakens–even if only briefly and gradually. In Healing Breaths, I offer my own practice as a guide. It is a folk art using myths in words and music. It is also a meditative practice of continual rehearsal. I don’t distinguish between rehearsal, performance, composition, prayer, writing, and improvisation. For me, they share the same space. Although serious about the art, I don’t see it as a serious contest but rather as communication and communion in which self slides away in surrender as hearts are shared. At the end of my opera, The People’s
Voice, the antagonists sing:
When freedom comes,
silent as snowfall,
none will hear it.
Like the fresh air,
all will breathe it,
yet none see.
Like the wind
yet none see.
In this way,
when voices blend,
to the other,
This is the experience of the Holy Spirit, the Pentecost experience celebrated in the Church of the Holy Comforter and all other communities of worship. It is an unbidden gift. It is the sustained attention and creative engagement of prayer.
In Healing Breaths I let the art speak for itself and encourage others to present their own works. Other works about enlightenment are listed below with a few final comments. I have omitted meditative methods aiming at happiness, wealth, and well being. Viktor Frankl, criticizing an American document, once said that happiness is not pursued. It must ensue from living a meaningful life. So enlightenment, like happiness, is not pursued by technique, but ensues practice. It is not mechanized but realized. Rehearsal with a beloved community is what keeps us on a divine path, even though–or especially because–we don’t know what will come next.
There are no mechanisms of enlightenment.
As many paths as humans.
As many paths as there are trees
opening to the given,
rooted in their source–
trees whose roots and branches bend and turn to what is given.
There are no mechanisms of enlightenment.
As many interpretations as humans–
humans awakened to how things are and to what is given;
humans like trees who flower,
and open their branches to the light,
and whose ancient roots anacampserote
bend hearts always back to love.
A personal list of selected references
with final comments about “enlightenment”
Adams, Scott God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment, The Religious War The cartoonist and free thinker imagines that the Big Bang was the explosion of God to all parts of creation. The task of humanity is to reassemble the debris. God’s self-limitation is the basis of humanity’s creative endeavors. Humanity needs a metaphor that allows God and science to coexist in our minds. Our minds however are untrustworthy deception generators; therefore the best we can do is to choose the ideas that seem least delusional. Religions may be compared to different maps which all lead to the collective good of society. Adams presents these ideas in the form of a story about a delivery man who turns out to be an avatar entrusted with the truth about humanity.
Aquinas, Thomas What I have read by Aquinas has come second-hand (See Anton Pegis’s book on Aquinas’ works), so this will be brief. The essences of things are the enduring intellectual objects of thought. These essences are fundamental realities. All concrete and material aspects of the world are transient. In some way, the real world derived from the ideal (Platonic) world. Unlike Plato, Aquinas was more concerned with how this derivation occurred. He imagined that humans were composites of soul and matter. The material world was part of creation. In Mass, the hypostatic union represents the importance of both spirit and matter, so knowledge must have both spiritual and material referents. Aquinas differed with Plato’s attempt to understand by reason alone, He argued that human intellect is powerless to reason without drawing on many experiences and existence itself. For Thomas, the soul requires the incarnation of the body to do the work of the spirit and to know the truth. Unlike Plato, he does not see the material world as an unwelcome intruder on the work of reason.
Armstrong, Karen The Spiral Staircase is a memoir of her own divine path. Her writings on religion are lucid and numerous. See The Great Transformation, A Short History of Myth, Buddha, Muhammad, and other works. She writes of several ages of religious development, the first four of which are:
An oral tradition of dream times in the Paleolithic period (20,000 to 8,000 BCE),
A period of traditions of hunting myths, Sky-God myths, and quests by shamans for the tribe–often by ascending a tree and returning re-born after an ecstatic experience with a message for the community (Neolithic time 8000 to 4000 BCE).
A period of life with wild and domestic animals, including logical and practical skills for hunting and killing, myths about taking the lives of animals for food, and transcendental experiences when making comparisons with animals (Early Civilizations, 4000-800 BCE)
The Axial age (800-200BCE) The term “axial” comes from Karl Jaspers. In this period of Neolithic agriculture, just as the hunter had to make the heroic descent and ascent like Hercules, so the farmer’s seed had to die to be reborn as crop–an epiphany. Hunting and agriculture were sacramental. Rituals sacrificing the first fruits replenished the soil’s power and gave proper reverence to the sacred Earth whose produce was shared by both gods and humans.
As she threads through the anthropology and historical record, Armstrong elucidates the function of myths and liturgies: “A myth does not impart factual information, but is primarily a guide to behavior. Its truth will only be revealed if it is put into practice–ritually or ethically.” (p. 22)
Berkofsky, Martin My teacher, who died in 2013, championed the meditative music of Alan Hohvaness, Charles Ives, Liszt, Beethoven, Brahms, and others, always finding the spiritual nature of the music and the quiet center within himself to perform it. Our lessons always began with tea. He set me to learning Schubert and encouraged my compositional efforts. He set an example of selfless dedication to others and to his art.
Bach, J.S. The Well Tempered Clavier. I have spent many hours with these
musical meditations. Schweitzer’s comments in his biography of JSB illuminate their interpretation.
Bhagavad-Gita This story from the Mahabarata consists of Krishna’s teachings to the young ruler Arjuna, who refuses to fight his relatives, the Kauravas. It becomes clear that the hero is really refusing to engage with the most intimate matters of his life, represented by his relatives and teachers. The soul must do battle with its friendly relations or it will be enthralled and forever separated from its true center, the Atman, or one reality. None are truly born or die. What must be defeated is the desire for fruit, the expectation of returns for one’s actions. As Christians say, “give expecting nothing in return” and “freely ye have received; freely give,” and “For what we have received may we be truly thankful.”
The BIBLE. A journey portrayed in a library of many books of many
stories of many people on many divine paths, it began in 500 B.C, was translated into the Septuagint in 250 BCE, increased by the additions of the New Testament from 50 to 150 A.D., translated by Jerome into Latin in 200 AD, put into the Vulgate in 383-405, illuminated at Lindisrarne in 700, adopted by Charlemagne in the Alcuin version in 800, the Lindisfarne version used for an interlinear English translation in 960 AD, the Paris version published in 1200, followed by the Wyclif version in 1382, the printed Gutenberg Latin version in 1455, Erasmus’ version in 1516 and Luther’s in 1522-34, Tyndale’s version in 1526 (for which he was burned in 1536), the Coverdale version in 1535, the Geneva version of 1560 (favored by Scots and Puritans), the Great Bible in 1539, the Bishop’s Bible in 1582, the Douai-Rheims English Bible of 1582 and the King James Bible of 1611, based on Tyndale’s version. The Bible is the main source for most of my work, such as The Books of Daniel (Daniel and Darius), Frameshifts (Noah and the Flood), Annunciations (the annunciations to Zechariah and Mary, the Good Samaritan, and other references), The People’s Voice (the Pilgrim interpretation of the City on a Hill), The Sower, The Blind Beggar, Strike the Rock (linking the stories of Moses and the rock and the Woman at the Well), Amber (The Lord’s Prayer and other references), and others.
Bridgman, Percy The Way Things Are. While he may not answer the question of what and how we know things, Bridgman disposes of many false, confused and delusional answers. As Godel shows, he says, in order to understand a system, one must get outside it. But we cannot exit ourselves, much as we may deny it. What we know and how we know it are always with respect to us. “The best that we can attain is relative rigor in a limited universe of discourse and operations.” He then proceeds to specify this limited universe, applying Occam’s razor, which says, as he puts it, that “entities are not to be created beyond necessity.” (Given the number of words I’ve written in this blog on the topic of “enlightenment” I have already failed this criterion.) He continues that this criterion “seems to satisfy a deep-seated instinct for good workmanship.”
That is, from the start, getting understanding is a studio project, as artists have always known. In Frameshifts, Professor Hank Randall writes, “Nature evokes our best efforts when we take it as a studio. In fact, nature brings these studios into being. We say that studios are ‘evoked’ by nature because only by building studios to meet exacting specifications can we prepare to understand what nature has to teach.” (p. 15, vol. 2) In his withering analysis of society, Thorstein Veblen paused to make a comment about workmanship: A human being “is an agent seeking in every act the accomplishment of some concrete, objective, impersonal end. By force of his being such an agent, he is possessed of a taste for effective work, and a distaste for futile effort. He has a sense of the merit of serviceability or efficiency and of the demerit of futility, waste, or incapacity. This aptitude or propensity may be called the instinct of workmanship.” (The Theory of the Leisure Class, p.29). Knowing, making, testing, and creating are all means for attaining the “relative rigor in a limited universe of discourse and operations” –such as a philosophy, theory, painting, composition, or meditative practice. All such work we do “by force of (our) being.”
Bruhac, Joseph Roots of Survival. A treatise on Native American story-telling and the Sacred. From Bruhac and other Native American writers, and from the Journals of Lewis and Clark, I wrote Finding A Purchase, the last section of Frameshifts (vol. 2).
Buber, Martin I and Thou, Good and Evil, The Knowledge of Man Buber meditates (Good and Evil) on some of the Psalms, like Psa. 73 (which I set to music in The Books of Daniel). It asks why the wicked prosper and answers that wickedness is a slipping into isolation and nothingness while righteousness is a continuing relationship with God. Buber’s focus on interrelationship is summarized in the famous concept of between-ness (Enterzwischen). We are created and defined by our relationships. We are not self-made, independent beings. We are gifts, like the cosmos itself. We are part of what is given. As self-aware and reasoning creatures, we exaggerate our power and ability to control, even sometimes imagining God as a powerful tyrant. The relationship to others and the natural world as manipulable things has great force, but like any unbalanced force, it moves the Controllers and Controlled in unexpected directions, such as greed, lust, and exploitation. The I-It relationship must be balanced with I-Thou relationships. In a balanced system of relationships, we are awakened to our place in the beloved reality of how things are. In Frameshifts, I wrote of this between-ness:
that beckons from another’s eyes,
not doing or being
a domain whose variables
rise from interactions
and fall when we slip
in betrayals. (p.367, vol. 2)
Campbell, Joseph The Power of Myth, The Masks of God, and The Hero with a Thousand Faces are all valuable sources.
Carr, Monsignor (St. Bridget’s Richmond Colloquium on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, 9/10/2011) Carr discussed the traditional teaching concerning the four ways that worshipers experience Christ in the Eucharist. The four gifts are temptation, resistance, mind and spirit; that is, the Eucharist offers power to resist temptation, to resist Evil, to put on the mind of Christ, and to receive the Holy Spirit. It the liturgy, “Earth unites with heaven,” and, as Augustine said, “we become what we eat.” Because of the Real Presence of Christ, it matters how we treat each others. Hospitality is part of the celebration. Worshipers come to each other as prophet, priest, and king, as Christ came to them in the chrism of baptism. The Real Presence is the substance of the church, the “underlying reality” in which all participate. And the liturgy or work of the people, according to Monsignor Kevin Irwin (11/20/2011) is “mediated immediacy” of this reality. The truths of the faith that were once the immediate experience of the first disciples become the present experience of worshipers through sacraments and scriptures. The name “Jesus” is never used without the modifiers “Christ,” “King,” or “Lord” because we do not have immediate experience with the historical Jesus. Our experience is with the risen Christ, the Logos, the underlying beloved reality. The essence of liturgy is the personal and immediate participation in the wordless fellowship with water, earth, fire, air–all the creation–in shared bread and wine.
Drda, Darrin The Four Global Truths. Drda applies the truths of Buddhism to problems of global suffering as if describing the treatment of a disease. The four noble truths are: to recognize the reality and symptoms of suffering, to diagnose the causes of suffering, to explain the prognosis for overcoming suffering, and to prescribe the path to end suffering. In discussing the diseased biosphere, he marshals evidence from ecology, economics, and other areas of research and then offers a Buddhist framework for finding wise relationships.
Edwards, CliffVan Gogh and God. Vincent’s rough strokes made paintings work like Zen koans. They are no longer needed after they have served Vincent’s purpose by directing the viewer to pay attention to all that he loved in what was portrayed. Edwards provides a brilliant explanation of the religious intentions that guided Vincent’s work.
Grimm, der Brǘder Märchenhaftes. The fairy tales of the Grimm brothers contained many mythical elements. My work, The Fisher of the James, is based on The Fisher and his Wife, a story about wanting too much.
Haidt, Jonathan The Righteous Mind. The moral psychologist demonstrates that conservatives and liberals have certain common interests at stake, specifically what he calls the “taste buds of the righteous mind,” viz. receptors for six fundamental values: caring, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. Conservatives and liberals define and emphasize these values differently.
Halifax, Joan in Westward Dharma and other books, writes about caring for the dying. She is a Buddhist and medical anthropologist, who says “When I tasted the stillness I knew it was medicine.” The more awareness grows, the more responsibility grows. As a child, she became aware of the inequity suffered by her Black nanny and to understand the other world which supported her privileges. She went on to live with people of the Negev desert. In one community (the Dogon) a ritual is performed every 53 years, in seven year alternations among clans. In this ritual, the community is re-born. In Western cultures, traditional rituals are weakened–such rituals as those for the returning warrior, the entry into adulthood, the passage from life to death or for regular prayer and worship. Talking with Krista Tippett in her program On Being (12/26/2013), Halifax said that the absence of strong rituals has led to hypervigilance, anxiety, pathological altruism, and other issues as media-consumers are overcome by their empathetic but impotent response to the continual flow of horrific “news.” Group rituals and personal observances evolved specifically to address the many threshold experiences of human life.
As Temple Grandin, the animal psychologist, has written, humans and other animals have emotional neural pathways for panic, rage, fear, seeking, lust, care, and play. Each is a discrete system of nerves and hormones with its own receptive, or dendritic, pathways. These pathways can be nurtured and made to branch and flourish in a positive way through life-fostering concern and compassionate interactions with others. Or dendritic growth can be impaired by abnormal repetitive behaviors, like those arising from sensory deprivation, or obsessive-compulsive disorders, neuroses, sleep dysfunctions, addictions, anxieties, frustrations, acting out, self mutilation, self aggrandizement, self deception, stereotypy, racism, ostracism, hatred, genocide, fixations, sadomasochism, bullying, gossiping, phobias, self-disgust and so on. Imbalanced emotional pathways lead to finding comfort and success in imbalanced behaviors and to trance-like patterns from which escape is difficult. Religious comfort and ritual shared with a group have the power to recruit positive emotions which can guide us across difficult thresholds onto our own divine paths. Unfortunately, religions often squander this power, letting tribalism take over.
Hamer, Dean The God Gene. A molecular biologist at NCI, Hamer identified the indicators of religiosity as: propensity for mystical experience; transpersonal identification, self-forgetfulness, concern with or feeling for all the things around one. He then searched for a genetic basis for such traits. He found it in genetic material from Buddhist monks, Wiccan priestesses, and others and called it the gene for “self transcendence” or VMAT2, which makes a protein that packages monoamines like dopamine and serotonin, mood-altering neurotransmitters. With William James, Hamer believes that religion is what one does in solitude. On this view, some people are genetically more spiritual than others.
Of course, this claim disregards the communal and interdependent nature of religions. It is an example of how science can turn a vague idea like “religiosity” into operational concepts for empirical study. After the study, however, one must always return to the original abstraction and ask whether the operational concepts validly represent the object under study. It is not enough to say that because one has defined religiosity as self-forgetfulness and propensity for mystical experience, that a gene producing a protein causing these effects is the gene for religion–or the “God gene.” The initial abstraction of a vague concept is narrow. The subsequent testing is narrower. The statistically significant claims of the results yet narrower, and the interpretations and speculations regarding the results, narrower still. The religious believe that God is present in all things, so these results are perhaps not surprising at all.
Hirschfield, Jane Nine Gates. Like Hart Crane, who wrote that poetry is “self discipline for the purpose of a formal integration of experience,” and Gary Snyder, another Buddhist poet, Jane Hirschfield’s work is deeply controlled by her meditative life. But she is popularly known for her definition of Zen: “Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention.”
Lama, The Dalai Ethics for the New Millenium The Dalai Lama writes that “someone else’s action should not determine your response.” Our identities–indeed all identities and ideas–have a provisional nature. They are provided by convention so that we may communicate with each other, but “when we begin to see that everything that we perceive and experience arises as part of an indefinite series of causes and conditions, our whole perspective changes.” Perhaps what one sees is like the jewel net of Indra–a net of infinite size and covered in sparkling jewels reflecting each other. This is a classic Buddhist image for universal interdependence. Such a view is violated by the concept of individualism; yet production, possession, consumption, and economic activity come from individual actions. So a balance must be struck. As he says, “There is no denying that our happiness is inextricably bound up with the happiness of others. There is no denying that if society suffers, we ourselves suffer. Nor is there any denying that the more our hearts and minds are afflicted with ill will, the more miserable we become. Thus we can reject everything else: religion, ideology, all received wisdom. But we cannot escape the necessity of love and compassion.” An African word for the inextricable connections of our well being with the well being of others is “ubuntu.” (See the poem “Ubuntu” p. 370, Frameshifts, vol. 2.)
Lawrence, Brother The Practice of the Presence of God.(quoted elsewhere)
Lewis, Samuel L. Spiritual Dance and Walk. Lewis was a widely-traveled botanist who founded the Dances of Universal Peace. (Local chapters are in Charlottesville and Richmond.) One of the dances goes to the Kabbalistic words, “I’m opening up in sweet surrender to the luminous love light of the world.”
Lucretius On the Nature of things. (especially in the translation by Frank O. Copley) This exposition of Epicurean philosophy and Democritus’ atomism is an early materialistic explanation of the cosmos. It also aimed to console those who feared death, simply stating that where death is, we are not and where we are, death is not. In that much, it was like the later poem by Mary Frye in Baltimore in 1938 for her Jewish neighbor worried about her family in Europe: “Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there, I do not sleep, I am a thousand winds that blow; I am the diamond glint in snow. / I am the sunlight on ripened grain . . .” Such a consolation is also offered by Buddhism and by an awakening to our transience, scale, and inter-dependence within a vast and beloved reality.
Nouwen, Henri J.M. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership
Okakura, Kakuzo The Book of Tea. Okahura explores the connections of Teaism, Taoism, and Zen.
Parini, Jay Jesus, the Human Face of God. See my review in the earlier blog.
Pope, Alexander Essay on Man. A human being, he says, exists in an “isthmus of a middling state/ A Being darkly wise and rudely great/ With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side/ With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,/ He hangs between, in doubt to act, or rest, / In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast,/ In doubt his mind or body to prefer,/ Born but to die and reasoning but to err. . .” Written as rationalist treatise in 1743, Pope’s essay has always seemed a concise statement of exactly where humanity stands.
Rogers, Fred Television performer. Rogers’ performances were centered in meditative practice and compassion. He frequently cited the writings of Henri Nouwen. I have thought that Rogers’ puppet plays about King Friday unconsciously spoofed a false notion about God as a self-absorbed paternal ruler to whom everyone is always saying, “Correct as usual, King Friday.” Rogers may have done this deliberately, but his interest was in using puppetry to go into the imagination and find stories about human development during a very short period of human life. He did so in a secular television program, but his intentions were religious. He begins with the same question that the
lawyer (or rich young ruler–not a bad name for a three or four year-old) asked Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” Rogers answer was a Neighborhood–the whole Kingdom of Make Believe he created, which was his expression of the kingdom of God.
Schneider, Stephen H. The Primordial Bond. Religion, arts and sciences recognize the natural cycles of the Earth. Humans participate in these cycles and in traditional societies have attempted to live in balance with the natural world. Schneider and his co-author present art, literature, and quantitative science in support of a balanced and sustainable way of life.
Schweitzer, Albert The Philosophy of Civilization, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Reverence for Life, J.S.Bach. Schweitzer wrote, “wherever a man turns he can find someone who needs him. Even if it is a little thing, do something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it. For remember, you do not live in a world all your own. Your brothers are here too.” I cannot write too much about Schweitzer and therefore stop here.
Seneca On the shortness of life (part of a longer essay. See also: On Tranquility) writes that “the greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today.” He mentions Democritus’s treatise on balance or euthymia and cites Lucretius, speaking of human restlessness: “Thus every man flees himself.” And again, he says, “You act like mortals in all that you fear and like immortals in all that you desire . . . You are living as if destined to live forever; your own frailty never occurs to you.” He lists all the ways people waste their lives and then complain of not having enough time.
“Everyone hustles his life along and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present.”
Shepherd, Phil New Self, New World Shepherd speaks of divisions due to the nature of abstraction and individualism, ignoring the Law of Inter-relationship. A sense of the Whole requires passive acceptance because we are confronted with the fact that all of reality will forever be greater than humans. We cannot get that perspective. Instead, we get approximations and what he calls unintegrated perspectives. The natural cycles of nature give us a sense of the compensations of parts to the whole, in which some humans of the past partook and saw their own roles as stewards. Imbalances set in as nature was transformed from provider to resource, shifting the center from the worldmind to the controlling mind.
Sobel, Eliezer Why I am not enlightened. This author, a Richmond resident, seems to have explored every meditative method known. His accounts of numerous encounters with gurus, guides, shamans, priests ,and New Age psychologists are filled with sage humor. An earnest seeker pleads with a Zen priest to show him enlightenment. The priest holds his head under water until he chokes; then he says, “When you want to be enlightened as much as you wanted to breathe just now, come back and see me.”
Thurston, Mark The Inner Power of Silence. Currently the director of a unique program on Contemplation at George Mason University, Thurston wrote this book in 1986. It is an excellent summary of meditative practices such as anapanasati, the surrender to the rhythm of the “universe which breathes through us.”
Tillich, Paul Dynamics of Faith. The object of devotion or “ground of all being”
is an ultimate concern, Tillich said, with an emphasis on “ultimate.” For Rudolph Otto (The Idea of the Holy), the numinous experience of the Holy was the object of devotion. Jesus’ parable of the prisoners, needy, and sick being Christ in the world could be interpreted in relational terms, following Buber, or in Tillich’s terms of ultimacy. All descriptions of the object of devotion have supported ethical prescriptions from Mesopotamian times to Decalogue times to New Testament times. Perhaps questions about suffering, origins, dreams, the dead, and the proper object of devotion are reflections on communal life. The liturgies and scriptures and ethical codes are antedated by communal practices, stories, and folk arts. The later traditions evolve to recognize and strengthen communal relationships which already existed. Like literature and the historical disciplines, religion concerns stories partially verified and intended as templates by which a community becomes obligated. The community of faith is defined by a “system of thought and action,” (Winston King, An Introduction to Religion) as given by the myth in which it is rooted. Usually such communities were ethnically homogeneous, but in great worldwide religions, the community had more and more to accommodate the vast reality not addressed by its formulations. Coming out of Protestantism and the postwar period, Tillich sought to find the fundamental features of what it meant to live by faith. He discovered that all human beings search for ultimate concerns, even though clumsily or unknowingly.
Tilden, Elwyn Toward Understanding Jesus. Tilden, who was my teacher, spoke of Jesus’ “life-fostering concern,” a concept like Schweitzer’s “reverence for life,” which extends to all of creation. Tilden wrote that the “turn from collecting of facts to interpreting the whole of life–this evaluating and self-dedicating operation–is faith rather than science at work. Men align themselves with the truth they accept . . . This act of selfdirection or self-dedication is more clearly included in the meaning of ‘faith’ than of philosophy.”
Final Comments. I weaken/! It’s time to cut off the list. Other writings and stories about the divine path are too numerous to add– Faust, Henry IV (See W.H. Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare and everything else by Shakespeare, Auden and Philip Larkin), the stories about Moses, Orpheus, Demeter, Gilgamesh, and James Joyce’s stories about Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom. Also, the works of poets like Hopkins, Dickinson, Basho, Eliot, Rilke, Crane and others too numerous to mention.
Harold Bloom argued that religions are worships of literary figures–and often the wrong figures. He finds more wisdom in Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Homer than in the philosophers, like the Platonists who influenced Kabbalah, Christianity, and literature. He sees the rift in Western thinking between Platonic and Hebraic thought as a defining dynamic in our culture which stimulates our imaginations. He points out that to do creative work in a culture with a well defined tradition, the artists purposely misreads the tradition to create space for the imagination to work. Thus Plato censored poets but created the poetic fiction of Socrates, and thus, Bloom says, Christianity misreads Judaism. The more Jewish version of Jesus’ life is to be found in sources like The Book of Thomas, where Jesus is shown as an itinerant rabbi teaching the wisdom to be found in the immediate, present, and commonplace. He tells his followers to disregard their historical predecessors and traditions. They must learn to open their eyes and understand the wisdom around them.
Certainly an immediate, kinesthetic awareness and empathy are evoked by poets, dramatists, artists, and composers. The world-mind is to be made immediately accessible and as natural as if there were no mediator. When an opera like La Traviata, or Mathis der Maler, or Kurt Weill’s The Covenant begins, one suddenly is in another world.
Of course, some in the audience always resist–turning away, laughing, despising, ignoring. They are not prepared to connect with the work. A sower must first rake the ground and prepare it to receive the seeds or the soil will not receive the seeds. My parents, a young officer on leave during World War II and his new bride from Texas, went to a ballet in New York and couldn’t stop laughing. They had to leave before being told to leave. Such a high-fallutin’ performance was so unfamiliar to them that they
couldn’t take it seriously, but for a Russian bureaucrat, stealthily passing along a samizdat to her co-workers, a visit to the Bolshoi was a religious experience of the artistic freedom so alien to the rest of her life. She received the ballet experience with a sense of elevated gratitude. Most of us, most of the time are more like seeds falling on unraked, unprepared soil.
We’re not so enlightened
Sometimes we seem not dumb but numb. Think of a foot asleep. Or think of the people we read about running into trees or being robbed at the ATM at 3:00 a.m. Both the perpetrators and the victims who make it above the fold of the morning newspaper often seem to have been sleepwalking through their lives. We too, in our personal lives, may continue to hurt ourselves and others as if caught in the repeating loops of dream. In our public lives, our trances become great, unbalanced, calamitous movements. The
numbness is what religions call darkness. The correction is enlightenment–waking up. But if it’s a personal path, how can anyone else tell you how to find it?
It doesn’t help that the many sources all seem to have different ideas about enlightenment. Do we remain unenlightened because we are ignorant of a Secret Idea or because we are insensitive to an Obvious Idea? Is this matter of waking up even concerned with getting an idea right?
Let’s back up. I am not multilingual. I also am not multi-enlightened. Joseph Campbell was capable of writing about the “hero with a thousand faces,” but, much as I admire his work, I can only make out a few faces. Like a tree, I am rooted in the Christian divine walk. It’s where I grew. Seeing Christ in others is the practice Christians follow by continually rehearsing Christ-consciousness with each other. In non-Christian systems, I can only converse in a creole or pidgin, but it seems to me that all traditions say that humans remain unenlightened when they live in a trance and forget three realities:
their animal nature, and tree-rootedness in what is given
their limited understanding and scale, and
the inter-relationships affected by their self-dazzling control of everything
Waking up to these realities is spiritual enlightenment, but this is not an intellectual exercise. Transformation is not mechanized. I do not argue for an idea but rather make a plea. Like Phil Shepherd, I feel that our culture is losing its way and profoundly unbalanced. As when Lord Krishna or other avatars were sent to restore
balance to a distorted world-mind or as when Orpheus traveled to Hades to fetch Eurydice, we have a trip ahead of us. Why? Gross injustice, inequity, violence, and global devastation–the usual situation for myth, religion, and apocalyptic hucksterism. The usual solution is a personal Quest followed by social Transformation. The world is then restored and pulled back from the powers of darkness. All good plots.
But neither academic nor mythic analysis is within my grasp, so I will simply expand on the three realities and let you take it from there.
Our animal nature and rootedness. On the religious view, escaping the trance we are in is less about getting more information than it is about fully appreciating what we are, or as Percy Bridgman called it, “the way things are.” And first we are animals: relational, rooted in place and group, transient, sentient, self-stabilizing centers of energetic and informational exchange. Our less cognitive relations, particularly the mammals, are exquisitely sensitive to the immediate conditions of their habitats, readily accommodating to and assimilating changes at many levels of metabolism, behavior, and genetics. Whether through reflex reactions, fixed action patterns, learning, dominance hierarchies, biochemical change, or epigenetics, they respond impeccably to their worlds without ideas, abstractions, analysis, dissertations, or market research.
Our limited understanding and scale. We, however, begin to lose speech almost as soon as we learn what to do with it. We convert experiences into meanings and forget that we created the meanings. Our trademarks are statistics, poems, iconic images, computer-assisted designs, translations of dead languages and countless other ways of putting living things to death through names and explanations. Statistics hide the costs of our comforting systems, but Frederico Lorca reminds us that “beneath all the statistics is a drop of duck’s blood” and that a “river of blood flows past the suburbs” of our comforts. But we go on, confidently bundling all of our forms of knowledge into traditions, curricula, resource allocations, societal structures, academic disciplines, industries, markets, and what Phil Phenix called “realms of meaning.”
Of course, in wretched circumstances, meanings give us our lives back. Consider the Mozart played by and for the dying in Theresienstadt, the Quartet for the End of Time, composed by Messiaen while in Stalag #7, or the log drums played by Africans enslaved in Virginia. These expressions led the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl to observe:
We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life–daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems to to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets before each individual . . . . . No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. . . (Man’s Search for Meaning, 122-123)
Given such trying circumstances and our feelings of insignificance as we contemplate our lives and express ourselves, it is not surprising that we are often dazed. We defensively exaggerate our importance and knowledge. Perhaps our bodies being mostly empty space is a frighteningly good reason to remain in a daze.
Our inter-relationships. Nevertheless, these limitations lead us to exaggerate the importance of meaning, to forget how to perceive and live as animals, and how to have a world-mind. So we fail to be circumspect about our understandings. As a Christian , I should try to allow for a deep integrity in the way things are–not because I know this, but because I also allow for my animal and cognitive limitations. Lucretius saw atoms and the void where others later saw electromagnetic fields or informatics. All such understandings are defined by levels of measurement and limited by characteristics abstracted, however useful the ideas may become. To say that one allows for a deep integrity in the way things are is to accept limitations on one’s understanding and to realize that “knowing” and “meaning” are concerned with acceptably verifiable claims.
Enlightenment, however, is about re-discovering the personal experience of the animal’s receptivity and readiness to accommodate to relationships at many levels, to assimilate the accommodations, and to respond in an impeccably adept way. To say that one allows for a deep integrity in the way things are is also to accept that the built-in limitations on knowledge also apply to self-knowledge. Again, as native Americans remind us, our animal spirit-guides show the way–like Mashkinonge, the spirit-fish portrayed in my Fisher of the James. The animal way is to accept the given world. Frankl reminds us that when invited to an unavoidable situation, it is often better to be prepared with acceptance than with meanings.
And Fred Rogers reminds us of the acceptance of others as they are, saying “the greatest gift you can give someone is an honest receiving of what the person has to offer.” That is, enlightenment is not about getting an idea right, it is about surrender to how things are. I prefer to say it is about accepting the beloved reality:
Bless the wisdom of the Holy One above us.
Bless the truth of the Holy One beneath us.
Bless the love of the Holy One within us.
–from the Chinook Psalter, 2008
So, this acceptance of our relationships to how things are is not about explanation and control, but surrender, expression and responsibility. This is a matter of whole-body responsiveness, not simply words. Shaky ground–without the proofs, persuasion, and explanations of language. The language of poetry, however, can take shortcuts:
Yang argues against any idea of poetry that is unchangeable, unchallengeable, or fixed. In his use of meaning to urge us to pass beyond meaning, in his use of words to pass beyond words, he points to the mode of knowledge described in the Heart Sutra, the central text of Zen: “no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no consciousness.” The description does not mean than an awakened person is blind, struck deaf, numb to the world, and dumb. Rather, such a person is one who knows the world directly, without mediation, and knows the self in the widest existence, reflected in all things. The poet, too, is free to see with no eyes, to speak with no tongue. Poetry will continue on its own path, untroubled. (from Jane Hirschfield’s Nine Gates, p.57)
Archibald MacLeish may have had this in mind when he wrote that
A poem should be palpable and mute
as a globed fruit,
as old medallions to the thumb,
as silent as the sleeve-worn stone
of casement ledges where the moss has grown.
A poem should be wordless
as the flight of birds.
Shepherd puts it this way:
As Buddha said, “Your work is to discover your work and then, with all your heart, to give yourself to it.” Creativity itself is precisely about receiving the energies of the world, processing them, and releasing them. But the same could be said of presence: to be present is to be here, now, fully sensitized and awake to the world–assimilating it and giving over to what it calls from you without resistance or hesitation. The same can be said of the third leg of our metaphoric stool: freedom. The caged tiger cannot live in an open exchange of energies with the world; the tiger treading the bamboo grove is fully participant in it. In fact, the currents of energy that make yup your exchange with the world are what you feel as your life. You are most fully in reality, then, and most freely in reality, when your exchange of Energy with the world is most free: when the inner corridor is most uncluttered . . .
—New Self, New World, (p.266)
These helpful formulations provide indicators of enlightenment, but they cannot be used to certify that one is enlightened. Presumably those not sufficiently mindless or wordless would not entirely qualify! Thus one seems always to slip into trying to get the idea of enlightenment just right. We continually get in our own way.
Like Jesus, Brother Lawrence wrote nothing on the subject of enlightenment. All that is known about him comes from an interview. He seems to have adopted a habit of acceptance that recalls Buddha’s final words to his disciples, “Learn to take satisfaction with what is given.” He said:
That our sanctification did not depend upon changing our works, but in doing that for God’s sake which we commonly do for our own. That it was lamentable to see how many people mistook the means for the end, addicting themselves to certain works, which they performed very imperfectly . . . (and) That it was a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times; that we are as strictly obliged to adhere to God by action in the time of action as by prayer in the season of prayer. That his prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of God, his soul being at that time insensible to everything but divine love . . .
While allowing for both the ways of action (like Karma Yoga) and meditation (like Dhyana Yoga), Brother Lawrence speaks of his own acceptance of how things are as a “holy inactivity.” As Eliezer Sobel comments, referring to Zen master Bernie Glassman, escaping from the “addiction to being me” is unlikely for any of us–even if we are “spiritual superstars.”
Spiritual realization is more like a rock that you sit on than a path you walk on. “You find your seat,” the Buddhists say, and you sit in that center of Presence and Being, gazing at Reality as it is, including the unfolding of your own and everyone’s ongoing participation, contributions, and dramas of daily life. (Why I am not enlightened)
Of what use are guides if the wake-up call from the universe is not an idea but a personally discovered divine path? It would seem that all that is needed is to become more spiritual–but who is this self independently finding his way through the universe? A relational being. A limited being. A being rooted in the forest of its animal and social nature. A being of the “isthmus of a middling state,” as Pope called it, whose very uniqueness is created by interdependent relationships.
Whatever guidance is available must be used.
So you now have a list of references and a suggestion that you can best learn a spiritual practice when rooted in a beloved community and its tradition. But
enlightenment is not guaranteed. Rooted as he was in his religious community, Nicodemus could not understand what it meant to be “born again.” The disciples of Jesus were equally clueless both at understanding and even at recognizing Christ after his resurrection. If spiritual enlightenment were as commonplace and accessible to us as religious guides tell us, it should be possible to tell how things are in a way that is concise, non-narrative, and not overly abstract or doctrinal. So I’ll try one last time.
Realities Escape Us
As we master the world, we repeatedly lose contact with three aspects of
being human: that we are animals, that our ways of reference are limited, and that we occupy a narrow band within scales of time, mass, and range of influence.
When we attend to these realities we discover other realities:
That to be animal is to be a transient, semi-stable system interdependently exchanging energy and information with other systems.
That our cognition has led to many systems of reference, such as abstractions, speech, maths, inquiry, arts, and cultures. Proper selective attention to relationships within a system of reference forces one to neglect relationships external to the system, but because all events are inter-related, this neglect ultimately must be corrected.
And that attention to our own scale, situation, and relationships, whether individual or societal, makes other scales of reference inaccessible. The physicist, Neils Bohr, was surprised to realize that he “could not think of my son at the same moment both in the light of love and in the light of justice.” This led him to think that certain states of mind were like the two aspects of “figure-ground” pictures–what psychologists call metastability. We know that both a vase and two profiles are in a figure, but we can’t make ourselves see both simultaneously. If we have trouble with only two pictures, consider our limitations in dealing with metastable images of higher order.
What’s given simply is too vast
For us to take more than we make
The universe has us outclassed.
(Frameshifts, p. 376, vol. 2)
So many classes, sets, conditions, properties, and concepts can metastably exist than we can comprehend! In reference to particles, physicists’ call it complementarity.
In reference to our efforts to attend to the ground of our being, we find that the very neglect necessary to knowing in one way disables us from knowing in another way. We shift from one provisional frame of reference to another with little leaps, only occasionally glimpsing as a whole our animal natures, transience, and deep roots in the reality to which we belong.
So we are inclined to forget the provisional nature of our reference systems. Our very accomplishments put us at greater and greater distance from our feelings and responsibilities as beings of the universe. In fact, as we master our understanding of the world, we may even begin to believe that it is the world.
As we grasp at reality we believe reality to be what we have grasped. It’s an honest error, particularly given all the benefits, conveniences, and benevolences made possible by our understandings, inventions, and undertakings.
This error is the source of grievous separation of human beings from nature, their own nature, and each other–a separation with painful consequences, and a separation from reality recognized from ancient times and addressed in the many ways peoples have described the divine path.
Rehearsing the stories of the divine path returns us to the transient and relational nature of existence, the social and provisional nature of understanding, and the ineffable relationship of beings to the deep integrity of the way things are. The divine path always concerns transformations and restoration to the way things are. This reality escapes us because human grasp exceeds its reach.
But the great gift is that the beloved reality always reaches for us and draws us back in, as Jesus described the shepherd looking for one sheep.
Of course, Nicodemus and the disciples in the upper room, the women at the tomb, and the disciples in Emmaus only recognized Jesus a little at a time. Perhaps, then, the most we can say to guide each other toward personal transformation is:
Stop, Look, and Listen.
O Thou whose love is broader than the measure of man’s mind and who doth make even the wrath of men to praise Thee, we give thanks for the opportunity to worship through our works. Let us have thankful hearts, for we have all drunk from wells we did not dig and warmed ourselves at fires we did not build. All is given, even we ourselves, and this gift is the answer to our petitions. Let faith guide us, love preserve us, and hope engage us in a mission of reconciliation and healing.