There is no end to the number of meditation themes; one must choose one that is appealing to oneself. One might start discursively, by running through a mantram, but the idea is to achieve a nondiscursive one-pointedness of attention. Here are some suggestions.
1. A Christian of a bhaktic disposition might start with the Jesus Prayer which is used by the mystics of Eastern Orthodoxy: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." One tethers one's mind to the mantram to the exclusion of all other thoughts, repeating it (in thought) over and over. One then gradually whittles it down to one word, 'Lord,' for example, by progressively dropping 'a sinner,' 'on me a sinner,' 'have mercy on me a sinner,' and so on. One then repeats 'Lord,' 'Lord, 'Lord,' . . . in an attempt to sink into mental quiet.
Mental quiet is the first phase of meditation proper. Achieving it is difficult and rare, and what one does to achieve it is merely preliminary to meditation proper. A resolute, daily meditator may reasonably hope touch upon mental quiet once a month.
If one feels oneself slipping into mental quiet, then one must let go of the mantram and simply abide passively in the state of quietude, without reflecting on it, analyzing it, or recalling how one got to it. Philosopher types who 'suffer' from hypertrophy of the discursive faculty may find this well-nigh impossible. The approach to mental quiet is a phase of active working; this is difficult enough. Even more difficult is the phase in which one lets go of this work and simply rests in it. There will be a very strong temptation to analyze it. If at all possible, resist this temptation.
2. A more metaphysically inclined Christian who is fond of St. Augustine might experiment with his phrase, 'Lord, eternal Truth, unchanging Light,' reducing it to one word, whether 'Lord' or 'Truth' or 'Light.'
3. I have had good results with a line from Plotinus' Enneads, "It is by the One that all beings are beings." This is a very rich saying that can be mulled over from several directions. Everything that is, IS. What is it for a thing TO BE? And what is the source of the being of that-which-is? It is by the One that all beings are. What does 'by' mean? And what is the One? Although one starts discursively, the idea is to penetrate this ONE, to become at-one with it, to achive at-one-ment. As Plotinus would say, it is a flight of the alone to the all-One. Of course, it cannot be grasped: any grasping is discursive.
One is digging for the nondiscursive root of the discursive mind, a root that is itself rooted in the ONE which is the source of all phenomenal entities and unities.
4. A classical theme of meditation is the Self, or, if you insist, the absence of a Self. Here is one of the ways I approach this theme. I start by closely attending to my breath. I think of it objectively as air entering though my nostrils and travelling to my lungs. And then I think about my body and its parts. Here on this mat is this animated body; but am I this animated body? How could I be identical to this animated body? I have properties it doesn't have, and vice versa. Am I this breath, these lungs, this cardiovascular system, this animated body? Or am I the awareness of all of this? How could I be any object? Am I not rather the subject for whom all objects are objects? Am I not other than every object? But what is this subject if it is not itself an object? How could there be a subject that was not an object or a potential object? Is it nothing at all? But there is awareness, and awareness is not any object. There is patently a difference between the awareness of O and O, for any O. To be for a human being is to be in this transcendental difference. Is this difference nothing? If it is not nothing, what differs in this difference?
One can pursue this meditation in two ways. One can reduce it to a koan: I am awareness and I am not nothing, but I am not something either. Not nothing and not something. How? I am something, I am nothing, I can't be both, I can't be neither. What then is this I that is nothing and something and not nothing and something? One can take this as a koan, an intellectual knot that has no discursive solution but is not a mere nugatory puzzle of linguistic origin, to be relieved by some Wittgensteinian pseudo-therapy, but a pointer to a dimension beyong the discursive mind. The active phase of the meditation then consists in energetically trying to penetrate this riddle.
Note that one needn't dogmatically assume or affirm that there is a dimension beyond the discursive mind. This is open inquiry, exploration without anticipation of result. One 'senses' that there is a transdiscursive dimension. This is connected to the famous sensus divinitatis. If there were no intimation of the Transdiscursive, one would have no motive to take up the arduous task of meditation. I am referring to the genuine article, not some New Age relaxation technique.
Or, instead of bashing one's head against this brick wall of a koan, one can just repeat 'I,' 'I', 'I' in an attempt at peacefully bringing the discursive intellect to subsidence. But in a genuine spirit of inquiry and wonder. No 'vain repetitions.'
I want to ask, which meditation techniques do you practice? Or rather, do they include some specifically Buddhist ones? Even vipassana/insight practice?
Some Buddhists told me that doing vipassana seriously always tends one towards Buddhist beliefs. I wonder if you agree. Or if you think that vipassana practice as such is not exerting that tendency and that the tendency is rather exerted by the combination of the practice with certain doctrines brought into the practice.
E.g., yesterday I read (in a Buddhist manual by Daniel Ingram) that when practising vipassana -- in a way that increases the speed, precision, consistency and inclusiveness of our experience of all the quick little sensations that make up our sensory experience -- "it just happens to be much more useful to assume that things are only there when you experience them and not there when you don’t. Thus, the gold standard for reality when doing insight practices is the sensations that make up your reality in that instant. ... Knowing this directly leads to freedom."
Will the vipassana practice tend me to believe that "useful" assumption, so useful for becoming to believe the Buddhist doctrines? Also, can I make any serious progress in that practice without making that assumption?
A. One Way to Meditate
Let me tell you about a fairly typical recent morning's meditation. It lasted from about 3:10 to 4 AM.
After settling onto the meditation cushions, I turned my attention to my deep, relaxed, and rhythmic breathing, focusing on the sensation of air passing in and out through the nostrils. If distracting thoughts or images arose I would expel them on the 'out' breath so that the expulsion of air coincided with the 'expulsion' of extraneous thoughts. If you have already learned how to control your mind, this is not that difficult and can be very pleasant and worth doing for its own sake even if you don't go any deeper.
(If you find this elementary thought control difficult or impossible, then you ought to be alarmed, just as you ought to be alarmed if you find your arms and legs flying off in different directions on their own. It means that you have no control over your own mind. Then who or what is controlling it?)
I then visualized my lungs' filling and emptying. I visualized my body as from outside perched on the cushions. And then I posed a question about the awareness of breathing.
There is this present breathing, and there is this present awareness of breathing. Even if the breathing could be identified with, or reduced to, an objective, merely physical process in nature, this won't work for the awareness of breathing.
What then is this awareness? It is not nothing. If it were nothing, then nothing would appear, contrary to fact. Fact is, the breathing appears; it is an object of awareness. So the awareness is not nothing. But the awareness is not something either: it it not some item that can be singled out. There is at least an apparent contradiction here: the awareness-of is both something and nothing. A Zen meditator could take this as a koan and work on it as such.
Or, in an attempt at avoiding logical contradiction, one might propose that the awareness-of is something that cannot be objectified. It is, but it cannot be objectified.
I am aware of my breathing, but also of my breathing's being an object of awareness, which implies that in some way I am aware of my awareness, though not as a separable object.
Who is aware of these things? I am aware of them. But who am I? And who is asking this question? I am asking it. But who am I who is asking this question and asking who is asking it?
At this point I am beyond simple mind control to what could be self-inquiry. (Cf. Ramana Maharshi) The idea is to penetrate into the source of this awareness. One circles around it discursively with the idea of collapsing the circle into a non-discursive point, as it were. (I just now came up with this comparison.)
B. Does doing vipassana seriously always tends one towards Buddhist beliefs?
I don't think so. The Vipassana meditator's experiences are interpreted in the light of the characteristic Buddhist beliefs (anicca, anatta, dukkha). They are read in to the experiences rather than read off from them. A Christian meditator could easily do the same thing. I reported an unforgettable experience deep in meditation in which I felt myself to be the object of a powerful, unearthly love. If I take myself to have experienced the love of Christ, then clearly I go beyond the phenomenology of the experience. Still, the experience fits with Christian beliefs and could be taken in some loose sense to corroborate it. The same goes for the Vipassana meditator.
For example, does one learn from meditation that all is impermanent?
First of all, that
T. All is impermanent
Can be argued to be self-refuting.
Here goes. (T) applies to itself: if all is impermanent, then (T), or rather the propositional content thereof, is impermanent. That could mean one of two things. Either the truth-value of the proposition expressed by (T) is subject to change, or the proposition itself is subject to change, perhaps by becoming a different proposition with a different sense, or by passing out of existence altogether. (There is also a stronger reading of 'impermanent' according to which the impermanent is not merely subject to change, but changing, and indeed continuously changing.)
Note also that if (T) is true, then every part of (T)'s propositional content is impermanent. Thus the property (concept) of impermanence is impermanent, and so is the copulative tie and the universal quantifier. If the property of impermanence is impermanent, then so is the property of permanence along with the distinction between permanence and impermanence.
In short, (T), if true, undermines the very contrast that gives it a determinate sense. If true, (T) undermines the permanence/impermanence contrast. For if all is impermanent, then so is this contrast and this distinction. This leaves us wondering what sense (T) might have and whether in the end it is not nonsense.
What I am arguing is not just that (2) refutes itself in the sense that it proves itself false, but refutes itself in the much stronger sense of proving itself meaningless or else proving itself on the brink of collapsing into meaninglessness.
No doubt (2) is meaningful 'at first blush.' But all it takes is a few preliminary pokes and its starts collapsing in upon itself.
Now perhaps the Vippassana meditator gets himself into a state in which he is aware of only momentary, impermanent dharmas. How can he take that to show that ALL is impermanent?
There is also a question about what a belief would be for a Buddhist. On my understanding, beliefs are "necessary makeshifts" (a phrase from F. H. Bradley) useful in the samsaric realm, but not of ultimate validity. They are like the raft that gets one across the river but is then abandoned on the far shore. The Dharma (teaching) is the raft that transports us across the river of Samsara to the land of Nirvana where there is no need for any rafts -- or for the distinction between Samsara and Nirvana.
D. How Much Metaphysics Does One Need to Meditate?
Assuming that meditation is pursued as a spiritual practice and not merely as a relaxation technique, I would say that the serious meditator must assume that there is a 'depth dimension' of spiritual/religious significance at the base of ordinary awareness and that our ultimate felicity demands that we get in touch with this depth dimension.
"Man is a stream whose source is hidden." (Emerson) I would add that meditation is the difficult task of swimming upstream to the Source of one's out-bound consciousness where one will draw close to the Divine Principle.
As St. Augustine says, Noli foras ire, in te ipsum reddi; in interiore homine habitat veritas. The truth dwells in the inner man; don't go outside yourself: return within.
As usual, I want to ask you about something (something you're free to blog about).
Since December 2015, I've practised mindfulness meditation, with low intensity. Just 20 minutes or so each or every other day, paying calm (if possible) attention to things as they were happening in my mind or in my body. It's been great, mainly as an antidote against anxiety.
These days I have asked myself, could I gain something more, or something deeper, from my practice? If so, how? By practising more intensively, even painfully? Or by praying during, or after, my practise? The first path is carved with admirable precision in some Buddhist, step-by-step manuals . . . . But it might eventually lead me into a land of -- what seems like -- mental disorder and metaphysical madness (sensory overload, intensive fear or disgust, the impression of no self and of the nullity of classical logic). On the other hand, no comparably detailed manuals for following the latter path seem to be available . . . .
So I wonder, what would be your suggestion to someone who considers meditating more seriously and in line with really good sources yet who wants to turn neither insane nor Buddhist?
First of all, I am glad to hear that you have taken up this practice. Philosophers especially need it since we tend to be afflicted with 'hypertrophy of the critical faculty' to give it a name. We are very good at disciplined thinking, but it is important to develop skill at disciplined nonthinking as well. Disciplined nonthinking is one way to characterize meditation. One attempts to achieve an alert state of mental quiet in which all discursive operations come to a halt.
It is very difficult, however, and 20 minutes every other day is not enough. You need to work up to 40-60 minute sessions every day. Early morning is best, the same time each morning. Same place, a corner of your study, say. Posture? Seated cross-legged on cushions, with the knees lower than the buttocks. Kneeling has spiritual value, but not for long periods of prayer or meditation. Breath? Slow, even, deep, from the belly.
There needn't be any physical pain; indeed, there shouldn't be. If the full lotus is painful, there is the half-lotus, and the Burmese posture. Depending on the state of my legs and joints, I adjust my body as needed for comfort and stability. A lttle hatha yoga is a useful preliminary. Or just plain stretching, holding each stretch for 20-30 seconds.
A certain mild ascesis, though, is sine qua non for successful meditation/contemplation. You have to live a regular life, follow the moral precepts, abstain from spiritual and physical intoxicants, and so on. A little reading the night before of Evagrios Pontikos, say, is indicated; filling your head with mass media dreck & drivel contraindicated.
Meditation is an inner listening. The receptivity involved, however, opens one to demonic influence. So there is a certain danger in going deep. It is therefore a good idea for a Christian meditator to begin his session with the Sign of the Cross, a confession of weakness in which one admits that one is no match for demonic agents, and a supplication for protection from their influence. I recommend you buy a copy of the spiritual classic, Unseen Warfare by Lorenzo Scupoli. (Available from Amazon.com) Anyone who attempts to make spiritual progress ought to expect demonic opposition. (Cf. St. Paul, Epistle to the Ephesians, 6:12: "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.")
Could deep meditation drive one mad? I would say no if you avoid psychedelic drugs and lead an otherwise balanced life. You could meditate two hours per day with no ill effects.
But if you go deep, you will have unusual experiences some of which will be disturbing. There are the makyo phenomena described by Zen Buddhists. (Whether these phenomena should be described as the Zennists describe them is of course a further question.) For example, extremely powerful and distracting sexual images. I once 'heard' the inner locution, "I want to tear you apart." Inner locutions have a phenomenological quality which suggests, though of course it does not prove, that these locutions are not excogitated by the subject in question but come from without. Demonic interference?
But on another occasion I felt myself to be the object of a very powerful unearthly love. An unforgettable experience. A Christian will be inclined to say that what I experienced was the love of Christ, whereas a skeptic will dismiss the experience as a 'brain fart.' The phenomenology, however, cannot be gainsaid.
Will deep meditation and the experiences that result drive you to accepting Buddhist teaching according to which all is impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha), and devoid of self-nature (anatta)? I don't think so. Many Buddhists claim that these doctrine are verified in meditation. I would argue, however, that they bring their doctrines to their experiences and then illictly take the experiences as supporting the doctrines.
For example, if you fail to find the self in deep meditation does it follow that there is no self? Hardly. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Now that was quick and dirty, but I have expatiated on this at length elsewhere.
Does the path of meditation lead to the relativization of classical logic, or perhaps to its utter overthrow? This is a tough question about which I will say something in a subsequent post that examines Plantinga's critique of John Hick in the former's Warranted Christian Belief.
Finally, I want to recommend the two-volumed The Three Ages of the Interior Life (not the one-volumed edition) by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. (Available from Amazon.com) This is the summit of hard-core Catholic mystical theology. This is the real thing by the hardest of the hard-core paleo-Thomists. You must read it. No Francine namby-pamby-ism here.
In April of 2011, 60 Minutes had a segment on the monks of Mt. Athos. It was surprisingly sympathetic for such a left-leaning program. What one expects and usually gets from liberals and leftists and the lamestream media is religion-bashing -- unless of course the religion is Islam, the religion of peace -- but the segment in question was refreshingly objective. It was actually too sympathetic for my taste and not critical enough. It didn't raise the underlying questions. Which is why you need my blog.
We know that this world is no dream and is to that extent real. For all we know it may be as real as it gets, though philosophers and sages over the centuries, East and West, have assembled plenty of considerations that speak against its plenary reality. We don't know that there is any world other than this one. We also don't know that there isn't. Now here is an existential question for you: Will you sacrifice life in this world, with its manifold pleasures and satisfactions, for the chance of transcendent happiness in a merely believed-in hinter world? The Here is clear; the Hereafter is not. It is not clear that is is, or that it isn't, or what it is if it is. When I say that the world beyond is merely believed-in, I mean that it is merely believed-in from the point of view of the here and now where knowledge is impossible; I am not saying that there is no world beyond.
Let us be clear what the existential option is. It is not between being a dissolute hedonist or an ascetic, a Bukowski or a Simon of Sylites. It is between being one who lives in an upright and productive way but in such a way as to assign plenary reality and importance to this world, this life, VERSUS one who sees this world as a vanishing quantity that cannot be taken with full seriousness but who takes it as preparatory for what comes after death. (Of course, most adherents of a religion live like ordinary worldlings for the most part but hedge their bets by tacking on some religious observances on the weekend. I am not concerned with these wishy-washy types here.)
The monks of Mount Athos spend their lives preparing for death, writing their ticket to the Beyond, engaging in unseen warfare against Satan and his legions. They pray the Jesus Prayer ceaselessly; they do not surf the Web or engage in competitive eating contests or consort with females -- there are no distaff elements on the Holy Mountain.
Is theirs the highest life possible for a human being? Or is the quest to determine what is the highest life the highest life? The monks think they have the truth, the final truth, the essential and saving truth. Thinking they possess it, their task is not to seek it but to implement it in their lives, to 'existentially appropriate it' as Kierkegaard might say, to knit it into the fabric of their Existenz. There is a definite logic to their position. If you have the truth, then there is no point in wasting time seeking it, or talking about it, or debating scoffers and doubters. The point is to do what is necessary to achieve the transcendent Good the existence of which one does not question.
This logic is of course common to other 'true believers.' Karl Marx in the 11th of his Theses on Feuerbach wrote that "The philosophers have variously interpreted the world, but the point is to change it." Marx and the commies he spawned thought they had the truth, and so the only thing left was to implement it at whatever cost, the glorious end justifying the bloody means. Millions of eggs were broken, though, and no omelet materialized.
Buddha, too, was famously opposed to speculation. If you have been shot with a poisoned arrow, there is no point in speculating as to the trajectory of the arrow, the social class of the archer, or the chemical composition of the poison; the one thing necessary is to extract the arrow. The logic is the same, though the point is different. The point for Buddha was not theosis (deification) as in Eastern Orthodoxy, or the classless society as in Marxism, but Nirvana, the extinguishing of the ego-illusion and final release from the wheel of Samsara.
If you have the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters, then by all means live in accordance with it. Put it into practice. But do you in fact have the truth? For the philosopher this is the question that comes first and cannot be evaded. If the monks of Mt. Athos are right about God and the soul and that the ultimate human goal is theosis, then they are absolutely right to renounce this world of shadows and seemings and ignorance and evil for the sake of true reality and true happiness.
But do they have the truth or does one throw one's life away when one flees to a monastery? Does one toss aside the only reality there is for a bunch of illusions? There is of course a secular analog. I would say that all the earnest and idealistic and highly talented individuals who served the cause of Communism in the 20th century sacrificed their lives on the altar of illusions. They threw their lives away pursuing the impossible. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, for example, who went to the electric chair as atomic spies. Such true believers wasted their lives and ended up enablers of great evil. In the end they were played for fools by an evil ideology.
So isn't the philosopher's life the highest possible life for a human being? For only the philosopher pursues the ultimate questions without dogmatism, without blind belief, in freedom, critically, autonomously. I am not saying that the ultimate good for a human being is endless inquiry. The highest goal cannot be endless inquiry into truth, but a resting in it. But that can't come this side of the Great Divide. Here and now is not the place or time to dogmatize. We can rest in dogma on the far side, although there we won't need it, seeing having replaced believing.
My Athenian thesis -- that the life of the philosopher is the highest life possible for a human being -- won't play very well in Jerusalem. And I myself have serious doubts about it. But all such doubts are themselves part and parcel of the philosophical enterprise. For if nothing is immune from being hauled before the bench of Reason, there to be rudely interrogated, then fair Philosophia herself must also answer to that tribunal.
Philosophy is reason's search for the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters. But reason is not reason unless it strives mightily beyond itself to sources of truth that transcend it. So the true philosopher must be open to divine revelation. If it is the truth the philosopher seeks, then he cannot confine himself to the truth accessible to discursive reason.
A Facebook user told me he left it because it had become for him an impediment to spiritual growth. I concur and generalize: inordinate consumption of any and all mass communications media militates against spiritual health for all of us. Mass media content is a bit like whisky: a little, from time to time, will not hurt you, and my even do some good; but more is not better!
But why, exactly? Here is one answer. The attainment of mental quiet is a very high and choice-worthy goal of human striving. Anything that scatters or dis-tracts (literally: pulls apart) the mind makes it impossible to attain mental quiet as well as such lower attainments as ordinary concentration. Now the mass media have the tendency to scatter and distract. Therefore, if you value the attainment of mental quiet and such cognate states as tranquillitas animi, ataraxia, peace of mind, samadhi, concentration, 'personal presence,' etc., then you are well-advised to limit consumption of media dreck and cultivate the disciplines that lead to these states.
Of course, the quick answer I just gave presupposes a metaphysics, a philosophical anthopology and a soteriology that cannot be laid out briefly. So here are some links to related posts that fill in some of the details.
Another dangerous property of worldly things is that they appear at first as mere trifles, but each of these so-called 'trifles' branches out into countless ramifications until they swallow up the whole of a man's time and energy.
Why follow the disturbing events of the day, thereby jeopardizing one's peace of mind, when one can do nothing about them? Apatheia and the news don't go well together. Withdrawal and retreat remain options to consider. But on the other side of the question:
The temptation to retreat into one's private life is very strong. But if you give in and let the Left have free reign you may wake up one day with no private life left. Not that 'news fasts' from time to time are not a good idea. We should all consume less media dreck. But there is no final retreat from totalitarians. They won't allow it. At some point one has to stand and fight in defense, not only of the individual, but also of the mediating structures of civil society.
A rather obvious point swam before my mind this morning: there is nothing specifically Christian about the content of the Pater Noster. Its origin of course is Christian. When his disciples asked him how they should pray, Jesus taught them the prayer. (Mt 6:9-13) If you carefully read the prayer below you will see that there is no mention in it of anything specifically Christian: no mention of Jesus as the Son of God, no mention of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us (the Incarnation), no mention of the Resurrection, nothing that could be construed as even implicitly Trinitarian. So I thought to myself: a believing Jew could pray this prayer. There is nothing at the strictly doctrinal level that could prevent him. Or is there?
Christians pray the Psalms. Do any Jews pray the Our Father? Would they have a good reason not to? No more than a Christian would have a good reason not to incorporate into his prayer life Plotinus' "It is by the One that all beings are beings" despite the non-Christian provenience of this marvellous and beautiful saying.
PATER NOSTER, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra. Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a malo. Amen.
OUR FATHER, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.
UPDATE (31 May). Andrew Bailey comments:
A long-standing tradition at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame was to recite the Our Father before meetings. Many (but not all) Jewish philosophers associated with the Center would join in these prayers in the years I was there. I asked about it once, and the answer I got was along these lines: "Of course I pray the prayer. Whoever wrote it -- whether Jesus of Nazareth or one of his disciples -- was definitely a Jew, after all."
Which sort of prayer is appropriate for the proud intellectual? Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, vol. I (Catholic Way Publishing, 2013), p. 535:
Some souls absolutely need prayer, intimate and profound prayer; another form of prayer will not suffice for them. There are very intelligent people whose character is difficult, intellectuals who will dry up in their work, in study, in seeking themselves therein in pride, unless they lead a life of true prayer, which for them should be a life of mental prayer. It alone can give them a childlike soul in regard to God . . . . It alone can teach them the profound meaning of Christ's words: "Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." It is, therefore, important, especially for certain souls, to persevere in prayer; unless they do so, they are almost certain to abandon the interior life and perhaps come to ruin.
Whether it is haiku or not, it is 17 syllables, and a good addition to the Stoic's armamentarium:
Avoid the near occasion Of unnecessary conversation.
Avoiding the near occasion is not always practicable or even reasonable, but pointless conversation itself is best avoided if one values one's peace of mind. For according to an aphorism of mine:
Peace of mind is sometimes best preserved by refraining from giving others a piece of one's mind.
The other day a lady asked me if I had watched the Republican debate. I said I had. She then asked me what I had thought of it. I told her, "I don't talk politics with people I don't know extremely well." To which her response was that she is not the combative type. She followed that with a comment to the effect that while in a medico's waiting room recently she amused herself by listening to some men talking politics, men she described as 'bigots.'
I then knew what I had earlier surmised: she was a liberal. I congratulated myself on my self-restraint. At that point I excused myself and wished her a good day.
Companion post: Safe Speech. "No man speaketh safely but he that is glad to hold his peace. " (Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Chapter XX.)
A mercifully short (9:17) but very good YouTube video featuring commentary by name figures in the philosophy of religion including Marilyn Adams, William Alston, William Wainwright, and William Lane Craig. Craig recounts the experience that made a theist of him. (HT: Keith Burgess-Jackson)
As Marilyn Adams correctly points out at the start of the presentation, the belief of many theists is not a result of religious experience. It comes from upbringing, tradition, and participation in what Wittgenstein called a "form of life" with its associated "language game." I myself, however, could not take religion seriously if it were not for the variety of religious, mystical, and paranormal experiences I have had, bolstered by philosophical reasoning both negative and positive. Negative, as critique of the usual suspects: materialism, naturalism, scientism, secular humanism, and so on. Positive, the impressive array of theistic arguments and considerations which, while they cannot establish theism as true, make a powerful case for it.
But my need for direct experience reflects my personality and, perhaps, limitations. I am an introvert who looks askance at communal practices such as corporate prayer and church-going and much, if not all, of the externalities that go with it. I am not a social animal. I see socializing as too often levelling and inimical to our ultimate purpose here below: to become individuals. Socializing superficializes. Man in the mass is man degraded. We need to be socialized out of the animal level, of course, but then we need solitude to achieve the truly human goal of individuation. Individuation is not a given, but a task. The social animal is still too much of an animal for my taste.
It is only recently that I have forced myself myself to engage in communal religious activities, but more as a form of self-denial than of anything else. My recent five weeks at a remote monastery were more eremitic than cenobitic, but I did take part in the services. And upon return I began attending mass with my wife. Last Sunday a man sat down next to me, a friendly guy who extended to me his hand, but his breath stank to high heaven. Behind me some guy was coughing his head off. And then there are those who show up for mass in shorts, and I am not talking about kids. The priest is a disaster at public speaking and his sermon is devoid of content. Does he even understand the doctrine he is supposed to teach? And then there are all the lousy liberals who want to reduce religion to a crapload of namby-pamby humanist nonsense. And let's not forget the current clown of a pope who, ignorant of economics and climatology, speaks to us of the evils of capitalism and 'global warming' when he should be speaking of the Last Things. (Could he name them off the top of his head?)
But then I reason with myself as follows. "Look, man, you are always going on about how man is a fallen being in a fallen world. Well, the church and its hierarchy and its members are part of the world and therefore fallen too. So what did you expect? And you know that the greatest sin of the intellectual is pride and that pride blinds the spiritual sight like nothing else. So suck it up, be a man among men, humble yourself. It may do you some good."
I read about your recent experiences with communal
religion. Your self-reflection reminded me of something Rabbi Harold Kushner
writes about in his book WHO NEEDS GOD. He talks about visiting with a young man
who told him, "I hate churches and synagogues, they're full of nothing but
hypocrites and jerks"...Kushner says he had to fight the urge to say, 'yep, and
there is always room for one more'.
Apropos of my last entry, a warning to those may be thinking of heading for the desert. The following observation from a November 2009 post, "Demons of the Desert."
The desert fathers of old believed in demons because of their experiences in quest of the "narrow gate" that only few find. They sought to perfect themselves and so became involved as combatants in unseen warfare. They felt as if thwarted in their practices by opponents both malevolent and invisible. The moderns do not try to perfect themselves and so the demons leave them alone.
Distracted from your distractions, you may get more than you bargained for, phenomenologically, if not really.
A reader sent the following about half-way through my digital fast and blogging hiatus.
. . . I was hoping that when you emerge from it you might have some practical wisdom on how you went about it. What has your daily schedule been like? Have you struggled with the nagging urge to check everything all the time? I have been thinking a lot about the issues you raised both in The Big Unplug post and in your post on Mass Media and Spiritual Deterioration . . . . Thanks for reading this and for the writing you have contributed over the years - it has truly been signal amidst a great deal of noise.
How did I go about it? I got as far away as practicable from the hype and hustle and hyperkineticism of the modern world.
From July 26th to August 30th I lived in a hermitage on the grounds of the most remote monastery in the Western hemisphere in a place of great natural beauty. I have decided not to post any photographs or reveal the identities of any interlocutors in keeping with the monastic spirit of silence, solitude and seclusion.
An average day went something like this. Up at my usual time of 2:00 AM. (The monks arise at 3:30.) Instant coffee. I drank no good coffee for five weeks as part of the self-imposed discipline. Spiritual-philosophical reading until 3:00: Bible, Garrigou-Lagrange, Edith Stein, Theresa of Avila, et al. Formal, seated meditation until 3:30 in the hermitage. Then a 10-15 minute hike through a dark and spooky canyon to the oratory for Vigils at 4:00. This is the first hour of the liturgia horarum, the liturgy of the hours. It lasts one hour weekdays, one hour, twenty minutes on Sundays. Some of the 'little hours' are as short as ten minutes. The liturgy, chanted by the monks, is essentially psalmody with Christian elements interspersed. After Vigils, a light breakfast outside the monks' refectory. Then back to the hermitage for study and writing. I usually attended three of the seven hours per day and meditated on a 'regulation' Zen cushion and mat three times per day. I gave myself the rule, "No pray, no eat." So I attended Vigils before breakfast, Sext before the main meal, taken with the monks in the refectory, in silence of course, with one of the monk doing a reading, and Vespers before supper.
Did I struggle with the urge to check my 'devices' all the time? Not at all. I brought only a laptop computer for writing, but there was no wi-fi at the hermitage. For that I had to hike to the monastery proper where I could tap into a weak wi-fi signal. I did that a grand total of four times in five weeks, and only to check e-mail. The only other device I had with me was a primitive cell phone which was useless to me in the remote location.
From my journal:
Here in the hermitage I stand naked before my own conscience. Its penetrating power is enhanced by the exterior and interior silence.
No Escape. And now it is night. Alone in the hermitage which is itself alone and off by itself under stars undiminished by light pollution. Dead silence. No distractions of the usual sort: other people, pets, television, radio, Internet. Just me, my books, and my past -- and the spiritual dimension that the silence and solitude allow to approach. The hour glass of my existence is running out, which is why I am here to repent of my sins and prepare for death. The hour of death is the hour of truth when the masks fall, and evasions evaporate.
Modern man, distracted and diverted by endless self-referential yammering, firmly entrapped within the human horizon, is so deluded and lost as to be incapable of even raising the question, seriously, of whether anything lies beyond that stifling horizon.
Starting now, I will unplug from this hyperkinetic modern world for a period of days or weeks. How long remains to be seen. I will devote myself to such spiritual exercises as prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, hard-core philosophy and theology pursued for truth as opposed to professional gain, and the exploration of nature.
I will avoid unnecessary conversations and their near occasion, socializing, newspapers, telephony, radio, television, blogging, facebooking, tweeting, and all non-essential Internet-related activities. In a word: all of the ephemera that most people take to be the ne plus ultra of reality and importance. (As for Twitter, I am and hope to remain a virgin: I have never had truck with this weapon of mass distraction.)
But I am no benighted neo-Luddite. The air conditioning will stay on in my abode in the shadows of the Superstitions.
I ask my valued correspondents to refrain from sending me any links to events of the day or commentary thereon. I am going on a 'news fast' which is even more salutary for the soul than a food fast is for the body.
From time to time we should devote time to be still and listen beyond the human horizon. Modern man, crazed little hustler and self-absorbed chatterbox that he is, needs to enter his depths and listen.
Alasdair MacIntyre's 1981 After Virtue ends on this ominous and prescient note:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead –- often not recognizing fully what they were doing –- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another -- doubtless very different -- St. Benedict. (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, pp. 244-245.)
This was written 34 years ago, 20 years before 9/11. It is the charter for Rod Dreher's recent talk of a Benedict Option. Excerpts from an eponymous article of his:
Why are medieval monks relevant to our time? Because, says the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, they show that it is possible to construct “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained” in a Dark Age—including, perhaps, an age like our own.
For MacIntyre, we too are living through a Fall of Rome-like catastrophe, one that is concealed by our liberty and prosperity. In his influential 1981 book After Virtue, MacIntyre argued that the Enlightenment’s failure to replace an expiring Christianity caused Western civilization to lose its moral coherence. Like the early medievals, we too have been cut off from our roots, and a shadow of cultural amnesia is falling across the land.
The Great Forgetting is taking a particular toll on American Christianity, which is losing its young in dramatic numbers. Those who remain within churches often succumb to a potent form of feel-good relativism that sociologists have called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is dissolving historic Christian moral and theological orthodoxy.
A recent Pew survey found that Jews in America are in an even more advanced state of assimilation to secular modernity. The only Jews successfully resisting are the Orthodox, many of whom live in communities meaningfully separate and by traditions distinct from the world.
Is there a lesson here for Christians? Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?
The broader topic here is that of voluntary withdrawal from a morally corrupt society and its morally corrupt institutions. There are various options. One could join a monastic order and live in community. This is the monastic cenobitic option. There is also the monastic eremitic option: one lives as a hermit within a religious context subject to its rules and having taken vows. Both the cenobitic and the eremitic options can be made less rigorous in various ways. One could attach oneself as an oblate to a monastery visiting it from time to time and participating in its communal prayers and other activities (Ora, labora, et lectio are the three 'legs' of the Benedictine 'stool.'). This could also be done in an eremitic way. (From the Greek eremos, desert.)
Spiritual withdrawal is of course greatly aided by physical withdrawal from cities into deserts and other remote locales; but one could voluntarily withdraw from a morally corrupt society while living in the midst of it in, say, Manhattan. (I cannot, however, advise setting up as the resident monk in a bordello in Pahrump, Nevada.)
What of the Maverick Option? As I have been living it since 1991 it does not involve drastic physical isolation: I live on the edge of a major metropolitan area which is also the edge of a rugged wilderness area. Ready access to raw nature (as opposed to, say, Manhattan's Central Park) may not be absolutely essential for spiritual development, but it is extremely conducive to it (in tandem with other things of course). Nature, experienced alone, removes one from the levelling effects of the social. (Henry David Thoreau: "I have no walks to throw away on company." That sounds misanthropic and perhaps from Henry David's mouth it was; but it can be given a positive reading.) It would be the height of folly to suppose that man's sociality is wholly negative; but its corrupting side cannot be denied. Encounter with nature in solitude pulls one out of one's social comfort zone in such a way that the ultimate questions obtrude themselves with full force. In society, they can strike one like jokes from a Woody Allen movie; in solitude, in the desert, they are serious. Nature is not God; but the solitary encounter with it, by breaking the spell of the social, can orient us toward Nature's God.
I will have more to say of the Maverick Option, its nature and pitfalls, in a later post.
Where Jeremiah counsels engagement without assimilation, Benedict represents the possibility of withdrawal. The former goal is to be achieved by the pursuit of ordinary life: the establishment of homes, the foundation of families, all amid the wider culture. The latter is to be achieved by the establishment of special communities governed by a heightened standard of holiness.
Although it can be interpreted as a prophecy of doom, the Jeremiah Option is fundamentally optimistic. It suggests that the captives can and should lead fulfilling lives even in exile. The Benedict Option is more pessimistic. It suggests that mainstream society is basically intolerable, and that those who yearn for decent lives should have as little to do with it as possible. MacIntyre is careful to point out that the new St. Benedict would have to be very different from the original and might not demand rigorous separation. Even so, his outlook remains bleak.
We need to catalog and examine all the options. A man once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. He was the wisest of mortals.
If a philosopher seeks the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters, then he should do so by all available routes. Qua philosopher he operates in the aether of abstract thought, on the plane of discursive reason, but he cannot consistently with his calling ignore other avenues of advance. It is after all the truth that is sought, not merely the truth as philosophically accessible. There is surely no justification for the identification of truth with philosophically accessible truth.
Meditation is difficult for intellectual types because of their tendency to overvalue their mental facility and cleverness. They are good at dialectics and mental jugglery, and people tend to value and overvalue what they are good at. Philosophers can become as obsessed with their cleverness and gamesmanship as body builders with muscular hypertrophy. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to say that the typical analytic philosopher suffers from hypertrophy of the critical/discursive/dialectical faculty. He can chop logic, he can mentally and verbally jabber, jabber, jabber, and scribble, scribble, scribble, but he can't be silent, listen, attend. He would sneer, to his own detriment, at this thought of Simone Weil (Gravity and Grace, tr. Craufurd, Routledge 1995, p. 107):
The capacity to drive away a thought once and for all is the gateway to eternity.
Compare this striking line from Evagrius Ponticus (The Praktikos and Chapters of Prayer, tr. Bamberger, Cistercian Publications, 1972, p. 66, #70):
To live beyond society, beyond the need for recognition and status. To live in truth, alone with nature and nature's God and the great problems and questions. There are the ancient dead ones for companionship. They speak across the centuries. With them we form a community of the like-minded in nomine scientiae.
I read the seventh and final volume of Thomas Merton's journals, The Other Side of the Mountain, in 1998 when it first appeared. I am currently re-reading it. It is once again proving to be page turner for one who has both a nostalgic and a scholarly interest in the far-off and fabulous '60s. But what a gushing liberal and naive romantic Merton was! Here is but one example:
Yesterday, quite by chance, I met Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and his secretary . . . . Chogyam Trungpa is a completely marvelous person. Young, natural, without front or artifice, deep, awake, wise. [. . .] He is also a genuine spiritual master. (October 20, 1968, p. 219, emphasis added)
Unfortunately, the 'spirituality' of many 'spiritual masters' is of the New Age type, a type of spirituality that fancies itself beyond morality with its dualism of good and evil. One of the worst features of some New Age types is their conceit that they are beyond duality when they are firmly enmired in it. Perhaps the truly enlightened are beyond moral dualism and can live free of moral injunctions and prohibitions. But what often happens in practice is that spiritual aspirants and gurus fall into ordinary immorality while pretending to have transcended it. One may recall the famous case of Rajneesh. Chogyam Trungpa appears to have been cut from the same cloth. According to one report,
. . . Trungpa slept with a different woman every night in order to transmit the teaching to them. L. intimated that it was really a hardship for Trungpa to do this, but it was his duty in order to spread the dharma.
With apologies to the shade of Jack Kerouac, you could say that this gives new meaning to 'dharma bum.'
That Merton could be taken in by the fellow says something about Merton. A phrase such as 'genuine spiritual master' ought not be bandied about lightly. But perhaps Trungpa's excesses were not in evidence at the time.
Herewith yet another indication of why philosophy is essential to balanced thinking and living. Jerusalem and Benares are both in need of chastening, and Athens wields the rod. Although I maintain that philosophy needs completion by what is beyond philosophy, that maintenance is not a license to abandon rational critique. Every sector of life requires critique, including Philosophy herself, and Philosophy is the Critic.
As for putative 'spiritual masters,' run as fast as you can from any such 'master' or 'guru' who has something to sell you or is not in control of his lower self.
What is a contradiction from one angle is a koan from another.In a contradiction, logical thought hits a dead end. Discursive thought's road end, however, may well be the trail head of the Transdiscursive.
There is no point in begging for water with a leaky cup. Water thereby gained is immediately lost again. First fix the cup, then beg for water.
So also with the glimpses and gleanings and intimations from Elsewhere. They won't be retained in a perforated vessel. And if they are not retained, then they cannot do you any good. Moral fitness and intellectual discrimination are necessary for their recognition, proper evaluation, retention if judged salutary, and existential implementation. If you can't act right or think straight, then mystical, religious, and paranormal vouchsafings, whether they come 'out of the blue' or as a result of formal spiritual practices, may do more harm than good. They may inflate the ego or lead it into the dark regions of the occult.
The suggestion was made that I give a little talk to the monks of Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery outside of Abiqui, New Mexico. I thought I would offer a few words in defense of the monastic life, not that such an ancient and venerable tradition needs any defense from me, but just to clarify my own thoughts and perhaps help others clarify theirs either by way of agreement or disagreement with mine. I will attempt three things. I will first list some convictions I hold to be of the essence of religion. Then I will suggest that the monastic path is an excellent way to implement these convictions. Finally I will ask myself why I am not a monk.
The Essence of Religion
There is much more to a religion than its beliefs and doctrines; there are also its practices. The practices, however, are informed and guided by certain central convictions whose importance cannot be denied. Religion is not practice alone. Now it is not easy to define religion, and it may be impossible. (Religion may be a family-resemblance concept in Wittgenstein's sense.) In any case I will not attempt to define religion by specifying necessary and sufficient conditions of the concept's application. But as I see it, most of the following are essential (necessary) to anything that deserves to be called a religion, and all of them are essential to Christianity. What I offer is a characterization, not a definition.
1. In first place, and not just in the order of exposition, is the belief that there is what William James calls an "unseen order." (Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 53) This is a realm of absolute reality that lies beyond the perception of the five outer senses and their instrumental extensions. It is also inaccessible to inner sense or introspection. It is also not a realm of mere abstracta or thought-contents. So it lies beyond the discursive intellect, as it does beyond the senses. One can reason about it, and reason to it, but one cannot access it directly via the discursive intellect. It is accessible from our side via mystical and religious experience. An initiative from its side is not to be ruled out in the form of revelation.
Compare the first item in Simone Weil's Profession of Faith: "There is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man's mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties."
2. The belief that there is a supreme good for humans and that "our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves" to the "unseen order." (Varieties, p. 53) The Unseen Order is thus not merely a realm of absolute reality, but also one of absolute value and an object of our highest and purest desire.
Compare the second item in Weil's profession: "Corresponding to this reality, at the centre of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world."
3. The conviction that we are morally deficient, and that this deficiency impedes our adjustment to the Unseen Order. Man is in some some sense fallen from the moral height at which he would have ready access to the Order which alone is the source of his ultimate happiness and final good. His moral corruption, however it came about, has noetic consequences. That is, our ability to know the saving truth has been impaired by our moral deficiency.
4. The conviction that our moral deficiency cannot be made sufficiently good by our own efforts to afford us ready, or perhaps any, access to the Unseen Order. Proximately, we need the help of others; ultimately, we need help from the Unseen Order.
5. The conviction that adjustment to the Unseen Order requires moral purification/transformation.
6. The conviction that help from the side of the Unseen Order is available to bring about this purification and adjustment.
7. The conviction that the sensible order, while not unreal, is not plenary in point of reality or value, that it is ontologically and axiologically derivative, and as derivative defective. It is a manifestation or emanation or creation of the Unseen Order.
Each of these seven convictions is an element in my personal credo. Can I prove them? Of course not. But then nothing of a substantive nature in philosophy, theology, or any controversial field, can be proven. But each of the above convictions is rationally defensible. So while not provable, they are not matters of mere faith either. They can be argued for, their negations are rationally rejectable, and there are experiences that vouch for them. (See Religious Belief and What Inclines Me to It.)
The Monastic Path
I will now suggest that the monastic life is perhaps the best way to realize existentially the above convictions, but also to have the sorts of experiences that tend to provide evidence for the convictions. One lives the convictions, and by living them is granted experiences and intimations that validate the convictions.
Let us suppose that you accept all or most of the above seven propositions, in their spirit if not in their letter, and that you also share with me the meta-conviction that these first-order convictions are to be lived (existentially realized, realized in one's Existenz) and not merely thought about or talked about or argued over.
Then it makes sense to go into the desert. The negative reason is to escape the manifold distractions of the world which keep one scattered and enslaved to the ephemeral, while the positive reason is to live a life focused on the the absolute and unchanging Source of all reality and value. The entrance into the monastery signals that one is truly convinced of the reality of the unseen (#1), it supreme value for us and our happiness (#2) and the relative unreality and insignificance of this world of time and change and vain ambition (#7).
To live such a focused existence, however, requires discipline. We have a fallen nature in at least two senses. First, we are as if fallen from a higher state. Second, we are ever falling against the objects of our world and losing ourselves in them, becoming absorbed in them. (Compare Heidegger's Verfallenheit, fallingness.) Here we find the ontological root of such sins of the flesh as avarice, gluttony, and lust. Given our fallen and falling nature, a monastic institution can provide the moral discipline and guidance that might be difficult if not impossible to secure on the outside, especially in a secularized and sex-saturated society such as ours has become. The weight of concupiscence is heavy and it drags us down. We are sexual beings naturally, and oversexualized beings socially, and so we are largely unable to control our drives to the extent necessary to develop spiritual sight. The thrust of desire confers final reality upon the sensuous while occluding one's spiritual sight. Sensuous desire, especially inordinate sensuous desire, realizes the things of the senses while de-realizing the things of the spirit.
Here, as I see it, is the main reason for sexual continence. We are not continent because we are undersexed, or prudes, or anti-natalists, or despisers of matter. (Certainly no Christian could despise the material world, and a Christian such as Kierkegaard who at the end of his life waxed anti-natalist veered off into a personal idiosyncrasy.) The continence of the loins subserves the continence of the mind and heart which in turn are probably necessary, though certainly not sufficient, for a Glimpse of spiritual realities. (I say 'probably necessary' because divine grace may grant sight to the committed worldling nolens volens.)
And then there is the great problem of suggestibility. We are highly sensitive and responsive to social suggestions as to what is real and important and what is not. In a society awash with secular suggestions, people find it hard to take religion seriously. Here is another reason why a community of the like-minded may be necessary for most spiritual seekers. They provide reinforcement and the requisite counter-suggestions. (It is worth noting that if cults can 'brainwash' their members, whole societies can go off the rails and brainwash their members.)
Why Am I not a Monk?
"If you think so highly of the monastic life, what are you doing on the outside?"
A fair question deserving a straight answer. I didn't come to religion; I was brought up Roman Catholic by a pious Italian mother and pre-Vatican II nuns and priests. But I had a religious nature, so the training 'took.' But I also had a strong intellectual bent and was inclined philosophically from an early age. So I couldn't avoid asking, and not just intellectually, but existentially as well: how much of this is true and how do I know? The ferment of the 1960s only intensified my cognitive dissonance as the religious upbringing clashed on the one side with my philosophical questioning, and on the other with the secular and counter-cultural suggestions of the 'sixties. I remember in 1965 listening intently to the words of Bob Dylan's Gates of Eden and trying to discern its compatibility, if any, with Catholic teaching. (By the way, attending a Dylan concert in those days was like going to church: the audience remained dead quiet, hanging on every word.)
So philosophy took over the role in the pious youth's life that religion had played. That kept me away from any conventional religious vocation. And so it kept me out of the monastery. For one cannot join a monastery in general; it must be either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Buddhist or whatever, and to do that in good faith and with a clear intellectual conscience one must accept the central doctrinal content of those religions. But that content was exactly what to my mind needed examination. Athens at that point got the upper hand over Jerusalem. So why am I not a monk? Because of Athens.
But now, as I approach the end of the trail, I see ever more clearly the vanity of any philosophy that does not complete itself in something beyond it. But what? The empty discursivity of reason needs to be filled and completed by a direct spiritual seeing. Concepts without intuitions are empty. (Kant) So philosophy needs completion by mystical intuition, but this is rare and sporadic and fragmentary here below, mere Glimpses; to sustain us in the between times we need faith grounded in revelation.
I have been, and will continue, discussing Trinity and Incarnation objectively, that is, in an objectifying manner. Now what do I mean by that? Well, with respect to the Trinity, the central conundrum, to put it in a very crude and quick way is this: How can three things be one thing? With respect to the Incarnation, how can the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal and impassible Logos, be identical to a particular mortal man? These puzzles get us thinking about identity and difference and set us hunting for analogies and models from the domain of ordinary experience. We seek intelligibility by an objective route. We ought to consider that this objectifying approach might be wrongheaded and that we ought to examine a mystical and subjective approach, a 'Platonic' approach as opposed to an 'Aristotelian' one. See my earlier quotation of Heinrich Heine. A marvellous quotation.
1. The essence of Christianity is contained in the distinct but related doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Josef Pieper (Belief and Faith, p. 103) cites the following passages from the doctor angelicus: Duo nobis credenda proponuntur: scil. occultum Divinitatis . . . et mysterium humanitatis Christi. II, II, 1, 8. Fides nostra in duobus principaliter consistit: primo quidem in vera Dei cognitione . . . ; secundo in mysterio incarnationis Christi. II, II, 174, 6.
2. The doctrine of the Trinity spelled out in the Athanasian Creed, is that there is one God in three divine Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Each person is God, and yet there is exactly one God, despite the fact that the Persons are numerically distinct from one another. According to the doctrine of the Incarnation, the second person of the Trinity, the Son or Logos, became man in Jesus of Nazareth. There is a strong temptation to think of the doctrinal statements as recording (putative) objective facts and then to wonder how they are possible. I have touched upon some of the logical problems the objective approach encounters in previous posts. The logical problems are thorny indeed and seem to require for their solution questionable logical innovations such as the notion (championed by Peter Geach) that identity is sortal-relative, or an equally dubious mysterianism which leaves us incapable of saying just what we would be accepting were we to accept the theological propositions in question. The reader should review those problems in order to understand the motivation of what follows.
3. But it may be that the objective approach is radically mistaken. Is it an objective fact that God (or rather the second person of the Trinity) is identical to a particular man in the way it is an objective fact that the morning star is identical to the planet Venus?
Perhaps we need to explore a subjective approach. One such is the mystical approach illustrated in a surprising and presumably 'heretical' passage from St. John of the Cross' The Ascent of Mount Carmel (Collected Works, p. 149, tr. Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, emphasis added):
. . . when a person has finished purifying and voiding himself of all forms and apprehensible images, he will abide in this pure and simple light, and be perfectly transformed into it. This light is never lacking to the soul, but because of creature forms and veils weighing upon and covering it, the light is never infused. If a person will eliminate these impediments and veils, and live in pure nakedness and poverty of spirit . . . his soul in its simplicity and purity will then be immediately transformed into simple and pure Wisdom, the Son of God.
The Son of God, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, is 'born,' 'enters the world,' is 'incarnated,' in the soul of any man who attains the mystic vision of the divine light. This is the plain meaning of the passage. The problem, of course, is to reconcile this mystical subjectivism with the doctrinal objectivism according to which the Logos literally became man, uniquely, in Jesus of Nazareth when a certain baby was born in a manger in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago.
4. A somewhat less mystical but also subjective approach is suggested by an analogy that Josef Pieper offers in Belief and Faith, p. 89. I will explore his analogy in my own way. Suppose I sincerely and thoughtfully say 'I love you' to a person who is open and responsive to my address. Saying this, I do not report an objective fact which subsists independently of my verbal avowal and the beloved's reception of the avowal. There may be objective facts in the vicinity, but the I-Thou relation is not an objective fact antecedent to the address and the response. It is a personal relation of subjectivity to subjectivity. The reality of the I-Thou relation is brought about by the sincere verbal avowal and its sincere reception. The lover's speaking is a self-witnessing and "the witnessed subject matter is given reality solely by having been spoken in such a manner." (Pieper, p. 89) The speaking is a doing, a performance, a self-revelation that first establishes the love relationship.
5. The Incarnation is the primary instance of God's self-revelation to us. God reveals himself to us in the life and words of Jesus -- but only to those who are open to and accept his words and example. That God reveals himself (whether in Jesus' life and words or in the mystic's consciousness here and now) is not an objective fact independent of a free addressing and a free responding. It depends on a free communicating and a free receiving of a communication just as in the case of the lover avowing his love to the beloved. God speaks to man as lover to beloved. In the case of the Incarnation, God speaks to man though the man Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God spoken to man, which Word subsists only in the free reception of the divine communication. Thus it is not that a flesh and blood man is identical to a fleshless and bloodless person of the Trinity -- a putative identity that is hard to square with the discernibility of the identity relations' relata -- it is that God's Word to us is embodied in the life and teaching of a man when this life and teaching are apprehended and received as a divine communication. The Incarnation, as the prime instance of divine revelation, is doubly subjective in that subject speaks to subject, and that only in this speaking and hearing is the Incarnation realized.
6. Incarnation is not an objective fact or process by which one thing, the eternal Logos, becomes identical to a second thing, a certain man. Looked at in this objectivizing way, the logical difficulties become insuperable. Incarnation is perhaps better thought of as the prime instance of revelation, where revelation is, as Aquinas says at Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, 154, "accomplished by means of a certain interior and intelligible light, elevating the mind to the perception of things that the understanding cannot reach by its natural light." Revelation, so conceived, is not an objective fact. Incarnation is a mode of revelation. Ergo, the Incarnation is not an objective fact.
7. This is admittedly somewhat murky. More needs to be said about the exact sense of 'subjective' and 'objective.'
Thoughts don't like to subside. One leads to another, and another. You would experience the thinker behind the thoughts, but instead you have thoughts about this thinker while knowing full well that the thinker is not just another thought. Or you lovingly elaborate your brilliant thoughts about meditation, its purpose, its methods, and its difficulty, thoughts that you will soon post to your weblog, all the while realizing that mental blogging is not meditation.
"Man is a stream whose source is hidden," said Emerson and you would swim upstream to the Source. So you make an effort, but the effort is too much for you. Perhaps the metaphor is wrong. One from al-Ghazzali might be better.
A cooling evening breeze is more likely to come to the desert dweller if he climb to the top of the minaret than if he stay on the ground. So he makes an effort within his power, the effort of positioning himself to receive, when and if it should come, a gust of the divine favor.
He waits for the grace that may overcome the gravity of the mind and its hebetude.
To meditate is to wait, and therein lies or sits the difficulty.
This morning's session (sitting in plain English) was good and lasted from 3:30 to 4:25. Fueled by chai: coffee is too much the driver of the discursive. But now the coffee is coming in and I'm feeling fabulous and the thoughts are 'percolating' up from who knows where.
Dave Bagwill referred me to this entry from Zen Habits:
If you feel overwhelmed, breathe. It will calm you and release the tensions.
If you are worried about something coming up, or caught up in something that already happened, breathe. It will bring you back to the present.
If you are moving too fast, breathe. It will remind you to slow down, and enjoy life more.
Breathe, and enjoy each moment of this life. They’re too fleeting and few to waste.
Much good comes from daily, mindful, deep breathing. It is essential as a preliminary to meditation, but is also valuable throughout the day. Just remember to do it. In these hyperkinetic times, it is important to have at the ready various techniques for slowing done. For more on this theme, see my category Slow Down!
One needn't subscribe to the metaphysics of Zen Buddhism to make good use of its techniques.
We are too open to social suggestions. We uncritically imbibe dubious and outright wrong views and attitudes and valuations and habits of speech from our environment. They don't appear wrong because they are in step with what most believe and say. 'Normal' beliefs and patterns of speech become normative for people. This is the way of the world. We are too suggestible.
Thus nowadays people cannot see that lust and gluttony are deadly vices. The weight of suggestion is too onerous. The counter-suggestions from a religious upbringing are no match for the relentless stuff emanating from the mass media of a sex-saturated, hedonistic society. For spiritual health a partial withdrawal from society is advisable. It needn't be physical: one can be in the world but not of it.
A partial withdrawal can take the form of a holding free of the early morning hours from any contamination by media dreck. Thus no reading of newspapers, no checking of e-mail, no electronics of any sort. Electricity is fine: you don't have to sit in the dark or burn candles. No talking or other socializing. Instead: prayer, meditation, spiritual reading and writing, in silence, and alone.
So for a few pre-dawn hours each day you are a part-time monk.
But society and technology are in conspiracy against you. Have you noticed that the newer modems are not equipped with on/off switches? A bad omen for the life of the soul and the care thereof. I cannot abide a wi-fi signal during my sleeping and monkish hours. So I bought an extra power strip and put that in series with the modem and the main power strip. Wifey is instructed to turn it off before she goes to bed. And of course all computers and cell phones are off during the night and the hours of monkishness.
People are generally aware of the importance of good nutrition, physical exercise, and all things health-related. They understand that what they put into their bodies affects their physical health. Underappreciated is a truth just as, if not more important: that what one puts into one's mind affects one's mental and spiritual health. The soul has its foods and its poisons just as the body does. This simple truth, known for centuries, goes unheeded while liberals fall all over each other climbing aboard the various environmental and health bandwagons.
Second-hand smoke the danger of which is negligible much exercises our leftist pals while the soul-destroying toxicity of the mass 'entertainment' media concerns them not at all.
Why are those so concerned with physical toxins so tolerant of cultural and spiritual toxins? This is another example of what I call misplaced moral enthusiasm. You worry about global warming and sidestream smoke when you give no thought to the soul, its foods, and its poisons?
You liberals are a strange breed of cat, crouching behind the First Amendment, quick to defend every form of cultural pollution under the rubric 'free speech.'
To utter a declarative sentence is to say it. But the saying of a declarative sentence need not be an asserting of it or its content. Suppose I want to give an example of a declarative sentence in a language class. I say, "The average temperature on Mars is the same as on Earth." I have not made an assertion in saying this (false) sentence, but I have said something. So saying and asserting are not the same.
That's one argument. Here is another. One says one's prayers but in so doing one does not make assertions. Ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae is not an assertion.
But this is not quite right. Allahu akbar -- God is great -- said by someone would constitute an assertion. And the same goes for the 'Who art in heaven' clause of the first sentence of the Pater Noster. It looks form these examples as if assertions can be part of prayer. So perhaps I should say the following. What is specifically prayerful about prayers is nothing assertive but something entreating, supplicatory, and the like.
But even this is not quite obvious. The contemplation of the existence and attributes of God is by itself arguably a form of prayer, a form free of supplication and entreaty. And then there is this marvellous quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Prayer that craves a particular commodity, -- anything less than all good, -- is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends.
So my second argument may not work. But the first one does.
You blogged that doing philosophy has great value in itself; even if philosophy is aporetic. But how often, or how long per day or month, should one devote to it? Doing philosophy seems (to me at least) to have diminishing returns, if philosophy is aporetic. Or has your experience been different?
My approach to philosophy could be called radically aporetic. Thus I hold not only that philosophy is best approached aporetically, via its problems, but also that its central problems are insoluble. Thus I tend, tentatively and on the basis of inductive evidence, to the view that the central problems of philosophy, while genuine and thus not amenable to Wittgensteinian or other dissolution, are true aporiai, impasses. It is clear that one could take a broadly aporetic approach without subscribing to the insolubility thesis. But I go 'whole hog.' Hence radically aporetic.
I won't explain this any further, having done so elsewhere, but proceed to V.'s question.
I take our friend to be asking the following. How much time ought one devote to philosophy if philosophy is its problems and they are insoluble? But there is a deeper and logically prior question lurking in the background: Why do philosophy at all if its problems are insoluble? What good is philosophy aporetically pursued?
1. It is good in that it conduces to intellectual humility, to an appreciation of our actual predicament in this life, which is one of profound ignorance concerning what would be most worth knowing if we could know it. The aporetic philosopher is a Socratic philosopher, one who knows what he knows and knows what he does not know. The aporetic philosopher is a debunker of epistemic pretense. One sort of epistemic pretense is that of the positive scientists who, succumbing to the temptation to wax philosophical, overstep the bounds of their competence, proposing bogus solutions to philosophical problems, and making incoherent assertions. They often philosophize without knowing it, and they do it incompetently, without self-awareness and self-criticism. I have given many examples of this in these pages. Thus philosophy as I conceive it is an important antidote to scientism. Scientism is an enemy of the humanities and I am a defender of the humanities.
There is also the threat emanating from political ideologies such as communism and leftism and Islamism and their various offshoots. The critique of these and other pernicious worldviews is a task for philosophy. And who is better suited for debunking operations than the aporetician?
2. Beyond its important debunking use, philosophy aporetically pursued has a spiritual point and purpose. If there are indeed absolutely insoluble problems, they mark the boundary of the discursive intellect and point beyond it. Immersion in philosophical problems brings the discursive mind to an appreciation of its limits and raises the question of what, if anything, lies beyond the limits and how one may gain access to it.
I take the old-fashioned view that the ultimate purpose of human life, a purpose to which all others must be subordinated, is to search for, and if possible, participate in the Absolute. There are several approaches to the Absolute, the main ones being philosophy, religion, and mysticism.
The radical aporetician in philosophy goes as far as he can with philosophy, but hits a dead-end, and is intellectually hnest enough to admit that he is at his wit's end. This motivates him to explore other paths to the Absolute, paths via faith/revelation and mystical intuition. The denigration of the latter by most contemporary philosophers merely shows how spiritually benighted and shallow they are, how historically uniformed, and in some cases, how willfully stupid.
But once a philosopher always a philosopher. So the radical aporetician does not cease philosophizing while exploring the other paths; he uses philosophy to chasten the excess of those other paths. And so he denigrates reason as little as he denigrates faith/revelation and mystical intuition. He merely assigns to reason its proper place.
Now to V.'s actual question. How much time for philosophy? A good chunk of every day. Just how much depending on the particular circumstances of one's particular life. But time must also be set aside for prayer and meditation, the reading of the great scriptures, and other religious/ mystical practices.
For one ought to be a truth-seeker above else. But if one is serious about seeking truth, then one cannot thoughtlessly assume that the only access to ultimate truth is via philosophy. A person who refuses to explore other paths is like the churchmen who refused to look through Galileo's telescope. They 'knew' that Aristotle had 'proven' the 'quintessential' perfection of celestial bodies, a perfection that would disallow any such 'blemishes' as craters. So they refused to look and see.
One of my correspondents is a retired philosophy of professor and a Buddhist. He maintains that one ought to spend as much time meditating as one spends on philosophy. So if one philosophizes for five hours per day, then one ought to meditate for five hours per day! A hard saying indeed!
The search for the Real takes us outside ourselves. We may seek the Real in experiences, possessions, distant lands, or other people. These soon enough reveal themselves as distractions. But what about ideas and theories? Are they simply a more lofty sort of distraction? “Travelling is a fool’s paradise” said Emerson. Among lands certainly, but not among ideas?
If I move from objects of sense to objects of thought I am still moving among objects. To discourse, whether in words or in thoughts, is to be on the run and not at rest. But is not the Real to be found resting within, in one’s innermost subjectivity? Discourse dis-tracts, pulls apart, the interior unity.
Noli foras ire, said Augustine, in te redi, in interiore homine habitat veritas. “Do not wish to go outside, return into yourself. Truth dwells in the inner man.”
Do you regret in the morning the spare supper of the night before or the foregoing of the useless dessert? Do you feel bad that you now feel good and are not hung over? You missed the party and with it the ambiguity and unseriousness and dissipation of idle talk. Are you now troubled by your spiritual continence?
As for idle talk, here is something good from Franz Kafka: The Diaries 1910-1923, ed. Max Brod, Schocken 1948, p. 199:
In the next room my mother is entertaining the L. couple. They are talking about vermin and corns. (Mrs. L. has six corns on each toe.) It is easy to see that there is no real progress made in conversations of this sort. It is information that will be forgotten again by both and that even now proceeds along in self-forgetfulness without any sense of responsibility.
I have read this passage many times, and what delights me each time is the droll understatement of it: "there is no real progress made in conversations of this sort." No indeed. There is no progress because the conversations are not seriously about anything worth talking about. There is no Verantwortlichkeit (responsibility): the talk does not answer (antworten) to anything important in the world or anything real in the interlocutors. It is jaw-flapping for its own sake, mere linguistic behavior which, if it conveys anything, conveys: ‘I like you, you like me, and everything’s fine.’ An expression of boredom, it does little to alleviate it.
The interlocutors float along in the inauthenticity (Uneigentlichkeit) of what Heidegger calls das Man, the ‘they self.’ Compare Heidegger’s analysis of idle talk (Gerede) in Sein und Zeit (1927), sec. 35.
Am I suggesting that one should absolutely avoid idle talk? That would be to take things to an unnecessary and perhaps imprudent extreme. It is prudent to get yourself perceived as a regular guy -- especially if you are an 'irregular guy.'
If a philosopher who meditates spends five hours per day on philosophy, how many hours should he spend on meditation? One corresondent of mine, a retired philosophy professor and Buddhist, told me that if x hours are spent on philosophy, then x hours should be spent on meditation. So five hours of philosophy ought to be balanced by five hours of meditation. A hard saying!
What are the possible views on this topic?
1. No time should be wasted on philosophy. Pascal famously remarked that philosophy is not worth an hour's trouble. But he didn't say that in defense of Benares, but of Jerusalem. Time apportionment as between Athens and Jerusalem is a separate topic.
2. No time should be wasted on meditation. Judging by their behavior, the vast majority of academic philosophers seem committed to some such proposition.
3. Time spent on either is wasted. The view of the ordinary cave-dweller.
4. More time ought to be devoted to philosophy. But why?
5. The two 'cities' deserve equal time. The view of my Buddhist correspondent.
6. More time ought to be devoted to meditation than to philosophy.
What could be said in defense of (6)? Three quotations from Paul Brunton (Notebooks, vol. II, The Quest, Larson, 1986, p. 13):
The intuitive element is tremendously more important than the intellectual . . . .
The mystical experience is the most valuable of all experiences . . . .
. . . the quest of the Overself is the most worthwhile endeavour open to human exertions.
Recollection is a flight from the diaspora of animal inclinations and social suggestions. One collects oneself. Life is one long battle against the centrifugal pull of these two. Time too flees and flies not just by passing unaccountably but also by losing itself in the diaspora of its own modes, past, present, and future. What is, is not, because its element, time, is not, but is past, or future, or fleeting.
Among our fellows we ought to be as self-reliant as possible. But in matters moral and spiritual we ought freely to confess our exigency and ultimate inability to help ourselves. Honesty demands it. But to appreciate properly the need for outside help, one ought first to try to go it alone. When the self-therapeutics of Buddhism and Stoicism and cognate systems fail, then one will have a concrete motive for the confession of impotence.
I've recently been contemplating practising meditation. I decided to look up what you had to say on the subject, and I was happy to discover the "how to meditate" post. I was just wondering though, how long should a person meditate, and what should a first timer like myself expect to think or feel during the first few meditations?
How long? Between 15 and 30 minutes at first, working up gradually to an hour or more. What to expect? Not much at first. Mind control is extremely difficult and our minds are mostly out of control serving up an endless parade of pointless memories, useless worries, and negative thoughts of all sorts. In the beginning meditation is mostly hard work. So you can expect to work hard at first for meager results.
At a deeper level, expectation and striving to accomplish something are out of place. Meditation is an interior listening that can occur only when the discursive mind with its thoughts, judgements, intentions, expectations, and the like has been silenced. Meditation is not an inner discourse but an inner listening.
Of course, there is a bit of a paradox here: at first one must intend resolutely to take up this practice, one must work at it every morning with no exceptions, one must strive to quiet the mind -- but all in quest of an effortless abiding in mental quiet wherein there is no intending, working, or striving.
Logic greatly aids, though is not necessary for, disciplined thinking. Meditation greatly aids, though is not necessary for, disciplined non-thinking.
Meditation is a battle against the mind's centrifugal tendency. In virtue of its intentionality, mind is ever in flight from its center, so much so that some have denied that there is a center or a self. The aim of meditation is centering. To switch metaphors, the aim is to swim upstream to the thought-free source of thoughts. Compare Emerson: "Man is a stream whose source is hidden." Arrival at that hidden source is the ultimate goal of meditation.
Swimming upstream against a powerful current is not easy and for some impossible. So this is a good metaphor of the difficulty of meditation. The more extroverted you are, the more difficult it will be. Why engage in this hard work? Either you sense that your surface self has a depth dimension that calls to you or you don't. If you do, then this is the way to explore it.
Meditation reduced to three steps:
First, drive out all useless thoughts. Then get rid of all useful but worldly thoughts. Finally, achieve the cessation of all thoughts, including spiritual ones. Now you are at the threshhold of meditation proper. Unfortunately, a lifetime of work may not suffice to complete even these baby steps. You may not even make it to the threshhold. But if you can achieve even the first step, you will have done yourself a world of good.
The idea behind Step One is to cultivate the ability to suppress, at will, every useless, negative, weakening thought as soon as it arises. Not easy!
Meditation won't bear fruits unless one lives in a way that is compatible with it and its goals. So a certain amount of withdrawal from the world is needed. One needs to 'unplug.'
The attainment of mental quiet is a very high and choice-worthy goal of human striving. Anything that scatters or dis-tracts (literally: pulls apart) the mind makes it impossible to attain mental quiet as well as such lower attainments as ordinary concentration. Now the mass media have the tendency to scatter and distract. Therefore, if you value the attainment of mental quiet and such cognate states as tranquillitas animi, ataraxia, peace of mind, samadhi, concentration, 'personal presence,' etc., then you are well-advised to limit consumption of media dreck and cultivate the disciplines that lead to these states.
Since the past is no longer, to let go of the past is to let go of thoughts of the past. But these thoughts, like all thoughts, are in the present. So we are brought back again to the importance of cultivating the ability to let go of thoughts here and now. Mind control in the present automatically takes care of the two nonpresent temporal modes.
Ego is at the root of sin, but also at the root of obsessive preoccupation with one's sinfulness. If the goal is to weaken the ego, then too much fretting over one's sins in the manner of a Wittgenstein is contraindicated.
There is such a thing as excessive moral scrupulosity.
Though Wittgenstein's ego drove him to scruple inordinately, he was a better man than Russell. Russell worried about logic. Wittgenstein worried about logic and his sins.
Meditation is a battle against the mind's centrifugal tendency. In virtue of its intentionality, mind is ever in flight from its center, so much so that many have denied that there is a center or a self. The aim of meditation is centering. To switch metaphors, the aim is to swim upstream to the thought-free source of thoughts. Compare Emerson: "Man is a stream whose source is hidden." Could there be a stream without a source? A wind blowing towards objects (Sartre) that blew from no direction and for no cause?
Changing metaphors once again: you say you like riding the wild horse of the mind into dispersal and diremption? Then do so, and see where it gets you. If self-loss in the manifold proves to be unsatisfactory, you may be a candidate for re-collection.