METANOIA

Why dost thou prate of God?
Whatever thou sayest of Him is
untrue.
Meister Eckhart

The further one travels, the less one knows.
Lao Tzu

In religious literature the word ‘truth’ is used indiscriminately in at least three distinct and very different senses. Thus, it is sometimes treated as a synonym for ‘fact’ as when it is affirmed that God is Truth meaning that He is the primordial Reality. But this is clearly not the meaning of the word in such a phrase as ‘worshipping God in spirit and in truth.’ Here, it is obvious, ‘truth’ signifies direct apprehension of spiritual Fact, as opposed to second-hand knowledge about Reality, formulated in sentences and accepted on authority or because an argument from previously granted postulates was logically convincing. And finally there is the more ordinary meaning of the word, as in such a sentence as, ‘This statement is the truth’ where we mean to assert that the verbal symbols of which the statement is composed correspond to the facts to which it refers. When Eckhart writes that ‘whatever thou sayest of God is untrue,’ he is not affirming that all theological statements are false. In so far as there can be any correspondence between human symbols and divine Fact, some theological statements are as true as it is possible for us to make them. Himself a theologian, Eckhart would certainly have admitted this. But besides being a theologian, Eckhart was a mystic. And being a mystic, he understood very vividly what the modern semanticist is so busily (and, also, so unsuccessfully) trying to drum into contemporary minds namely, that words are not the same as things and that a knowledge of words about facts is in no sense equivalent to a direct and immediate apprehension of the facts themselves. What Eckvhart actually asserts is this: whatever one may say about God can never in any circumstances be the ‘truth’ in the first two meanings of that much abused and ambiguous word. By implication St. Thomas Aquinas was saying exactly the same thing when, after his experience of infused contemplation, he refused to go on with his theological work, declaring that everything he had written up to that time was as mere straw compared with the immediate knowledge, which had been vouchsafed to him. Two hundred years earlier, in Bagdad, the great Mohammedan theologian, Al-Ghazzali, had similarly turned from the consideration of truths about God to the contemplation and direct apprehension of Truth-the-Fact, from the purely intellectual discipline of the philosophers to the moral and spiritual discipline of the Sufis.

The moral of all this is obvious. Whenever we hear or read about ‘truth,’ we should always pause long enough to ask ourselves in which of the three senses listed above the word is, at the moment, being used. By taking this simple precaution (and to take it is a genuinely virtuous act of intellectual honesty) we shall save ourselves a great deal of disturbing and quite unnecessary mental confusion.

The subject matter of the Perennial Philosophy is the nature of eternal, spiritual Reality; but the language in which it must be formulated was developed for the purpose of dealing with phenomena in time. That is why, in all these formulations, we find an element of paradox. The nature of Truth-the-Fact cannot be described by means of verbal symbols that do not adequately correspond to it. At best it can be hinted at in terms of non sequiturs and contradictions.

The history of all the religions is similar in one important respect; some of their adherents are enlightened and delivered, because they have chosen to react appropriately to the words which the founders have let fall; others achieve a partial salvation by reacting with partial appropriateness; yet others harm themselves and their fellows by reacting with a total inappropriateness either ignoring the words altogether or, more often, taking them too seriously and treating them as though they were identical with the Fact to which they refer.

Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy.

SHADOWS

Image result for alberto manguel

Leop­ards break in­to the temple and drink all the sac­ri­fi­cial ves­sels dry; it keeps hap­pen­ing; in the end, it can be cal­cu­lat­ed in ad­vance and is in­cor­po­rat­ed in­to the rit­ual.
Franz Kafka

Every time we put something into words, we simultaneously pronounce a declaration of faith in the power of language to re-create and communicate our experience of the world, and our admission of its shortcomings to name this experience fully.  Faith in language is, like all true faiths, unaltered by everyday practice that contradicts its claims of power – unaltered in spite of our knowledge that whenever we try to say something, however simple, however clear-cut, only a shadow of that something travels from our conception to its utterance, and further from its utterance to its reception and understanding… Every book confesses the impossibility of holding fully onto whatever it is that our experience seizes.  All our libraries are the glorious record of that failure.

Alberto Manguel, Packing My Library.

BELIEF, TRUTH & METAPHOR

Iain McGilchrist

A consensus is emerging from the literature that religious experience tends to be associated with the right hemisphere. This conclusion is supported by a book- length study of spirituality and the brain, by the comprehensive review of Devinsky and Lai (2008), and by McNamara (2009). McNamara largely implicates right fronto- temporal networks, a view supported by Trimble and Freeman (2006) and by Devinsky and Lai (2008), the latter of whom distinguish what they call the ‘religion of the everyday man’, with its characteristic ongoing belief pattern and set of convictions, predominantly localised to the frontal region, from ecstatic religious experience, more localised to the temporal region, both in the right hemisphere. Continue reading “BELIEF, TRUTH & METAPHOR”

A WORD ON THE WIND

Unlike the hidden character of what lies beyond the horizon (the future), and unlike the unseen nature of that which resides under the ground (the past), the air is invisible in principle. That which today lies beyond the horizon can at least partly be disclosed by journeying into that future, as that which waits under the ground can be somewhat unearthed by excavations into the past. But the air can never be opened for our eyes, never made manifest. Itself invisible, it is the medium through which we see all else in the present terrain.

And this unseen enigma is the very mystery that enables life to live. It unites our breathing bodies not only with the under-the-ground (with the rich microbial life of the soil, with fossil and mineral deposits deep in the bedrock), and not only with the beyond-the-horizon (with distant forests and oceans), but also with the interior life of all that we perceive in the open field of the living present-the grasses and the aspen leaves, the ravens, the buzzing insects and the drifting clouds. What the plants are quietly breathing out, we animals are breathing in; what we breathe out, the plants are breathing in. The air, we might say, is the soul of the visible landscape, the secret realm from whence all beings draw their nourishment. As the very mystery of the living present, it is that most intimate absence from whence the present presences, and thus a key to the forgotten presence of the earth.

***

The Navajo identification of awareness with the air – their intuition that the psyche is not an immaterial power that resides inside us, but is rather the invisible yet thoroughly palpable medium in which we (along with the trees, the squirrels, and the clouds) are immersed-must seem at first bizarre, even outrageous, to persons of European ancestry. Yet a few moments’ etymological research will reveal that this identification is not nearly so alien to European civilization as one might assume. Indeed, our English term “psyche”-together with all its modern offspring like “psychology,” “psychiatry,” and “psychotherapy”-is derived from the ancient Greek word psychê, which signified not merely the “soul,” or the “mind,” but also a “breath,” or a “gust of wind.” The Greek noun was itself derived from the verb psychein, which meant “to breathe,” or “to blow.” Meanwhile, another ancient Greek word for “air, wind, and breath”-the term pneuma, from which we derive such terms as “pneumatic” and “pneumonia”-also and at the same time signified that vital principle which in English we call “spirit.”

Of course, the word “spirit” itself, despite all of its incorporeal and non-sensuous connotations, is directly related to the very bodily term “respiration” through their common root in the Latin word spiritus, which signified both “breath” and “wind.” Similarly, the Latin word for “soul,” anima-from whence have evolved such English terms as “animal,” “animation,” “animism,” and “unanimous” (being of one mind , or one soul), also signified “air” and “breath.”

Moreover, these were not separate meanings; it is clear that anima, like psyche, originally named an elemental phenomenon that somehow comprised both what we now call “the air” and what we now term “the soul.” The more specific Latin word animus, which signified “that which thinks in us,” was derived from the same airy root, anima, itself derived from the older Greek term anemos, meaning “wind.”

We find an identical association of the “mind” with the “wind” and the “breath” in innumerable ancient languages. Even such an objective, scientifically respectable word as “atmosphere” displays its ancestral ties to the Sanskrit word atman, which signified “soul” as well as the “air” and the “breath.” Thus, a great many terms that now refer to the air as a purely passive and insensate medium are clearly derived from words that once identified the air with life and awareness! And words that now seem to designate a strictly immaterial mind, or spirit, are derived from terms that once named the breath as the very substance of that mystery.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, for ancient Mediterranean cultures no less than for the Lakota and the Navajo, the air was once a singularly sacred presence. As the experiential source of both psyche and spirit, it would seem that the air was once felt to be the very matter of awareness, the subtle body of the mind. And hence that awareness, far from being experienced as a quality that distinguishes humans from the rest of nature, was originally felt as that which invisibly joined human beings to the other animals and to the plants, to the forests and to the mountains. For it was the unseen but common medium of their existence.

But how, then, did the air come to lose its psychological quality ?

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World

THE SINUOUS CALLIGRAPHY OF RIVERS

Writing, like human language, is engendered not only within the human community but between the human community and the animate landscape, born of the interplay and contact between the human and the more-than-human world. The earthly terrain in which we find ourselves, and upon which we depend for all our nourishment, is shot through with suggestive scrawls and traces, from the sinuous calligraphy of rivers winding across the land, inscribing arroyos and canyons into the parched earth of the desert, to the black slash burned by lightning into the trunk of an old elm. The swooping flight of birds is a kind of cursive script written on the wind; it is this script that was studied by the ancient augurs, who could read therein the course of the future. Leaf-miner insects make strange hieroglyphic tabloids of the leaves they consume. Wolves urinate on specific stumps and stones to mark off their territory. And today you read these printed words as tribal hunters once read the tracks of deer, moose, and bear printed in the soil of the forest floor. Archaeological evidence suggests that for more than a million years the subsistence of humankind has depended upon the acuity of such hunters, upon their ability to read the traces-a bit of scat here, a broken twig there-of these animal Others. These letters print across the page, the scratches and scrawls you now focus upon, trailing off across the white surface, are hardly different from the footprints of prey left in the snow. We read these traces with organs honed over millennia by our tribal ancestors, moving instinctively from one track to the next, picking up the trail afresh whenever it leaves off, hunting the meaning, which would be the meeting with the Other. Continue reading “THE SINUOUS CALLIGRAPHY OF RIVERS”

PERCEPTION IS PARTICIPATION

Our most immediate experience of things is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter- of tension , communication , and commingling. From within the depths of this encounter, we know the thing or phenomenon only as our interlocutor- as a dynamic presence that confronts us and draws us into relation . We conceptually immobilize or objectify the phenomenon only by mentally absenting ourselves from this relation , by forgetting or repressing our sensuous involvement. To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.

***

Conventional scientific discourse privileges the sensible field in abstraction from sensory experience, and commonly maintains that subjective experience is “Caused” by an objectifiable set of processes in the mechanically determined field of the sensible. Meanwhile, New Age spiritualism regularly privileges pure sentience, or subjectivity, in abstraction from sensible matter, and often maintains that material reality is itself an illusory effect caused by an immaterial mind or spirit. Although commonly seen as opposed worldviews, both of these positions assume a qualitative difference between the sentient and the sensed; by prioritizing one or the other, both of these views perpetuate the distinction between human “subjects ” and natural “objects,” and hence neither threatens the common conception of sensible nature as a purely passive dimension suitable for human manipulation and use. While both of these views are unstable, each bolsters the other; by bouncing from one to the other- from scientific determinism to spiritual idealism and back again- contemporary discourse easily avoids the possibility that both the perceiving being and the perceived being are of the same stuff, that the perceiver and the perceived are interdependent and in some sense even reversible aspects of a common animate element, that is at once both sensible and sensitive. We readily experience this paradox in relation to other persons; this stranger who stands before me and is an object for my gaze suddenly opens his mouth and speaks to me, forcing me to acknowledge that he is a sentient subject like myself, and that I , too, am an object for his gaze. Each of us, in relation to the other, is both subject and object, sensible and sentient . Why, then, might this not also be the case in relation to another, nonhuman entity- a mountain lion, for instance, that I unexpectedly encounter in the northern forest? Indeed, such a meeting brings home to me even more forcefully that I am not just a sentient subject but also a sensible object, even an edible object, in the eyes (and nose) of the other. Even an ant crawling along my arm, visible to my eyes and tactile to my skin, displays at the same time its own sentience, responding immediately to my movements, even to the chemical changes of my mood. In relation to the ant I feel myself as a dense and material object, as capricious in my actions as the undulating earth itself. Finally, then, why might not this “reversibility ” of subject and object extend to every entity that I experience? Once I acknowledge that my own sentience, or subjectivity, does not preclude my visible, tactile, objective existence for others, I find myself forced to acknowledge that any visible, tangible form that meets my gaze may also be an experiencing subject, sensitive and responsive to the beings around it, and to me.

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World

WORDS

“The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you’ve gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can talk with him?” 

Zhuangzi, Chuang Tsu: Inner Chapters