Archive for February 2009
René Descartes begins his Meditations on First Philosophy with the observation that he is aware of mistaken views he has held in the past.
It is now some years since I detected how many were the beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had constructed on this basis…
No doubt most of us have had the same experience and so have learned to doubt what we now believe on the grounds that we have been mistaken before. But there is also another experience, namely, that of discovering that what we once believed we still believe, but on looking back on our former holding of the belief, our grasp then seems tentative compared to our grasp now. We might feel like saying “Yes, I knew it then, but I really know it now.
More than two decades ago I attended an interfaith meditation workshop at which Buddhist and Christian contemplatives led participates through contemplative exercises of various kinds. A Christian contemplative nun named Sister Benedetta led participants through a meditative exercise based on the 14th century text of unknown authorship entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. This was my first exposure to the text, and I immediately loved it.
The premise of The Cloud of Unknowing is that God is entirely unknown to us. God cannot be reached either through the intellect (by, for example, reasoning as Descartes did in his Meditations), or by imagination. God cannot be pictured, described, or understood; God cannot be seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched. And yet there is in most people a yearning for some kind of perfection, a refuge to which one can turn to express gratitude for one’s joys and lamentations for one’s sorrows. In short, God is entirely hidden from the human seeker by a Cloud of Unknowing. That cloud can be penetrated, says the text, only by love. One cannot know God at all, but one can love that which is entirely unknown and unknowable.
Making contact with God through a love of the unknown is possible only for those who have no further pretense of knowing or understanding. In the language of the text, one must put everything behind what it calls a cloud of forgetting. One must forget, at least for the span of a period of meditation, all the indoctrination one has received, all the worldly concerns one has, all the aspirations one has cultivated, all the education one has acquired. With a mind utterly still and silent, one must simply wait. Often one waits in vain. Nothing shows up. Sometimes one’s waiting is rewarded with a feeling of love about which it is impossible to know for sure whether it has poured in from the outside or is flowing out from the depths of oneself.
The practice of the Cloud of Unknowing is deceptively simple. The mind is stilled by the repetition of a syllable. The anonymous author of the 14th century recommend a simple word like “love,” but other words will do just as well. Whenever one’s thoughts intrude into the silence, then one gently puts those thoughts behind the cloud of forgetting. One can imagine the cloud below oneself. One can imagine the intruding thought as a physical object that one holds out at arm’s length and simply lets go. On being let go, the thought drops through the cloud below and disappears from view.
Practicing the Cloud of Unknowing immediately seemed a good thing to do when I was first introduced to it. It still seems a good thing to do. The only thing that has changed over the years is a slow-burning but persistent conviction that the world as we have come to know it, and human civilization as we have learned to call it, are not likely to survive much longer. The way of living we have become accustomed to will surely perish eventually, if only because it is not sustainable. We are depleting almost all the resources that sustain life. Alongside the conviction that the world as we know it is on its last legs is a conviction that a better world could take the place of the world we know, but that this will happen only if we make a concerted effort to forget.
The Cloud of Unknowing recommends forgetting all worldly ambitions for material possessions and for praise and approval. It also recommends forgetting all the indoctrination we have received along the way. That is a beginning, but it is only a beginning. Most important of all is forgetting all the stories we tell about ourselves, all the biographical details that the ego cranks out to give itself significance and to diminish the significance of others. It is important to forget our nationality, our ethnicity, our connections to other speakers of our mother tongue, our tragedies, our sufferings, our losses, our gains, our joys and our laughter. These things can be abandoned for the span of a meditation session that lasts as long as it takes a stick of incense to burn down. Can they be forgotten for longer? Can they be forgotten forever?
The mystical tradition of Christianity interprets the crucifixion of Christ as the model for the death of the ego, the taking up of permanent residence on the other side of the cloud of forgetting. The crucifixion of Christ can bring about the salvation of only those for whom it is an internal and essentially private and person act of dissolving what we modern people call the ego. It is only when the crucifixion takes the form of shattering the foundation upon which the sins of pride, envy, greed, gluttony, anger and lust are built that anything like salvation takes place. If that crucifixion does not take place in billions of minds, the earth will soon enough be just another sphere of lifeless rock captured in the gravitational field of a slowing dying star.
Had you hoped for a brighter future? A land of milk and honey? Angels and trumpets and clouds of glory? Forget it.
The life that is happy is in harmony with its own nature. This can only come about when the mind is in a healthy state and in permanent possession of its own sanity, robust and vigorous…ready to make use of the gifts of fortune without being enslaved to them
The highest good is an indomitable forces of mind that, strengthened by experience, shows itself in action as calm, profoundly generous and concerned for the welfare of others.
I quoted these words from Seneca’s essay “On the Happy Life” in a philosophy class today. No sooner had they left my lips than a student had her hand in the air. She said “Seneca can’t be right. Science has proven that all of life is selfish.” I suggested that it is unlikely that science has proven any such thing, although it is possible that some individual scientists have interpreted some of their observations as meaning that life is at some level a selfish enterprise. The student frowned and said she had heard in a science class that science has proved that nature is essentially selfish and that caring for the welfare of others is unnatural. It is not a bad idea, I said, to question authority figures, even science professorsI had to add, of course, that she should not just take my word for it that questioning authority figures is not a bad idea.
Seneca was a Stoic. Part of his conviction is that human beings are part of the world of nature and that nature is orderly. That which makes all of nature orderly is part of everything that is within nature, including human beings. What makes human beings orderly is reason. What makes nature orderly Seneca called the divine. When human beings use their reason, he said, they are using that part of themselves that is divine. Divinity is not something to be admired from afar and worshiped and admired. It is something to be, something to enact.
George Fox, founder of the Quakers, spoke often of what he called “that of God in everyone.” Some Buddhists held the conviction that each of us has as our essential nature a tranquil and compassionate mentality, just like that of the Buddha. What George Fox called that of God in everyone these Buddhists called Buddha-nature. Seneca was not alone in his convictions.
Whatever it may be called by various traditions, there is a peaceful state that most of us can reach by being still and turning off the chattering narrative that provides a running commentary to most of our experiences. One can learn to find that peaceful state. Since finding that state is the deepest happiness one can attain, and since one can learn to find it, it follows that happiness is a skill that, like any other skill, can be acquired. Perhaps it can be taught. Perhaps not. When words come out of that peaceful state they may encourage others to find that same state within themselves. When that takes place, then one is answering to that of God in another.
Let the silence resume.