The heart can show us the way from the intellectual enlightenment trap
I have spent most of my life in my head – thinking and thinking. This is not a boast. Much of my mental busy-ness serves no purpose; it is reactive and habitual.
That said, I tend to be handy with juggling concepts, with figuring things out. When I tired of solving (or attempting to solve) problems associated with earning lots of money, gaining power and the normal achievement agenda, I found a whole new realm to explore and... think upon: spirituality. In my case, this was the path through advaita vedanta, a philosophy of yoga, into the various schools of non-dualism.
I ponder and discuss Buddhism, Taoism, Tantra, Dzogchen and myriad western adaptations of these wisdom traditions from the east. Concepts in this realm trip off my tongue as easily as discussing good business communication or personal effectiveness. I even handle the concept of Truth as essentially non-conceptual!
There’s no need to repeat a synthesis of my intellectual understanding of reality and myself here. The point of this post is that I find this clarity, as proud and thankful as I am to see it, a bit of a false summit. Climbing from concept to concept, I often sense the spiritual mountaintop within reach, just one final 'aha' away. And perhaps it is.
But increasingly I've found myself circling the full awakening I know I mustn't strive for but still do. My steps only take me around the mountain, a short distance from the peak. I suspect the clarity of intellectual understanding can be a refuge for personalities like mine, a final bunker in which the sense of separateness shelters from what it most fears - melting into the flow and direct experience of life.
If you'll allow me to switch metaphors, please picture me, a representative intellectually awakened dude, as a moth circling a flame. But this moth circles the flickering light in a steady orbit, not in the decaying spiral normal moths tend to follow until they perish in a dusty flash. This moth observes, appreciates, describes and understands the concept of the flame, but it does so from a stable distance. It reaches its safe limit and can go no nearer. Might something in it not want to move closer?
Among the things Jesus showed us was that the person in Him had to die before he could re-join his Father (the Father and the Son, two aspects of the same whole). Likewise, the separate person in us, the sense of being independent of and partially isolated from the flow of Life, needs to dissolve for full awakening to occur. But would any self-respecting sense of separateness want that? Of course not! So this strange moth orbits beyond reach of the flame of freedom, knowing that surrender is necessary but unable to offer itself.
Poor me! Help! My clever mind has me in an appreciative but remote orbit around an unfiltered, direct experience of Life. What can be done? What can Life do to shake me loose, pull me to its centre?
Life can invite me to open my heart to its wholeness. It can ask me to unhook from my mental narrative, to attend to the sensations populating my body. Here is the home of the powerful feelings that accompany and often trump thought. Life can teach me to welcome and stay with even the most uncomfortable feelings I (my sense of separateness) have sought to distance myself from. These sensations, along with the pleasurable ones I've come to believe I do not deserve, are my unlived life, the components of Life that act as the background against which my sense of isolation is cast. Life can allow me to love them, and in doing so, I shake myself from the unwanted, stable orbit.
No matter how nimble we are in our dance with mental images of spirituality, until we deal with our shit, we cannot move past concepts to the reality itself. This is because ‘our shit’ is the pool of accumulated moments in which we rejected reality. We must atone for (be at-one with) these unwanted aspects of Life. And our body is the sacred vessel in which this gradual baptism takes place, one sensation at a time. As Life recalls a neglected fragment, we welcome it and love it, despite its discomfort.
In fact, I've found that sitting with, bearing the discomfort, is far more effective if I go even further, silently saying, 'I love you,' to it. As odd as I found it when I came across Matt Kahn’s suggestion, this sub-vocalising step of proclaiming my unjudging, unconditional acceptance of unease, confusion, anger, depression, anxiety and fear, has proven life-changing.
So, notice a disturbing sensation; slow your breath; stay with the sensation; and say, 'I love you,' with each breath for a minute or until the feeling abates. It is not your goal to make it go away. You simply love it until it does. And you repeat this each time discomfort arises, for the rest of your life.
The heart's reintroduction to its unlived feelings happens hand-in-hand with the mind's intellectual understanding of our true nature, with spiritual clarity. The heart and head now reinforce one another's rewriting of our model of reality. Together, and in concert with Life's undivided flow, they erode the conceptual prisons we've built for ourselves. Remember, though – erosion is often a gradual, almost imperceptible process. This is how Life reassembles us. As it does so, our self realises it is Self, Life dressed up as a separate person.
With this realisation, the spiral of our moth into the flame is complete. The sense of separateness ignites in a puff, leaving Life to dress and play as this person. And in this person, Life recognises itself in every other person, in each being, in everything, even as its daily flow presents itself in countless varied costumes.
First posted 6 Aug 2005. I have edited this old post before including it here - not to bring it up to date with my current thinking but rather to change the tone from one that was quite aggressive and disrespectful of fundamentalist theistic views. Over the past 12 years, I've learned that no good is served by being rude to people who think differently than you. I hope that the post manages to raise questions and points without being offensive.
I have much more love for the bible than I did at the time of original posting, but I have no greater agreement with those who interpret it literally rather than mythically. I believe that the Christian bible and other great religious books each provide a window onto a beautiful, ultimately indescribable, Truth. Each window looking at the same mountain summit, but one may be viewing it from the tropical forests of a village at the great mountain's southern base, while others take it in and describe it from quite different locations and therefore perspectives.
A spider could never understand the theory of gravity or the existence of other lands, oceans and planets. Yet gravity's law, along with those lands, oceans and planets, exists and applies to spiders. Our celebrated mental and scientific capacities are of no greater use than the spider's when it comes to rationally understanding God's wonder. So how can we deny, based solely on our inability to comprehend it, God's power? This is one argument of the believer against those who set science or philosophy against religion.
It is an argument for which I have a lot of time. Human reason does not reach the breadth and depth of existence. There is a large gap between what we know and what we can know, and there is a much larger one between what we can know (intellectually, versus experientially) and what is actually the case. My failure to make rational sense of God does not preclude His existence. In that sense, I am agnostic with respect to the existence of God. Count me as 'on the fence' up to that point.
But when the question before me shifts from 'Does God exist?' to 'Does God play an active part in the world, in the very specific way that is described by the canon of the major western religions, when interpreted literally?' I come down from the fence very firmly into the negative camp.
Why is this so? First, I guess I’d have to say that I find it hard to believe that - on God’s scale - humans are that special. Doesn't it seem like a very convenient coincidence that the universe's one all-powerful being created a world for the benefit of beings who just happen to be.... us? Isn't it striking how anthropocentric the biblical creation story and all that follows from it is? Isn't it... well... perhaps arrogant ... to assume that amongst all of creation, and within that among all of life, God should take a personal interest in Man and only Man?
I mean, if elephants had written the bible, don't you suspect that it would say elephants were created in God's image and that only elephants have a soul because, of course, only they, like God, have trunks? Birds would write that God can fly; fish that He was a swimmer. Each would claim their own unique characteristic as the one that qualifies them as God's chosen species. The unique characteristic we seek to base it on is the size and complexity of our brains and our concomitant ability to reflect upon our own thoughts.
Isn't it equally possible that He just watches the universe evolve as we watch a top spin or a pin-wheel twirl, with no moral stance at all? Or if He does make moral judgements, mightn't His rights and wrongs be quite different from, even diametrically opposed to, what the Bible says? Or if he takes particular interest in Life, mightn't he be equally interested in all life? Or mightn't he care about some others more than or rather than Man?
Yet, we find ourselves with a God who happens to care only about us. He tells us very specific things we must or must not do, and these all line up quite well with the needs of the ethnic group from which the authors of the bible come. He puts us centre stage. Quite convenient. We get to hold the pen, so we get to write the story, so the story says that God cares most about us!
And how do we account for all of the differences among the world’s religions? I guess followers of any one simply say the others got it wrong, huh? Do you think that maybe each religion puts its main constituency(with its particular history, traditions, economy and geographic peculiarities) at centre stage within humanity, just as humanity places itself centre state within existence as a whole? This again just strikes me as... just, possibly, arrogant.
I'm perfectly willing to accept the possibility of God's existence. But I'm not arrogant enough to think that God must place Man at the centre of the universe or my friends and me at the centre of the human race.
A second line to my reasoning is that - as implied in my question of biblical imperfection above - I am too much of a cynic to trust the powerful men of history (men whose names are not necessarily the ones that get official 'billing' on the books) to have faithfully transcribed God’s word. And I can’t think of the bible as something other than an amazing, powerful book of great depth that was written across centuries by different men, each of whom was a cultural captive or a cultural rebel in his particular time and place. The earliest writers have - I can’t help suspecting - had their original words edited many times over by the later powerful men, as they felt necessary.
I’m not saying that these men were bad or self-serving (although some, being human, probably were). It’s just that they were trying to make sense of the infinite using their meagre words, writing from within their own narrow setting. I see them as vaguely equivalent to the spider trying to write a book about thermodynamics.
I’m also not even saying that they got things all wrong. I’m just saying that the things that are ‘right’ are ‘right’ in a poetic, mythical, metaphorical way rather than in a rational, literal, factual way.
Finally, I’m not setting out to, and I don’t thank that I accidentally manage to, ‘prove’ that fundamentalist theists are wrong. I can’t. I do think that, on items of detail, they are wrong. I do think that there are better, worldly ways to address some of the questions that they look to resolve by biblical reference. But I know that I, like them, have no special licence on Truth with a capital ‘T’.
First posted 13 Nov 2003. Over the course of the 4-5 years when I wrote my previous blog - called slumberfogey - I was an avowed (and sometimes verbally militant) atheist. In an effort to poke some fun at myself and keep myself honest, I posted this entry, in which God made some good points...
I couldn't help but notice that your blog takes a certain atheistic slant. No big deal. You're right about a few things. I don't care much about who you have sex with or what you eat. But I do get a bit pissed off when you all start killing one another in my name. As you say, life is in general a good thing. People shouldn't take it lightly.
You seem to be a big fan of science. As I've not much else to do at the moment, I thought I would remind you about a little something. Science's answer to The Big Question - where did the universe come from? - isn't exactly scientific.
Science - "The universe was born in the Big Bang."
God - "What existed before the universe?"
Science - "'Before' isn't really an applicable term, because time as well as space was born with the Big Bang."
God - "So, the universe popped into existence inexplicably 14 billion years ago? There was no time or space before that? Hmm."
How, may I ask, is that more satisfactory than saying that I created the universe? Sure, you might ask where I lived and how I earned my living before I created it, but those questions are no more awkward than the ones science lays itself open to. God, the soul and free will are no more difficult to grasp than infinity and eternity - terms you seem comfortable enough to bandy about despite being unable to really fathom them. Mightn't you simply be in denial about me?
You like the scientific method. Does any observation ever made by man disprove my existence? Is the atheistic hypothesis falsifiable? Once you admit it is not, then how do you justify taking an atheistic stance? Why not be agnostic like so many fashionable liberal intellectuals down there?
You assert that there's no ethical dimension to the universe. Is that a falsifiable hypothesis? Not so scientific after all, are you? Anyway, you're playing with fire. You need to have some basis for morality, else you'll all just start behaving like a bunch of animals.
Oh, that's right - you say you are animals, albeit special ones. And actually, according to your naturalistic determinism, you and the other animals are not really different from rocks and stones anyhow. Your actions are just as surely explained by previous events (although they are too complex for your finite intellects to unravel) as the rock's tumble from the cliff into the sea. How does that make you feel?
I detect nihilism sneaking in. How can anything matter if it is all just a consequence of the universe's initial conditions and the laws of motion? Come on, you can temporarily adopt a philosophical stance to put forward such a notion, but you simply can't really believe it, as you live and breathe!
Don't be so uptight! Okay, so I'm not a grey-bearded man sitting on a throne. Throw away the anthropomorphism - you'd be right to do so. But for God's sake, don't throw away God! Whether you believe it or not, you need me. You are part of me. Don't deny your identity with me. Don't let your formulae come between you and the inexplicable whole, in which you yearn (so secretly) to find your place.
I'm all around you. I'm in you. I am you and everything else - but in a 'whole is greater than the sum of its parts' sort of way. I like your pluck. I admire your curiosity. Just don't miss what's right under your nose.
See you around,
I'm curious. I like looking beneath and behind the obvious, also looking for what is between me and the obvious, obscuring or distorting my view.