The message, upshot , or bottom line of this Liminalities installment is stated in the title. What follows is simply a sketch of the train of thought and reading, extending over several years, that inspires such an assertion, as spurred by David Metcalfe’s recent report from this year’s Parapsychological Association conference in “Parapsychology and Intellectual Integrity: Words of Advice from Dr. Krippner.”
In 2010 Marilynne Robinson published Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, a book drawn from her 2009 Terry Lectures at Yale on “religion, in the light of science and philosophy.” Her thesis was that the influential fusion of neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and philosophy in the works of such thinkers as E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who argue that all human thought and activity is driven by and reducible to unconscious biological motives, has tended not so much to explain religion, art, and other quintessentially human endeavors as to explain them away, and that this in turn stems from a central attitude and approach that hamfistedly and unjustifiably attempts to explain away the very reality of human interiority. As a categorical contrast with and refutation of this approach, she emphasizes the reality and significance of the fundamental sense of “I-ness” itself:
For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently. Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM. Putting to one side the question of their meaning as the name and character by which the God of Moses would be known, these are words any human being can say about herself.
— Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 110.
Well, I’m back from another long hiatus. It’s been four weeks since my last confession—er, blog post. I’m certainly making good on my previous claim, circa early September, that my foreseeable activity here at The Teeming Brain would be sporadic.
At the moment I thought I’d drop in to mention that this downturn in blog activity isn’t due solely to an upsurge in real-life busyness, although that certainly has played and continues to play a role (as with my 13-hour work day yesterday, culminating in my returning home last night around 10 o’clock and leaving again for work this morning around 8). What’s also factoring into the situation is a downturn in my overall motivation to take part in the life of the Internet. And that, in turn, is a result of certain inner changes that have occurred in me over a several-month span.
In a nutshell, I’ve started receiving or experiencing flashes of nondual insight that have put flesh, as it were, on the bones of the spiritual, philosophical, and theological ideas that have occupied my attention for most of my life. Readers of this blog, as well as of my formally published fiction and nonfiction, are well aware of my philosophical and spiritual proclivities. So they (you) may (or may not) be interested to learn that this latest development kicked off in earnest last spring and has continued pretty much unabated ever since. Hints of it appear in some of the posts I’ve published here. The change has taken the form of an intensification of things I initially began to realize some years ago—first intellectually and then existentially—about time, consciousness, and identity. I used to read the words of various sages and spiritual teachers who said things like, “You are not your mind,” “You are not your experiences but the experiencer of them,” “The world happens inside you, not vice versa,” and so on. And I really dug it. Delving into this kind of thing, seeking and savoring books and ideas along these lines, became a way of life for me. My thoughts and bookshelves were, and still are, populated by things relating to meditation, mysticism, theology, Zen Buddhism, nondualism, esoteric Christianity, comparative religion, existentialism, consciousness studies, depth psychology, and more.
But for the most part, my experience of all these things was purely intellectual. I was pursuing not real experience but intellectual ideas—“mere thoughts in your head,” as Eckhart Tolle would say—which I, with my particular personality and set of predilections, found appealing, intriguing, and exciting. Only I didn’t realize this, since I mistook the ideas for the realities.
Now, recently, this situation has undergone a substantial change. It didn’t happen all at once but instead arose, as mentioned above, as an intensifying of something that had already started. I’ve experienced various “awakenings” over the years but this recent change has been more fundamental and extensive than anything that’s come before. My frequent thought/feeling has been, “So that’s what the words always meant!” Another frequent thought/feeling, often accompanied by a fleeting, cackling laughter, has been, “You’ve got to be shitting me” (addressed to no one in particular, or perhaps to myself).
Several side effects have accrued, including an interesting shift in the tenor of my personal relationships and the aforementioned lessening and loosening of my attachment to the Internet. The latter isn’t permanent, I think, since it’s primarily a spin-off of the fact that the fundamental motivations that have fueled a great many of my lifelong pursuits, including my writing (including my activity here at The Teeming Brain), are presently called into question. I’m undergoing a bit of an internal reorganization.
In truth, the whole thing is a lot like what Josh Baran describes as his awakening experience in his excellent and even essential little book of quotations, 365 Nirvana Here and Now. Baran says that after many years of reading books and practicing various spiritual techniques, he flew to Nepal “to receive Dzogchen teachings from a revered master, Tulku Urgyen,” in whose presence he “found my ‘self’ instantly stopped cold. There were no fireworks, no thunder—just the sudden, obvious, stunning realization of the pure awareness that I had overlooked my entire life, not hidden or elsewhere.”
He goes on to write: “In the face of this presence or nowness, all seeking, wandering, and waiting vanished before my eyes. I saw how much of my life’s energies had been focused on looking forward to some imagined future, rather than simply celebrating the all-pervasive present: trying to get ‘there’ instead of being ‘here.’ My previous years of forced meditation and effort seemed, in retrospect, useless.”
Lately, whenever I read Baran’s words and others like them, I find that I actually understand them on a level beyond that of mere interesting thoughts.
In linear-temporal terms, this might be considered a partial fulfillment of some time I spent—virtually, in cyberspace—with the now-deceased spiritual teacher Scott Morrison during the mid-1990s. I came into contact with him via his website 21st Century Renaissance at www.openmindopenheart.org, now sadly defunct (although most of its contents are still available via the Internet Archive). Scott had just achieved a measure of recognition as a teacher of nondual wisdom via the publication of his little book There Is Only Now, which had aroused considerable excitement among Zen and nondual spirituality circles. He created 21st Century Renaissance to serve as an online community where people from all over the world could participate in an electronic version of satsang or dokusan, the Eastern spiritual practice in which disciples gather around a teacher and ask questions in order to deepen and sharpen their insight. I became one of his informal students in this manner. Several of the questions, along with Scott’s responses, that appear in the archived website are from me. He and I also struck up a private email relationship, in the course of which I was impressed to discover that he was one of the first batch of original American students of Chogyam Trungpa.
But none of that meant that I really understood what he was talking about. Repeatedly, to me and lots of other inquirers, he said things like, “Give up looking for anything like ‘enlightenment’ or ‘spiritual awakening.’ You’re making it into some sort of external goal to be attained in the future. That’s the very opposite of the truth. Just focus your attention on the present moment and recognize what’s already here, what’s already true, what’s inescapably real when you drop all mental-emotional storylines.” I thought I knew what he was saying, but that was precisely the problem: I thought I understood him, which meant I was just understanding a thought, which meant I was making the whole thing into a “thought in my head,” which was exactly the delusional move that he was pointing out.
Scott died in 2000. For more than a year afterward, I didn’t know why my sporadic emails were going unanswered or why the website had fallen silent. Finally, I wrote to the people at www.sentient.org to ask if they knew what was going on (since I knew they had a page devoted to Scott). They wrote back to inform me of his early death at around age 40. I hadn’t even known he was ill. Apparently he died during gall bladder surgery.
These seven years later, it’s gratifying to return to his books and online writings and have an “Oh, that’s what he meant” experience.
I’ll close this post with two excerpts from two different authors that get at the type of awakening I’m talking about. The first is from Scott:
What follows has been said in many, many different ways, here and elsewhere. If you are passionately interested in Self Realization, I suggest you go into this very, very slowly and carefully. If we are honest, we can’t assume anything, so don’t take my word for any of this. (What that means is that to know the truth, you have to search your own heart with as much sincerity and integrity as possible. It’s entirely up to you.) That said, it all comes down to this:
There is only now. This is it. This is everything.
Everything we think we think we know, in advance, about ourselves, about each other, about the world, about God, about the universe, is nothing but the play of memory, belief, and opinion, with all of its historical, emotional, psychological, social, political, economic, and intellectual baggage. This includes all spiritual, philosophical, and religious beliefs and fantasies.
The only thing we know, for sure, is awareness.
If attention is not fixated on self-centered ideas about things, its true nature is revealed as love, affection, insight, clarity, wisdom, equanimity, and compassion.
That true nature is what you are.
You are a verb and the universe is a verb.“If you don’t deny that, trivialize it, or pretend it’s not so, you will discover that all of the joy, happiness, peace, and freedom you have been seeking everywhere else has been right here all along.
“However, these are all just words. If you are truly open and honest, you can put the words, too, aside.
Without the word, ‘awareness,’ what is it?
Without the word, ‘love,’ what is it?
Without the word, ‘freedom,’ what is it?
Without the word, ‘peace,’ what is it?
Without the word, ‘now,’ what is it?
The second is from Richard Lang, who worked with Douglas Harding for several years before the latter’s death in January of this year. Richard now carries on Douglas’s work of pointing out the reality of “headlessness,” that is, the immediate, inescapable first-person experience of being not a thing but space, or the capacity for experience, which each of us knows firsthand. Richard’s description below is wonderfully precise and lucid:
Here’s a suggestion:
Sit down on your own for ten minutes with the sole purpose of being awake to Who you really are. Keep guiding your attention home to this undivided Capacity for your boundless view, this Silence for the limitless soundscape, this clear Absence that is Room for the edgeless world of body sensation. Whatever you find yourself thinking about, notice these thoughts are happening in your Spaciousness, in your No-Mind. That’s all you have to do. You don’t have to try and stop thinking for example, or try and feel peaceful, but simply be aware of being Space for the thinking process, or for whatever you are feeling. Attend to the Space and whatever is happening in it. As you do so, things will naturally reveal themselves, then dissolve. Just keep seeing that things unfold in the Space. It may happen that insights or understanding come to you. If this happens, observe these things too, occurring in the Space. See them arise, see them dissolve. Be aware of all of this happening there, as you look from the Mystery here. The Mystery that you are.
If the experience is a pleasant one, be aware of that feeling in the Space. Pleasant feeling there to its Absence here—two way attention. If it’s unpleasant—say you don’t like what you are feeling or are impatient for something different to happen—also notice this reaction in the Space. In fact, when difficult feelings appear it’s good news! Now you have the opportunity to see Who you really are in a more challenging situation. See there is no one here to be challenged. Feeling there to no-feeling here. . . Reaction there to no-reaction here—to no one here. World there to Capacity for the world here. Moment by moment, stay with the obvious and visible fact that you are not a thing at Centre but capacity. This experience of staying with the truth of Who you really are in a difficult situation will then help you if you experience something unpleasant at another time. You will know that you have the capacity and power to view it from the Space here, and to respond to it from the Space here. It’s not a matter of trying to have any particular kind of experience but of noticing that whatever your experience is, you are viewing it from Awareness, from this boundless clear Space or Single Eye, from Freedom, from Peace.
I was rather stunned to receive the news today that two of my most cherished philosophical and spiritual influences have just died.
Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007) was an American author, philosopher, wiseguy, and all-around mega-genius who co-wrote, along with Robert Shea, the legendary Illuminatus! trilogy that became an instant counterculture classic when it was published in the 1970s. He also wrote a huge number of additional books, both fiction and non-fiction (or perhaps they all fell somewhere in the gray area between those polar distinctions), dealing with consciousness, evolution, mysticism, occultism, conspiracy theories, linguistics, semiotics, self-programming, intelligence increase, life extension, quantum physics, the philosophy of science, space migration, human idiocy, religion, meditation, money, and more. He was one of a kind and will be sorely missed by pretty much everybody. Do a Google search is you’re not familiar with him, and revel in the wealth of material you’ll find. I myself came to him via Illuminatus! when I was in late high school, and I was never the same again. Bob’s been a constant companion ever since. I was pained to read in recent years of his agonizing struggle with post-polio syndrome (he suffered through the disease itself as a boy), but now he’s free of that.
Douglas Harding (1909-2007) was a British philosopher and spiritual teacher whose most famous books are the monumental The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth (1952) and On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious (1961). He taught a practical, on-the-ground method of spiritual awakening based on the immediate first-person experience of headlessness. From one’s own first-person vantage point, as a matter of immediate personal experience aside from any speculation or abstraction, one manifestly has no head (look for yourself right now and see). From this central truth Douglas developed a philosophy, and just as importantly, a practical method of transmitting its primary experiential realization, that synthesizes and integrates elements of all the world’s great spiritual traditions. He was recognized early on as a genius of startling vision; when he sent the unpublished draft of The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth to C.S. Lewis, who by that time was already a world celebrity, Lewis wrote back in a letter dated Easter 1950 and raved, “Hang it all, you’ve made me drunk, roaring drunk as I haven’t been on a book (I mean a book of doctrine; imaginative works are another matter) since I first read Bergson during World War I. Who or what are you? How have I lived forty years without my having heard of you before and my sensation is that you have written a book of the highest genius.”
Lewis went on to write the preface for the first published edition of the book. In it he said, “This book is, I believe, the first attempt to reverse a movement of thought which has been going on since the beginning of philosophy. . . . If [this book] should turn out to have been even the remote ancestor of some system which will give us again a credible universe inhabited by credible agents and observers, this will still have been a very important book indeed.”
Douglas’s influence grew in the 1960s and 70s when such prominent figures in the burgeoning countercultural spiritual movement as Alan Watts referred approvingly to his work. I myself encountered him for the first time in the late 1990s through some of his articles and interviews published on the web, and it was like meeting a lifelong friend for the first time.
So to repeat, today, January 11, 2007, saw the departure from this world of Robert Anton Wilson and Douglas Harding. Rest in peace, Bob and Doug. You will be missed.
Recently I was involved in a group conversation about religion that ended up centering on the issue of the “pick and choose” approach, in which a person explicitly chooses which tenets, doctrines, etc., to adopt and which to reject among a given religion or group of them. A number of participants criticized this approach on the grounds that it represents human hubris, that it is “man’s attempt to play God” and all that, and advocated by contrast the approach of surrendering one’s autonomy to an authority higher than oneself, such as the Bible (conceived as inerrant and supernaturally authoritative), or Jesus, or God.
Now, I myself am certainly no dogmatic supporter of the modern-day cafeteria-style approach to religion, although I have fiercely cherished my own personal freedom in this domain. There really is something vitally important in the recognition of a force or truth or principle or reality that transcends, dwarfs, and encompasses your personal, individual selfhood, however you may conceive that ultimate whatever-it-is.
And yet . . . and yet . . . I grew up with the evangelical Christian version of the “surrender your self and your autonomy” message being proclaimed all around me, and I still hear it being proclaimed today by a great many Christians of various stripes (and also by adherents of other faith traditions). And I can’t help taking serious exception to it, or at least to the version that’s almost always put forth.
Because in point of fact, nobody can actually achieve the epistemological-metaphysical feat advocated by the surrender-yourself camp. Nobody can really submit ultimately to a supposed ultimate authority, because the very recognition of such an authority is an a priori impossibility based on the brute fact of human self-consciousness and the human epistemological position.
This objection, not incidentally, goes much deeper than the positions expressed by the participants in the conversation that originally got me to thinking about all this. It goes deeper than the assertion that it’s right or wrong to pick and choose cafeteria-style between various religious texts, beliefs, doctrines, worldviews, etc.; deeper than the standard argument that develops when one side claims to choose from various possibilities and the other claims to forego this in favor of surrendering to an external authority.
The depth of what I’m talking about is expressed with exquisite clarity, and in terms that are universally applicable, by Richard Tarnas in his masterful intellectual history, The Passion of the Western Mind. In the section of his book devoted to explaining the post-modern viewpoint, Tarnas writes, “The fund of data available to the human mind is of such intrinsic complexity and diversity that it provides plausible support for many different conceptions of the ultimate nature of reality . . . . Evidence can be adduced and interpreted to corroborate a virtually limitless array of worldviews . . . . Because the human understanding is not unequivocally compelled by the evidence to adopt one metaphysical position over another, an irreducible element of human choice supervenes.”
An irreducible element of human choice. Aye, there’s the rub, and also the hub. Applying Tarnas’s statement — whose fundamental truth is self-evident — it’s obvious that the very decision to surrender one’s authority in matters of ultimate belief is actually an act of assertion and interpretation. Because to claim that you’re surrendering to a metaphysical or moral authority outside of yourself is merely to say that you are choosing, under your own sole sovereignty, to elevate that belief, doctrine, church, ideology, principle — whatever it may be — to the normative status of your highest ruling principle. The belief-doctrine-worldview-etc. doesn’t come with such authority pre-stamped, as it were, onto its invisible ideological visage, which you have somehow mystically managed to recognize, and which many millions of people who believe otherwise have somehow managed to miss.
In point of fact, the act of surrendering to religious authority — say, for example, by espousing a belief in the supernatural inspiration and absolute inerrancy of the Protestant Bible, or at least the original autograph manuscripts (which are conveniently lost to history [!]) — is just another case of the same ideological sleight-of-hand that has always been involved throughout history in the political arena in the “divine right of kings” shtick. It’s blatantly obvious to pretty much all of us that such a maneuver was and is a mere gimmick by which entire populations have invested certain people and social structures with authority over them, but have then chosen to believe that the authority is simply “natural” and “God-given.” But amazingly, the same principle at work in contemporary religion somehow slips under the radar of a great many moderns. Who knows, maybe an unconscious recognition of it accounts for the fact that a goodly part of the modern post-1970s evangelical explosion has been devoted to perpetuating outmoded monarchical images and stereotypes for describing the deity.
This is seen especially in contemporary evangelical music with its fetishizing of the kingly image of Jesus. Consider the titles of many popular praise choruses: “All Hail, King Jesus,” “Worship His Majesty,” “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” and so on. I think this phenomenon is due to more than just the simple fact that such titles inarguably represent valid New Testament-type language (although it’s significant that in the four canonical gospels Jesus frequently and vociferously refuses kingly labels). It’s likely that the monarchical thrust of so much modern evangelicalism comes from the sense of dislocation and the loss of the “sacred canopy” (as sociologist Peter Berger famously called it) of shared cultural religious meaning that has so afflicted the modern world at least since the 19th century, when Nietzsche correctly pinpointed nihilism as the spiritual virus that would come to define the 20th century. Today’s evangelicals fight that sense of dislocation and meaninglessness by simply trying to assert divine authority, according to their own interpretation of the matter, back into existence. And you can witness this very thing at work not only in their music but in the mountains of theological and apologetic writing they have produced, and continue to produce, in defense of the indefensible.
At this point I’m ineluctably led to quote Tom Ligotti, from his wonderful, brilliant short novel My Work Is Not Yet Done, from the portion where the narrator lays out the three-point view of reality and the “grand scheme of things” that has come to define his outlook:
A: There is no grand scheme of things.
B. If there were a grand scheme of things, the fact — the fact — that we are not equipped to perceive it, either by natural or supernatural means, is a nightmarish obscenity.
C: The very notion of a grand scheme of things is a nightmarish obscenity.
It was this passage, with its arch-Ligottian twist on an idea that’s more familiar from post-modern philosophy, existentialism, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and elsewhere, that I turned to when I was searching for an appropriate title for my currently unpublished private journal, There Is No Grand Scheme. And for a detailed explication of my interpretation of the quote itself, you can check out a post I made to Thomas Ligotti Online early last year.
I suppose my attitude is also related to the classic statement about religious authority that is an oft-quoted part of the Buddhist scriptures, and that is supposed to have come from the mouth of the historical Siddhartha Gautama [i.e., the Buddha] himself:
Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense . . . . Believe nothing on the faith of traditions, even though they have been held in honor for many generations and in many places. Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it. Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past. Do not believe what you yourself have imagined, persuading yourself that a God inspires you. Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests. After examination, believe what you yourself have tested and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.
This has always resonated strongly with me, which probably explains, or at least illuminates, my antagonistic feelings toward the more authoritarian religious traditions.
So that, in a very large nutshell, is my problem with the surrender-yourself attitude. But as I said at the beginning of this screed, I also accept that the recognition of a transcendent reality that encompasses and supersedes one’s individual selfhood is quite valuable. So how do I reconcile these attitudes?
In part, or maybe in whole, I do so in quasi-Zen terms, in the language and from the viewpoint of nondualism as articulated, for example, by Douglas Harding in his philosophy of headlessness, which seeks to awaken people to the paradox of their simultaneous first-person and third-person modes of existence, the former of which is the center and essence of conscious personal identity (and from which viewpoint one manifestly, in actual present experience, does not exist, but is instead a spacious absence). This recognition and/or approach runs all through the mystical literature of the world, finding exquisite expression in the West in, for example, the many writings of Meister Eckhart and Plotinus, and more recently in the writings of Eckhart Tolle, Ken Wilber, and others. It’s how I’m literally forced to understand things now, based on my own personal experiences, insights, and understandings. But of course that’s the type of statement that would lead a surrender-yourself evangelical or fundamentalist to criticize me for relying on my own judgment. As if I have any other choice.
In a related but distinct vein, I also reconcile these aspects of my understanding by making recourse to the daimonic theory of personal selfhood and ultimate identity. But that opens up another can of daimons altogether.