Monthly Archives: March 2021

Ground and Network

Merlin Sheldrake, in his book Entangled Life, discusses the way all life, on this planet at least, seems to be underpinned by fungal networks, mycorrhizal webs connecting tree to tree, plant to animal, bacterium to lichen. He remarks, of his research on fungal networks (which is facilitated by the wider international academic and commercial scientific community), “It is a recurring theme: look at the network, and it starts to look back at you.” (Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life (p. 240). Random House. Kindle Edition.)

Much of our unthinking outlook on things, even in the twenty-first century, is conditioned by a Cartesian, atomistic outlook inherited from the seventeenth century. This has crept into our religious and spiritual thinking too, so that we tend to understand God as a “thing” over against other things, and we ourselves as separate individual selves who continue, or don’t continue, after death. Perhaps this is as wrong a way of looking at life as was the early Darwinian view of evolution as divergence, separation, competition between organisms (Sheldrake, op cit., pp. 80-82) rather than as interconnection, often cooperative interconnection, within ecosystems.

For a long time now, Paul Tillich’s understanding of God as “Ground of Being”, beyond being, not to be understood as object vis à vis any subject but preceding the subject-object disjunction (Theology of Culture, p.15) has made perfect sense to me. Tillich somewhere in Systematic Theology refers to God as Ground of Being as “Being-itself” – a concept which has always seemed to me very close to Meister Eckhart’s Istigkeit, “isness”.

This sense of the ground’s relation to “things” in creation, human and other beings included, is, at least metaphorically, much more like the relation of a network to its nodes than anything else I can think of.

Simon Cross writes, in one of his Weekday Meditations,

It’s extraordinary how quickly time moves, and with it, understanding of our world. Only in recent years have we come to recognise that apparently ‘non sentient’ forms of life are not only sentient, but apparently social too. Trees have been shown to communicate with one another, to share resources with one another, and to be interdependent in ways that were hitherto unimaginable. Or perhaps – imaginable, but impossible to demonstrate.

With this growing recognition that the world around us is alive in ways that we hadn’t realised, has come a renewed interest in the panpsychism, an idea that has its roots in centuries old philosophy which suggested that consciousness exists beyond ‘just’ the animal kingdom. Panpsychists think that consciousness of some sort may exist at a molecular level, which, when you come to think of it is pretty mind blowing. Although given the subject matter, that seems like exactly the wrong term, or perhaps exactly the right one.

Now, I don’t know anything much about panpsychism as a philosophy of mind, but it has been suggested that the concept of Buddha-nature may in some Buddhist traditions be interpreted as implying a form of panpsychism. Dōgen Zenji, the importer into Japan of the Sōtō Zen school, wrote:

Therefore, the very impermanency of grass and tree, thicket and forest is the Buddha nature. The very impermanency of men and things, body and mind, is the Buddha nature. Nature and lands, mountains and rivers, are impermanent because they are the Buddha nature. Supreme and complete enlightenment, because it is impermanent, is the Buddha nature.

This impermanence, the dependence of things for their origin, one upon another, is surely the very place where we fall to the ground of all that is, or seems to be.

“Everything passes; everything changes; just do what you think you should do.” (Bob Dylan, ‘To Ramona’) Perhaps somehow we can be still enough to know.

Metaphysics?

The term “metaphysics” seems to make many writers on what might broadly be called secular spirituality nervous: “Metaphysics is a distraction. By ‘metaphysics’ I mean that which is beyond physics… ideas that can’t be experienced here and now in the world and that we can’t know directly.” (Lambert); “Leaving aside the metaphysics, mythology, and sectarian dogma, what contemplatives throughout history have discovered is that… there is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness.” (Harris) “I’m not talking about the “supernatural” or more exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism…” (Wright)

Now, I’ve no wish to take issue with writers such as Lenorë Lambert, Sam Harris or Robert Wright, and I have quoted their work often enough here and elsewhere. I recognise as clearly as any of them the difficulty, described so well both by Wright and by Susan Blackmore, of a Western person encountering an elaborate, occasionally almost baroque, system of theologies, demonologies, geographies of life, death, and aeons of rebirth, prevalent especially in parts of the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions.

But I will keep on using the term “the ground of being”, and if that doesn’t sound metaphysical I’m not sure what does. It’s a term if not coined, then certainly made familiar by Paul Tillich. Tillich describes the ground of being as not to be understood as object vis à vis any subject but preceding the subject-object disjunction, as “Being-itself” – which always reminds me of Meister Eckhart’s use of the term Istigkeit, isness“.

For me, this isness is precisely that which can be known directly in contemplation. I am not talking here of an idea, a common factor in a Huxley-like perennial philosophy, but of a repeated and very direct experience of what Quakers have referred to as “the light”, as described for instance by Emilia Fogelklou (she writes in the third person): “Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ’empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.”

This kind of experience can of course not be described terribly clearly, nor can it be communicated directly, and any attempt is likely to fall into superlatives such as Fogelklou’s. But the experience is as real and direct as any sensory experience, perhaps more so, and it has a curious undeniable quality, a great lifting and healing of the heart, that can catch the breath and fill the eyes with tears. I use Tillich’s term for it not because I have any particular attraction for that as an idea, but because it seems to get closer than anything else I have read to the encounter itself. There is a visual analogue that sometimes occurs in meditation – and which can lead to the experience I am trying to describe – of the visual field itself, seen through closed eyes, extending suddenly through and beneath what ought to have been the observing mind, but which is no longer there.

Now, I have long enough experience in contemplative practice to know that experiences are not things to hang onto, still less to seek after, and I would not be happy if any words of mine sent anyone on a quest for experiential chimeras. Yet the experience itself, with all its indelible affect, has occurred so often over the years, since childhood, that I find myself referring to it over and over again, and it remains a kind of lodestone in my own unknowing of being and nothingness.

Perhaps the lesson to be drawn is not in fact to worry too much about explanations, and certainly not about ideas, but just to practice, and to be true to what we find there.

Binding and Loosing

Words can be slippery things, but they have more power to change things than we often give them credit for. Take the word “religion” for instance. The first two definitions the Oxford Dictionary offers are, “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods” and “a particular system of faith and worship.”

Contemplation, “a form of… prayer or meditation in which a person seeks to pass beyond mental images and concepts to a direct experience of the divine” (sense 5) is, obviously, at least potentially at odds with “religion”. That “direct experience” might not be of “a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” It might not fit into the doctrines of “a particular system of faith and worship.” This has been the problem with contemplatives for millennia. Time and again they have broken away from state churches on the one hand and politico-religious revolutions on the other, sometimes forming loose communities and sometimes not, and have retreated from formal organisation almost altogether, at least at the beginning. Examples are as diverse as the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt and Syria around the 4th century AD, the Pure Land-derived schools of Buddhism (Jōdo-shū, Jōdo Shinshū) founded by Honen and Shinran in 12th and 13th century Japan, and the Quakers in 17th century England.

The word “secular” is defined (sense 1) as, “not connected with religious or spiritual matters.” Now, this is slightly problematical, as Sam Harris points out in Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion. He writes

Twenty percent of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Although the claim seems to annoy believers and atheists equally, separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit… many nonbelievers now consider all things “spiritual” to be contaminated by medieval superstition.

I do not share their semantic concerns. Yes, to walk the aisles of any “spiritual” bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard, but there is no other term—apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative—with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.

It seems to me that we are (well I am at least) coming to a crossroads, exacerbated and given an added sense of urgency, as with so many other things, by the current pandemic. For many of us, even if we are not contemplatives as such, a system of faith and worship based on the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God set over against his creation, no longer describes our experience. Over the past year, many of us, bereft of conventional (or unconventional) worship, especially those of us who have resisted the distracting simulacra of Zoom church, have found ourselves sinking further into a direct experience of – what? Grace? Mercy? A stillness and a strength far beyond our own resources or imagination? All of those, perhaps. What are we to name it?

Lenorë Lambert writes of a secular dharma, based on an openness to all sources, but guided especially by the Pali Canon, an emphasis on practice, and accessibility to “anyone, anywhere, from any background or life circumstance”. The experience of lockdown has shown us (some of us were already getting the idea here and there) that special buildings and rituals, special forms of words, formulations of orthodoxy, scriptural literalisms, and many other aspects of conventional religion, are simply not required baggage on the spiritual path. Yes, we can learn from them – and often we will need to learn from them – but we are not beholden to them, as though we couldn’t walk without them.

Of course such attitudes will threaten many of our erstwhile co-religionists, and we owe them great courtesy and care as we move along our own paths. But the ground of being lies beneath all that is, and holds us all in being, whatever words we use for it. May we be true, gently, to what we find.

A Quiet Life

All through our repeated pandemic precautions and lockdowns, when physically attending corporate worship of any kind has been difficult, not to say inadvisable, and Zoom meetings have remained their distracting and inadequate selves, there has been plenty of time to be quiet, and to allow the assumptions and traditions by which our spiritual lives are usually conditioned to settle out, as it were, like the cloudiness in a newly-established aquarium.

Wikipedia defines religion as “a social-cultural system of designated behaviours and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements.”

Contemplation, however differently it may be defined in different traditions, is at root a kind of inner seeing, an experiential encounter with the ground of being that gives rise to, and sustains, all that is. The many techniques of contemplative practice may in the end give rise to contemplation, but their intention is generally more modest: to train attention and consciousness sufficiently to still the field of awareness, and to recognise the incessant activity of the mind as a process, or bundle of processes, that runs on beneath awareness all by itself, rather than assuming it to be a discrete and permanent self or soul, set over against its perceptions. Of course the outer forms of mediation or contemplative practice are very different, and conditioned by the religious tradition within which they arise, but very broadly something like this seems to be intended by them all.

In this period of quiet settling, separated from the religious atmosphere and bustle of corporate worship, I, as I suspect many of us, have begun to sense that the “social-cultural system” of religion is something quite separate from the “experimental faith” (cf. Quaker faith  & practice 19.02) of contemplative practice, and that, crucially, the one does not depend upon the other.

Churches and religious groups seem mostly to be operating on the assumption that once the pandemic is under control, and something approaching normal life is restored, their worshippers will flood back, Catholics to Mass, Quakers to their meetings, everyone to their accustomed place. It may not happen, at least not in the way, or to the extent, that most people appear to expect. The sea change of the pandemic, and the enforced crash course in information and communications technology it has brought, have accelerated a process of secularisation that has been gathering momentum for a long time.

Now, secularisation is a term loaded with assumptions and prejudices on the part of both those espouse it, and those who oppose any such idea. Stephen Batchelor points out (After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, p.15, Yale University Press, Kindle Edition) that both the word “religious” and the word “secular” are difficult terms in our present time. He writes,

Secular critics commonly dismiss religious institutions and beliefs as outdated, dogmatic, repressive, and so on, forgetting about the deep human concerns that they were originally created to address… “Secular” is a term that presents as many problems as “religious.”… there seems to be no reason why avowedly “secular” people cannot be deeply “religious” in their ultimate concern to come to terms with their brief and poignant life here and now.

I have written elsewhere of my growing sense that the contemplative life is once again moving out from the monasteries and ashrams into a new desert, that of the world, or at least of places set apart within the world. I wrote then:

Time and again contemplatives have broken away from the apparent corruption of state churches on the one hand and religion-inspired revolutionaries on the other, sometimes forming loose communities, and retreated from formal organisation almost altogether. Examples are as diverse as the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt and Syria around the 4th century AD, the Pure Land (Shin) schools of Buddhism founded by Honen and Shinran in 12th and 13th century Japan, and the Quakers in 17th century England.

These contemplative movements, often based around simplicity of practice and openness to the Spirit, seem to arise when not only are the religious establishments in a compromised and sometimes corrupt condition, but the state is in flux, sometimes violent flux. [Our present political uncertainties], scoured by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, would seem to provide fertile ground for contemplative change in this way.

I have no idea where this is leading, but there is a clarity developing that I had not expected, nor intentionally “worked towards”. The inward solitude of these unusual times is proving strangely fruitful. This is what Martin Laird once called a “pathless path”: as Dave Tomlinson wrote, “Human language is unable to describe the external realities of God with any precision. As we have seen, this does not make language useless; it simply means that we have to accept its limitations… Religious language or talk about God and the spiritual realm is therefore inherently provisional and approximate in nature.”

There is no obvious name for what is happening. It seems not to be “secular” in the way religious people might fear, but it isn’t “religious” either, in the way that secularists might assume. It is not eremitical exactly, certainly not in the traditional sense of hermits as ones living in geographical isolation.

Perhaps it is time that silence and practice are allowed to stand untitled: the ground still, and open. It seems to be so for me.

[Parts of this post were published earlier on The Mercy Blog, but have since been adapted and expanded.]

Straight and Level

In her recently published book on the secular dharma, The Buddha for Modern Minds: a non-religious guide to the Buddha and his teachings, Lenorë Lambert writes, on dealing with the problem of instinctive reactivity,

The challenge is to bring mindfulness… to this process so that we can see the mechanics of our own dramas being created. However, our mind takes the shape of what we rest it on. So being with the unpleasant process we’ve whipped up here makes us feel … unpleasant. We react by avoiding it somehow. Instead, we need to learn to hold our seat in discomfort, to be with it. Think of a rider on a horse-in-training. The horse is skittish and scared of the new experience of having a human on its back. It’s flighty and it bucks.

A skilled rider can hold their seat, that is, stay in the saddle, even though the horse is bucking around. Psychologists call this ‘distress tolerance’, the willingness to experience discomfort rather than ‘act out’ (do something ineffective out there in the world… to get rid of the unpleasantness).

Lambert, Lenorë. The Buddha for Modern Minds: a non-religious guide to the Buddha and his teachings (p. 154). Flourish Press. Kindle Edition.

My own unsought image for the process has long been that of the World War II torpedo bomber pilot, whose job it was to hold his aircraft straight and level, at a precisely determined height low over the water, come what may, until he reached the release point, a few hundred yards from the target. Regardless of anti-aircraft fire from the target ship and her escorts, regardless of enemy aircraft attacking from above, regardless of shell-splashes endangering his aircraft, he held his course. Frequently an aircraft, if it made it to the release point and pressed home the attack, would be so badly damaged it never made it back safely to base.

There have been times in my life, as there are in anyone’s, when some such image as this has been the aptest to come to mind. But distress tolerance has another, far quieter side, that too easily remains unseen. To stay still, in the midst of turmoil and loss, to sit with it, often seems a rare gift in our present time. In the March 1 issue of Friends Journal, Tricia Gates Brown writes,

Sprawled on handmade quilts in a grassy orchard, sharing an outdoor, physically distanced visit with my friend Karen under purple pear and transparent apple trees, I am nowhere near a desert. My Willamette Valley farm home is more Edenic than it is barren, devoid, or austere. Yet when Karen, a spiritual director, asks, “Where are the voices teaching us how to be in the desert?,” she put words to a question my heart has been formulating for weeks. We had been cringing at the online events of COVID season: Zoom video conferencing preschool for her daughter; Zoom outdoor school for my fifth-grade goddaughter; Zoom dinner parties; Zoom yoga; Zoom reunions; online plays; online church. We are zooming out.

Am I the only one who wonders if all this screen-staring and cyber-connection replaces anything at all? Real face-to-face connection is irreplaceable. Or who wonders if our online stand-ins are sometimes making us more off-kilter, keeping us from doing the work that might nourish us in this time? …

What if instead of grasping to fill the void, we embraced it? What if we settled deeply enough into this void, this desert, to learn what it has to teach? What if we recognized the powerful, metaphorical spiritual stage of the desert and that many of us are in it? …

It may sound heretical to suggest this: perhaps we should dive fully into this new desert and coach others on being there. Maybe we should stop trying to replace what cannot be replaced: school, social lives, organized groups, church, classes. Some might un-school the kids for a year; learn how to foster well-being while being alone; plumb deeply the question, “Who am I?”; take a full-on sabbatical from training and from organized sacred rituals…

The desert of the heart is an interior solitude, a place of healing as well as of grieving, a straight and level place amid the flying debris of so much that has seemed stable and dear, our “normal” lives. Our practice is our compass. Without it we are lost. Whether insight meditation, the Nembutsu, Centering Prayer or whatever we have found to be our path, this feels more than ever to be a time to sit with it, in the void that was our accustomed selves, and watch…