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.

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