Archive for June, 2010

Successful Failure

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

I can see you’re getting in the swing of your upcoming studies already! Your diagnosis—and perhaps prognosis—concerning the “bright agnostics” I encounter in my honors seminars is for the most part right on target, and you’re right in thinking that “The Noble Lie” was designed in part to provoke and encourage this particular audience.

If I were to follow your lead and do some “over-generalizing” myself, I would estimate that only about 25 percent of the honors students I teach fully understanding what I’m telling them and what they’re reading in the books I assign. Of these only about 25 percent make the existential connection and realize that the ideas they’ve encountered could “irrevocably alter” (your phrase) the direction of their personal lives. And of these, finally, only about 25 percent actually decide to begin moving toward that alteration in a deliberate or systematic way. Not the best odds, I agree, but quantity isn’t the issue.

Part of the explanation, again as you correctly surmise, is the fact of youth and the prospect of “bright futures”. Most people your age, regardless of how bright they may be, have a difficult time putting time in perspective since they haven’t yet experienced enough of it. I imagine this observation sounds a bit patronizing—wait till you’re as old as I am, etc.—but I don’t mean it that way at all. I’m speaking simply from the point of view of what might be called “applied metaphysics”. With a few rare exceptions, people need to move along the line of time somewhat further than you have before they become seriously interested—practically, and not just theoretically—in transcending it.

I’m afraid I don’t know you well enough to be able to predict what you’ll do with what you learned from our “Yogis, Mystics, Monks, and Zen Masters” or how exceptional you may prove in the long run. As already noted, the odds are that you’ll seldom look back. And even if you do, the next few years are going to be tremendously difficult for you, with any number of obstacles thrown in the way of serious spiritual work. Given what other, former students have told me, medical school is essentially one, long, stressful night! This being so, trying to preserve even the smallest residue from what you learned this past semester is going to be a full time job.

So what do I recommend? One strategy might be to look for “vertical openings” within the context of the health profession itself, places where an “alchemical” approach to the body is possible (I have in mind the chapter by Titus Burckhardt). More importantly, however, you can make a daily, if not hourly, effort to watch yourself—to push back the continually encroaching illusions so as to keep an objective grip on what is really going on.

“Make an effort”, I say, and not necessarily succeed in so doing! As you’ll recall, there was a consistent emphasis in each of the traditions we studied—in Yoga, Hesychasm, Zen, and Sufism—on the importance of detachment, on not identifying with the passing thoughts and emotions, the ups and downs, of our days. But there was also in each a compassionate acknowledgment of the fact that victory in this domain is finally more gift than achievement, a gift for which we prepare ourselves best by remaining courageous and hopeful even in the midst of our repeated failures.

Do you remember our brief discussion of the Zen master Soko Morinaga? Remember the subtitle of his autobiography? An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity. Your next years will almost certainly provide you with repeated opportunites for learning this lesson. Make the most of them!

Changing Religions vs. Changing Churches

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Yes indeed, reading and listening to lectures can take a person only so far. Do you know the Tibetan parable? A lame man and a blind man are both attempting to make their way to the holy city of Lhasa, which stands in this case for the Western Paradise of Chenrezig—that is, for “Heaven”. But of course the lame man can’t walk, and the blind man can’t see. Their solution consists in the lame man’s climbing atop the blind man’s shoulders and telling him where to go. The point of the parable is that doctrine (which is lame) and method (which is blind) must be combined. Only together do they permit one to make genuine progress in the spiritual life.

As to your second question—why with all my obvious interest in non-Christian religions, I nonetheless follow a Christian path—you have rightly intuited, or perhaps deduced from your reading of Schuon and other perennialist authors, that remaining within the tradition in which one was raised is far preferable to conversion to another religion. Changing religions, Schuon insisted, is more than a change of country; it is more like a change of planets, and barring necessity or an unimpeachable sign from God, having to learn to breathe so different an atmosphere is inadvisable.

Changing churches, on the other hand, is a very different matter. I myself am Eastern Orthodox, though I was raised as a Protestant. There are any number of reasons for this choice—ranging from the doctrinal to the liturgical—but by far the most important is the fact that Orthodoxy is alone among the Christian possibilities in offering its adherent the ancient treasures of a contemplative method, in the form of Hesychasm. Not that there aren’t Catholic and even Protestant mystics and sages, to say nothing of saints. That’s not in question. But which of them is able to tell the rest of us how to attain to his vision, let alone transformation? Where is there a step-by-step, practical guide to theosis outside the Christian East?

So yes again, I strongly recommend you investigate the Orthodox Church. I do not know where you live, nor what the possibilities are in your area. Needless to say, man being man, Orthodoxy is no more immune than any other religion to local variations, and indeed deformations, along what Schuon would have called “the human margin”. Perhaps I should add this as well, though it should go without saying: the Orthodox are by and large no more open to perennialism than are other traditional Christians. Nor should, or need, they be so long as they are seriously seeking to follow their own Way to God. The majority of men are so made that they cannot make concerted spiritual efforts unless they are first convinced that their Way is, if not alone true, then at least the best.

Do not waste your time being surprised by this, or trying to turn conversations with the priests you may meet into interfaith dialogues. As I have pointed out before in this forum, one goes to Church after all, not as an exercise in comparative religion, but in order to be nourished and in time transformed by the God-given sacramental Mysteries. Moreover—and note well, for this is extremely important—having recourse to those Mysteries, by virtue of an initiatic affiliation with the Church, is the sine qua non if you wish to engage in the methodical use of an Invocation like the Jesus Prayer. You can certainly say this Prayer from time to time for brief periods and in a more or less devotional way. But if you wish it to be the centerpiece of a full-fledged method, you need to have the guidance of a wise elder (the Greek geron and Russian starets), and such guidance presupposes membership in the Church.

Metaphysical Plasticity

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Having taken note of your posts from the “Faith, Doubt, and God” course discussion board, I thought I might jot you two a joint reply, for your comments are related as two sides of one coin.

B. has teasingly, but at the same seriously, accused me of mounting an argumentum ad hominem. But in fact my remark in class was by no means intended to replace other, less rhetorical observations, which is precisely what ad hominems attempt to do. I certainly do believe (this was the cause of his allegation) that anyone who is well informed regarding the teachings and methods of the world’s orthodox religions and who is sufficiently supple—”sophisticated” may not have been the best term—can’t help but be a perennialist. But stating the belief and defending it are, I freely admit, not the same.

As for whether B. himself is therefore “ill-informed” or “unsupple”, the latter diagnosis seems to me the more apt in his case. Lest he suppose, however, that I’m accusing him of being unable to sit in full lotus (!), I should perhaps clarify that what I have in mind is a metaphysical, not physical, plasticity. Explaining this further would require much more than a brief comment in a forum like this, so allow me to cut to the chase by saying—and please understand: this too is just an observation and not (yet) an argument—that Meister Eckhart is almost certainly the most “supple” Christian I’ve ever read.

Which leads me to respond to T.’s post. Not surprisingly, she has expressed her concern that Eckhart’s teaching is “exaggerated”. I couldn’t disagree more. As I see it, what he said in our course reader about the difference between “God” and God (see Chapter 70 of my Not of This World) couldn’t be clearer or truer or more just. His teaching may indeed be a “shock” to some people, but that’s not his “agenda”. He’s simply stating What Is in as direct a way as is humanly possible. But he realizes—and this, of course, is what pulls many of his Christian readers up short—that in order to say What Is one must know What Is, and that in order to know What Is one must be What Knows.

I’m fully aware that this last formulation, of Schuonian origin, may itself produce its own sort of shock. B. is right in thinking that it would almost certainly be censured by authorities such as the Elder Sophrony or Bishop K.—though I can tell you in all honesty that the latter is himself rather more “supple” in private than he is in his ex officio discourse. Be that as it may, even taking the public words of His Grace at face value, all they show is that there is an important difference between being a mystic and being an esoterist, just as there is a difference between being an esoteric Christian and being a Christian esoterist.

I myself am an esoterist first and foremost. And this means that for me Christianity, like every religion, is a salvific upaya and not a one-for-one mapping of celestial facts. I don’t think I’m letting any cats out of the bag when I tell you this: from a certain point of view, my Advice to the Serious Seeker, which I believe you’ve both read, is about nothing else. In any case, esoterism thus understood is the standard by which I measure what counts as “suppleness” or “sophistication” (from sophia = “wisdom”). This being so, I trust it is clear that my above assessment of B. is in no way a “put-down”. Clearly the saints themselves are on a spectrum of varying degrees of esoterism, hence of “metaphysical plasticity”; someone like Maximos is significantly “suppler” in this respect than a Cyprian, which is no doubt why B. finds some of what the Confessor said about the modalities of Incarnation “too abstract” and insufficiently rooted in the particulars of the flesh and blood Jesus.

A final point. Though I am by my very nature an esoterist or metaphysician, I’ve never supposed that everybody else should be one too. Indeed I’ve always been diffident about pressing “my” position too firmly or insistently lest I end up confusing or distracting an interlocutor whose spirituality is more bhaktic in character. Better by far to keep one’s eyes on the finger and not look at the moon than to ignore both finger and moon while gazing off into empty space. Behind my alleged ad hominem there are indeed arguments, but advancing those arguments, to say nothing of winning one of them, is of very little importance. It’s loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength that counts. And as far as I can tell, you two do, for which of course: Deo gratias.