Monday, February 19, 2007

The Apophatic Ordinary II

The word “apophatic” has at least two traditional meanings. The first is what is ineffable, completely beyond any human knowing. The second is ineffable knowing, beyond speech or image. It also refers to a way of doing theology that affirms by negation as typified on the one hand by Pseudo-Denys, and on the other by the Athanasian creed.

However, as noted above, this word today is used as noun or adjective in a variety of ways. Some of these are: the inclusive landscape of concentration that lies beyond the door of paradox, described above; necessary ambiguity, employed, for example, to give a word or phrase expansive resonance instead of restrictive definition; a particular way of concentration that can be sought, described below; a particular entry into complete silence for which this sort of concentration makes the practitioner available, and which is documented throughout much of human history, summed up by Isaac of Nineveh's phrase, “the mind is snatched”;(6) and, finally, the dark background that is death, before which all signs are displayed and the human drama is played out, which is of course another way of talking about the inclusive landscape in which concentration is focused that lies beyond the door of paradox. In this discussion, I wish to confine myself to the last three, that is, a particular way of concentration, a frequently documented loss of self-consciousness, and the background of death.

Whether or not one notices the periodic predominance of the apophatic on the continuum of consciousness, which occurs ordinarily with greater or lesser intensity while humans are awake (the questions of sleep and dreams cannot be discussed in this paper), depends on the intensity of the moment, cultural conditioning, personality, and other variables. It should be noted also that these variables are the filters through which apophatic consciousness, and the radical loss of self-consciousness, are interpreted in words and images.

Writers, who tend to notice small things, often wonder how they write. John Gardner: “All writing requires at least some measure of a trance-like state. When one has experienced these moments, one finds...that after one has come out of them, one cannot say, or even clearly remember, what happened.” The same impression is expressed by a Nobel biologist: “The main thing about it, is that you forget yourself,”(7) and by an anonymous writer in The New Yorker: “But occasionally, without being asked, time neither stops nor passes--it drops out of mind with such simplicity and secrecy that not until later do you understand the enormous gift you have received....As I walk by my rather disheveled garden in the country, I kneel to pull up a weed. I am called to lunch, and reply that I'll be there in a minute. The shadows begin to pour around my feet, and the earth grows cool under my hands. A voice rings out from the house, 'It's suppertime!'“(8) At a more mundane level, “W.H. Auden made the point well when he said that schools were places that should be teaching the spirit of prayer in a secular context. This they would do, he maintained, by teaching people how to concentrate fully and exclusively on whatever was before them, be it a poem, picture, maths problem, or leaf under a microscope, and to concentrate on these for their own sake. By the 'spirit of prayer', he meant selfless attention.”(9)

The gift of radical loss of self-consciousness by way of concentration, through which a person becomes open in the landscape that I am calling apophatic consciousness, as well as being inadvertent, may be sought. Some people stumble on the paradox of intention by themselves, and many religious traditions teach ways by which people may learn the concentration that opens them to the gift of complete loss of self-consciousness. As noted above, this concentration involves a radical shift, if not willing loss, of perspective. Such losses, as well as the encounter with what I have called the dark background, are often described in the language of death.

The means of seeking the predominance of apophatic consciousness has been taught for millennia.(10) There seem to be two principal means: one is what I shall call the ascent of insight. This leads to a momentary predominance of apophatic consciousness in which there is no image or word, which is sometimes sudden and noticeable enough to be interpreted as a “eureka” experience. In this moment, the silence and stillness from which the crowning insight(s) appears to emerge, seem to be complete, but the moment is usually brief.

The second way, what I shall call “the way of the poor”, is more mundane, and simply involves the repetition of a word or phrase, concentration on breath, counting, visualization, or similar devices. The ascent of insight is more aesthetically pleasing--in part because it leads to self-reflection-- than the latter, which is arduous and often boring, requiring a more rigorous pursuit. However, the second method can open the practitioner to more sustained apophatic consciousness, to prolonged periods where stillness and silence seem to become complete, and time “drops out of mind”.

The emotional reaction to either the “eureka” experience or “the mind is snatched”, depending on the person and the context, sometimes can be acute. There can be celebration at the gift given. There also can be tears mixed with joy: mourning the loss of loss.(11) As the shift in perspective becomes more evident in daily living, the emotional reactions tend to fall away or be pushed aside as distraction.

There is nearly universal testimony that availability to such stillness and silence cannot be sustained without the integration of moral with mental concentration. Religious texts seem to play on this fact. Thus, New Testament sayings about losing one's life to gain it, or the kingdom of heaven belonging to the poor, or the hymn in Philippians 2: 5-11, can from this perspective appropriately be interpreted as referring to the mode by which predominance of apophatic consciousness is sought, including the moral behavior required both as preparation, and issuing as consequence.(12)

The Philippians passage is particularly pertinent here, because without a humble and solidly incarnational outlook as a discipline as well as a theology, it is all too easy, as the gnostics did, and people in every generation still do, to go off the rails. Because radical loss of self-consciousness feels like leaving the body behind (although the body is essentially involved), and because loss of self-consciousness is so great a gift, which loss is mourned, it is easy to fall into anti-matter language. Because the first sustained loss of self-consciousness may seem extraordinary,(13) it can appear as though a secret has been discovered. Without an incarnational discipline, a number of inflated, self-dramatizing reactions can occur as can be seen throughout religious history. A recent cautionary example is the late Chogyam Trungpa whose Cutting Though Spiritual Materialism(14) is a modern masterpiece on detachment, but who died of cirrhosis.

Even with a healthy attitude, there is the additional problem, having discovered the gift of radical loss of self-consciousness, of how to communicate it. The gift of complete stillness and silence, by its paradoxical nature as well as definition, is impossible to communicate, in part because there is no corresponding experience—or rather, lack of experience—in a life lived without trained concentration as described above, or at least awareness of the landscape in which concentration occurs. To resort to the paradoxical language that attracts, as many who have tried to communicate this gift have done—bridal language, erotic language, and so forth—in order to urge someone to enter the way of the poor and persist through the problems, only compounds the difficulty, for such language will encourage the hearer to seek an imaginative experience instead of the abandonment of experience. And it is difficult to persuade someone to enter what seems like death through the relinquishing of control of language and images, by which most people seem to maintain their identities.

There is another important difference between what I have called the ascent of insight and the way of the poor. In its aesthetic self-regard, the former can lead to efforts to repress emotions, thoughts, and so forth, in an attempt to “climb” to apophatic consciousness. Here we see one method, a violent and combative one, of coming to interior stillness, a stillness that cannot be complete or sustained because of the effort required to hold on tightly to what it has repressed. By contrast, the way of the poor allows emotions, thoughts and the like to dissolve by disregard. Even so, it is possible for the ascent of insight to point towards, or bestow a glimpse of, the way of the poor, the most famous and commented upon passage being in Augustine's Confessions, Book 9: 10, where he appears somewhat wryly to give an account of the ascent of insight he shared with Monica, and immediately follows with what appears to be a description of a sustained period of complete stillness and silence.(15)


(6) S.P. Brock, "Divine Call and Human Response," The Way, January, 1981, p. 73.
(7) L.A. Schreiber, "Strange Fish, New York Times Book Review, July 3, 1983.
(8) "Talk of the Town", The New Yorker, November 11, 1985, p. 36.
(9) Daniel Goleman, The Meditative Mind, gives a survey of meditation paths. See also the brief account by S. Betchelor, in The Tibet Guide (London: Wisdom, 1987). Of Christian writers there are too many to mention here, but two of the clearest are Isaac of Nineveh (7th c) of which there are two complete translations, one from the Syriac and one from the Greek, neither of which are entirely satisfactory, and fragments translated by S.P. Brock, which are excellent, but not yet gathered together in one volume; and John Main's Word Into Silence cited above.
(10) For a superabundance of comparative texts, see W.N. Perry, ed., A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986).
(11) It is possible to imagine that Origen's mourning was intense enough to lead him to castrate himself. Cf., On First Principles, tr. G.W. Butterworth (New York, 1966) p. 248.
(12) See again the comparative texts in A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom.
(13) The Zen master will say that it is ordinary consciousness, while what the non-practitioner experiences is a waking nightmare.
(14) Boston: Shambhala, 1973.
(15) That Augustine knew the way of the poor is evident from such passages as De Gen. ad litt. xii. 12, 25 & 26, 53.


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