Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Ways of Reading

Yesterday I went to a seminar where all the usual buzz-words were liberally scattered through the the paper: useless words and nonsense-phrases such as 'mystical' and 'mystical experience'. To her credit, the speaker was very dissatisfied with these words and with the traditional scholarly tools at her disposal, and tried unsuccessfully to get a discussion going. But the die-hards were much in evidence and she didn't get very far.

It would have been a much more interesting paper if she had understood the problems with the word experience and how the two aspects of knowing function and are revealed in the text. As it was, enthusiasm got tangled up with Quakers, and the counter-Reformation got tangled up with recurrent notions of so-called platonism. To her credit, however, she did address the problem of doctrine cut off from praxis.

It seems to me that out of the many ways of reading texts three are of paramount importance: first, to try to understand the author's point of view and intention as far as that is possible—and often it is very difficult to do so. Second, to understand what the text actually says, because it is often true that the author is the last to know what he/she has said. And finally, to understand where the text moves along the continuum—for want of a better word, because the process is holistic—between extreme self-consciousness on the one hand, and the depths of the mind (apophatic consciousness, deep mind) on the other.

And it is also useful, instead of using the nonsense word 'mystical', to try to understand whether it is didactic, devotional, abstract or anagogical or some combination of these or other qualities. In addition, many of these texts should be read as poetry, even if they are set out as prose, because the authors are often trying to convey what has occurred beyond the 'event horizon' at the far end of liminality, and so are using both aspects of knowing as most poetry does (see Hirshfield's Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry).

This isn't rocket science, but old scholarly habits seem to die very hard, and the chains of the academy are forged with a particularly hard steel. Scientism and positivism, as she noted, die very hard. What I am suggesting, of course, are not the only ways to understand these texts, but they can be useful until something better comes along. 


Blogger Donald LaBranche said...

Could you elaborate on "enthusiasm got tangled up with Quakers..."?



4:49 pm, February 18, 2014  
Anonymous desertfisher said...

Been musing lately on why the habit of silence helps a person grow in compassion. In connection with this post, i see compassion as a way of "reading" a "text" which for example would include a person's seemingly inexpressible suffering or hope. But then, just like contemplative reading of written texts, compassion can only take place when a person goes beyond the relational encumbrance of self-reflexive gathering of personal experiences/merits/recognition the way journalists often do with survivors of natural calamities (how do you feel? what are your plans?, etc.)into a more self-forgetful attention to the Other. And out of this emerges a real relationship - deep calling unto each other's deep...

4:30 am, February 19, 2014  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Enthusiasm was an 18th century movement that affected mostly Calvinist religious groups and led to what we think of as revivals and altar-calls, often quite noisy affairs. A great emphasis on sin and redemption, guilt (lots of guilt) and being set free.
It was very anti-ritual.

It was not a movement that affected the Quakers.

8:37 am, February 19, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if we underestimate the pain of compassion in the face of suffering in another that does not go away or lessen because the person 'being' compassionate can in no way help the other. Do you see what I mean? I think silence exposes us to a sort of suffering-as-it-is not the suffering we can deal with from strength/ignorance-without-being-touched. It is not at all easy to be compassionate.


5:16 pm, February 19, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ desertfisher and Theo,

Good comments!

The silence that desires to be non self reflective would need to be wholly present to both suffering and hope and it would value both as it "created" form from/of both.

Perhaps this silence is most "noticed" in what is called "deep calling unto deep." In fearless empathy. Fear seems to be rooted in/comes out a self reflective kind of silence. The holds-something-back-in-reserve kind of silence.

Thank you both and all who write comment here. I appreciate all of it.


8:00 pm, February 19, 2014  
Anonymous desertfisher said...

@ Theo and Mike:

Maybe compassion is no different at all from "sitting in the dark," wounded, waiting helplessly, embracing "the wound of history" (Maggie's phrase in Pillars of Flame) because its first job is to listen. It is an avenue for a self-forgetful transfiguration, in other words, also an invitation and a gift from the Other. I guess the challenge with compassion, like sitting in the dark, is the willingness to go naked as the person allows the left hemisphere by default to operate on a fixing, objectifying, better-worse dualist mode.

2:09 am, February 20, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe not! Perhaps, once noticed, we have no choice truly but this sitting naked in the dark? Not much of the passive in this image however.

Nor does it seem a surrender.


6:52 pm, February 20, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was thinking of our reaction ot the visible suffering of others ... the kind of thing that can happen just walking along the street and noticing a stranger's facial expression, or seeing poverty in another ...


4:21 pm, February 21, 2014  
Anonymous Abigail Tingman said...

It is amusing how we (I most of all) think we can be better at things like compassion and love by better understanding them. I have observed the greatest acts of pure compassion issue from learning disabled children, those with no understanding whatsoever. Yes, compassion grows in silence and we do not understand how. Through silence we wait. We wait and endure with all souls and are rendered without experience (as we know it). How is this possible? I know not, but it is so... and most extraordinary!

5:23 pm, February 21, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


So, how is this pain reaction underestimated? If my wife is in pain and there is nothing I can do to relieve it how is this differentiated from that sensed in a homeless individual's posture or glance?

Should pain of compassion, or anything else for that matter, be easy for being noticed?

Perhaps a "habit of silence" is "sitting naked in the dark" is "being touched."

And distinctions of such-ness are poetry.


5:41 pm, February 21, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


It seems true the consciousness which admits to what is called deep mind is as net positive as it is necessarily and everyday ordinary.

This can be a conscious shifting in what is called "my" point of view and the conversation here, to me anyway, is very often about this shift and how one goes forward at "doing" it.

Deep mind is (must be perhaps?) enabled in us all and that what flowers from this connected ness is not necessarily knowable is just how it is. Blessing for all!


7:51 pm, February 21, 2014  
Anonymous Abigail Ting said...

@ Mike

Thank you for your blessings and thoughtful comment. This blog is a stretch for me as I am new to contemplative "worship" (for lack of a better verb) and tend to not fully understand much of what is written, at first and second read. My comments are never meant to offend and I do appreciate and embrace any help sent my way. My gratitude has "flowered from this connected ness." Thanks. A.

9:44 pm, February 22, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if animals possess qualities of compassion and deep mind? Reading these comments reminded me of a poem by William Stafford called "Choosing a Dog". The last three stanzas read,
My kind of dog, unimpressed by
dress or manner,just knowing
what's really there by smell.

You're good dogs, some things
that they hear
they really don't want you to
It's too grim or ethereal.

And sometimes when they look in
the fire
they see someone going on and
someone alone,
but they don't say anything.


11:58 am, February 23, 2014  
Anonymous desertfisher said...

@ Theo:
First, there is presence with the suffering that is co-terminus with one's level of self-forgetfulness. I like to think that reaction is simply an aftermath of this fundamental presence, which, just like sitting in the dark, could also be disrupted by un-necessary words. Reaction falls on the level self-reflexivity, a consciousness of an experience, and the more conscious one is over one's reaction, the more disrupted the compassionate presence is.

@ Abigail:
Yes, we use words to clarify compassion and it is agreeable that words, or language for that matter, always appear lame before the "real," the "depth of things". "Presence" is no substitute for re-presentation that language is good at as McGilchrist argues in his book. But as this blog advocates, words, or the reaction of Theo, can also be instrumental in deepening our capacity or embodiment of this compassionate presence.

4:07 am, February 24, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Perhaps the poem is (also) about skillful means of expression; so many ways of doing, yet, some ways do more work for good with what seems less effort.

So, the ways we read matter, as Maggie points out, and the methods chosen for reading are not confined to poetry or prose alone.


11:31 pm, February 24, 2014  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thanks for the great discussion. Here is a line from Jane Hirshfield in her 'Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry'. She's talking about liminality and cites Gary Snyder's saying about liminal (in the sense of social transition) states. Such a person is stripped of all their familiarities: name, location, people, dress, food and drink: 'Awareness of emptiness brings forth the heart of compassion.' (p. 204)

I have mentioned this book before, but I am re-reading it. Really amazing; can't recommend it highly enough.

11:56 am, February 25, 2014  
Anonymous desertfisher said...

Professor Belden Lane, in his book Soalce of Fierce Landscapes wrote:

"The deepest mystery of love is never realized apart from the experience of having nothing to offer in return. Only there does love reveal itself in unaccountable wonder."

9:21 am, February 27, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


With respect. For Prof. Lane and you I will disagree with this quote.

" .. never realized without the experience of having nothing to offer in return."

What necessarily must be offered is offered, freely. No conscious intention of doing so either. No experience in other words. Seems to me, that is it.

These ideas of offering something or having nothing, of a deepest mystery, are rendered meaningless because there is no context. There is no me, no we. No giving or taking. No mountain top to the mountain top yet ... we try to seem it so.

What seemingly is present is after effect or echo as you commented @Theo and @Abigail.

In retrospect we cling to an echo and call it love or mystery. Or a dream. What lovely ideas! Small wonder we return again and again to test them. Try them on.


12:57 am, March 01, 2014  
Anonymous desertfisher said...

@ Mike:
"Presence" is the context; there is still context except that for "presence" to be the context, self-consciousness simply gives way to silence and away from distinctions and categories. Let's call "having nothing to offer," or some sort of helplessness, or seemingly total vulnerability before the Holy with a variety of names - liminality, the "betweenness" for McGilchrist, "doors to the sacred," or epiphanies for most poets. But true enough, based on Maggie's model of apophatic knowing, it's not the silent land yet.

10:12 am, March 01, 2014  

Post a Comment

<< Home