Thursday, March 19, 2020

Silent Knowing

Because of the coronavirus crisis, a conference in May I was supposed to keynote has been cancelled. I had already written the paper, so I am posting it here in sections as it might be of interest. For those who have read Silence: A User's Guide vol 1 it will present nothing new, albeit in précis form.

Silent Ways of Knowing

Graham Ward, who is the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford and head of the theology faculty, is well known for saying that all theology must emerge from silence and result in silence. I think this is especially true of practical theology whose consequences and application otherwise can run the danger of being patronising, exploitive and narcissistic. The problem is that many people today, including theologians, are afraid of silence: they see entering into silence as a form of death and loss of control. So I want first of all to take a look at this fear in a Christian context, especially the understanding of God as silence, for we cannot talk about silent knowledge of God or anything else until we have some idea, however simple, of how the mind seeking silence works.
I have long felt that the two most important passages in the bible are the kenotic hymn of Phil. 2:5-11 and the statement about the fear of death in Heb 2:14-15. Let me quote the relevant bits:
Since therefore the children [that God has given to Christ] share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.
To put this bluntly, fear of death is slavery. We dismiss the devil these days, but as Ernest Becker so trenchantly pointed out in his book The Denial of Death, all the negative things in life, small or great, result from the fear of death in one form or another. We are enslaved by what we fear, for as long as we are afraid, our actions and reactions will in part be determined by fear. Of course there are good things that can come from the fear of death too, but that is not my focus today.
Fear may have its roots in the unconscious, but we articulate it to ourselves through our self-consciousness, just as we articulate everything else to ourselves through our self-consciousness. To understand better what is going on here, we have to look at the work of Iain McGilchrist, who has distilled all the new research on brain hemispheres in his book The Master and his Emmisary
The right hemisphere is the open receptor for new information, processes metaphor, is the source of perception and insight, thinks spatially or holographically, accesses all of the rest of the mind except self-consciousness, such as what we call the unconscious—but not limited to it—but itself is mute. It is the gateway to silence and is itself silent. We might call the mind that the right hemisphere accesses as the deep mind.
The left hemisphere is entirely dependent on the right hemisphere, but thinks wrongly and vainly that it is the master. It is the seat of self-consciousness. The left hemisphere thinks linearly. It gathers information from the right hemisphere and orders it, classifies it, ranks it and puts it into language—and we must remember that language is always self-reflexive—and it also tells lies and deceives. It takes what the right brain has—if it can be persuaded to listen—and fossilizes and kills it. Ideally the two hemispheres should work together with the right hemisphere slightly predominating, continually revising what the left brain organizes, but we live in an almost entirely left-brain world. The left brain doesn’t want to acknowledge the right brain at all, and thus is the source of repetitive patterns of thinking and behaviour. It is bound by time, whereas the right brain is not.
From this it can be seen that in order to access the infinite riches of the right hemisphere, self-consciousness and its endless repetitive circularity, needs to be relocated from the foreground to the background. This is done in a number of ways but due to a process called the paradox of intention it cannot be done directly.
The Paradox of Intention: Reaching the Goal by Giving Up the Attempt to Reach It is a book first published by Marvin Shaw in 1987 and reprinted by Oxford in 2008. Once you understand the paradox of intention, you will discover it everywhere. This paradox is absolutely fundamental to understanding the way the mind works so as to access silent knowing. The simplest example and the one he uses is the word on the tip of the tongue phenomenon. To have a chance of recalling the word on the tip of your tongue you have to doubly forget: you have to forget the ghost of the word you can’t remember and you have to forget that you are trying to remember the word in the first place. There is no guarantee that you will recall the word but by doing this, by forgetting, you give it a chance to emerge from the right hemisphere.
No doubt you will recognise that this is the way certain forms of meditation work, such as mantra meditation, the repetition of a prayer-word. However, occasionally the relocating, the elision of self-consciousness, can be spontaneous. A long time ago The New Yorker, of all journals, published a brief ‘Talk of the Town’ piece in which a man recounted an occasion when his self-consciousness spontaneously elided or relinquished completely. He was planting tomatoes and other vegetables in his garden when he heard his wife call him to lunch. The next thing he knew dusk was pooling shadows around his hands: the gardening was complete and perfectly accomplished, but, as he wrote with the deepest reverence and gratitude, time had dropped out of mind. It had dropped out of mind but whatever occurred during this right hemisphere domination left traces that his self-conscious mind could access and, with the help of the right hemisphere, turn into metaphorical speech. He hadn’t been unconscious, he hadn’t had a vacancy seizure, he had been functioning perfectly normally. In short, he had been so perfectly attentive to the present moment that time-bound self-consciousness couldn’t get a word in edgewise. As Simone Weil notes, prayer is perfect attention—not wordy petitions but silent attention.
In fact, this suspension of self-consciousness happens to us many times a day without our realising it—because the reflexive dimension of mind, our self-consciousness, has been superseded. This suspension is perfectly normal and we couldn’t function without it. It has been proved beyond a doubt that we can’t seat new learning in the mind unless we have a period of forgetting, as in sleep. Hence the phrase ‘sleep on it’, when you’re having trouble solving a problem.


Blogger Al said...

Thank you for sharing these. I'm sure there is always something new to learn. Silence is polyphonic.

May i know where the Conference was supposed to be and the topic?



7:39 am, April 09, 2020  

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