Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Now Available in the UK and Europe

Silence: A User's Guide is now available in the UK from Darton, Longman, Todd

It is also available in the USA and the rest of the world from Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock

Monday, October 20, 2014

We Had the Experience but Missed the Meaning IV

The antidote to all these false paths can be summed up in a single word: behold. It is arguably the most important word in the bible, and the most important aspect of the shifting of attention I have described. It is no accident that Julian of Norwich sums up her Long Text not in the catchphrase "all shall be well" but rather, "seke to the beholdyng." Beholding sums up everything the bible teaches, everything about seeking the divine over which millions of words have been written, and reservoirs of ink have been spilt. Beholding is our covenantal reciprocity with the divine. It is the means by which God, who is beyond being and time, allows us to hold him in being and time, even as he is holding us in eternity. The major theme of The Cloud of Unknowing is not unknowing but rather beholding: the author uses the word thirty-five times. The Cloud-author is trying to teach the reader not to be fooled by or trapped in lesser "beholdings"—that is, experiences—but to seek the beholding.
There is a lot of talk these days about the "new monasticism," which is neither new nor monastic; about fluffy "spirituality," about self-indulgent "contemplation." We need to remember that in sharp contrast all this self-seeking exceptionality, God works through the ordinary. Meister Eckhart gives us a word here: "If you are doing anything special, you're not seeking God."
Simply having the intention of silence, and reinforcing that intention by eliminating as much noise from daily life as possible—but without being artificial—will teach us more than any "experience" staged by a celebrity guru. Cultivating the unself-conscious habit of reaching for the silence of the heart beneath words, beneath everyday tasks, at the core of relationships, the environment, our own minds, will bring more illumination than reading a thousand books.
Sit in the cell of your heart and "seke to the beholdyng," and all the rest shall be added unto you.

Monday, October 13, 2014

We Had the Experience But Missed the Meaning III

This simple (but not easy) reorientation goes against what most celebrity gurus are saying. Such people are masters and mistresses of staging artificial environments where people can have "experiences," for which these gurus charge an impressive amount of money. And when their customers come down off the high engendered by such events, they feel more hollow and depressed than they did before. So of course they immediately seek another expensive artificial event that will give them yet another "experience." This so-called spirituality is just another form of addictive consumerism.
Such consumerism is often based on a mis-use of the word "contemplative." The phrase "contemplative experience" is nonsensical, for contemplation properly speaking is about relinquishing all claims to experience, that is, all preconceptions. It's not anti-intellectual; it's rather letting go when self-conscious intellectual resources have reached their limit. It's only by relinquishing what we think of as our experiences that the deep mind can get a word in edgewise, much less open us to insight or a change in perspective. In fact, in this process we aren't eliminating our experiences but rather submitting them to a deeper wisdom for discernment and refinement.
Some might object that authors such as Richard of St. Victor write about six ways of contemplation. This phrase would be better put as "six ways to contemplation," for the whole text leads up to a chapter on the complete loss of self-consciousness—excessus mentis—which the Classics of Western Spirituality translator, Grover Zinn, has unfortunately rendered as "experience of excessus mentis." The word "experience" (experientia) does not occur in the Latin original in the passages on excessus mentis; how could it? Excessus mentis means going completely beyond self-conscious thinking. If there is no self-consciousness at work, there can be no experience, no interpretation.
If, by contrast, we try to write our experiences in stone (or upload them onto a CD), there is no exit, no possible way that the shocking newness of each moment can weave grace into our lives. Rather, we will be locked in the prison of our own self-consciousness.
Getting stuck in our self-consciousness and insisting that it is the only way of knowing can be disastrous. This is the process that has cut us off from nature and despoiled nature, diminishing our humanity. It is the process that has destroyed our ability to engage with other people. It is the process that has caused catastrophic mistakes in science—in everything from pharmacology to hydrology. It has caused us to misinterpret the texts we deem most important and to bypass the ones we regard as suspect because we have mistaken method—descriptions of the shift in attention described above, often cast in highly metaphorical or mythical language—for philosophy.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Flyer for 'Silence: A User's Guide'

Click to enlarge

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

We Had the Experience but Missed the Meaning II

The healing and transfiguring aspects of this deep mind become available to us only when the self-conscious mind—the mind that categorizes what happens to us into "experiences" and bombards us with continual interior chatter—is set aside in some way, by one-pointed meditation, for example, or by a walk in the woods; in other words, by shifting our attention away from the distractions of daily life to stillness and silence. This is what is meant by metanoia. When we turn toward silence, we can receive the fruits of deep mind through insights, through changed perspective, through the mysterious healing that takes place out of our sight. Over time we may find that an event we thought was a terrible "experience" was in fact the best thing that ever happened to us, because it forced us to live in a new way. Or we might notice over a period of time that someone we thought to be a demi-god has feet of clay, or that someone from whom we initially recoiled is in fact someone we badly need in our lives.
Insights and changes of perspective make themselves known at times when we're not thinking about anything in particular; the light from within can burst upon us at just about any time we give it an opening. And we need to realize that the depths of this hidden, greater part of the mind is where our shared nature with God indwells, and our divinization (theosis) takes place.
We are hampered by the English language, which has only one word for "to know." German, French, Spanish, Latin all have two words for knowing: the kind of knowing which we (wrongly) call "scientific" —wissen, savoir, saber, scio/scientia), which is linear, self-conscious, reductionist knowing; and the kind of  knowing that is the provenance of the deep mind—kennen, connaître, conocer, cognosco/sapientia. The fact that we have only one word for "to know" in English means that we fall—I  use the word advisedly, for it is into self-consciousness that Adam and Eve fell—into preferring the part of the mind that depends on very faulty interpretations—illusion, in fact. If we are to be truly scientific, we need both parts of our mind working together in harmony.             
But the self-conscious part of the mind tries to encapsulate us, to persuade us that it alone has any truth, when in fact it is prone to deceit, in contrast to the deep mind that perceives directly. We need both ways of knowing: we need to acknowledge our experiences and we need to let them go so that the deep mind can provide correctives to our interpretation of these experiences. We need to realize that our true life lies not in self-consciousness, but rather from listening to what arises from our deep mind without excluding the positive and necessary work that the self-conscious mind contributes.
This is the basic message of teachers and saints from time out of mind, for anyone can discern this process who takes the trouble to watch his or her own mind. This is not the so-called perennial philosophy, which is based on interpretation; it is rather an accurate insight into human neuro-psychology, which is then filtered through a particular culture. What I'm describing isn't rocket science; all one has to do is to persevere in shifting attention, in—I speak metaphorically—reaching into the dark, and waiting in the silence. Of course to maintain this receptivity also means changes in the way we live by eliminating noise (especially electronic noise), and stuff, which is material noise, from our lives. 

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Reflections on 'Experience'

[The following article was written for a journal which shall remain nameless. I withdrew it over issues of control— the editor had introduced grammatical errors, changed not only the style but also the entire meaning of the article by alterations, but also control over the creative process. With the previous editor none of this would have happened. What has editing come to these days? I don't know, but I don't like it. Anyway, the upside is that here is the article, a year before it would have otherwise appeared!]

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We had the experience but missed the meaning
                                          T.S.Eliot "Dry Salvages"

One of the saddest statements I ever heard was spoken by a young person who said, "I wish I could upload all my experiences onto my hard disc."
"O no," I thought, "O no you do not wish this."
More recently someone wrote in a national newspaper that he was so eager for all that "spirituality" has to offer that he couldn't wait to experience the dark night of the soul.
"O yes you can wait," was my immediate reaction, "yes, yes, you can wait. Be very careful what you wish for."
This word "experience" which we cast about so glibly these days is very dangerous and misleading, as dangerous and misleading as experience itself can be. The word didn't come into the English language until late in the 14th century, and even then it was regarded with suspicion: the author of The Cloud of Unknowing used the word "prove" instead—pace James Walsh, who inserted the word "experience" 108 times in the Classics of Western Spirituality edition where it doesn't exist in the original Middle English, thereby forcing the text say the opposite to what in fact it does say. For it is essential to what the Cloud-author calls "the werk" to relinquish all claims to experience.
And this brings us to the heart of the problem, for the word "experience" as we use it today is solipsistic, a reflexive function of self-consciousness, rather than an interpretation that is put to the test, which was the original meaning of the word 'experience'. We have come to enshrine what we think of as experience as if it were reality, which it is not; it is a construct and interpretation by our imagination. We say, "That's my experience" as if immediate experience bestowed some sort of self-authenticating authority. Experience is far from reality: it is always, always interpretation: even to acknowledge that something has happened to us is already interpretation. By the time we find words for what happened, or write it down, we are already interpreting at the third or fourth remove.
In French, the word expérience means "experiment." And in fact this is what the ancient, patristic and medieval worlds meant by the notion: your interpretation of what happened to you had to be tested: tested against scripture and tradition; tested against time and the wisdom of the elders; above all, tested in the crucible of that part of the mind—the greater, more potent, and creative part—to which we have only indirect access by means of intention, and over which we have no control at all. For in this deeper part of the mind, our perceptions are transfigured, and we may end up finding that our interpretation at one point in time is seen in a very different light at a later date. It is in this deep mind that healing takes place, from which insight arises, and from which maturity emerges. The prerequisite is that first, we have to allow it the freedom to do its work; and, second, we have to open ourselves to listen to the new interpretations that it brings to light by setting aside our preconceptions.
     We can't hear what deep mind is saying if, for example, we are continually rehearsing the same injury, real or imagined; a wound can't heal if the scab is constantly poked and picked. This is one meaning of the biblical injunction "do not judge," for  if we slam the door of judgement on our selves or others we can never receive an accurate understanding of, or enter a direct engagement with what we have judged. This is not to say that we must give up our critical faculty; quite the reverse: we learn to discern from the perspective of the wellspring of wisdom that arises and pours forth from the heart of deep mind.

[To be continued]