Mediums for Truth: Storytelling versus Logic

Have you ever been saying something that wasn’t true, and caught yourself in the middle of saying it? “No…no, everything I’ve ever said in my life has been factual and accurate.” Thank you, honest reader.

On my first attempt at this post I wanted to make the point that stories are a better medium for conveying spiritual truth, for the reason that they can impart powerful feelings, and speak to the heart in a way that more logic-based teachings cannot.

Well, the second half of that may be accurate. Just think of one of the best fiction books you’ve ever read. Think of a moment in that book that really spoke to you, that really evoked something deep within you. Perhaps it was a big moment in the story, but it doesn’t have to be. In any case, the reason that moment spoke to you so deeply was because it was based in truth—a truth about life. But the story didn’t explicitly tell you “here’s the truth I’m communicating to you.” No, you just felt it in the imaginative experience of the story itself.

I experienced something like this in reading Marquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. There’s something that happens towards at the very end of the book (I won’t spoil what it is) that kind of brings the whole 400-pages of magical realism together. At that point in the story I felt “uplifted” in gaining a new vision of the miraculous unfolding of time, the interconnection of so many human lives, and the magical, mysterious way life sweeps us up. If you asked me, I couldn’t articulate very well what this “vision” consists in, or what truth I learnt, exactly, but I was left with a sense of gratitude just to be participating in life, and a more open mind with respect to my place in this incomprehensibly vast existence.

That was something that no logical argument or teaching could’ve imparted. It had to come through a story—through putting yourself in those characters’ shoes; being transported to a fictional world; being witness to the heartbreaks and triumphs; and seeing the story build on itself so that the meaning accumulates through the story and imbues the climactic events with immense communicative power…. The resurrection of Christ, for example, affects us so deeply because we were there, in a sense, for all that came before: the telling of the parables, the miracles, the last supper, the crucifixion.

So storytelling speaks to the heart. It bypasses the reasoning mind and resistance to life as we let the characters and their lives into our intimate experience. That way, stories give the feel for something that would be very, very difficult to convey in plain prose or logic.

But to say that that makes stories a “better” medium for truth is a tad misleading. Stories awaken the heart and inspire us to move in a positive direction. Hell, they may even trigger a shift in consciousness. And yet, at some point, we’re going to want—or probably need—a more precise understanding with which to orient ourselves, spiritually or otherwise.

That’s where logic and clear conceptual formulations enter the fray. An accurate mental model of what’s happening in our lives can do wonders. Not only does it direct the mind away from delusional suggestions (which further obscure things), but actually gives some concrete advice on “what’s the next step to take;” what will work, what won’t, and why.

Now the imbalance, with respect to conceptual formulations, is to take them as reality rather than as descriptions of reality. Just a little observation reveals that the world isn’t divided up into bits, as our mind makes it seem, but there’s actually a wholeness and a unity that concepts don’t capture—can’t capture. You could say the mind’s “first move” in the chess-game is to divide; in effect, to make things in the world seem separate from one another.

Fixation on this mental version of reality or “virtual reality” leads to some other, undesirable effects (a point made in previous posts on Words Stand Still, like this one, and this one).

However, when used in a balanced way, the intellect can “discern and rift its way to the secret of things,” as Thoreau would say, and shed more than a little light on our situation.

Balance is the key. If we focus too heavily on the logical, conceptually precise version of reality created in our minds, then we may very well just stay there. If we just “follow and trust our heart”—as enlightening and powerful as that is—we may struggle unnecessarily or create suffering, unaware that a good conceptual map could change the way we look at something completely. But if we find a felt, intuitive balance between the mind and heart in our own experience, this translates to consciousness expansion. This, I believe, is how the masters do it.

So what of “mediums for truth”? It depends on what you want to communicate. Whatever medium is chosen, it will still be metaphor for truth—expressions, at best—and not truth itself. Only the truth is the truth. As a master once put it: truth “has never been spoken, never been written, never been imagined.”

Notes

  1. This post addresses essentially the same topic as “Paradox and Poetry” from another angle.
  1. The quote at the end of this post comes from here.
  1. Hopefully there will be some storytelling on Words Stand Still soon!
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There’s Wisdom in Wonderment

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle wrote, “it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” This was towards the beginning of Western philosophy…

We’ve all had moments of wonder—or perhaps “wonderment” is a more precise word for what Aristotle was referring to, as in the “wow” that takes your breath away as the word comes out of your mouth.

We can experience wonderment in relation to literally anything in the universe, but often it comes in those extraordinary moments under the stars or in the presence of miracles.

And yet, we are quickly confronted by paradox, because the whole universe is miraculous. Existence is wonder-ful. It is amazing that anything exists at all, let alone this reality of such infinite complexity, so rich with potentials of experience, so overflowing with beauty, emotion, space, reactions, cognition, matter, song, silence; consciousness and self-consciousness.

Which raises the question, how is it that we are not in wonderment all the time?

What I notice about wonderment, as a state of consciousness, is that it has no concern for, no business with, all the things that our ego occupies itself with throughout the day. “Are things going my way?” “How can I make things go my way?” “What do they think of me?” “What do I think of me?” “Will I get what I want, will I get where I’m going?” “How can I distract me from myself?” …And onward marches the lovely narrative.

This leads me to believe that wonderment is a state outside, or transcendent of, ego-mind. If wonderment gives rise to philosophy, it’s no wonder! Philosophy endeavors—although it may not succeed—to consider truth objectively, without being biased by the concerns of the small self. We often philosophize using the intellect, primarily, and as Emerson said, “The intellect goes out of the individual, floats over its own personality, and regards it as a fact, and not as I and mine.”

I also notice that wonderment has something in common with gratitude—another “ego-free” state, since ego-mind operates from a sense of lack (a lack-consciousness), and gratitude is attentive to, and thankful for, what is already present. Wonderment and gratitude are both states of appreciation, and appreciation always concerns what already is. And usually gratitude, if it were put into words, takes the form, “I am so thankful for these blessings…” But often wonderment doesn’t even have an “I.” It’s just, “Wow… would you look at that?”

Wonderment, then, arises from our True Nature, deeper than ego-mind. Byron Katie, once interviewed, said that our Nature would be “fascinated by the drop of a pin.” I love that. To see nothing, to have nothing, but the experience of a pin dropping, and to wonder at that! I feel my heart stirred by just that act, because it’s so pure, so innocent.

Another master, Adyashanti, writes in one of his books that our Nature is the “Great Mystery of Being.” For no one knows the ultimate answers about why anything exists, and why what exists is so incredibly marvelous. At the deepest level, we are a Great Mystery exploring the possibilities of itself in the ever-changing, ever-creative flow of life. This Mystery remains mysterious even to itself (hence its name). And we come to know ourselves–our mysterious Being–not by obtaining a “final explanation” about ourselves, but just by having deeper, more intimate experiences of life.

Viewed in this light, wonderment is a movement of Mystery recognizing its own nature as marvelous, as worthy of admiring wonderment. It is Mystery taking delight in its manifestations, which appear as so many unique expressions, each beautiful in their own way; each wanting to be recognized for their splendor. As Shug says to Celie in Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple,

God love everything you love—and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration… I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it…. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it [God] always trying to please us back. [God’s] always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect…. Everything want to be loved.

Later in the novel, Shug’s former husband muses on human life: “I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ast. And that in wondering bout the big things and asting bout the big things you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know noting more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder […] the more I love.”

The way  The Color Purple links wonder/wonderment and admiration to love reflects the truth, I think, of what is going on at a metaphysical level. Wonderment has qualities of a higher state of consciousness, but if Alice Walker is onto something, there is another aspect as well. It’s as if everything we wonder at is conscious and loves that it’s being recognized for what it truly is: wonderful.

* * *

When I was a kid, one of my earliest memories was waking up in the backseat of our car during a family trip to Colorado. First long car trip. When I woke up and looked out my window, I saw mountains for the first time. I probably didn’t even know the word “mountain.” I just saw these gigantic things coming right out of the earth, which had taken on a purple hue with the sun setting (or rising?) behind them.

That was one of the first times I experienced wonderment. There were no words for what I was experiencing—just awe and marvel and wooow for whatever the hell was outside my car windows.

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time philosophizing and exploring spirituality, looking, in a way, for the source of that wonderment and subtle sense of ‘being home’ that comes with it. But the whole time I explore these different philosophies and spiritualities, I can’t shake the feeling, however much I like them, that they aren’t really IT–ya know? They may be pointing to IT, but their conceptual nature, and their way of coming into consciousness from outside (from someone else) tips me off that they are merely means to an end.

On top of that, we have a way of erasing wonderment, which is so natural to us, with our ideas. As soon as we think we know something, it seems less “magical.” But we only seem to know something by inventing a concept about it. Really, we do not penetrate to the true mystery of the thing in question.

And so it’s important to keep a place in our hearts for wonderment. It will erupt into consciousness when we are no longer pretending to know so much. When that happens, it’s possible to just stay with wonderment rather than go into analytic thinking (the “Aristotelian” route) and erase it.

It’s funny–we can be closer to our True Nature not knowing much at all, just inhabiting silent awe, than when we possess a bunch of spiritual knowledge–or knowledge of any kind. Concepts tend to weigh us down rather than enlighten. Accumulating and navigating a morass of conceptual landscape is not our authentic life. More than in all my seeking of Truth through conceptual knowledge, I was being authentic to my Nature as a little kid, still rubbing my eyes, still throwing off sleep, completely wonderstruck, not having learned a damn thing about “mountains.”

Thoreau on the Purpose of Life

When I was in college, Walden was a life-changing book. I was so enthused by its beauty and intricacy that I ended up not only reading it many times over but writing a long research paper which became a presentation for the Thoreau Society.

Yet there was one line that, until recently, I couldn’t quite figure out. When reading it before, I had the feeling that, “hey there’s something here I’m not getting,” but couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

And this is the line: “For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it [life], whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.'”

The way I interpret this line now not only makes complete sense, to me, but at the same time brings out its great humour and profundity. This line actually suggests what, in Thoreau’s view, is the true purpose of life. But to arrive at that interpretation, we need to understand it in the context of Walden’s subject matter and intent, the role of the chapter in which it appears (chapter Two), and the interpretations available to Thoreau given his deep experiences of consciousness.

Walden is a book about enlightenment or self-realization. From the first sentence, the epigraph, in which Thoreau says he intends to wake his neighbors up, to the last sentence (“The sun is but a morning star”), with its subtle pun/allusion to Christ, Walden is about awakening consciousness and having a direct experience of reality. This is, after all, what Thoreau set out to do in the first place, by moving out to Walden pond: “…to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” As he says a little later, we must “work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance… till we come to a hard bottom and rock in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is.” Walden tells the story of Thoreau’s quest for reality, or the truth of life.

The whole book makes so much more sense in this light. Many things Thoreau describes are metaphors for inner phenomena experienced on the spiritual journey, just as the words he writes are merely metaphors for the actual world. The various metamorphoses that the “I” character undergoes throughout the book are metaphors for the way the ego shapeshifts in the mind. The chasing of the loon in “Brute Neighbors” is also a metaphor for his hunt of the ego, which keeps appearing on different places on the pond, and as soon as he gets to where it just was, it has then moved to some other place. The allusion to the phoenix mythos at the very end of the book represents the death of the false self and the rebirth of Thoreau’s authentic self, and our authentic self—enlightened consciousness—from the ashes.

There are many more examples, but the main point is that Walden, from beginning to end, intends to wake its readers up to reality. Then the question is: what is the reality we are waking up to? Well, Thoreau’s extensive use of metaphor and allusion, and his reluctance to ever say clearly what he means, suggests that it’s something that can’t really be put into words. It can only be hinted and cleverly pointed to, as if it were something subtle, ineffable, unable to be grasped by the mind.

The closest Thoreau comes to talking about reality is to say that it is ONE. He wrote in a letter to Horace Greeley that he was “born to be a pantheist,” that is, one who holds that everything—literally everything—is one divinity. At the beginning of the “Reading” chapter, he writes that “The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision. No dust has settled on that robe; no time has elapsed since that divinity was revealed.” In other words, We are One, and we are a divinity that is not bound by time.

The final piece of the puzzle is to understand the purpose of the second chapter in Walden, “Where I lived and What I Lived for.” The chapter title indicates that it will have to do with the purpose of life (or, at least, Thoreau’s life), and its placement after the first chapter, “Economy,” which had to do primarily with life at the material and physical level, suggests that this chapter will be about the spiritual or metaphysical level of life. Once we have attended to our physical needs and sustenance, we can turn to higher matters.

About halfway through this chapter, Thoreau tells us, in a now-famous line, why he went to live at Walden pond and what his goal was:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.'”

In the first part of this paragraph, Thoreau is basically saying, ‘I went to the woods to find out what is real.’ At the end of the paragraph, he appears to be criticizing the Church’s idea of the purpose of life, the “chief end of man.” But on another level, he’s surreptitiously giving his own view of the purpose of life, which ties the paragraph together. He does find what is real, and that discovery informs, of course, his view on the meaning and purpose of life.

If you can imagine Thoreau’s experience of life, he experiences the present moment and everything in it as the manifestation of divinity or God. It is a state of oneness, of great beauty, and, as Alan Hodder brings to light in his book (Thoreau’s Ecstatic Witness), a state of ecstasy. Everything is this amazing God appearing in tens of thousands of different forms, right now. As Thoreau says, “God himself culminates in the present moment.” And the direct experience of this God, he hints throughout Walden, is freedom.

So “God” is a word Thoreau enjoys using for the one reality, the divinity underlying all appearances. “Glorify God and enjoy him forever,” then, is an expression of the purpose of life, set apart in quotation marks for us. After all, what is there left to do after realizing God? Your life is going to be enjoyable because you know that what you are is essentially One with all that is, and the only thing that makes sense is to “glorify”–granted that “glorifying God” can take a number of different forms: admiring Nature, fighting injustice, writing Walden, etc.

The funny part is that Thoreau is actually borrowing the phrase (“glorify God and enjoy him forever”) from the Church and clergy, whose lives couldn’t look more different from his own. This is where the italics on “somewhat hastily” come into play. It’s as if Thoreau is saying, “you and I reached the same conclusion, but you reached for a definition of God a little too quickly!” The clergy took their definition of “God” from tradition, and imagines God removed from life, for the most part. Thoreau reaches his definition through his own experience, and he finds a God that is absolutely present and, indeed, reflected in the pond water.

. . . As we dive into the text of Walden, we are at the same time being invited to dive into the “waters,” the fluid reality, of life. Thoreau suggests that if you could just see one fact clearly, then you would “happily conclude your mortal career.” To see life clearly, we must give up our prejudices and be fully in the present moment. Walden is simply here to remind us, “It is never too late to give up our prejudices.”

The Education We Didn’t Get

I love the idea of education as a way of learning the nature of the universe, and as a kind of training one undergoes that transforms one’s being, even makes one into a master of something.

As a kid I was thrilled by Harry’s education in the Harry Potter books, where he studies not only how to cast spells and master wizardry, but also potions, divination and the natures of different magical beasts.

I also really enjoyed reading about Eragon’s education in Christopher Paolini’s book Eldest. For those who didn’t read those books, Eragon is a special individual who becomes a dragon rider, and at a certain point in his journey he goes deep into the woodland part of Algaesia, where the civilization of the elves is located, to train with a thousand-year old elf, sage and dragon rider named Oromis. During his training under the master rider, Eragon undergoes a kind of education that combines textual study and hands-on practice as a sorcerer and warrior. He disciplines himself in casting different spells at will, attuning to the energies of all beings around him through meditation, wielding swords and dueling, and of course communicating telepathically with, and riding, his dragon. He trains to become a master rider.

These are, of course, the educations of mythic heroes in fictional universes. Yet over the past year I’ve noticed that there have existed similar kinds of education in the world. We just don’t practice them anymore, in general, and no one tells us about them in school.

For example, in reading Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot, I found that philosophers in Ancient Greece and Rome would become apprentices and disciples of master philosophers who would teach them to contemplate the nature of reality, meditate, and discipline their behavior to conform to the wisest mode of conduct. In some cases this may have involved rituals and initiations where the philosophers would experience reality from a radically different point of view through the alteration of consciousness. We don’t know as much about these ceremonies as we’d like to, but we can see in the writings of people like Plato and Plotinus evidence of mystical experiences of Oneness and Eternity that challenge our customary notions of what is ultimately real.

Another example comes from a retreat I attended, in Teotihuacan, Mexico, where our guide (and master in the Toltec-lineage) informed us that, contrary to popular belief, the plaza and pyramid ruins at Teotihuacan were the site of a spiritual university or “school of enlightenment.” While this can’t be proven with historical evidence or argumentation, experiences that people had while on the retreat point to there being something very special about the ruins. An energy can be associated with a place, as for example you can feel, if you’re sensitive, the energy of a busy, crowded city, which is quite distinct from the energy of a quiet place out in the mountains.

These different kinds of education are notable for two reasons. One, because it’s awesome that this kind of education is possible. Two, and more importantly, because we didn’t get this education growing up in the modern world, and it’s essential that we become aware of what’s possible for us as conscious beings with huge, untapped potential and as creators of reality.

Compared to all the things no one told us about, the quantity of subjects and information, as well as the way we were taught, is astounding. For the most part our education–and this seems to be “global fare”–is almost exclusively focussed on training our capacities to work with numbers and words, in analytic and logical ways, and to absorb and regurgitate numbers and words in the right sequences onto tests. It’s a highly left-brained approach (in the way I was using that term in the last post).

Now, there’s a lot to be said about this. Of course we should teach our kids to read, do math, analyze texts, do science, and all that good stuff. It’s important. And there are some things our education system does well. On the other hand, there are ways that it operates that makes you wonder if we aren’t just training kids to be “good capitalist workers” and people who follow the pre-established rules of society, not question them. We ought to consider this as well.

However as an enthusiast of philosophy and spirituality I want to draw attention to all the opportunities we have to create more awesome lives and a better world for everyone through education at the primary, secondary, collegiate and graduate levels, by beginning to expand our curricula to our other forms of intelligence and modalities of being.

The introduction of meditation and mindfulness into schools is just the beginning. These practices bring in another dimension to education so that it’s not just training the thinking mind but now we are training awareness, as well, to focus on the present, which has neurological and emotional benefits. (As Hadot describes in his book, the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers of the Hellenistic period also practiced focussing attention on the present moment, so as to best attain virtue and happiness, respectively.)

In the same vein, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen monk, has suggested teaching mindfulness of emotions in school so that people can learn to “make space” around their emotional reactions and not have to act them out. They can learn to express their emotions in a healthy way and at convenient times. This would be transformative if implemented on a large scale.

More than that, imagine if we had actual courses dedicated entirely to understanding emotions. Imagine if people learned about the neurological and lifestyle benefits of gratitude in a lecture, and then spent time practicing gratitude through journaling or meditation in the same class period. Imagine if, in school or on a campus, you walked around and everyone was either in a state of gratitude or had a “gratitude program” running somewhere in their brain. That would be amazing.

Now imagine if we had another course on “belief systems.” Imagine we developed interactive courses where people actually examined their own beliefs and how those beliefs shaped their moment-to-moment perception as the course progressed. Suppose there was not one course but “Beliefs 1” and “Beliefs 2,” where in the second course you would identify and investigate the specific beliefs that human egos tend to adopt and the specific behaviors that result from those adoptions. Combined with meditation practice, this would be life-changing.

Really, the list of what we can do goes on endlessly. We could have courses dedicated to studying and experientially investigating the “somatic intelligence” of the body a la Vajrayana Buddhism. We could study different states of consciousness, psychic abilities, healing modalities, and science-spirituality intersections. We could dedicate entire days and weeks to exploring art forms, music, and animal consciousness (a la Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus). We could balance hands-on and practical experience in these fields with theoretical knowledge, and self-directed/student-directed initiatives and courses of study with community involvement. Etc. Etc.

…At this point in time there are cultural barriers, ideological barriers, and barriers of esoteric knowledge to making anything like this happen on a wide-scale. At this point, it’s just a beautiful dream. Yet merely talking about it like this puts the ideas out there and begins the inner revolution. In time humanity will either evolve into higher consciousness, implement new kinds of education, and be able to save itself from ecological destruction and apocalyptic warfare, or the species won’t survive.

With any luck, we’ll rise to the challenge and enter into a new stage of evolution. In the meantime, this kind of education remains something that each person must pursue through their own initiatives. But that makes it all the more special, too.

The “Yes” to Life

I wanted to share something that’s amazing to me. It’s something, I’d imagine, that everyone knows at a deep intuitive level, yet seems to forget at some point, swept up in the long “blustery day” of life.

There’s a speech given at the end of the 2001 film Waking Life which is really astonishing:

 

…Actually, there’s only one instant, and it’s right now, and it’s eternity. And it’s an instant in which God is posing a question, and that question is basically, ‘Do you want to, you know, be one with eternity? Do you want to be in heaven?’ And we’re all saying, ‘No thank you. Not just yet.’ And so time is actually just this constant saying ‘No’ to God’s invitation…. there’s just this one instant, and that’s what we’re always in.”

And then she tells me that actually this is the narrative of everyone’s life. That, you know, behind the phenomenal difference, there is but one story, and that’s the story of moving from the “no” to the “yes.” All of life is like, “No thank you. No thank you. No thank you.” then ultimately it’s, “Yes, I give in. Yes, I accept. Yes, I embrace.” I mean, that’s the journey. I mean, everyone gets to the “yes” in the end, right?

So there’s kind of two sides to what the speaker’s saying. On the one hand he’s saying that there’s only one instant, one moment–this moment. That’s something that anyone can see if they just ‘stay with’ their present experience. The retaliation is, “no, there are a bunch of other moments. I was just in one and now I’m in another.” But when you were in that “past” moment, it was this moment. And when the “future” arrives it will be this moment. We only know about past and future because we can think about them. In other words, past and future appear as thoughts, also appearing in this moment. It is always Now.

So that’s one thing. On the other hand he’s talking about the relationship that we have with the one moment or the Now. And he’s saying that we say “No” to it. We have a problem with it. We have a story about how it should be different. We have a ‘need’ to get to a future moment that is more desirable. We have things about ourselves that we haven’t accepted–seemingly can’t accept–and things about the past that we haven’t come to terms with.

Finally he suggests, on behalf of the woman that spoke to him, that “this is the narrative of everyone’s life.” Wow, that’s quite a statement. Everyone is saying “No” until they say “Yes.” (It’s not an outward “No.” It’s an inner No that we hold in our minds in the form of rejection of ourselves as we are and of life as it is, of our narratives that it should be otherwise, etc.) And the “Yes”–to life, to existence, to this moment–is the liberating force, the momentum that ushers you into “heaven.” Heaven on Earth.

The amazing thing I wanted to share is that I find this teaching of “saying Yes” in so many spiritual and philosophical teachings, it’s remarkable, even uncanny how so many fingers are pointing to the same truth.

It’s important that the Waking Life speaker says “Yes, I accept,” “Yes, I embrace,” because those are the words that are used in many teachings. “Yes” in this context is also called “acceptance” and “letting go” and “allowing to be” and “letting go of struggle” and “letting be.” There are so many codes, so many ways of saying it. But what’s the truth, the feeling, that all these words are pointing to? Isn’t that what matters?

We know on an intuitive level that ‘allowing life to be’ or ‘not resisting’ or ’embracing’ life brings, immediately, a kind of peace and stillness. Even if we aren’t completely at peace, even if we let go of one thing, we feel it.

Moreover, if we merely imagine what it’s like to be in a welcoming, non-resistant relationship with life, where we aren’t arguing with it anymore (in our minds), then we can feel in our imagination that it would be peaceful.

What does one let go of, that gives rise to this peace? Everything that constitutes the “No,” all of which exists in the mind. What’s left is the “Yes.” Thus, ‘letting go’ and ‘saying yes’ are two sides of the same coin

The truth of “letting go” seems to pop up everywhere–in all of Buddhism, in Christianity (esp. the mystics), Sufi Islam, in the Toltec lineage, the Taoist scriptures, the Hindu scriptures, the teaching of Alan Watts, David Hawkins, Adyashanti, Gangaji, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (the sacred “yes to life”)…everywhere. It’s remarkable.

But it doesn’t really matter who says it, or even how they say it, so long as the message is heard, and people can experience the freedom in their own lives.

One thing about the practice of letting go is worth mentioning in particular, which is that it’s really simple. It’s been said, “the spiritual path is a simple path.” That is the truth if our practice is just letting go and letting go. It’s like breathing out…relaxing…trusting. This is life as it is. It doesn’t need to be changed. I don’t need to fight it.

…Despite my efforts, a truth like this can’t be conveyed so much through writing, as it can be through a “transmission of presence.” And yet, isn’t the transmission all around us?–in the peace of nature?–the sunshine illuminating the clouds, the river water undulating slowly, the leaves falling in autumn twilight.

It’s all calling, inviting us: let go…be free…say YES!

Paradox and Poetry

Feeling

There is one I,

Listening

There are many,

Looking

There is no one,

Confusion dawns

As wisdom

The definition of a paradox is, “a seemingly absurd or contradictory statement which, when investigated, may prove to be well founded or true.”

When we think long enough we arrive at paradoxes. They make us want to check our premises again. They baffle us. When I arrive at a paradox I want to make a distinction that lessens the ‘contradictoriness.’ And being able to, I often do. The newly made division provides some assurance that logic hasn’t failed me. However, I go back “into the mind,” back into thinking.

But what if the point of a paradox isn’t to go back into thinking, but to be broken by absurdity, and opened to the unknown? There is a certain way that it feels to think you have everything “figured out,” to have everything “put in its place.” Yet it comes with a form of closed-mindedness. You’ve filled the room with furniture and haven’t left space for any new stuff to come in.

A good question or an inquiry ‘opens’ the mind, because attention begins looking for something that it doesn’t already have. It turns us to experience, not just to what we’ve stored in memory. In that moment of questioning there can be an inner silence and receptiveness to novelty. In a similar way, a paradox invites the mind to a natural, quiet stopping, as if the ground you were running on was hard pavement, and it suddenly turned to soft sand.

If we look at life from the perspective of where our attention is, then in thinking, attention is absorbed in the movements of mind. This has physical consequences in terms of forming neural pathways in the brain, and emotional consequences, as well. So when a paradox confronts us, and there are two roads, so to speak—one leading to more thinking, the other not—then the choice is substantial. Really, it’s a choice between the comfort of the known and journeying into the unknown, between two realms of experience.

One thing that puzzled me from the Harry Potter series was the inscription written on the Golden Snitch that Harry catches in his first Quidditch game. It was a paradox: “I open at the close.” Leaving aside what that means at the end of the series, it’s a statement that can describe how the mind works. It comes to the close of a line of reasoning, is faced with a paradox, and then has the opportunity to open to something new, to what is not known.

Another great text that makes use of paradox (in a slightly different league than Harry Potter) is the Tao te Ching. If what is truly awesome about the Tao te Ching can be explained, then it is some combination of mind-bending paradox and soul-nourishing poetry. The words were penned by someone who intimately knew the “quiet aliveness” in things. Thus, when you read it, attuned to that, the words become “bright.” In such a light we begin to find ourselves:

There are some things

that feed the soul of man

Things that are incredible

Indescribable

and

without impurity

But they are the kinds of things that vanish

with too much learning

When I arrive at paradox my mind can be filled with fear, anxiety, and dis-ease. It no longer believes that it “knows.” The poetry of the Tao is an antidote, in that it makes paradox seem like a place to rest rather than something to struggle with, as in martial arts when your sparring partner moves a joint to a sharp angle of pain, in one moment, and in the next moment relieves the pain through transition to a more natural position. It’s actually one seamless happening. Or it’s like the life of a wave of water as it forms a crest and “peaks,” and then collapses back into the ocean. The Tao reads like water moves.

…Paradox and poetry—two tickets to the “amazing show;” the music, magic and mystery of existence.

In everything

Mystery roars

like great flames

* * *

(Second block quote by D.R. Streeter, from his translation of the Tao te Ching. First and third blocks are the author’s… These ideas inspired by Adyashanti’s “Wholeness Beyond Belief.”)

Simplicity and Complexity

This post has to do with the essay in the last one. It’s not necessary to have read it, but that’s the context.

There can be a tension between simplicity and complexity in our living and thinking. On the one hand a lot of people will give you the message “not to make things too complex,” because they assume it’s not necessary, or that it’ll be overly confusing. There’s wisdom in this.

On the other hand, anyone who has studied a field that tries to model reality (e.g. philosophy, physics, economics) can tell you that life is complex. It’s unbelievably, mind-bogglingly complex. It’s so complex that language can seem extremely inadequate to describe the simultaneity of all events and “multi-dimensionality” of phenomena.

Yet that complexity only appears when we take the point of view of the analytical, logical, rational, intellectual mind. And, if there’s any way of finding a harmony between simplicity and complexity, it’s knowing this: simplicity and complexity appear from different points of view.

Knowing that, we can see why it may be wise to “not make things too complex,” even though, from one point of view, they actually are. The reason is that, first, we see the complexity from the point of view of the intellectual mind, and second, we take basically the same point of view in trying to apply that knowledge to our lives–to make our body, mind and emotions conform to an ideal.

What’s the problem with this? Well, it wouldn’t be a problem if the mind were actually in control of the rest of our being (body, heart, emotions, consciousness, etc). Perhaps it wouldn’t be a problem if the mind were the only center of intelligence or even the only energetic center within us.

If the mind were actually in total control of our being then everything going on internally could be directed just the way we want. Imagine if stopping a behavior you don’t like was as easy as telling yourself once ‘not to do it anymore.’ Of course, this isn’t how it goes. We’re saying “no” in our minds, and struggling with our will, and still can’t stop certain things from happening. The problem may well be that we are beginning from a limited point of view.

What’s more, while the mind creates a model of our being that puts itself in charge, and gives disproportionate attention to itself, the funny thing is just that: the mind created a model where it is the most important. Is it possible that, in reality, there are many energetic or intelligent “centers” within us? I won’t argue for this here, but some would say “absolutely, yes.”

It’s easy to understand why we wind up frustrated, trying to make life into what we want it to be, not seeing that we are, as Ross Hudson phrased well, “identifying with a very limited part of ourselves.”

People can have a kind of success that way. According to Pierre Hadot, many ancient Western philosophers were going about life like this. They would formulate and memorize “life rules” that could guide their life conduct in every situation. This is beginning from the mind’s point of view–and it seems to have worked out all right for some of them. Hey, Epicurus was pretty happy. (There are a lot of variables here, though, and we are isolating just one.)

Many people are “living from the mind” and getting along all right. A lot of them aren’t truly happy, though. That’s why it’s good to know that there are other points of view available.

To take just one example, Zen offers a different way to be. It’s about being really simple. There’s a Zen saying, “When walking, walk; when eating, eat.” Zen practitioners just focus on what they’re doing, what they’re aware of–whatever is arising. In Zen, there’s a different point of view at play: the point of view of simple, direct awareness.

The point of view of direct awareness isn’t exclusive to Zen or any one tradition–not at all. It’s available to everyone (right now!) beyond concepts and mental filters.

What’s more, it’s not like Zen isn’t familiar with complexity. Buddhist texts can be very abstruse in their descriptions of reality and in their parables and koans. At the same time there’s this return, this circling back to utter simplicity. The bell chime.

Zen teachings point back to a simplicity of being. In the same way, we could ask of all complex theories, systems, and philosophies: do they allow us to live simply? (Otherwise, the mind tries, again, to be the manager and controller of the entirety of our life and being, which exceed far beyond its limits.) In one of his essays, Emerson said that an accurate philosophy returns us to simplicity:

The Bacon, the Spinoza, the Hume, Schelling, Kant, or whosoever propounds to you a philosophy of the mind, is only a more or less awkward translator of things in your consciousness, which you have also your way of seeing, perhaps of denominating. Say, then, instead of too timidly poring into his obscure sense, that he has not succeeded in rendering back to you your consciousness. He has not succeeded; now let another try. If Plato cannot, perhaps Spinoza will. If Spinoza cannot, then perhaps Kant. Anyhow, when at last it is done, you will find it is no recondite, but a simple, natural, common state, which the writer restores to you.

Alan Watts, too, suggested that leaving all our aspects of being to their natural functioning–i.e., not trying to interfere and control them with the mind, but just being present and aware–enabled relaxation and well-being to flow forth easily.

With two points of view, we can have our complex descriptions on the one hand, and apply them when useful. On the other hand, we can be simple and go with the flow of life, since we possess a point of view outside the intellectual mind. Not caught up in the mind, we don’t make the mistake of trying to over-manage and control things.

Life just as it is doesn’t need to be controlled. A deeper part of us knows that. It’s already sweet and beautiful. We’re reminded by something as simple as a bell chime.