Tuesday, August 7, 2007

only don't know!

This is the world of One Taste,
With no inside and no outside,
No subject and no object,
No in here versus out there,
Without beginning and without end,
Without ways and without means,
Without path and without goal.
Ken Wilber

I have found myself in the odd position of trying to defend Ken Wilber recently. I brought him up to one of my friends who said that WIlber was a charlatan and a cult figure, even like a sort of Gnostic leader, and what had become apparent to him as he read Wilber and about him was that he standing rather tentatively in the minefield of the hard philosophical problems––the one and the many; good versus evil; body and soul, mind and matter––with some serious inaccuracies in various fields of study, namely, biology, physics, philosophy. Some think that the very notion that Wilber's passion for synthesizing should be put under the transpersonal psychology label is what Confucius regarded as the central instigator of spiritual/political disturbances, i.e., "confusion of the names". This has won him many critics on many topics and left him outside serious academic circles. One reviewer said that “his musings on Quantum Mechanics could only put off a professional physicist or a mathematician as an amateurish dabblings of a presumptuous ignoramus.”

I’m actually glad to get some critique of him to keep me balanced. And yet, I still have to say that I have so enjoyed much of what I have read by him. I found Wilber's language really worked for me and allowed me to express and convey some things in my own experience that I did not have vocabulary for before, especially his thing on the "Uneven Development of Spiritual Teachers" and his Integral Spirituality (though I must say I find it too complicated and stay with Spirit, Soul and Body). And Fr Bede was very much taken with Wilber's notion of the spectrum of consciousness (which one critic thought was about as useless as hierarchizing choirs of angels), and, for him, its resonances with Upanishadic thought. That's why I finally decided to give him a look after 15 years or so, since I have immersed myself in Bede and his writings all these years.

From my admittedly fallible and somewhat unlearned perspective, the notion of the spectrum of consciousness is much more able to be observed than choirs of angels. This is even the work of psychotherapy at its best. And perhaps it’s because Western Christianity grew fearful and neglectful of that inward look that psychology has become our priesthood, and therapy our sacrament. It's different in the East, even to some extent in the Christian east, the hesychast tradition et al. Both Hindu and Buddhist thought tend to spend more time mapping the inscape of the psyche/soul, because so much of the practical spirituality is involved in meditation, the way "in" through the mind, what we call the contemplative life, as opposed to the way "out," with a belief that the divine is the ground of consciousness. (This of course has not been the case for the bulk of Western Christianity, but this is the consciousness that has arisen in the longing for contemplative prayer and meditation.) Hence the journey through the layers of our own consciousness arrives hopefully in an abiding in the cave of our own heart, the deepest part of our I-ness, our "spirit," where we await the life-giving grace of God. It's through our study of eastern thought that we have once again found similar notions in ancient Christian spirituality, even back to Plotinus and the neo-Platonists' study of the nous, and certainly Evagrius' teachings about the logismoi (hence the seven deadly sins), and perhaps even John of the Cross and the purgative, illuminative and unitive ways, which also traces its roots back to Origen and the desert. It's not a hard science, but it is one anyone engaged in any kind of psychotherapy is already involved in. Wilber at least has the sense to say that psychology can only take you so far; at some point one's spiritual tradition/teacher has to lead you to the Spirit, the love of God which is poured into our hearts.

I’m preparing yet another version of the Spirit, Soul and Body talks, and as I was reading from Quantum Questions about Wilber’s delineation of spirit from Spirit. Spirit as realm or as an element of the human condition––jivatman as opposed to Spirit as Ultimate Reality, Paratman, or the Holy Spirit. He says that when he is referring to spirit as the highest dimension or summit of being, he uses “spirit” or “spiritual realm” with a small “s,” “to indicate that the spiritual realm is a realm that in some very significant ways is different from, or transcendent to, the realms of matter, life, mind and soul…” There are “functions, capacities and aspects that are found in the spiritual realm and nowhere else.” I am especially pleased by his use of the phrase “spiritual realm,” as this is one of the notions I got from Bede, of the interpenetrating realms of existence––the realm of matter, the realm of psyche, the realm of spirit. On the other hand, when Wilber is referring to the all-pervading, all-embracing, radically immanent aspect of spirit, he uses “Spirit” with a capital “S,” “to indicate that Spirit is not the highest level among other levels but rather is the Ground or Reality of all levels, and this could have no specific qualities or attributes itself, other than being the ‘isness’ or ‘suchness’ or ‘thatness’ of all possible and actual realms––in other words, the unqualifiable Being of all beings, not the qualifiable being of any particular beings.” He goes on to say that this is what is meant by the Buddhist notion of sunyata––Spirit is unqualifiable, “no thing” we can say or grasp or qualify: “Spirit is neither One nor Many, neither infinite or finite, neither whole nor part––for all of those are supposed qualifications of Spirit. Those things might be able to apply to the spiritual realm but not Spirit. This is the second aspect of spirit I always bring out as well––spirit as apophatic depth, but I do however tie it in to the anthropological use of the term; as Paul Evidokimov says, “Just as there is an apophatic depth to God, so there is an apophatic depth to us.”

Where I stumble with Wilber’s writing, and where I can understand that someone would consider him a Gnostic, is that you get the impression that realization or enlightenment––might Christians say, “Salvation”?––is a self-powered cure. I always remember now the adage of Aurobindo, from whom I am sure Wilber culled some of his own ideas––“within there is a soul and above there is grace. That is all you know, and all you need to know.” It’s as if we had to to do the whole work of ascent––ascending through the charkas or the Christian mystical tradition’s “the soul’s ascent to God”––but we still then wait, at the crown chakra, if you will, for the descent of the Supramental, the outpouring of Grace. There is an intentionality about Grace that I haven’t found alluded to much in Wilber’s writings. And also for all his talk about Spirit being unqualifiable, Wilber does tend to be pretty cocksure about what Spirit is and isn’t. Furthermore, all his information tends to be gathered from the strict non-dual sources, (“essentially, it is Ch'an/Zen, Tibetan Mahamudra or Trika Shaivism refurbished, combined with Hegel's evolving Spirit”) He writes again in Quantum Questions for example:

“In the soul realm, there is still some sort of subtle subject-object duality; the soul apprehends Being, or communes with God, but there still remains an irreducible boundary between them. In the realm of spirit, however the soul becomes Being in a nondual state of radical intuition and supreme identity variously known as gnosis, nirvikalpa Samadhi, satori, kensho, jnana, etc. In the soul realm, the soul and God commune; in the spirit realm, both the soul and God unite in Godhead, or absolute spirit, itself without exclusive boundaries anywhere…”

With that in mind any kind of suggestion of even “union by communion” with the Divine, as Bede teaches, is somehow of a lesser ilk that the strict non-duality of, say, Hindu advaita––perhaps even Jesus’ own experience. Bede taught many times that Jesus says, “The Father and I are one,” but never said, “I am the Father.” (Though six times in the Gospel of John he does say, “I AM”!)

A friend of mine is involved in dialogue with some Buddhists and was asked to look for instances of Christian expressions of non-duality, in terms of the individuals identity with Ultimate Reality. I warned him not to get caught in the trick. It’s not the Christian mystical language (the exceptions only prove the rule) and in a discussion like that the non-dualists will nod their heads knowingly, even sympathetically, at the poor dualists. But I do not think "union by communion" is any less wonderful than "union by identity." Besides that, the other seduction is this: Abhishiktananda warns that it is often the ego saying “I am Brahman” anyway, not Brahman saying “I am Brahman.”

“Only don’t know!” a famous Buddhist teacher was known to say. I don’t know! Abhishiktananda was so insistent that we need to go for the experience, we need to make the journey of interiority and not just spend time speculating about or defending abstract principles. And he himself had had some very real experience of what he considered to be non-duality. So the danger to be avoided is to stay in our heads and not spend enough time on the cushion, in prayer and meditation which is the garden in which we grown in awareness of not only who the Divine is but perhaps more importantly who we are. Wake up to who you are! And then we can try to express that reality in poetry (theology, philisophy) and, of course, in active love and service. I don’t want to be a defender of duality or qualified non-duality either. I want to follow the path and help others do so as well; I want to talk only out of my experience. It’s only because I know my own hubris that I can warn others of it; it’s only because I have experienced the peace of abiding in God that I can give others hope that such a thing exists.

One another similar note, the Lectionary today serendipitously pairs the reading from Numbers 12 (about Aaron and Miriam doubting Moses' decisions and powers) together the story from Matthew 14 about Peter's failed attempt to walk on the water. It just played into my thinking again about soul and spirit, the psychic and the spiritual. There's a specific kind of doubt, one could posit, going on here.

I always remember how cinematographers often love to place their protagonists near a body of water when they are making big decisions; bodies of water become symbols of the unconscious. I always think of that when Jesus appears by a body of water, and especially when he is calming the water or walking on it. This is the symbol of that something beyond the unconsciousness, the psychic realm, the spirit, the spiritual realm. And the Spirit with which Jesus is filled to bursting––just touch the hem of his garment and it oozes out of him––has power over the physical realm as well as the psychic realm. He calms the waters of nature; he calms the the waters of the unconscious, the troubled mind. And Jesus invites Peter to go there, higher than, deeper than, beyond the churning world of matter and the psyche, to have mastery over his own body and soul. And for a moment Peter rises above and then doubts that this power has really been given to him. He makes a good choice at that point––he starts saying his mantra, his nama japa: Lord, save me! Good advice!

Maybe you can see a similar dynamic in the Numbers story.

I the Lord make myself known to prophets in visions;
I speak to them in dreams.
Not so with my servant Moses.
With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles;
and he beholds the form of the Lord.
Numbers 12

The Lord says that he makes himself known to the prophets in visions and dreams––the psychic realm; but "with Moses I speak face to face"––unmediated, direct, the realm of the Spirit. Perhaps Miriam and Aaron doubt this immediacy can be given to a human being just as Peter doubted it could be given to him.

When I doubt, I just need to stick close to the breath and the mantra and nama japa––Save me, O Lord!