Monday, January 10, 2011

the ache we feel: reflections on Perennial Philosophy

There’s no true love affair which will not break your heart.
There’s no marriage that will not eventually break your heart…
There’s no good work in the world that will not break your heart.
There’s no way of parenting a child without them breaking your heart,
and you breaking yours.
And there’s no way of coming to know yourself in that internal marriage
without going through that existential sense of disappointment about who you’ve discovered you are.
There’s no way forward without a real sense of vulnerable heartbreak.
(David Whyte)

So, there are two ways that I want to tie the last entry in with Huxley.

The first is his discourse about our relationship to Nature in Chapter IV, on “God in the World.” He exposes it first by telling the strange little story (pp. 76ff.) from the writings of Chuang Tzu about Shu and Hu boring holes in Chaos and consequently killing him. Chaos is Nature, and Shu and Hu represent our inadvertent attempts to improve on it. The Taoists and the other proponents of the Perennial philosophy have “no desire to bully Nature into subsertving ill-considered temporal ends, at variance with the final end of [human being] as formulated by the Perennial Philosophy… to work with Nature, so as to produce material and social conditions in which individuals may realize Tao on every level from the physiological up to the spiritual.” (PP, 77) Contrast that to the Westerners/Christians (of course!), the believers in “Inevitable Progress” who
… thought they would improve on Nature by turning prairies into wheat fields and produced deserts; who proudly proclaimed the Conquest of the Air, and then discovered that they had defeated civilization; who chopped down vast forests to provide the newsprint demanded by universal literacy which was to make the world safe for intelligence and democracy, and got wholesale erosion, pulp magazines and the organs of Fascist, Communist, capitalist and nationalist propaganda… the devotees of the apocalyptic religion of Inevitable Progress, and their creed is the Kingdom of Heaven outside you, and in the future.

Let’s please leave East and West, Taoists versus Christian, prophetic versus mystical, out of this for a second (I have images of the banks of the Ganges and the streets of Bangkok covered with garbage and endless construction…), and just call it this: The difference lies in human beings who start believing in Progress as our final end as opposed to what the Perennial Philosophy offers as our end, our goal (scopos and telos):
The important thing is that individual men and women should come to the unitive knowledge of the divine Ground, and what interests them in regard to the social environment is not its progressiveness or non-progressiveness… but the degree to which it helps or hinders individuals in their advance toward [our] final end… (PP, 80)

Part and parcel of this, looking back at Hederman’s language (again, henceforth MPH), is that we unfortunately see Nature as an object to be had to satisfy our needs and desires, rather than a subject in its own right, to be lived with, to be in being with. Expand the image of the apple to be eaten out to the entire created world. And the best of Christian mystical theology in relation to the world and Nature, in modern times as articulated by Teilhard de Chardin, but from the get-go as articulated by Paul in the letter to the Romans is this: all creation is groaning and in agony while we await the redemption of our bodies. Creation is a being in its own right, and even if we do posit a certain, though debated, privileged position to the “precious human birth” (Buddhism), in the “priesthood of humanity,” right relationship is to be servant of creation, abiding with creation, not creation’s master/despoiler. Our monastic community belongs to the Four Winds Council, an interfaith group that advocates for the wilderness, and part of our mission statement refers to Nature as a precious resource. Some people quibbled with that word, because even seeing Nature as a “resource” somehow views it as a commodity and an object in relation to humanity, not as being in its own right. Creation has its own eros, its own thrust forward, and our evolution and Her evolution are intimately tied together. And so, it would be well for us to move in that regard too from having to being.

The other place where MPH’s writings struck me as resonating with Huxley is in the latter’s comments on love or, rather, on “Charity,” in Chapter V, and here we move from the apple to the human being. Applying the same sensibility––that in our relationships, from casual friendships all the way through our deepest loves and infatuations, we need to move from loving as “wanting you” to loving as “wanting for you,” from “having you” to “being with you”––Huxley’s meditation is brilliant and moving:
We can only love what we know, and we can never know completely what we do not love. Love is a mode of knowledge and when the love is sufficiently disinterested and sufficiently intense, the knowledge becomes unitive knowledge and so takes on the quality of infallibility. (PP, 81)

While disinterested here sounds cold and indifferent, it is not. It means, I have no agenda for you, I do not want you. I still remember that classic definition of agape that I learned when I was 15 years old: to love without asking for anyting in return. That’s what Huxley means here by “disinterested.”

The ache that we feel that call “love” is the ache of our own selves groaning, and perhaps all of creation groaning with us while we await the redemption of our bodies. It is the ache of desire; it is our growing pains, the pain of evolution stretching our bones and those of all creation. And we want to take away the ache, and we think we can take away the ache by having something or someone. But we are only killing the ache temporarily. It shall return, maybe in a fiercer way, maybe disguised as a compulsion or an addiction, maybe as a sickness or neurosis. The ideal, it seems to me, is to hold our pleasure with open hands, let it slip in and be grateful and in awe of it when it comes as well as when it goes away on its own trajectory––what does Mary Oliver say, “Doesn’t everything die / and too soon?”––and also learn to live with the ache, and recognize it as the “wound of love,” the wound that pulls us forward into being. As David Whyte says, to end the quote that I cited above, to sum this up:
It can be a tremendously good thing to tell yourself, to remind yourself,
a blessed thing, a merciful thing, to remind yourself
that heartbreak is actually a normal phenomenon of any sincere human path,
and that we should just be ready for the particular form that it takes…