Saturday, March 19, 2011

the nature of the ground

The significance of Brahman is expressed by neti, neti!
(Not so! Not so!)
For beyond this, that you say it is not so,
there is nothing further.
Brahman’s name, however, is “the reality of the reality.”
That is to say, the senses are real,
and Brahman is their reality.
(Brihdarankyaka Upanishad.)

I’ve been reading with fascination the theologian Robert Barron recently. I first ran into his book And Now I See… in England. My friend Patrick Eastman recommended it and I quickly was hooked. Then my friend the philosopher Janice Daurio in Camarillo gave me a copy of a talk he had given at a theological conference on “Religion A and Religion B,” which I found very provocative, and maybe will get to later. Then at my last stop in Milwaukee (I’m in St Louis now), I ran into a classmate of the same Robert Barron, and we had a number of good conversations about his (Barron’s) thought. There is one thing that I have been particularly fascinated by, his writings on the great theologians Thomas Aquinas and the more modern Protestant Paul Tillich, on God as being and God as ground of being. Of course what I am looking for is resonances with the Hindu notion of Brahman––the divine as ground of being, and further Atman––the divine as ground of consciousness, and I think that it folds in nicely with our discussion of Chapter II of Huxley, “On the Nature of the Ground.” The latter is harder to squeeze out of Western Christian thought but the former is quite present. Some sampling, citing Barron’s own citations…

He writes about Thomas Merton discovering, in the writings of the influential 20th century neo-Thomist and Christian humanist Etienne Gilson, the notion that God is not a thing or a being, but rather God is the sheer act of Being itself. It’s so easy to, as we say, reify God––to make of God a thing, just another entity, just another Being though somewhat Bigger and Better than a human being. But God is not a being: God is being itself, in whom all other things exist. Listen to this beautiful poetic passage:

There is a mysterious reality, at the borders and at the heart of ordinary experience, suffusing and yet transcending all that surrounds us, a reality that can be invoked with a thousand names and that cannot finally be named… It is as high as the heavens are above the earth and as low as the caverns of Hell; it is as dark as a pillar of cloud and as luminous as a pillar of fire; it is the burning bush that is not consumed, and it is the water from the rock. It is the sheer act of Being itself, and it is nothing at all; it is the hardest to see, and it is what is most obvious. (And Now I See, 91)

Being itself––and not just some supreme being––is that which transcends any particular thing that exists. This is why Paul says in the Acts of the Apostles, “in whom we live and move and have our being.” And this Being itself, this sheer energy of existence, “must be that which grounds every particular thing in the universe, that which works its way into every nook and cranny of finitude, that which is unsurpassably immanent to creation.” (107) Barron speaks of it too in relation to what he calls the “serenity of God,” drawing from both Tillich and Thomas, saying that, since God is the sheer act of existence, “there is a peaceful untrammeled serenity to the divine being,” as suggested by the sacred name “I Am Who Am.” And repeats again this very important point twice on one page: “God is the act of existence unreceived, unlimited, undefined; God is not a type of being, but rather the sheer energy of to-be itself.” Or as Thomas Aquinas taught, Deus es ens––God is being.

But then he goes on to write about Thomas’ notion of the creatio continua, that this sheer energy of being, this sheer act of existence is continuously bringing forth life, continually creating, continually pouring forth as creation. Creation is not a once and for all act of some essentially transcendent being at the top of a hierarchy of being, “but rather the ever present and ever new gift of being poured out from the divine source.” We creatures are in relationship, or better, simply are relationship to this energy which (who) is continually drawing us into being, continually making us new. So the presence of God is always at work at the very roots of our being. Hence we can refer to the ground of our being, the continual creative ground of all existence that/who is “just as close to a simple stone as to an archangel… There is no place where the grounding Power of Being itself is not at work.”

So much for ground of being; there is a firm and authoritative orthodox tradition within Christianity’s conception of God. Ground of consciousness is a little harder to find.

The idea, if I understand it, from Hinduism, is that if we were to descend into and explore the depths of our own consciousness, through meditation, Yoga, training the senses stilling the mind, going beyond our shallow false self to our real self––we would discover that the ground and source of our consciousness is none of than God as well. Ken Wilber might say, “we run smack dab into God” when we make the interior journey through the meditative/contemplative traditions. It may not be that easy without a last of grace, but that is another topic. Still... What I did find I Barron’s exposition of Augustine’s teaching on the mind, which forms the basis of his explanation of the Trinity. Augustine our psychological functioning mens, which is usually translated as “mind,” but Barron suggest it might be better translated as––are you ready for this?––“spirit.” Now what Barron means by “spirit” and what I understand it to mean may be two different things, but let’s assume that “spirit” is our openness to the divine that Paul writes of in his letters, and what Bede Griffiths thought of as the fine point of the soul, beyond body and beyond mind, soul, all forms of higher consciousness. This mens–spirit is not only analytical or rational power, as we usually understand mind; for Augustine it is “the grounding psychological and spiritual energy of consciousness. It is the font and source of all intellectual activity, the spirit as such.” There it is––atman, the ground of consciousness. Augustine does not say, and neither does Barron, that this ground and energy is God’s own self, but we are pretty close here when we speak of the “spiritual energy of consciousness.”

One might say it either way, to satisfy the skeptics: we believe that there is a ground, a source, a font of being, that is Being itself; and a ground, a source, a font of consciousness, that is Consciousness itself. And we believe that that Being self-discloses––this is, by the way, what the Word––Logos is, Being’s self-disclosure. Is this not consciousness? We believe that there is something intentional (dare I say, personal?) about Being itself. And we call Being itself, who is the ground and source of Being, God. And we call the ground of consciousness God. You could either say God is Being itself; or one could simply say that we call the ground of Being, “God”; either that God is consciousness itself (Word and Wisdom), or that we call the ground of consciousness “God.”

I ran into several allusions to Psalm 139 in Joel Goldsmith’s book A Parenthesis in Eternity, a book that was profoundly influential on Eckhart Tolle, and I have found them again and again in Barron too, the idea that where can we possibly run from this? I wrote this meditation (on the “notes” app on my iPhone) and have been carrying it around with me for some time, inspired first by Goldsmith, solidified even more by Barron:

God is Being itself––Deus es en, the One Who Is––Sat.
God is consciousness, mens, logos, the Word and Wisdom who was with God from the beginning and is God––Chit.

Being and Consciousness are not two,
because Being is conscious, intentional, intelligent;
and consciousness––the Word––is the self-disclosure of Being.

To know this is Bliss––Ananda.

I am a word made flesh,
an Imago Dei, an image of the unseen God,
an individual manifestation of Consciousness,
Consciousness manifest as an individual,
like a branch on a vine.
God is the source of my being,
the ground of my consciousness.
To know this is Bliss.

I am a branch on the vine.
God and I are one––
the father-creator,
who made us by whom we subsist,
the mother of the ten thousand things,
in whom we live and move and have our being.

“If I climb up to the heavens, you are there.
If I fly the wings of morning, you are there.
If I dwell across the waves, if I lie down in a grave,
in the light or in the darkness, you are there.”
(Ps 139)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

ashes on the third eye

Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one separate them; they cannot be separated. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. (Peter Chrysologus)

In Hinduism and Buddhism, there is this marvelous tradition of the third eye. It’s located between the eyebrows (at the ajna chakra), and is considered to be the tenth opening of the body. But where as the other openings in the body lead out, this one leads in. It is the inner eye of wisdom, the eye that opens when one has achieved enlightenment, moksha or nirvana. It’s sometimes called the gyananakashu–the eye of knowledge, the seat of the antar-guru-the inner teacher. You often see statues of gods or the Buddha, or famous yogis and sages and bodhisattvas with some kind of a mark there. People who follow Indian traditions wear a tilaka there between the eyebrows to represent the third eye, as at our ashram Shantivanam in south India we would mark ourselves three times a day, with golden sandal paste in the morning, the red kumkum of devotion in the afternoon, and the vibhuti ashes in the evening.

Some years ago, a friend of mine who is pretty cynical about Christianity wrote me at the beginning of Lent saying, “Oh yeah, Ash Wednesday. The day you Christians cover up your third eye with ashes.” Cute. I thought about it for a minute and then remembered that story in the Gospel of John chapter 9 when Jesus heals a blind man. Jesus spit on the ground and made some mud and smeared it on the man’s eyes and told him to go wash his eyes out and when he did he was healed. So I wrote back to my sarcastic friend, “Yes, we cover up our third eye with ashes for a short time, but only to have them washed 40 days later in the waters of Baptism so that we can really cleanse and open that third eye with the wisdom of resurrection at Easter.” I’m not sure it convinced him, but the image stays with me.

Lent is all about Easter, and Easter is all about Baptism. From ancient times Baptisms were performed on Easter and there was a preparation period beforehand for those about to be baptized, the catechumens, a period of cleansing and formation in which the candidates prepare to die to their old selves and rise to a whole new way of seeing, a new way of living, a new way of being in the world. Interesting enough, one ancient Greek word that was usually associated with both conversion and Baptism is photismos, which means, enlightenment or illumination; Baptism was meant to be an enlightenment experience! For most of us Christians we were baptized when we were, as one of my theology professors used to say, “little red-faced humanoids” and have no recollection of the event let alone any kind of enlightenment associated with it. I often feel like our spirituality is all about trying to catch up with something that happened to us long ago, to realize a reality that is already somehow operative in the depths of our being. And so the period of Lent is a time for the rest of us too to cleanse and purify, die to our old selves and realize this enlightened self––cleanse that third eye of wisdom by renewing, remembering, realizing our Baptism at Easter.

Traditionally there are three practices that are offered as ways of cleansing this eye of wisdom, three ways of dying to the old self so that the new self can emerge from the ashes. Most of us Catholic kids only associate Lent with “giving up something for Lent,” usually candy. But, as you see in that passage from Peter Chrysologus I quoted above, there are actually three practices that go together, and you almost get the impression that none of them work unless they are done together: prayer, fasting (or sacrifice), and mercy (almsgiving, charity). Peter Chrysologus says, “prayer knocks, fasting obtains, mercy receives.”

How do these practices help us die to ourselves? Well, as for prayer, most of us don’t discover prayer until we experience some kind of need or want, and usually that’s when we turn to prayer almost like magic, and much more often for a want than for a need. But if you really want to understand the power of prayer, go to an AA meeting or another 12 Step meeting some time. There there are people who really need some kind of power greater than themselves for survival and prayer is conscious contact with that Power. There’s a saying from AA I heard once: “All you got to know is that there is a God and it’s not you.” That’s the dying to self––a recognition that there is a Power Greater than me that is not me. But the marvelous thing is that when I am in touch with that Power Greater than me, I find out, discover, that that power is actually my ground and my source, and that power can be the very energy of my life, if I die to my small self and rise to this greater one.

As for fasting or any kind of abstention––again I think it’s a matter of need. We are for the most part spoiled rich kids who have no experience of real need. We most of us have the basics of life. But I wonder: are we really free because of that? I want a soda, I am free to drink a soda: but am I free to not drink a soda? I am free to surf the Internet and send text messages to my friends all night long; but am I free not to? I am free to get drunk, smoke a cigarette, get high, load up on caffeine and sugar all I want; but am I free not to? What fasting does is put a little space between me and what I want; that self of my cravings dies for a moment. And when and if I can do this two marvelous things happen: first I discover a freedom, knowing that I am not a slave to my desires, not a slave to my bodily cravings; and then I get this sweet pure sensation of actually feeling need––feeling hunger, feeling loneliness, feeling poverty.

That leads to the third practice: mercy, charity or almsgiving. As I said, most of us are spoiled rich kids, and poverty is kind of an abstract thing to us. We don’t actually feel what it feels like to be hungry, cold, homeless, sick. Well, hopefully when I actually have a sense of what that feels like, I can actually development a sense of solidarity or compassion or sympathy for those who actually are hungry, homeless, lonely, sick on a regular basis, perhaps through no fault of their own. The marvelous magical formula about reaching out then is this: we discover that, as the Prayer of St Francis says, in giving we receive, in pardoning we are pardoned. An open heart is an open heart––the heart open to give is also open to receive. If we die to our little insular world of comfort, we discover a whole world of connection, a web of relationships.

So, let’s see what these three practices put together can offer during this season. Maybe they could lead us to cleanse that third eye of wisdom in the waters of Baptism, that when our old self dies––the self-sufficient small self––a new self will arise, our real self that is hidden with Christ in God.