Thursday, July 17, 2008

Putting All Tools Aside

Originally I intended to take a break from all posting and writing last January. I wanted to concentrate on meditation and work, and let my verbal mind have a rest. After a while, however, I got an itch and started to hunt around the internet for a different kind of conversation than I'd been used to. I've always been more science-minded than most people interested in spiritual matters, and in school I was actually much stronger in science than the liberal arts. I keep a list of science websites that I regularly look at to see what's up in those fields, and became interested in the debates they often have about religion and science, particulary the current enthusiasm for atheism and the issue of intelligent design. Having once been an atheist, from the ages of about ten to twelve, I had some sympathy with those who reject religious views in favor of science, so I decided to revisit that world with a little more depth and see what was up.

I ended up entering into a few ad hoc debates at two websites in particular: EvolutionBlog, and My first experiences, at EvolutionBlog, were simply awful. I had expected some hostility to spiritual views, but not quite so intensely reactionary and just plain rude. As is my way, rather than backing away I just dug in deeper, seeing how far I could go in trying to present anything remotely like a spiritual perspective to hardcore atheists. The answer turned out to be: nada. I mean, I'm used to being called a fool once in a while, but this was an unrelenting onslaught that turned into a total rejection not just of my ideas, but of me personally. That was quite refreshing in its own way, and I highly recommend the experience. There's nothing quite like being told you are a complete idiot to take away any veneer of pride you once might have had in yourself. On the other hand, it also gave me some direct experience and insight into what at least a certain sector of the scientific atheist community sees as the irrefutable truth of the scientific approach to truth.

What I got to see first hand is that scientific atheism is, for many of its adherents, simply another religious cult that tries to promote itself as the one and only path to reality and truth. Pointing this out won me few friends within that community, but I guess that wasn't what I was really after, though it would have been nice. I don't have a problem with science as a discipline, as a limited tool for finding out certain material facts about the physical universe. In that respect, it's very useful, as long as we are aware of its limitations, which are contained in the discipline itself of examining only physically “objective” material phenomena. The problem comes when scientists insist that this one tool is the only valid tool anyone can use, and advocates that we throw out everything else in the toolbox. Soon the situation becomes almost psychotic: if the only tool you have is a hammer, over time every problem begins to look like a nail, and one becomes interested only in those problems which a hammer can solve, and those it can't solve, one smashes down until they aren't noticed anymore. The problem with science is that for some people it has become the only standard by which to understand all of life, to the point where they conclude that if science can't understand it, it's not worth examining. To say the least, this is not a productive approach to any but the most simple and mechanical of life's problems. Even worse, it inculcates the notion that solving problems is what life is really about in the first place.

On a more positive note, I found over at Richard Dawkin's site a much more polite and open-minded group of characters, who at least seemed appreciative that someone was willing to engage them from the religious side of the debate with some persistence and honesty. Even if they didn't agree with my ideas, they at least didn't ridicule them, and even seemed to enjoy the process of examining what I had to say. After several long forays into their forums, I left with at least some sense of satisfaction, and an open invitation to return and have at it once again. By then, however, I felt that I'd pretty much exhausted what I could say there. If anything, the experience was even more conclusive to me that science is simply not a spiritual discipline, any way you want to put it. Not that scientists can't be spiritual people, or that people can't approach science from a spiritual perspective, but the actual approach of science itself is no more spiritual than automotive mechanics, though certainly not less so.

What was the point of all that for me? Well, it certainly wasn't preparation to become a public debator on issues of science and religion. Quite the opposite. It felt like a purifying episode in which I have had the opportunity to examine the lingering scientific materialism within my own mind, and go past it. The purpose wasn't really to convince anyone else about the folly of the scientific approach to religion, it was to convince myself of that, and to see that if I really wanted to know the truths of spirituality, I was going to have to let go of my own scientific mindset, or whatever lingering notions and doubts remained within me about these matters. As I mentioned in my last post, I came away realizing not only that I don't know anything, but that the path of becoming a “knower of things” just isn't what I'm interested in. I don't want to know things, I want to love them.

Science is a big force in our world, and an increasily dominant part of it. But it remains a tool, not a truth, and it's a fairly limited tool at that. Richard Dawkins is famous for remarking that the existence of God is a scientific proposition, and it should therefor be investigated and answered scientifically, which is to say in the negative, since there is little scientific evidence for God. This presumes that God can be known by the use of tools, and that science is the tool we ought to use. It doesn't take into account the notion that there may be no “right” tool for knowing God, and that any tool one uses to know God will only end up describing the tool itself, and its capabilities, and not God. Why? Because God is not a “thing” in the world that any tool can touch, see, or decipher. God is at the source of the very consciousness that would make use of a tool, whether it is a material tool or a psychic one. God simply mirrors back to us our own efforts to know Him, and thus the tool we use when we try to know God will give us a description of God that mirros the tool itself, and not God Himself. 

What kind of God does science come up with? Well, one could say that it is a God of mathematics, of pure mental, conceptual abstractions. It's not a theistic deity, so it calls itself atheistic, but this is not really so. It simply makes GOd into a mathematical process it tries to assume is material in nature, but cannot actually be pinned down as such. After all, what material existence do numbers actually have? None. There are no numbers in nature. They exist only in the human mind. So is there really such a God out there, a material machine that produces a mathematical universe? Of course not. This is just the mind looking at the world, using its own concepts as tools, and reporting back the image it sees in the mind of itself. Naturally the ulimate reality it uncovers is a pure conceptual abstraction of mathematical laws. It just makes the mistake of assuming that this is what "the world" really is, rather than what the tool being used to investigate and describe it is.

This problem is not unique to science, but it has its corrollaries in spirituality as well. If we use spiritual tools to see God, we also end up describing God by those tools, rather than knowing God directly. A friend of mine is quite deeply involved in studying his own dreams. He's done this for years, and has a remarkable repertoire of spiritual dreams that occur on a regular basis to him, which he records, interprets, and sees God through. The problem is, using this tool of his psyche also taints the subject of his study. God is not a dream, and yet dreams will indeed reveal God through their own instrumentality, convincing us that God is what we see in our dreams and visions. Well, not exactly. It's certainly a better tool than mere materialistic science, but it's still a tool, rather than a form of direct knowledge. Again, the psyche is merely a collection of reflections of itself, without any formal basis. As the Buddhists say, it is empty. What it uncovers boils down to a mirror that reflects back the method and tools employed in the effort to find its own truth. The psyche must be seen as empty in order to see God.

I'm not suggesting we not use these tools. Science is a marvelous tool, as are visions and dreams. But their primary value is practical, as a way of reflecting certain dimensions of ourselves back to us. Science reflects the material dimension, and dreams reflect the subtle dimension. But God is neither material nor subtle. God is in the dimension where we already stand, which we cannot see because it is not apart from us. It is us. We know God without a thought or perception involved, which is almost too simple for us to comprehend. We know God through love, which is the embrace of what we already are, what everyone and everything already is.

I recall a story about Ramakrishna, when a woman came to him in despair of ever knowing God. She had tried all kinds of practices and beliefs, but she couldn't find God in any of them. Instead of recommending some new method she hadn't yet tried, Ramakrishna simply asked her if there was anyone in the world she loved. She thought for a while, and then replied, well, I love my son. Ramakrishna said, there is God. Wherever one finds love in the world, there is God. In the beginning, we love the objects, the others we encounter most intimately, like the woman's son. But God is not truly in the object of one's love, God is in the love itself. Learning to see love as a force that transcends its own objects is probably the most difficult part of spiritual life, but the only truly important part. This is what science and psychism fails to understand, because they are concentrated on objects and the tools we can use to know and manipulate the objects around us. Even if science and psychism are done with loving care, they still cannot know love itself without relinquishing their own tools, laying them down and knowing without the mind, which is the root of all tools. Mind itself is only a tool, but we tend to let it rule us and define us, and we try to solve all the world's problems with the mind, even the problems of the spirit. But the mind, even the deep psyche, is just a tool we have developed for practical purposes, and we must put them down to enter the temple of the Lord. What is Holy is not manipulable, is not decipherable, is not knowable. It is known through loving embrace with open hands in the darkness of love's mindless embrace.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Be A Refuge Unto Yourself

It looks to be almost six months since I abruptly stopped posting to this blog. At the time, I felt as if I'd lost confidence in my ability to speak meaningfully about spiritual matters, or at least lost any sense that it was useful for me to do so. Quite a few commentators pointed this out, and I felt they probably knew better than I did. Since then, I've fairly well confirmed both those points. It was pretty much an open secret that I had no idea what I'm talking about most of the time. Since then it's become clear to me that I simply don't know anything at all about anything at all. I do wish this were some kind of Socratic confession of philosophical brilliance, or an Advaitic confession of No-Mind. Instead, it's just a simple fact. If I were to try to put a positive spin on it, I'd call it humility. If I were to put a negative spin on it, I'd just keep my mouth shut. As it is, it's just the simple facts of the rather ridiculous life I lead.

As it stands, my life, my spiritual life, is one long series of embarressments. Perhaps I should not dwell upon this, it's something of a self-indulgent trope, but there it is. To confess this is not in itself an answer, but perhaps it is at least an opening. I have read from Ramana that possibly the most important qualification for spiritual life is humility. Many people have scoffed at this over the years, myself included, particularly in the Adidam community, in which Adi Da himself famously said that humility is just an ego making itself small. But I think this misses an important point. Humility is not about having a low assessment of oneself, it is instead a way of making room for something greater than onself to enter into the picture. When we are full of our own pride and thinking, we make no room for Grace to enter into our minds and teach us something we don't already know. The problem with the mind is precisely that – it thinks it already knows all the answers, or can learn all the answers by thinking, by acting, by perceiving, by exercising itself and becoming stronger and stronger. The opposite may actually be the truth. We learn more by not thinking, by not exercising the mind, but by letting it stand aside, and letting something greater than the mind into our sphere of attention and guide us. The mind perhaps needs to rest, and let what is not mind have a go at teaching us for a while. At least enough to inform the mind from a position beyond the mind, such that mind is no longer the sole province of our intelligence. This is what humility means: stepping aside, even a few small inches, to allow something other than ourselves to show us the way.

For some reason that might at first seem opposite to this whole notion, I have been guided of late by one of the last admonitions of the Buddha: be a refuge unto yourself. Strangely, this and humility seem to go hand in hand. Perhaps it is because who and what I really am is not what my mind tell me I am at all. To be a refuge unto myself means letting go of everything I think about myself, and simply being myself, in a state of unknowing humility. Since I know nothing of myself, this seems relatively easy. Since I don't know how to think about myself, or the world, I might as well take refuge in myself, whatever that might mean. I don't really know what it means, but I like the resigned feel of it. Refuge implies a sense of being battered and in need of shelter, and this is surely how I feel in general about this life I have led. I have arrived at the age of 50 in a rather shambled state, without much to show for myself, and with few prospects for a future. My years are numbered, my youth is behind me, and though there are certainly plenty of good years left, the damage has been done and is not likely to be undone except by death, which is perhaps too far off to take consolation in. I have lost most of my youthful enthusiasm for the potentials of life. Some have been realized, some not, but all of them clearly fade and dissolve, and that process is already well under way. The truths of impermanence weigh and sag upon the flesh. Not only does the body fade, but so does the mind. My insights have also come and gone, and I cannot take refuge in them. They don't even last long enough to console me for an evening any more. Where can I turn but to myself in my naked and aging mindless being? If that is not very much, it is all that I have. Surely there is room for Grace in that refuge, if Grace comes from deep within oneself. If not, I have no other place to go in any case.

A refuge is a place of safety, but there is no room in myself for anything but a naked self. That will have to be enough, and perhaps it is. Perhaps this is what the Buddha meant by renunciation. What can we take with us into ourselves? Not even this body, this mind, these thoughts. They don't seem to fit. We must shed what is not able to pass through the portal of the self. We make room by letting go of what crowds us in. This too is self-enquiry.