Thursday, September 30, 2010

Restraint of the Modifications of the Mind-Stuff

In Book One of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the second "point" (and the first substantive point) reads as follows, according to my translation:
The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.
My copy of the Sutras includes commentary from Sri Swami Satchidananda, who writes of this first substantive point:
In this Sutra Patanjali gives the goal of Yoga. For a keen student this one Sutra would be enough because the rest of them only explain this one. If the restraint of the mental modifications is achived one has reached the goal of Yoga. The entire science of Yoga is based on this. Patanjali has given the definition of Yoga and at the same time the practice. "If you can control the rising of the mind into ripples, you will experience Yoga."
I feel a little moved to do commentary-upon-commentary here. We all know that "Yoga" comes from the same word as "yoke," and means something like "to unite," right? What's being united?--well, conventionally, what we call "Self" and "God" (though of course, once the experience of Yoga is underway, there is no separation, so no labels are possible). From there, a key to understanding this passage is to focus on the relative strangeness, or unexpectedness, of that final phrase: you will experience Yoga. This phrase is far different from the more commonly uttered, "Yeah, sometimes I practice (or 'do') Yoga." Everybody knows somebody who does yoga. Only the lucky know someone who has experienced it.

Now, if you don't grasp this second point -- there are something like 50 more of them to work through. So don't miss this! I often find that comparing the "heart" of various mysticisms helps me to see through formal or cultural distinctions that are ultimately only apparent. So look at the quote I posted in my left margin from Parmenides:
Our thought cannot grasp the One as long as any other image remains active in the soul... To this end, you must set free your soul from all outward things and turn wholly within yourself, with no more leaning to what lies outside, and lay your mind bare of ideal forms, as before of the objects of sense, and forget even yourself, and so come within sight of that One.
To my mind, this is a perfect (and not coincidental) description of how to "experience" what Patanjali knows as Yoga. What Patanjali calls "the mindstuff" appears in the excerpt from Parmenides as "active images in the soul" and impressions of "outward things," and even, finally, "yourself." Then, does Parmenides recommend a way to "restrain the modifications of" such mindstuff? Maybe. What does "set free your soul from" mean?--what does it mean to "lay your mind bare" of forms? Or to "forget" yourself? How exactly does that happen?

Parmenides, who is often identified as the "Father of Logic," would be better understood in his role as an Iatromantis (Greek: ἰατρόμαντις). I've mentioned this before, but I want to deal with it again because it's an idea that's very important to my understanding of mysticism & philosophy. In his role as an Iatromantis, Parmenides would usher a "seeker" into a sacred cave, would advise the initiate to lie down, as comfortably as possible (on his back), and then to not move... for three days. The procedure was known as "incubation." Meanwhile, Parmenides would stand at the mouth of the cave as a watchman. Wikipedia wraps this part up for me:
More than just a medical technique, incubation reportedly allowed a human being to experience a fourth state of consciousness different from sleeping, dreaming, or ordinary waking: a state that [Peter] Kingsley describes as “consciousness itself” and likens to the turiya or samādhi of the Indian yogic traditions.
Wow! So this is what "philosophy" was on the eve of Socrates. It's difficult to imagine anything farther removed from what goes on in academic philosophy departments nowadays. Notice that, just like Yoga, Parmenides' philosophy is immersive, physical, and experiential. There is no thinking it, apart from doing it. Notice also that the philosophy of Parmenides, like Yoga, aimed at a very specific end: it is, well, to experience Yoga.

For me, all of this precipitates a thinking about my pedagogy. Can I make my own teaching aim at such heights?--can I find a way to guide students to union with the divine? Or is such an idea too preposterous for the 21st century? Are there protections against this kind of teaching built into bureaucratic systems that regulate university life--? And if I'm being conspiratorial: --on purpose?

If any of you are tempted (oh, I hope you are!), Kingsley's most important book is titled Reality. I long to talk to somebody about it!

P.S. -- there were hints of this much misunderstood/neglected tradition in E.R. Dodds' book, The Greeks and the Irrational, published in 1951. Possibly this was Kingsley's source on Iatromantis?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Autostereogram as the Mystical Experience

Yesterday I focused on how I try to train myself to check and re-check my vision. Buddhism places this responsibility first along the eightfold path, referring to it as "right view," or "right perception." But there are certainly traces of this notion in Christianity and Sufism (and Judaism?--I can't think of one right now): "Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment," Jesus advises.

The idea of "right looking" may seem uncomfortable to many in our vaguely postmodern/subjective era. My students' first reaction where disagreements in perception arise is to diffuse the situation by retreating into their non-sequitur claim that "everyone is entitled to their opinion." Of course, I usually prod--but which opinion is right?

So as I was thinking about that yesterday, I remembered a time when I was about 13 and my grandma bought a framed print of an autostereogram and hung it on her wall. This is as good an example as any (click to enlarge):

I remember very distinctly the feeling of frustration that came over me at Christmas that year, as all of my extended family walked over to the print, stood for a minute, and then said, "Oh, I see it!" Frustration, because I stood for hours and couldn't see it. At first they teased me, then they finally lost interest in teasing me--and still I stood there, looking, looking. I finally must have given up temporarily, because I remember that I never did "see it" that Christmas. It wasn't until a few years later, at a friend's house, that I stared at another autostereogram and finally saw rightly.

Wikipedia notes,
People who have never been able to perceive 3D shapes hidden within an autostereogram find it hard to understand remarks such as, "the 3D image will just pop out of the background, after you stare at the picture long enough", or "the 3D objects will just emerge from the background".
What a perfect analogy this is for me! I haven't stumbled upon such a perfect analogy for spirituality since my post on the "collapsing bridge of ontotheology." Here perception--experience--must precede understanding. So whereas I was the frustrated one, unable to see what others were seeing in front of Grandma's autostereogram, I have also been, by way of spiritual experience, the one trying to describe how a whole new way of seeing is revealed at the "end" of spiritual seeking--trying and failing, while my listeners "find it hard to understand such remarks."

And so it seems to me that it comes down to a matter of interpersonal trust: I trusted that my entire extended family wasn't playing a practical joke on me, and so I kept looking. To have turned around and said, "There is no such hidden image in this print" would have been incorrect. My trust in their testimony helped to keep me looking long enough to (eventually) see rightly.

In precisely the same way, I've pleaded with friends to keep seeking the spiritual experience, even as I understand that they cannot understand what it is I'm trying to describe until they experience it for themselves. In Varieties of Religious Experience, Will James summarizes a view that is found consistently in the mystical traditions all around the world: "This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness." But no one--not even James--can understand this claim without undergoing it. And to undergo it seems to require trusting that such an experience is possible.

And so I keep standing there. Waiting for it to come into focus. Stand with me?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reading Against Oneself

Prelude: sometimes when my students arrive in class, having encountered a particularly difficult selection of text by a 19th-century writer, I hear them muttering, "I didn't know what was going on in this essay," and, "It was like he was drawing random words out of a hat and putting them on the page--I couldn't make sense of it." All this when the writer is someone like William James or Ralph Waldo Emerson. I say to them in response, "Sometimes it may be wise, when you encounter a text that seems not to make sense to you, to blame yourself, rather than the author." After all, I mean to imply, you're an 18-year old punk at an average college; William James is William James.

In the same way I try to remember to reproach myself as I read any of the "sacred" scriptures: if the text does not move me, does not speak to me, I tell myself that it's more likely that I'm reading wrong than it is that 2,000 years of reverence is misleading. Perhaps not surprisingly, most holy texts actively encourage this kind of self-examination. Part of Chapter 5 in my Dhammapada reads,
If you find no one to support you on the spiritual path, walk alone. There is no companionship with the immature. They think, "These children are mine; this wealth is mine." They cannot even call themselves their own, much less their children or wealth.
Reading carelessly, I have stumbled here--have breezed through this confidently, eager to heed Buddha's advice and avoid immature persons. But the next stanza insists that I back up, slow down, check myself:
The immature who know they are immature have a little wisdom. But the immature who look on themselves as wise are utterly foolish...
And there I'm caught "red-egoed." I read the first stanza and automatically associated with wisdom, rather than with immaturity. If Buddha had not thrown in the warning, I would have gone on, an imbecile content in his imbecility.

I'm reminded of one more example: when Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Marble Faun in 1860, the public was largely unimpressed. Indeed, a majority of 20th-century scholars explained The Faun away, arguing that Hawthorne's romantic prowess had simply waned by 1860, and that the book was an imperfect attempt to reiterate his earlier successes. Hawthorne was unperturbed by the cool response. He did get a few appreciative responses amid the general disappointment, however. In response to one of these, he wrote: “…you take the book precisely as I meant it [whereas] these beer-sodden English beefeaters do not know how to read a Romance; neither can they praise it rightly, if ever so well disposed." To another appreciative reader he wrote,
I somewhat doubt whether your dull English public will quite appreciate its excellencies. It depends upon the view a reader happens to take of it, whether it shall appear very clever or very absurd.
So I make an effort in my reading: not to be the dull English reader, the beer-sodden derelict who takes the author, rather than himself, to be the problem.

One other angle: when I was about 24, I was quick to be morally disgusted by what I saw as the nihilistic work of Jackson Pollock. I railed against his work as indicative of all that had gone wrong with civilization in the 20th century--I called it irresponsible and "remorseless." A friend worked on me and worked on me, proselytizing on Pollock's behalf. I had never smoked pot, but she made me that day: "Look again," she told me after; and when I finally looked with fair eyes, I saw a high beauty in some of Pollock's early work, which eventually helped me to understand the arc of his career and so much of mid-century painting that had been inaccessible to me before. In relinquishing my moral outrage, my vision was renewed. Maybe not surprisingly, it was the painting below, titled Blue (Moby Dick) that won me over:

To wrap up, a quote from Moby-Dick itself (chapter 3), reminding readers to look again, and again, to re-orient themselves until the object of contemplation comes into focus:
Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oil painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.
P.S. -- anyone remember when Grandma had the print of an autostereogram? Oh, this gives me a terrific idea for a whole post (tomorrow?)!

Academic Crush?

Oh, man... it's a good thing for Courtenay Raia that I'm happily married. This video is my personal choice, but the rest of her lectures (linked at bottom on this page) look equally interesting, especially the one on Greek Mysticism & Rationality. She says "truth" like fifteen times in the first five minutes:

Watch it on Academic Earth

Virtual Viewing Party: an Invitation

This movie looks so tremendous to me--available on Netflix next month:



...and gives me reason to post a link to something I wrote three years and two blogs ago. So, somebody remind me when this is released and we'll all watch it and talk about it, and about why Cyril is a saint and why anyone would burn down the library of Alexandria and kill Hypatia, and about whether Christian terrorism was even scarier than Muslim terrorism. My own feeling is that although Christianity is in the wrong with Cyril and the murder of Hypatia, this may have been a "necessary" phase in consolidating early Christianity into a unified cultural force. Scary/fascinating.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Knowing Right; Choosing Wrong Anyway

There's a memorable scene in a very good film called Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring where a young boy who is being raised by a monk goes off exploring one day when he is about 7-years old. Although the boy doesn't realize it, the monk follows him to a shallow inlet at the edge of a glassy pond. There the boy traps a fish, and with some string he had brought along, ties a knot around the fish's mid-section, and ties a rock to the other end of the string--and then "frees" the fish. Oh, well look!: it's available on YouTube:



Certainly, the scene shows the novice "learning about Karma," but that's not what the scene does best for me. The scene stings me to the moral core not because of what the aging monk teaches the boy about Karma, but because I know from experience that the boy knew such action was wrong, and did it anyway. I know because once, when I was a boy, I smashed a frog into bits with a 4-iron for no reason except because I knew it was wrong.

Edgar Allan Poe speaks clearly about this phenomenon, and gives it a name, Perverseness--first in "Imp of the Perverse," and then in "The Black Cat":
  • Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable; but, in fact, there is none more strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible.
  • ...the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart - one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law , merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself - to offer violence to its own nature - to do wrong for the wrong's sake only - that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute.
So this discussion happens in a context where the definition of "Good" or "goodness" is not at issue; instead, the acting agent knows precisely what is wrong, but acts wrongly anyway. This is the phenomenon that interests me--interests me so much more than the question of what constitutes Good. I know that part. That part doesn't trouble me. What troubles me is my inability to act in accordance. Perhaps the best expression of this problem comes from in Romans 7:7-24. Here's the most direct excerpt:
I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
So this is precisely the kind of thing I want to work on at this new blog. Some of my readers may still be wondering what G-d is, or what Goodness is, or what Right-action is -- but I am satisfied on all of those points. It is my own ethical rebellion that is so troubling. I know I am not alone in this question. Jonathan Edwards seems to have walked this path:
...in process of time, my convictions and affections wore off; and I entirely lost all those affections and delights and left off secret prayer, at least as to any constant performance of it; and returned like a dog to his vomit, and went on in the ways of sin.
Any ideas here? Any good strategies for staying committed?

America's Forgotten Saint: Jones Very

The attitude of seriousness I was alluding to in my first post has rarely been more evident than in the face of American essayist, poet, and mystic, Jones Very. In a tip-of-the-cap to the Fates, Very was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1813, and probably would've been crucified hanged as a witch had he been born there 150 years earlier.

As Very was coming of age, American intellectuals were in the midst of an influx of ideas from Europe, mainly from Germany. In the early 19th century, most of the best intellectuals in the country still went through--and the best ideas came from--divinity schools. So when Very enrolled at Harvard in 1833, he was not only under the tutelage of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but also under the influence of scholar/theologians from the conservative Andrews Norton to the progressive Theodore Parker, who were all learning German and dealing with a newly historical vision of Jesus and early Christianity (see "Higher Criticism" for a notion of the German influence). Take away this: when Very threw himself wholeheartedly into his studies, he was entering an unsettled, contested, and wide-open field.

Virginia Commonwealth's page on Transcendentalism sums up Very's undergraduate exerpience in one incredible paragraph:
Very's religious monomania began to take shape in the waning days of his undergraduate career. He was never comfortable with women, and at this point he decided to eschew their society entirely. Unable to deal with the temptation, Very decided that the best course of action was to avoid the temptation. This, however, was only the first stage. During this period he purchased his ticket to the ascetic train which was to carry him to the end of line, the eventual obliteration of self and immersion in the will of God.
Sorry, what was that last part?--you read it correctly: immersion in the will of God, or so Very claimed. How did it get to this outlying point? This part fascinates me. Scholars speculate: Very hardly knew his father, and his mother smothered him with overprotective love. Okaaaaay. What else? In 1836, he read and heavily annotated Emerson's "Nature," and deeply appreciated Emerson's soaring notion that an individual could become a vessel of the divine. Hmmm. Bipolar disorder? Possibly. But still, none of this seems to satisfactorily account for Very's motivation on the day (September 16, 1938) that he told Elizabeth Peabody, "I come to baptize you with the Holy Ghost and fire," and then, "I am the Second Coming."

Needless to say, Very was committed to a mental asylum shortly thereafter. He recovered quickly, and was released a month later. On October 29th, Emerson, who had Very stay with him shortly after Very left the asylum, wrote in his journal: "J. Very charmed us all by telling us he hated us all." Emerson seems to have kept Very at a comfortable distance, but must have been pleased to see a student of Transcendentalism actually, well, transcend!

Later that year, Amos Brownson Alcott visited with Very, and afterwards wrote this note to a friend:
I received a letter on Monday of this week from Jones Very of Salem, formerly Tutor in Greek at Harvard College — which institution he left, a few weeks since, being deemed insane by the Faculty. A few weeks ago he visited me....He is a remarkable man. His influence at Cambridge on the best young men was very fine. His talents are of a high order....Is he insane? If so, there yet linger glimpses of wisdom in his memory. He is insane with God — diswitted in the contemplation of the holiness of Divinity. He distrusts intellect... Living, not thinking, he regards as the worship meet for the soul. This is mysticism in its highest form.
Very's later life was unremarkable. He was a writer of above-average poetry, and a schoolteacher. He died more than 40 years later after declaring himself the Second Coming. With no apostles or disciples... yet. It'd probably be better to conclude this history lesson with Emily Dickinson's "Much Madness is Divinest Sense," but I have a special respect for Very, who seems to have gone too far for even the most "spiritual" of those pragmatic 19th century Americans to follow; I've even considered starting a book project on him. So I'll let him finish for himself; here's my favorite of Very's sonnets:
The Dead

I see them, crowd on crowd they walk the earth,
Dry leafless trees no autumn wind laid bare;
And in their nakedness find cause for mirth,
And all unclad would winter's rudeness dare;
No sap doth through their clattering branches flow,
Whence springing leaves and blossoms bright appear;
Their hearts the living God have ceased to know,
Who gives the springtime to th' expectant year.
They mimic life, as if from him to steal
His glow of health to paint the livid cheek;
They borrow words for thoughts they cannot feel,
That with a seeming heart their tongue may speak;
And in their show of life more dead they live
Than those that to the earth with many tears they give.

Seriousness of Purpose

When you are about to begin a new life or work, go to God and ask with all your might and devotion that he will make it turn out for the best, as it seems most agreeable and fitting to him and be sure you are not thinking of your own advantage but only of God's dearest will and nothing else. Then whatever God brings about, take it as direct from him--the best as he sees it--and be completely satisfied.
-Meister Eckhart
And so I begin, again. It may be hardest for those of you who have known me best to hear me clearly on this new blog. For me, this is nothing but a renewed effort to pray in what I consider to be those two most difficult ways: 1) to say, "Father, not my will, but yours be done." And, 2) to "pray without ceasing," as Paul advises in 1 Thessalonians. I've failed every time I've tried so far.

At the bottom of this page, find the quote that inspired the title. The image at top, photoshopped, is a picture taken during my honeymoon of me praying on an empty beach in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. The images to the left are of Egyptian statues, signifying to me an attitude of seriousness and reverence that I admire and aspire to. Under those, or in the middle of those, I'll be posting quotes that are meaningful to me, or that have influenced my thinking. To the right, find links to my old blogs. (Or something like that--I'm still formatting)

One more note: all are welcome here, but I am making a conscious effort now to avoid "deconstructive" disputes, aiming instead to cultivate awareness and personal charity among any who seek reminders. Indeed, I make the same implicit moral demand that Eckhart made of his readers: der warheit bekennet, der weiz daz ich war spriche (He who knows the Truth, knows that I am speaking the truth).

Keep up!