Friday, July 25, 2014

We Have A Place - That Which We Already Know

Part II

Chapter 4 – We Have A Place

Amongst the collection of Christmas ornaments that my family unpacked from a battered cardboard storage box each holiday season was a set of a half a dozen heavier gauge aluminum foil snowflakes in those anodized metal colorings now so familiar to us all – blue and green, red and violet, silver and gold. They unfolded in popup book fashion from the flatness of their latent state into eight-pointed wonders for which I took personal responsibility. Perhaps because of their size – they were about as big around as dinner plates – or perhaps because they were always on the bottom of the box and thus became an afterthought to the decorating process, they ended up becoming my personal bedroom decorations. I’d climb up on a stepladder and attach their strings to the plaster ceiling with asterisks of masking tape that occasionally required a supplemental strip or two over the course of the holiday season.

My fondest memory of those snowflakes was of laying in bed watching them spin faster on their strings whenever the furnace kicked on and then gradually unwinding when it kicked off again – over and over and over. I recall one particular evening when my parents were having company and the adult activity continued much longer and a little bit louder than usual subsequent to my being sent off to bed. Light from the living room filtered into the hallway and underneath my bedroom door to set those snowflakes flickering as they spun. Murmurings of adult conversation, likewise, filtered in to where I lay – making me feel warm and cozy, cared for and protected. I had a place. All was as it should be. And as I drifted off to sleep that evening I likely entered a state of mind not too far removed from that oceanic state of undifferentiated oneness that a contented infant might enjoy while lying in her crib watching the brightly colored mobile spin slowly over her head.

Childhood has the potential to foster feelings of security and belonging unlike any we will ever experience. When else but in childhood do we feel as though a place has been created for us alone, that people who are so much wiser and more powerful are watching over us and lovingly considering our every need? What if we could carry such peaceful feelings into adulthood? Unfortunately, though, the innocence of our childhood can’t last forever. Our parents can’t be there for us forever. Besides, we eventually come to realize that they’re not as smart or strong as we’d once thought, despite their loving us much more than we could ever know.

It’s not surprising, then, that we might try to keep such feelings alive as long as possible by nurturing belief in some sort of personal and parental God – one who is omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent. As long as we play well the role of the obedient child, we might tell ourselves, then God will continue to play the role of watchful guardian. Of course, things don’t always go as we would like in life, and when that happens we might be inclined to reason that God is teaching us a well-deserved lesson – guiding us along as a caring, if stern, parent might do.

But what about those times when innocence and goodness are met with such brutality and injustice that no amount of rationalization can bring us to accept its being part of God’s grand plan? Child victims of war, disease, starvation and abuse – such all too common realities strain to the breaking point our belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent God, just as our erstwhile belief in the infallibility of our own parents was eventually strained to the breaking point. We might be tempted, then, to peel away our idea of a personal God from the harsh realities all around us and declare that He still loves us even as He foregoes interceding in the injustices wrought by a world ostensibly of His creation. And so it is that we might continue feeling loved for the remainder of our days, and with that sense of love might come a modicum of peace, but the security that we might have once enjoyed in childhood will remain forever in the past. The potential for “injustice” will always be right around the corner. Crime, disease, financial hardship, disaster and accident are always waiting in the wings – if not in reality, then in our minds.

How, then, do we reacquaint ourselves with the wisdom of our childhood – the wisdom that allowed us to settle unhesitatingly into that calm sense of wellbeing that still lingers as a distant memory? Of course, I’m well aware that you might be prepared to question my use of the word ‘wisdom’ here. Perhaps the aphorism that ignorance is bliss is more apropos from your point of view? We were ignorant of our parents’ inability to truly keep us safe and sound. We were ignorant of all the ways that our world could come crashing down around us. Alright then, let’s step back and explore the nature of that ignorance.

Before the age of 12 or so children are unable to engage in very deeply abstract or hypothetical thought. Until then we think of the world in mostly concrete terms. Our world, for the most part, is what we can apprehend with our senses. Life takes place primarily in the here and now and the "finality" of death is a not very well understood reality. Selfhood, likewise, is a concept that is not quite fully grasped. Think of how young children, if pressed, describe themselves: My name is Amy. I’m five years old. I have a dog named Charlie. My Daddy takes us to the park and we run and play catch. I like peanut butter and jelly. I like to draw and read books.

It is only later, after the emergence of self-awareness, that we come to possess such well-developed and articulate answers to the questions of who we are and what we’re here for and where we go when we die: I am so and so, and I believe such and such, and I stand for this and that, and I’m here to accomplish thus and such with my life, and when I’m gone I know I’m going to heaven (or becoming reincarnated, or whatever it is that we might believe). The funny thing is, however, that despite our answers becoming more and more developed and articulate as we grow older, they are not necessarily any more accurate!

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing,” Socrates is reported to have said. This wisdom of not knowing is something that adepts of the Zen tradition become quite familiar with. In order to really see in the Zen sense, one must let go of words and concepts and ideas regarding the so-called knower and the known. Only then does real seeing take place. This dropping off of conceptualization extends even to that which we take most for granted - ourselves. Zen Patriarch, Bodhidharma, for instance, when asked who he was by the emperor of his day is reported to have replied quite matter-of-factly that he didn’t know!

Mindfulness practice is becoming rather ubiquitous these days in the treatment of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, addiction and so forth. Rooted in techniques of Buddhist meditation, mindfulness practice gets us back into our bodies and out of that place where the real suffering of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and addiction takes place – our heads. When we’re out of our heads and into our bodies, focusing on our breath or the coming and going of bodily sensations, we’re not worrying about the future or regretting the past; we’re simply in this moment living out the reality of our existence – much like a child.

It seems, then, that some of the most profound wisdom that we can live by is that which urges us to be less sure of what we know, to loosen our iron grip on our sense of selfhood, and to live more in the here and now – away from the schemes and concerns that so consume us. In this way, the blissful ignorance (innocence) of our childhood is actually an expression of embodied wisdom – that which we already know.

Lest anyone be confused by what I’m saying here, I am not advocating that we eschew all abstract thought and conceptualization and regress back to some idealized childhood state. We are now adults and, however fallen we may be, we must stand up where we are and continue living. We need to be able to think clearly and deeply from time to time, and our ability to do so should be nurtured and celebrated. Hopefully we come to know our minds well enough that we might use them like an artisan uses his or her array of tools. When it is skillful and appropriate to chisel away on something, then we do so. When it is skillful and appropriate to refrain from chiseling away on anything, then we refrain from doing so.

Can we ever again know such feelings of security and belonging as we hopefully knew at least at one time as a child? Can we be such skillful artisans that we turn our minds off completely to the concerns of our day to day lives as well as those existential concerns that have us pondering the nature of God and creation and the afterlife? And what if we do? Will we have lost some of what makes us human in the process, or will we actually find our place of belonging in the kingdom of God?

Image References

Snowflake image cropped and filtered from a photo courtesy:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Living the Wisdom - That Which We Already Know

The following is the third and final installment of Chapter 3.

Chapter 3 - The Journey Home (second continuation)

From an evolutionary standpoint, our forebears lived much as described in the legend of the Garden of Eden – wandering the forest unclothed, gathering from its bounty, living without concern for the possible trials of the morrow. After the fall, however, humans were banished from that proverbial Garden and left to their own devices. The bounty of the forest was no longer enough. The emergence of self-awareness had brought with it concerns about the future and the sufficiency of what the forest would provide. The natural world in and of itself was no longer to be trusted, and so we began to help it along.

We can imagine the advent of agriculture occurring gradually. What might have begun with hunter/gatherers returning again and again to the places where they’d once found nuts or seeds or fruits gradually transitioned into helping those plants reach maturity – perhaps making sure that they had room or even watering them if the opportunity arose. Such watchfulness must have then quite naturally transitioned into the actual planting of seeds in other suitable areas and tending them more frequently. From there it would be just one more step towards cutting down areas of forest in order to have more and more room for the plants that the early humans wanted to eat. At that point it must have been hard to leave those fields behind and wander elsewhere in search of food. So much labor had been invested by then and the payoff must have seemed well worth staying in place.

The authors of the Book of Genesis somehow sensed that their reliance on agriculture was a sign of their fallen state. Their stark sense of separation is almost palpable in their imagining of what the God of that mythical first man and woman said to them in the wake of their transgression. “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.” Not quite the image of bucolic country living, is it? Perhaps the disparity of that early description of agriculture and the romantic imaginings we might have of it today is indicative of our acclimation to the reality of our separation – acclimation fostered by our advances in technology.

The authors of the Book of Genesis thought of their existential predicament as cursed. The Buddha similarly described our existential predicament as one of suffering, inherently unsatisfactory – rarely remaining as we wish quite long enough, and remaining contrary to our wishes for far too long. What then do we do? Do we double down our efforts at bolstering our selfhood and ensuring that everything complies with our wishes? Do we use every technological tool at our disposal in order to ensure our survival above all else and all others? It seems that that is precisely the path that we have walked throughout our history, and the one we walk today. We’ve even managed to develop the technology of genetic manipulation in order to prune the tree of life itself and bend its branches to suit our wishes. Has God grown tired of guarding the Garden of Eden from which we were banished so long ago? It appears that we’ve now battered our way past each and every barricade so as to reach the tree of life – that tree even more forbidden than was the tree of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.

Our journey back to spiritual wholeness is inextricable from our journey back to harmonious integration with the earth and all of life and everything, for the earth and all of life and everything is the very seamless whole from which we’ve grown to perceive ourselves as separate. Earth-centered religions very obviously encompass the reality of this wholeness. Taoism, with its consideration of the “Way”, does too. In Buddhism it is our realization of the true nature of the self that gets us there. Judeo-Christian heritage, likewise, has at least some conception of human behavior either being in accord with the natural order (as dictated by divine plan) or going against it. Our behavior already got us thrown out of the Garden of Eden once, who knows what might happen now that we’ve stormed back in to get our hands on the tree of life?

How then do we make things right? The key is to think in terms of going home – returning to a place that we already know, remembering that which we already know. To persist in thinking that our journey toward wholeness is but a journey forward to some place as yet unknown is to continue on as the moth perseveres in circling the porch light on a summer’s eve. The Buddha almost killed himself in his quest for wholeness before realizing that he’d already known the way even as a little child. “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these,” Jesus is reported to have said of the children in his midst. Why is that? What is it about children that makes them most suited for entrance into the kingdom? Of course, we can’t go back in time. How then do we reacquaint ourselves with the wisdom of our childhood even as we carry on with our adult responsibilities?

So, let’s begin this book again with a more thorough exploration of the wisdom of children and how it might inform our spiritual practice and the totality of our lives – no matter how old we might be or what our spiritual practice happens to be.

End Chapter 3
End Part I

Image References

Boy in the Woods image cropped and filtered from a photo courtesy of Kirstin via:

Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Friday, July 11, 2014

Moths About The Porch Light - That Which We Already Know

Chapter 3 of That Which We Already Know continues below...

Chapter 3 - The Journey Home (first continuation)

Earlier in this chapter I spoke of how we “recover” from our fall from grace by acclimating to our sense of separation, at times so completely that we never even realize anything is wrong for the remainder of our days. We fill our lives with work and play and family and friends – perhaps quite contentedly so – without ever realizing that something is off-kilter. Others of us, however, do realize that something is amiss. Siddhartha Gautama, for instance, was abiding in the lap of luxury when he realized that he’d been living as if he were sleepwalking through his days – unmindful of his fall. Eventually, however, he woke up to his separation so completely that people began to refer to him as the Buddha, the Awakened One. Jesus was awake as well, and all too aware of our separation. Whether by divine birth or by some other prayerful process, he was awakened to something that he and his followers spoke of in the language of their culture as the kingdom of God – that place of truest life from which most people had become separated.

At this point I suspect that such talk of separation will either resonate with you or it won’t. If someone is asleep and wishes to remain so, there is little anyone else can do about it. The rest of us, however, having opened up our eyes just a little bit and begun to feel the need to yawn and stretch, know that eerie sense of having had a bad dream that we just can’t shake off even in the brightest daylight.

Perhaps we feel as though life is passing us by. Mired in duties and responsibilities, we stumble from one day to another to another – disconnected from our activity. Sure, there are joys along the way, but they rush past so quickly that it seems we only really savor them in hindsight. Perhaps the promise of life never did materialize. We didn’t end up going to the school that we thought we’d attend, for instance, or if we did we then found out that it didn’t actually open up doors to the great career that we’d always envisioned for ourselves. And so we feel as though some truer version of who we are must be carrying on in a parallel universe somewhere while we, the less-loved, less-lucky, and less-talented stepchild, continue on in this one. Even darker is the possibility that we just can’t seem to get beyond the utter meaningless of our day to day existence. We feel separated from life itself – any life. What does this flurry of activity that we call human existence amount to in the great by and by, anyway? What is all of this leading up to? Why do anything at all with our time and energy and resources when everything seems so utterly hopeless?

But then again, maybe life is going quite well for us. Maybe we have meaningful work that rewards us well and affords us plenty of free time to spend with family and friends. We’ve managed to create at least some reasonable approximation of the lives of the rich and famous that we read about in magazines. And yet we just can’t shake the feeling that above all else we’ve been lucky – so far – and that our good fortune could change at any moment if we were to lose our job, for instance, or if some accident or illness were to befall us or one of our loved ones. The specter lurking over the horizon that everything we’ve come to know or love or work for could be taken away from us in the very next moment gnaws away at whatever sense of wellbeing we might otherwise enjoy – thereby prompting us to live an internal life that is separate from the one that others see. We live in relative paradise, and yet we live in fear; and all the while the clock keeps ticking on our lives.

In its most general sense, human anxiety such as that described above has been with us ever since the fall – ever since the emergence of self-awareness somewhere in the pre-dawn darkness of prehistoric time. We modern technological humans are simply the first to harbor expectations that life should be free of such concerns. Whereas we used to only have enough to eat when the hunt went well or when the rains made possible a bountiful harvest, we now expect to always have enough money in our wallets with which to buy whatever we desire at the local supermarket. Whereas we used to have to settle for whatever work was available in the nearby towns and fields, we now expect to be able to do whatever we want in order to make a living, and go to the ends of the earth in order to do it. Whereas we used to have to work long and hard every day of our lives, we now have the expectation of being able to get home from our nine-to-five job with enough energy to go to the gym or out on the town. Whereas we used to have to accept that people get sick and die from illnesses that we just don’t understand, we now expect there will be a cure for every diagnosis that we or someone we love might be given. Thus, there is a tacit assumption in our modern technological world that we will live meaningfully, healthfully, enjoyably, happily. And so we can now add the alluring but ultimately incorrect expectation that life should be carefree and easy to the list of everything else that might make us anxious in the wake of the fall.

Modern technological civilization has advanced to the point that we might dream of a truly utopian existence here on earth, or feel that it is within our reach right now if we could only calibrate all of our machines and processes appropriately. Unfortunately, though, just as technology has advanced to the point where we might fancy such a possibility, the byproducts and unintended consequences of the creation and propagation of the proto-utopian civilization in which we presently live are undermining whatever gains technology might have afforded us. Toxic environmental pollutants make disease all the more prevalent even as we should be able to cure them. Nuclear technology threatens to annihilate all life on earth even as it should be providing us with energy that’s “too cheap to meter”. Fossil fuel use is warming the planet, thereby threatening our very existence even as it should be providing us with much desired freedom and leisure.  Advances in information technology are making us slaves plugged into an endlessly upgrading world of products and platforms even as they should be making our lives so much more rich and efficient.

When I think about the trust that we modern humans place in technology – the blind adherence with which we seem to follow the path of technological advancement – I can’t help but think of moths circling the scorching hot bulb of a porch light on a summer’s eve. You see, evolution provided the moth with the instinct to seek out the light, for the sake of navigation and for the sake of finding the warmth of the sun in which to dry its wings for flight. But an evolutionary solution millions of years in the making intended to help the moth survive was disrupted in an instant by the invention of the electric light. Suddenly, with respect to evolutionary time, the world was filled with millions upon millions of false suns – promising life, but providing only disorientation and scorching heat instead.

We humans, likewise, have evolved a dependence on technology. For the most part it hasn’t let us down before. It’s allowed us to hunt big game animals for food and clothing. It’s allowed us to farm and preserve what we grow for long periods of time. It’s allowed us to build machines to increase our production output and bring abundance to more and more of us. It’s allowed us to cure disease and repair the injured. Given all it has done for us, how could we not be predisposed to seek out answers to our problems in the promise of technological advancement?

“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden,” our mythical forebears were told, “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Perhaps the advancement of technology more than any other human pursuit tests the limits of our ability to discern good and evil. So alluring is the power that it yields, and so difficult is it to foresee the ultimate consequences of its use. If only we could just “wake up” and learn to distinguish when we’re using technology to good ends and when we’re setting ourselves up to fall prey to a falling domino-like sequence of unintended consequences. This is our life after the fall. This is the Garden of Eden after we’ve eaten of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. This is the end result of our ever-increasing self-awareness – the one who knows becoming the one who knows that he knows.

Image References

Moths and porch light image courtesy of Helen Cocker via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Journey Home - That Which We Already Know

Part I, Chapter 3 - The Journey Home

I suspect that most readers of this book in progress have long since entered adulthood – and long since “recovered” from the fall from grace as I’ve been speaking of it so far. By that I mean that we’ve adapted to or become acclimated to the sense of separation that accompanies what is generally considered the healthy ego development and individuation of growing up. Acclimation, however, does not mean that all is well; it simply means that we’re surviving. True, some of us manage to survive well enough that we live out the remainder of our days in this state of acclimation, having become so suitably oriented to our sense of separation that we never even think of anything being awry, but others of us are not so “lucky”. Others of us become all too aware over the course of our adult lives of the negative aspects of the separation of which I speak.

The separation that I’m speaking of likely means different things to different people. The fact that I’ve so liberally invoked the metaphor of the fall from grace will likely have many from the Judeo-Christian traditions thinking in terms of separation from God. Indeed, one definition of the word sin relates to “a vitiated state of human nature in which the self is estranged from God.” Others who embrace the wisdom traditions of the East might think in terms of our separation from our “true self” – the purest and freest essence of being that we might realize. Those who embrace Native American or earth-centered spirituality might think of the separation of which I speak in terms of separation from the natural order of life itself or of being out of balance with some optimal or more harmonious way of being. Which of these ways of thinking about our separation do I mean? In fact, I see no reason to exclude any of them from consideration. They each have something of interest to offer to the discussion.

What then do we do once we’ve begun to realize our separation? Are such feelings destined to be a part of life forevermore once they’ve arisen or can we somehow make things right again? Can we rise up from our fall? Can we make seamless that which has been torn? Can we regain our balance once again after getting out of kilter? All religions offer hope in this regard. However, it often seems to be the case that we interpret the journey back to wholeness as a journey toward the attainment of greater intellectual or spiritual knowledge or toward a more perfect self or toward a state of more complete adherence to some ideal way of behaving. In other words, the solution to the problem caused by our developing such a strong sense of self is often taken to consist of the enhancement or perfection or refinement of the very selfhood that is the problem in the first place. What I hope to offer, then, is a new way of looking at whatever spiritual practice the reader might be engaged in. Rather than thinking of spiritual practice as the attainment of something new and shiny and different, or as mysterious and difficult and arduous for that matter, think of spiritual practice as the remembering of that which we already know.

Consider, for instance, a story from the Buddha’s journey of awakening: After renouncing his birthright as future leader of the Shakya clan, the man first known as Siddhartha Gautama took leave of his princely life in order to become a mendicant holy man. He took to wandering the Ganges watershed, living off the fruit of the forest, travelling from town to town, begging for food and engaging in meditative practice. As occasions arose during the course of his wanderings, the young seeker learned from various teachers how to reach ever deeper stages of meditative absorption. Despite such expert instruction, however, the future Buddha remained unsatisfied that his quest was over. It was then that he took up ever more extreme ascetic practice – six years of which left him perilously weak and depleted, but no closer to his goal.

Near death, he recalled a childhood memory of going out into the countryside with the rest of the Shakya royal family and its entourage in order to take part in the annual plowing festival. He remembered his nurses getting so caught up in the festivities that they wandered off, leaving him alone in the shade of a rose-apple tree. Left to his own devices, the youngster settled spontaneously into the meditative absorption that he would only “learn” much later. Of course, the rest is history. The future Buddha regained his strength and, inspired by the recollection of that which he already knew, commenced to sitting as he had as a young child – albeit, one with unprecedented insight and determination.

Consider also a story told in the Gospels of an incident that occurred in the course of Jesus’ teaching. People began bringing their children to him in order that he might bless them. Perhaps thinking that little children would only distract Jesus from his teaching of important truths or otherwise be incapable of understanding his message the disciples tried to keep them away. It is then that Jesus is reported to have said: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

What are we to make of these two stories? Are they unrelated tales that merely serve to add a bit of color to the overarching message conveyed by these two great teachers? Or are these stories, in fact, both central to the teachings of these two respective individuals and also related? It should come as no surprise that I find the latter to be true!

What is not obvious from the aforementioned story of the Buddha’s journey to awakening is that much of the work related to learning and navigating the stages of meditative absorption that the Buddha learned relates to dismantling the strong sense of self that we expend so much energy creating in the years and decades after our fall. We might paraphrase the poet T.S. Elliot in saying that at the end of all of his exploring the Buddha arrived at the meditative state of his childhood and knew it for the first time. I would tweak that sentiment just a bit and say that he finally remembered that which he already knew.

We tend to forget that part of the Buddha’s story, don’t we? We’re more inclined, instead, to think of him as a meditation practitioner of extraordinary accomplishment, a disseminator of a vast store of acquired wisdom. We see in him that which we adults can relate to, the ceaseless quest for the perfection of wisdom and of being, the struggle to persevere and overcome – those things that we’ve come to value subsequent to our fall. The simplicity of a child spontaneously entering into peaceful meditation doesn’t make the headlines – either in this world or apparently the one in which the Buddha lived. It’s far too easy.

Jesus likewise had a reputation, at least in part, of being the wise answer man. Pose a question to him related to Rabbinic Law and he would turn it on its ear. No riddle could ensnare him. No query could stump him. Indeed, the Pharisees tried their best – firing questions at him that they might detect the flaws in his logic, the weak spots in his scriptural understanding, and the limits of his spiritual acumen. Jesus understood, however, that conceptualization and intellectualization cannot bridge the gulf that forms between us and that which some call the kingdom of God. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

Please don’t construe what I’m saying here as anti-intellectual. There is definitely a time and a place for study and questioning. But there is also a time to set aside those things and simply be. Some might consider this ‘simply being’ the process of meditation; others might consider it receiving the kingdom of God. Perhaps you call it something else. However, I suspect that whatever you call it encompasses bridging, healing, overcoming, transcending, etc. the separation that we’ve come to experience in the wake of our fall.

Image References
Man overlooking the Grand Canyon via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank