Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Six Types of Happiness in Hesse's 'Journey to the East'

Every so often I find myself drawn to one of the books of my youth. Part nostalgic reflection, part introspective rediscovery, part discovery anew, rereading a great work of literature after many years of lived experience can be an interesting endeavor. I first read Herman Hesse’s The Journey to the East back in my youth. I’d been introduced to his work when I read Demian for a college humanities class, and I then went on to read Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and “The Journey” in fairly quick succession. For some reason, though, I subsequently began and then abandoned mid-read The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi). Perhaps it’s fitting that I should wait until later in life to finish that one given the fact that it was Hesse’s final novel and all. Such a thought especially resonates with me now that I’ve discovered that I am presently the same age that Hesse was upon completion of The Journey – a realization that has me wondering whether I finally have enough life experience in my knapsack in order to really appreciate it.

The Journey was first published in German in 1932. By that time Hesse had experienced quite a bit of upheaval both in his personal life and in the world around him. On one hand were the (First) World War, a mentally ill wife, failed marriages, scathing criticism, and bouts of isolation and depression; on the other hand were successful publication and acclaim against a backdrop of the cultural and commercial explosion of the Roaring Twenties. Of course, all of this was followed up by worldwide economic collapse in the years just prior to publication of The Journey. This meteoric arc of the years just following the end of WWI can be followed in metaphorical terms as one is drawn deeper and deeper into The Journey to the East.

Portrait of Herman Hesse from a later edition of The Journey to the East

The Journey begins with a sense of irrepressible exuberance. World War has ended, and from its ashes is being built a new civilization, a new philosophy, a new spirituality, a new way of being. The horizons of art, technology, and psychology are expanding with each passing day. Jungian concepts of psychological development have risen to prominence and ideas of a collective human destiny are being entertained in secular terms as perhaps never before.

Hesse expresses this sense of expansiveness, discovery, and shared human destiny by telling the tale of a fantastical journey undertaken by the League, a sort of spiritually-oriented secret society of incomprehensibly broad reach – like if the Theosophical Society were to go in the direction of the Church of Scientology and beyond. In fact, the League is large enough that a multitude of different expeditions have embarked upon this journey almost simultaneously and are presumably making progress via their respective routes – all the while meandering through world history, geography, and literature, both real and imagined.

Interestingly, despite its collectivist nature, the League is comprised of individuals having (indeed, who are required to have) their own personal reasons for undergoing the journey. One seeks something call the Tao. Another seeks the magical snake of Kundalini. The narrator, presumably Hesse himself under the moniker H.H., seeks to meet the Princess Fatima. Worthy of note is the fact that others belonging to these entourages have goals that might be considered very mundane and selfish, such as the winning of treasure and power, or even immoral, such as the desire to assemble a collection of slaves. As Hesse describes it:
[N]umerous groups were simultaneously on their way, each following their own leaders and their own stars, each one always ready to merge into a greater unit and belong to it for a time, but always no less ready to move on again separately….
Each one of them had his own dream, his wish, his secret heart’s desire, and yet they all flowed together in the great stream, and all belonged to each other, shared the same reverence and the same faith, and had made the same vow!

It is likely that only the most observant reader will recognize the importance of Leo from the outset. Ostensibly a lowly servant in H.H.’s entourage, Leo is both a solid presence and a magnet for birds and butterflies and stray dogs along the way. It is his sudden and mysterious disappearance in the rocky gorge of Morbio Inferiore that sends the group into a tailspin from which it never recovers. A second or third reading of The Journey, however, reveals early clues of Leo’s importance on the basis of his relationship with the natural world. The fact that League novitiates must recite an oath which states, in part, that “his glance frightens and tames the wildest beasts” should be enough to let us know that Leo, once we get to know him, is not just any “lowly servant.”

Subsequent to the failures of the group in Morbio Inferiore, H.H. ends up losing touch with the League. He becomes filled with doubts – about the League, about its expedition, and about himself. He becomes obsessed with chronicling the experience of the journey, that he might find meaning in life once again. Unfortunately, this obsession seems only to further hasten his descent into anxiety and depression.

The Journey is a fantastical tale, and one tinged with a fair measure of despair. But if we allow ourselves merely to be swept up in its telling, we might miss much of the wisdom Hesse imparts along the way with regards to how to live with happiness and fulfillment. So, in keeping with the title of this post let’s look at some of the types of happiness that appear throughout the book:

The Happiness of Samadhi

Early on in the journey there is a gathering of League members at a castle in Bremgarten. Hesse’s description of it brings to mind a sprawling party of epic proportions extending into the wee hours of the morning. However, this was no drunken bacchanal. This was a gathering of great artists each immersed in his particular calling. It was an event that H.H. would later learn had been written of in the newspapers of the day as the “triumph at Bremgarten.” But what exactly did this “triumph” consist of? There is Pablo giving himself up to the playing of his Persian reed-pipe all night long. There is Leo, his face radiating joy whilst playing with a couple of poodles. There is Longus, so engrossed in his writing of Greek and Hebrew characters that dragons and snakes rise up from the page. And there is H.H., for whom time seems to stop after diving down into the river just beyond the castle walls – there to dwell with gleaming mermaids for what seemed to him like months on end. As an aside, I can imagine this representing Hesse himself lost in poetic reverie.

But what triumphs are these? They are forms of samadhi – meditative absorption. In their various ways each of these fellow travelers had arrived at a place of total immersion in activity wherein the self is forgotten. Not a single concern exists. Time and physical need is suspended for the sake of whatever activity has taken on such sacred import. Skill level and challenge are perfectly matched at a high enough level to result in what the psychologist, Csikszentmihalyi describes as flow. This is the realm of athletes, artists, and musicians, but it is also the realm of anyone who is good at something and finds it enjoyable enough to give herself over to it. Which brings us to what results after an artist has engaged in his or her flow-inducing activity – the particular samadhi of her own personal discipline…

The Happiness of Creation

Yes, artists find joy in the very act of creation itself, but their creations bring them happiness as well. Their creations allow them to be more than what they are. They become a gift to the world. They become a means to immortality. Hesse writes:
There were amongst us many artists, painters, musicians and poets. Ardent Klingsor was there and restless Hugo Wolf, taciturn Lauscher and vivacious Brentano – but however animated and lovable the personalities of these artists were, yet without exception their imaginary characters were more animated, more beautiful, happier and certainly finer and more real than the poets and creators themselves.
H.H. asks of Leo:
[Why is it] that artists sometimes appeared to be only half-alive, while their creations seemed so irrefutably alive [?]
To which Leo replies:
It is just the same with mothers. When they have borne their children and given them their milk and beauty and strength, they themselves become invisible, and no one asks about them any more.
But that is sad.
I do not think it is sadder than all other things… Perhaps it is sad and yet also beautiful. The law ordains that it shall be so… [It is] the law of service. He who wishes to live long must serve, but he who wishes to rule does not live long.

Which brings us to a life lived with meaning…

The Happiness of Meaning

One sees in the pages of The Journey a man whose life is pregnant with meaning, only to have that meaning wrested from him as the circumstances of Morbio Inferiore play out. In Hesse’s words:
It was shortly after the World War, and the beliefs of the conquered nations were in an extraordinary state of unreality. There was a readiness to believe in things beyond reality even though only a few barriers were actually overcome and few advances made into the realm of a future psychiatry. [On the other hand,] our journey at that time across the Moon Ocean to Famagusta under the leadership of Albert the Great, or say, the discovery of the Butterfly Island, twelve leagues beyond Zipangu, or the inspiring League ceremony at Rudiger's grave – those were deeds and experiences which were allotted once only to people of our time and zone.

And so H.H. yearns to find some semblance of meaning once again. He hopes that writing an account of his contingent’s ultimately failed journey to the East might be his contribution, however small, to the overall journey of the League. Whereas the journey itself had once been meaning enough, filled with discovery and contributions for the betterment of humanity, its demise created a vacuum within him – one that he felt needed to be filled with something for the sake of life itself. Hesse gives voice to H.H.’s great yearning and frustration:
I should like so very much, as one of the last survivors of our community, to save some records of our great cause. I feel like the old surviving servant of perhaps one of the Paladins of Charles the Great, who recalls a stirring series of deeds and wonders, the images and memories of which will disappear with him if he is not successful in passing some of them on to posterity by means of word or picture, tale or song. But through what expedient is it possible to tell the story of the Journey to the East? I do not know. Already this first endeavor, this attempt begun with the best intentions, leads me into the boundless and incomprehensible. I simply wanted to try to depict what has remained in my memory of the course of events and individual details of our Journey to the East. Nothing seemed more simple. And now, when I have hardly related anything, I am brought to a halt by a single small episode which I had not originally thought of at all, the episode of Leo's disappearance. Instead of a fabric, I hold in my hands a bundle of a thousand knotted threads which would occupy hundreds of hands for years to disentangle and straighten out, even if every thread did not become terribly brittle and break between the fingers as soon as it is handled and gently drawn...

Our Journey to the East and our League, the basis of our community, has been the most important thing, indeed the only important thing in my life, compared with which my own individual life has appeared completely unimportant. And now that I want to hold fast to and describe this most important thing, or at least something of it, everything is only a mass of separate fragmentary pictures which has been reflected in something, and this something is myself, and this self, this mirror, whenever I have gazed into it, has proved to be nothing but the uppermost surface of a glass plane. I put my pen away with the sincere intention and hope of continuing tomorrow or some other time, or rather to begin anew, but at the back of my intention and hope, at the back of my really tremendous urge to relate our story, there remains a dreadful doubt.

The Happiness of Community

Indeed, meaning had been an afterthought when H.H. was part of a greater community. The League was moving onward, propelling the human race forward, expanding the horizons of understanding. Yes, each League novitiate was required to have a personal goal, but these personal goals were like the caulk sealing the hull of a great sailing vessel – the vessel of the League and humanity itself. The community of the League required no reflection as to its meaning – meaning was required only upon its dissolution.

The Happiness of Service

Spoiler alert! I cannot complete this post without giving away the ending. If you are so inclined, set this post aside and return to it at a later date once you’ve read the entire novel.

H.H. comes to realize that the only way forward is to try to find out what happened to the lowly servant, Leo – to meet him and perhaps discuss the events of Morbio Inferiore. Indeed, H.H. succeeds in this quest. But, unfortunately for him, Leo seems to have forgotten him. He seems to have forgotten the journey itself. Appearances can be deceiving, however. Says Leo, after much questioning by H.H.:
I am still on the journey, sir, and I still belong to the League. So many come and go; one knows people and yet does not know them. It is much easier with dogs.   
Which brings H.H. to a realization:
All the disgust for my disillusioned life which, since my return from the unsuccessful journey to the East, had become increasingly worthless and spiritless, all disbelief in myself and my abilities, all envious and regretful longing for the good and great times which I had once experienced, grew like a pain within me, grew as high as a tree, like a mountain, tugged at me, and was all related to the former task that I had begun, to the account of the Journey to the East and the League. It now seemed to me that even its accomplishment was no longer desirable or worthwhile. Only one hope still seemed worthwhile to me – to cleanse and redeem myself to some extent through my work, through my service to the memory of that great time, to bring myself once again into contact with the League and its experiences.

Self-Examination, Transcendence, Awakening

In keeping with the fantastical nature of the book, H.H. awakens the next morning to find Leo in his living room!
They have sent me for you from the League," he said. "You wrote me a letter in connection with it. I gave it to the officials. You are to appear before the High Throne. Can we go?
In rather Kafkaesque fashion, H.H. is brought before a tribunal of the League for judgment:
Self-accuser H., do you agree to recognize the Court of Justice and to submit to its judgment?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Self-accuser H.," he continued, "do you agree that the Court of Justice of the officials pass judgment on you without the President in the Chair, or do you desire the President himself to pass judgment on you."
"I agree," I said, "to be judged by the officials, either with or without the President in the Chair."
The Speaker was about to reply when, from the very back of the hall, a soft voice said: "The President is ready to pass judgment himself."

The sound of this soft voice shook me strangely. Right from the depths of the room, from the remote horizons of the archives, came a man. His walk was light and peaceful, his robe sparkled with gold. He came nearer amid the silence of the assembly, and I recognized his walk, I recognized his movements, and finally I recognized his face. It was Leo. In a magnificent, festive robe, he climbed through the rows of officials to the High Throne like a Pope. Like a magnificent, rare flower, he carried the brilliance of his attire up the stairs. Each row of officials rose to greet him as he passed. He bore his radiant office conscientiously, humbly, dutifully, as humbly as a holy Pope or patriarch bears his insignia.

I was deeply intrigued and moved in anticipation of the judgment which I was humbly prepared to accept, whether it would now bring punishment or grace. I was no less deeply moved and amazed that it was Leo, the former porter and servant, who now stood at the head of the whole League and was ready to pass judgment on me. But I was still more stirred, amazed, startled and happy at the great discovery of the day: that the League was as completely stable and mighty as ever, that it was not Leo and the League who had deserted and disillusioned me, but only that I had been so weak and foolish as to misinterpret my own experiences, to doubt the League, to consider the Journey to the East a failure, and to regard myself as the survivor and chronicler of a concluded and forgotten tale, while I was nothing more than a run-away, a traitor, a deserter.

H.H. submits himself to the judgment of the tribunal that he may return to good standing with the League. As part of his reentry he must pass a test of faith and obedience of his choosing. H.H. recoils as each prospective test is proposed.
"Cave, frater," cried the President. "Take heed, impetuous brother! I have begun with the easiest tasks which require the smallest amount of faith. Each succeeding task will be increasingly difficult. Answer me: are you prepared and willing to consult our archives about yourself?"
I went cold and held my breath, but I had understood. Each question would become more and more difficult; there was no escape except into what was still worse. Breathing deeply, I stood up and said yes.
The Speaker led me to the tables where the hundreds of filing cabinets stood. I looked for and found the letter H….
H.H. reads what the archives say about him. He finds notes related to Morbio Inferiore. It had been a test – one that the group had failed miserably, of course. He discovers that others had also written accounts of those fateful days – each one vastly different than his own recollection! Needless to say, he is mortified.
A shudder went through me at the thought of what I should still learn in this hour. How awry, altered and distorted everything and everyone was in these mirrors, how mockingly and unattainably did the face of truth hide itself behind all these reports, counter-reports and legends! What was still truth? What was still credible? And what would remain when I also learned about myself, about my own character and history from the knowledge stored in these archives?
His exploration leads him to a little niche in the wall in which there is a statue of sorts representing two figures merged together. It is a depiction of both H.H. and Leo…
Inside the figures I saw something moving, slowly, extremely slowly, in the same way that a snake moves which has fallen asleep. Something was taking place there, something like a very slow, smooth but continuous flowing or melting; indeed, something melted or poured across from my image to that of Leo's. I perceived that my image was in the process of adding to and flowing into Leo's, nourishing and strengthening it. It seemed that, in time, all the substance from one image would flow into the other and only one would remain: Leo. He must grow, I must disappear.

But Who Is Leo, Anyway?

The character of Leo represents many things in my estimation. He is both the journey and the destination. He is awake. He is H.H.’s true self, his transcendent Self, the universal Self. When H.H. says that Leo must grow and he must disappear, what exactly does he mean? What attributes of Leo are so valuable, important, and meaningful?

Let’s start with what Leo hoped to find on his journey to the East. Whereas some sought powers and even slaves, Leo sought to understand the language of birds. His was not a desire of power or riches, but one of understanding of the natural world.

He comported himself with kindness and humility. He was presumed to have been a servant, and he was, even though he was actually president of the League! He was so in tune with the natural realm that he drew to himself birds, butterflies, and dogs, in addition to whomever might happen cross his path.

He was keenly aware of his surroundings and fully attentive to whatever it was that he was doing. Using our modern jargon, we might say that he practiced mindfulness, or that he lived more keenly in the “now.” In fact, there is a passage in which H.H. has followed Leo and has taken to watching him eat a snack prior to introducing himself. It is a passage that could very well have inspired a Thich Nhat Hanh mindfulness exercise!
[Leo] sat down, leaned against the bench, pressed his head back and for a time looked up at the foliage and the clouds. Then he took a small round white metal box out of his coat pocket, put it by his side on the bench, unscrewed the lid and slowly began to take something out of the box which he put into his mouth and ate with enjoyment. Meantime I walked to and from the entrance to the wood; I then went up to his bench and sat down at the other end. He looked up, gazed at me with clear grey eyes and went on eating. He was eating dried fruits, a few prunes and half apricots. He took them one after the other between two fingers, pressed and fingered each one a little, put them in his mouth and chewed them for a long time with enjoyment. It took a long time before he came to the last one and ate it. He then closed the box again and put it away, leaned back and stretched out his legs.
Which brings us, by my count at least, to the sixth happiness…

The Happiness of the Present Moment

Whereas samadhi comes and goes, whereas the joy of creation fades, whereas meaning is gained and lost, it guides us for a time and then leaves us rudderless in the middle of the vast ocean of existence, whereas community assembles and disperses, service lives on, and the present moment is always with us. The Journey to the East is about happiness of this most transcendent nature. As Hesse writes:
[O]ur goal was not only the East, or rather the East was not only a country and something geographical, but it was the home and youth of the soul, it was everywhere and nowhere, it was the union of all times. Yet I was only aware of this for a moment, and therein lay the reason for my great happiness at that time.

So the happiness of the destination is always within reach. It is with us all the time, but it fades as soon as we begin to reflect upon it or intellectualize about it. This point is hammered home during H.H.’s trial when one of his gravest indiscretions is called to his attention:
I ask you: Do you remember your walk through the town accompanied by the servant Leo, who, as messenger, had to bring you before the High Throne? Yes, you remember. And do you remember how we passed the Town Hall, the Church of St. Paul and the Cathedral, and how the servant Leo entered the Cathedral in order to kneel and pray awhile, and how you not only refrained from entering with me to perform your devotions in accordance with the fourth precept of your League vow, but how you remained outside, impatient and bored, waiting for the end of the tedious ceremony which seemed so unnecessary to you, which was nothing more to you than a disagreeable test of your egoistic impatience? Yes, you remember. By your behavior at the Cathedral gate alone, you have already trampled on the fundamental requirements and customs of the League. You have slighted religion, you have been contemptuous towards a League brother, you have impatiently rejected an opportunity and invitation to prayer and meditations. (Emphasis here is my own.)

This has been a long post! Thank you for reading. I hope it inspires you to read Hesse’s entire novel.

All quotations are from the 1956 translation into English by Hilda Rosner.
The image of Hesse used above is cropped from the cover of a later printing,
designed by Milton Glaser.

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Waking Up and the Curse of Cassandra

It can be pleasant at times to remain asleep – snuggled under the covers in our comfy bed, strolling through fantastical dreamscapes entirely of our own creation. And even after we rise, we may remain lost in reverie for much of the day – savoring our dreams, and pondering ways to bring their deliciousness into reality. Yes, the real world can be harsh at times, and sometimes we succumb to an overwhelming urge to simply escape into our fantasies for a time. The problem comes when we confuse our fantastical dreams with reality.

Spiritual growth is often likened to waking up. When we wake up in the spiritual sense we begin to see the dreamlike nature of the life that we are living. Those awesome achievements that we once celebrated, that we’ve been so proud of for so long, that we thought defined who we are – we come to see them as meaningless in the ultimate sense. Our pursuit of them and the importance we once gave to them comes to be seen as but a dream.

Cassandra was a prophet whom nobody would believe.

Waking up can be difficult in a world that seems intent on remaining asleep. Our materialistic society, our dog-eat-dog economy, our inane “reality” television-oriented culture, and our environmental carnage do not simply disappear because we’ve awakened to their nature. No, even as we come to lament the vapidity and cruelty of the world of which we are a part we can also come to lament our having awakened to it. Wasn’t it a pleasant dream that we were once living? Wasn’t it nice at times to be swept up in the delusions that we never even questioned back in the days before our awakening?

My heart has been heavy of late. There is so much suffering, so much cruelty, and so much ignorance in the world today. And even when people are trying to do the right thing the result is often ineffectual at best or counterproductive at worst. Back when I was a college student studying to become a high school teacher there was this brand new technology that was going to revolutionize education – the computer. Well, even with our great advances in computer-based education our education system as a whole has never been in more dire straits. Urban schools, especially, are failing to provide children with the education that they need out there in the “real” world; and as we’ve learned from the unrest in Ferguson, for instance, this is a reality that is tearing apart our social order. You can probably imagine, then, how my heart sank when I recently read an article about Ph.D. level educators proposing ways to revolutionize learning via the use of this new technology..., er…, tablets. Sigh.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of our schools are doing a fantastic job. We have school systems where kids are building robots in grade school and sequencing DNA in high school! It would seem that the sky’s the limit! Unfortunately, the other side of the coin is that a huge portion of our workforce is not prepared for jobs more advanced than the lowest level of manual labor. We could really use those factory jobs that have gone away on account of the increased automation that robotics has provided. We could really use those farming jobs that have gone away with the advent of big agribusiness and its embrace of genetically engineered crops. This is the truth that needs to be considered along with the truth of some of our kids doing incredibly advanced school work.

So many of our problems are met with so-called solutions that only end up making things worse due to their being hatched and carried out while we remain in the depths of our collective dream states – our various social, political, and economic worldviews. For instance, we try to incarcerate ourselves into a crime-free world and instead we end up creating an underclass of people unable to find gainful employment by any legal means. We try to bomb the world free of any people who may threaten our way of life and we end up creating huge terrorist networks that attract disaffected individuals from all over the world. We try to remediate the problem of global warming by moving away from “dirty” coal and toward so-called “clean” natural gas – replete with its induced earthquakes and ground-water contaminating fracking compounds. How often do we ever really solve our problems, anyway?

Waking up then, in the spiritual sense, is not some ecstatic experience that takes us to a new level of blissful understanding – at least not for long. Waking up brings with it something akin to the curse of Cassandra, the curse of seeing the way things are and yet seeming to be doomed with respect to ever affecting their change. But this is precisely where real spiritual growth takes place. Can we shoulder the curse of Cassandra and keep from succumbing to the weight of world weariness? Can we see things as they are and still remain engaged with the world that we arise in – working as best we can in order to nudge it toward awakening? This is the very heart of spiritual practice.

See also: posts associated with the keywords 'Global Problematique' and 'Don't Know Mind.'

Cassandra, by Evelyn De Morgan via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Universal Human Experience of Stillness

I'm still in the thick of editing That Which We Already Know. I had stopped posting sequential contributions to that work for the sake of immersing myself in its entirety before wrapping up the final chapter. Well, I've gotten to that point. Consider what follows to stand on its own, or consider it to almost bring Chapter Nine to a close. Either way, I hope you enjoy it!

By the time we reach adulthood it’s all but second nature for us to think of the body and mind as two separate and distinct entities. Even those who are very much in tune with their bodies might nevertheless think of them more as beasts of burden to be trained by the mind, or tools to be skillfully used by it. Leave it to the children and the Zen masters – and a few others, of course – to understand the seamless integration, the inextricable oneness of body and mind.

Why is this such an important point, anyway? Three reasons come to mind. First of all, it helps us understand how we fit into the world. More precisely, it helps us understand that we don’t fit into the world at all. We arise in it. We arise from it. We are a blossoming forth from the ground of being – whether you believe this ground to have been created by God, to indeed be God, or to consist of the “stuff” that comprises the entirety of the universe. Thus, we belong, and we can trust in this belonging as the most fundamental reality of “our” life. We might choose to believe more than this, but to believe other than this is simply not in keeping with the fundamental nature of reality. A second reason that understanding the seamless integration of body and mind is so important is that it helps us to root our spiritual practice in the rich soil of that which is rather than in the barrenness of ideas and conceptualization. In this way, our practice becomes more than just an intellectual endeavor; it becomes an outgrowth of reality itself – arising with the body, which arises from the ground of being. Finally, an accurate understanding of the nature of mind and body allows us to fully realize what it means to “become enlightened with the body.” I’ll expound on each of these points in turn.

We arise in this world. We arise from this world. We are not some self-existent entity deposited here from somewhere else. Sure, it might be tempting to think otherwise given the separateness that we so often feel, or the completeness with which we become conditioned to identify with whatever thoughts happen to be going on inside of our heads. But thoughts are merely one aspect of consciousness, and consciousness is dependent upon the structure of the brain, the body in which the brain resides, and the fact that the body is always in contact with the “outside” world – at least to some extent. This final qualifying statement is specifically intended to set the stage for, ironically enough, a thought experiment that I think will prove to be illustrative of the point that I’m making. [1]

Reflect, if you will, on what it’s like in one of those sensory deprivation tanks sometimes used in the study of brain functioning. You’re floating motionless in a temperature-controlled bath of saltwater. You’re shielded from light and sound. Even your tactile sensations are “muffled” by the special suit and gloves that you’re wearing. Without distractions, or the constraint of the senses, it would seem that the mind would be free to roam wherever it might choose – untethered, as it were, from the world “out there.” Perhaps you can “see” what a five-dimensional universe is like, even though you’ve never known anything other than these four dimensions of space and time. Perhaps you can “experience” what it’s like to travel faster than the speed of light, even though your travels up to this point have occurred at a pace so very much slower than that.

On the contrary, even in a sensory deprivation tank the mind is not free to roam wherever it might wish. While it might not be tethered to what is “out there” by any chains of sensory stimulation, it is nonetheless tethered by its recollections of the world “out there.” It has arisen from the reality that is “out there.” Whatever imaginings, visions, ponderings, and musings the mind might be capable of producing are based on memories of what’s been experienced “out there.” We might say, then, that the activity of the mind is entirely derivative. Regardless of its creative potential, the mind cannot conjure something out of nothing. If you have doubts, give it a try. I think you’ll come to agree that even an imaginary being such as the infamous flying spaghetti monster is still rooted in that which is “real” – the reality of flight, the reality of a certain variety of pasta, and the reality of dangerous animals and people that we then “mash” together and invest with whatever malevolent motives and capabilities we might happen to have experienced. But even the most creative mind cannot know what it’s like in five dimensions. It has no frame of reference other than the scant four from which it has arisen. [2] It might be able to imagine what it would be like by reasoning through the relationship of four dimensions to three, and three to two; but it can’t really know. Likewise, the mind can’t know what it’s like to exceed the speed of light because it arises within a universe where physical law dictates that nothing may travel faster than 300,000 km/s.

Despite the mind’s inability to escape the reality of the brain, the body, and the world in which the body dwells, you might nevertheless find your experience in a sensory deprivation tank to be relaxing. You might even enjoy a boost in creativity as your brain seeks to maintain its usual level of electrochemical activity by reimagining what you’ve experienced, or by drawing connections between things such as you’ve never made before. At some point, however, your stay will have gone on too long. Like an astronaut whose life-support system is becoming depleted, your visit will begin to become unpleasant. You may begin to hallucinate. Your brain might be prompted to create elaborate visions on the basis of a single random biochemical flicker within the optic nerve. But even your hallucinations will be constrained by the fact of their consisting of strange mashups of things that are “out there.” Take care, though, for if you should ever begin to doubt the existence of the world “out there” you’ll certainly be teetering on the brink of madness. Indeed, a mind disconnected from the real world is a mind in the throes of psychosis.

An anechoic chamber - not a sensory deprivation tank

The second point that I made up above is that our understanding of the seamless integration of body and mind helps ground our spiritual practice in everyday experience. Regardless of where we might think we came from, or where we might think we’re going to, we are always here in this present moment – continuously arising from and along with all other phenomena. It seems compelling, then, regardless of our spiritual orientation, that we strive to bring the insights of our practice to bear on the circumstances of this present moment – replete with all that we arise with. [3] In other words, no matter what our metaphysical beliefs might be, no matter what we might believe about the existence or nature of God, no matter what we might believe about souls or the afterlife, the reality of our arising from a shared ground of existence compels us to bring the highest values of our spirituality to bear in our everyday lives for the sake of everyone and everything.

This now brings us back to what it means to become enlightened with the body. Perhaps we should begin this discussion with a few words on what it means to be enlightened. Of course, there are many ideas floating around about the nature of enlightenment, but when I use the term I am simply referring to our waking up and seeing things precisely as they are – without our overlaying what we see with any presumed, desired, or conditioned interpretation. Waking up is a matter of letting go of the various and sundry ideas that we’ve come to hold dear over the course of our fall – ideas that get in the way of our seeing things precisely as they are. But what does the body have to do with the ideas that we hold dear? What does the body have to do with us seeing things as they are? More to the point, how do we become enlightened with the body, anyway?

Becoming enlightened with the body might make more sense if we simply remember that which we already know. For instance, when I was a young child visiting those beloved frog ponds out in the Nursery, I became well aware that my presence changed everything. Upon my arrival, everything that could scurry or fly away from my abrupt intrusion did so, and everything that could duck deeper into the shadowed waters or hide amongst the weed stems did so. Upon my becoming still, however, I was able to see things as they really were. Upon my becoming still, the mosquito larvae would begin to squiggle back up to the sun-warmed surface of the pond, and the water striders would begin to trace their angular patterns across it once again. Upon my becoming still, the frogs would reappear and begin to sing as so few people are ever allowed to witness. Upon my becoming still, the dragonflies and birds and whatever else happened to reside in the vicinity returned from their wary vigils on the outskirts such that their nature became known. I learned then that it wasn’t merely my presence that made the difference; it was the nature of my presence that made the difference. As a noisy intruder, I was banished from the kingdom. As one filled with the will to do and control I was forbidden to witness things as they are. When I was still, however, all things began to manifest their true nature for me to see.

Amongst Zen adepts, the enlightened mind is sometimes compared to a perfect mirror that reflects the entire world without adding to or subtracting from it – without distorting it in any way whatsoever. In order to be so, the mind must be still. But stilling the mind is difficult when one who does not yet understand the inseparable nature of body and mind. It may seem to require the learning of some mental technique in order that we might turn off our mental activity as one turns off a television or something. On the contrary, the most direct route to stilling the mind is via stilling the body. Think of a bowl of water. When the bowl is jostled about, the surface of the water remains disturbed. When the bowl is left to become still, however, the surface of the water becomes like a mirror – reflecting the world around it.

After abiding in stillness for a time our mind naturally begins to grow calm. With our hands either folded in our lap or resting on our thighs relatively little tactile stimulation remains to be processed. Our proprioceptive and kinesthetic senses, likewise, are given a break from the usually complex work of keeping track of the ever-changing position of our body in space and time. Furthermore, if our eyes are closed, or almost closed, then our very robust visual processing capacity is left with very little to do. As such, abiding in stillness is a little like floating in a sensory deprivation tank, although not quite so extreme. Both experiences involve a withdrawal from sensory stimulation, only differing in degree; and both experiences undoubtedly affect the activity of the conscious mind.

But just as being in a sensory deprivation tank can be disorienting to the point of prompting hallucinations, so the stillness of meditation or contemplation can occasionally bring forth false apparitions and sensations. The brain, unused to the scarcity of stimulation, tends to maintain its usual level of activity by “reaching out” and finding new things on which to focus, or by finding things that don’t really exist at all – like when we strain to see something in the fading twilight and end up imagining all sorts of things that aren’t really there. [4] With time, however, the brain grows accustomed to the stillness of meditation or contemplation, and the potential for such imagined experiences subsides. Likewise, the brain’s conditioned need to fill the newfound mental spaciousness with thought after thought after thought begins to subside, and the mind then begins to experience ever deeper levels of stillness. It becomes more mirror-like, neither adding to nor subtracting from the experience of that which is. In a manner of speaking, we can say that the various aspects of our karma – those created patterns that lead us to behave in certain ways and interpret the world “around us” in certain ways – have ceased to hold sway over us. Our reactivity to various stimuli subsides. The usual passions of our conditioned existence become stilled. In this light, recall the excerpt from the Xinxin Ming that I presented earlier:

The nature of reality is unobscured
as long as one refrains from making judgments.
Begin to make distinctions, however,
and heaven becomes cleaved from earth.

Our created patterns of seeing and interpreting are what prompt us to make distinctions. Our conditioned ways of thinking and feeling lead us to judge things as being right or wrong, good or bad, ugly or beautiful. Unfortunately, though, by the time our judgment becomes apparent true seeing has already ceased. For periods of time, though, while we’re in meditation or contemplation, our karma can be held in abeyance. For a time, our mind can become so still that it sees things only as they are. For a time, heaven and earth are seen again as one. For a time, the kingdom of God is at hand. For a time, we experience the suchness that was so much more common in our childhood years. Ah, but time passes and our experience of suchness, grace, and oneness fades. Our karma reawakens and takes hold of us again. We arise from stillness and proceed to live out our ordinary existence once more – replete with our various and sundry judgments and distinctions. Hopefully, though, whatever judgments and distinctions that might be forthcoming will be made from a position of increased wisdom and compassion for our having experienced stillness as we have.

This “Zen way” of thinking about the experience of stillness requires little in the way of conceptualization, metaphysical or other, in order for us to align the practice of meditation with our fallen state. Depending upon interpretation, other traditions conceptualize the experience of stillness in slightly or even very different ways – all the while valuing it nonetheless. For instance, you’ve probably heard the Sanskrit word nirvana tossed around in reference to some heavenly state of blissful transcendence that only the most dedicated of Hindu yogis might enjoy. Indeed, figurative definitions for the word are likely to include such concepts as emancipation from this earthly existence, and liberation from the worldly passions that keep us trapped in a cycle of death and rebirth. Literal definitions, on the other hand, bring to mind images of a fire having been extinguished, or firewood having been used up. It will surely come as no surprise that the fire being extinguished is, in a figurative sense, the very karma that brings our being into existence. I also trust that it comes as no surprise that the way to extinguish this fire is for one to become calm, quiet, and immovable. Thus, a practice that a Zen adept might describe as allowing him or her to wake up and see clearly in the here and now might be described by a Hindu yogi as providing the means to bring an end to his or her cycle of death and rebirth for the sake of eternal union with the divine.[5]

The Christian tradition has a rich history, as well, with regards to the experience of stillness. The Christian contemplative might begin with a scriptural reading and then gradually transition into a period of reflection and discursive prayer before finally settling into silent contemplation. This eventual experience of stillness, or contemplation, is referred to by some as coming to rest in the presence of God. Unfortunately, contemplative prayer would later come to be regarded as a potentially dangerous endeavor by some within the Christian Church. The possibility that the sensory-deprived contemplative might experience one of those aforementioned hallucinatory apparitions came to be viewed by some as opening oneself up to potentially satanic influences. It’s quite interesting, then, that the Japanese term for such meditative experiences, makyo, translates loosely as the “devil’s realm.”

I’ve become convinced over the course of my adult life that where there is meaningful religious practice there is stillness, and where there is stillness there is the potential for transformational human experience. But it is really not all that mysterious. Quite literally it is in our DNA. It’s child’s play! It’s that which we already know.

[1] Albert Einstein performed such gedankenexperiments during the formulation of his theory of relativity.
[2] The interested reader may wish to consider Immanuel Kant’s concept of a priori knowledge.
[3] In Buddhism this idea of all things arising along with all other things is referred to as dependent origination.
[4] The Japanese term makyo encompasses such apparitions, some of which have tempted practitioners to believe that they have acquired some special capability. 
[5] I juxtapose Zen Buddhism and Hinduism for rhetorical effect. Other forms of Buddhism orient the practice of meditation within a metaphysical framework that is not altogether different from that of Hinduism. 

Image References

Stillness…, by Abelcovarrubias via:
Photo of an anechoic chamber taken at the Kyushu Institute of Design's anechoic chamber by Alexis Glass via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank