Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Beyond Faith and Reason

The commencement of any solitary creative endeavor is an act of faith. Depending upon our area of interest, we sit down with our notebooks or in front of our computers, we reflect upon the materials available to us, or we gaze upon our subject while sitting in front of a fresh white canvas. And as we do we have faith that something will materialize: a poem, a manuscript, a sculpture, a painting, etc. I’m steeped in such faith as I write these words, having promised the world in my last post that I’d have something meaningful to say under the title “Beyond Faith and Reason” -- without my having written a single word on the subject up until now!

In addition to faith, the creative process requires at least a modicum of reason and objectivity. The writing process especially requires a great deal of time spent in rational reflection on the work in progress: Have I made any spelling or grammatical mistakes? Is that the most appropriate word to use in this instance? Have I made my point as clearly as I might? Do my sentences have a pleasing rhythm and cadence, and do they flow well one into the next? These are merely rhetorical questions, by the way. You needn’t answer each one in turn!

But perhaps this is not quite the type of faith you had in mind when you began reading this post. Perhaps it was faith of a more religious or spiritual ilk that I led you to believe I’d be exploring. Indeed. And so it is that I’ll begin this post again in a way that allows even deeper examination of what I mean by “beyond faith and reason.”

We enjoyed a span of cool summer weather a week or so ago -- cool enough to make one realize that autumn will be coming soon. I even saw a flock of geese rise up into the sky and gather into formation as if to begin their flight down south. Perhaps they’re on their way even now. Anyway, it occurred to me as I watched them that they require neither faith nor reason in order to commence their usual migration. In oneness with their world they simply take their next breath, whether on the pond or in the grass or on the wing to warmer climes. A tree, likewise, needs neither faith nor reason for its sap to sink into its roots, thereby causing its leaves to be cast to the wind and its limbs to hang as if dead against the gray skies of winter.

But what do the natural ways of geese and trees have to do with the faith and reason of us humans? Geese and trees are simply part of the natural world. They’ve neither faith nor reason to move beyond. They simply are as the natural world dictates them to be. We humans, on the other hand, have little in the way of instinct to guide our modern lifestyles. What we have is self-awareness, free will, agency, and vast cognitive abilities -- all guided in varying degrees by whatever faith and reason we happen to have collected over the course of our lives. Ah, but is that all we have? Does the total of everything that we are add up to nothing more than the mere sum of our faith and reason? In order to answer that question, I must dispense with generalities and speak of my own experience. Anything else would be a form of reasoning by analogy, and reason (as well as faith) is something that I’m trying move beyond with this post. Here goes:

Year after year I’ve felt it. By the time the leaves begin to fall I too have begun to feel my “sap” sinking within me. The frenetic and outwardly-directed energy that fountained forth in abundance and propelled me through my various activities all summer long begins to wane. It pools for a time, manifesting as calm acceptance and patient watchfulness. And as it flows back to its source it ripples with introspection, contemplation and reflection. There is no denying my naturalness. I’ve lived this time and time again. My existence follows the rhythm of the natural world just as any other plant or animal. Neither faith nor reason makes it so.

This process quite naturally results in a reorientation and rededication of my meditation practice. It becomes easier for me to find the time to sit upon my cushion, and it becomes easier to settle into stillness once I do. It is in stillness that I feel closest to whatever it is that has put me here – whatever process has put me here. It is in stillness that I feel the questions of my existence gradually fade into the answer of my having arisen in conscious form. Does this strike you as a statement of my faith? It is not. Neither is it a statement founded in reason. It is merely a description of experience. It is not something that I believe to be so, nor is it something that I believe will be so. It is simply my experience of that which is.

It’s not that I’ve never acted on faith; I have. Before I realized that my spiritual quest had taken me back to that which I already knew[1], it was indeed a quest. It was a journey that I had faith would take me to my destination. But faith in the Zen Buddhist sense is not like the faith of other religions. Dogen Zenji, one of the great Zen teachers, spoke of cultivation and verification. One can have faith in the Buddha. One can have faith in his teachings. One can have faith that awakening exists, and faith that the path that the Buddha prescribed will get us there. But until we cultivate a practice of our own we will never be able to verify truth for ourselves.

A person without sight can be told that the moon exists. They might have faith in what they’re told about its color and its changing phases and what it means to those who gaze upon it. However, if an operation should ever afford them sight, they will then be able to dispense with whatever faith they might have had. They will have seen for themselves all that they had previously taken as true as a matter of faith. Likewise, one can dispense with faith after the verification that Dogen speaks of. Upon verification, one can forego adopting reasons or conjuring up explanations for why one sits in meditation. I meditate not because I have faith that it will do something. I meditate not because of any list of logical reasons that I might articulate, although I could articulate a few. I meditate because it is the most natural expression of who and what I am -- beyond faith and reason. 

[1] That Which We Already Know is the title of the book that I’m in the final stages of editing. You may check it out here on Crossing Nebraska by searching on “That Which...” under the keywords.

And on that note: I’ll be following my energy into greater stillness as these coming weeks progress. I will return after a brief hiatus. Thank you!

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank