Monday, May 07, 2012

My Metaphysical Self

"There is a mystery at the heart of reality and I want to snuggle up to it."

I wrote those gnomic words eight years ago in a stab at an autobiography. Now I am interrogating my old writings to rediscover my metaphysical self, the me whom I called for many years "a seeker."

It wasn't so much a belief as a hope, a plea for something beyond the life I was living. Not that I was unhappy or unfulfilled. I had been married, successful at work, the father of great kids. But something was missing. My prayer echoed Oliver Twist: "Please, sir, I want some more." The destination of the Merry Prankster's acid-fueled bus was "Further"; mine was "More!"

And now? Maybe "Enough!" should be my mantra. What you see is what you get. There is nothing more.

Lest this sound depressing, I hasten to add that now I see acceptance is a badge of virtue, one that I resisted for years while I chased after mystical insights and transcendence. Today I want to know more about the Seeker. Who was that acolyte that saw sainthood as a practical goal?

 My concern is to bridge the faith/reason divide that separates those who dwell in a supernatural world from the materialists and militant atheists who refuse to accept unseen truths. The former are more non-rational than irrational and accept testimony over evidence. The stories they tell each other to make sense of existence often transgress scientific facts. The latter disbelievers, however, frequently diminish our shared experiences by forcing them into the straight jacket of observables and provables. I have been among that number.

 My task is more urgent now because I live among those who see dead people walking, and who engage in countless transactions with the unseen to ward off misfortune and evil spirits and to promote protection and good luck. Thai Buddhism, hopelessly mixed up with animism and Brahmanism, is not so much a belief system as an all-encompassing story that explains everything, from the Dhamma of the Buddha to the correct signs and symbols for sacred tattoos and the yantras you see in taxis and on the walls of businesses.

It would be so easy to call these homegrown Buddhists ignorant and superstitious, as do many expats in Thailand who love the beaches and the accessible women but who express disdain in online forums for the cultural that sustains the generosity and the smiles. For my wife and her family, the universe is an awesome place where knowing the right rules and correct ceremonies can ensure success and make failure almost bearable. I've tried to put myself in their sandals, but what's a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic and cynic to do?

The word "belief" seems so thin, like the shingle of a lawyer blowing in the wind on a ghost town street.  And the word "know" cuts like a knife, leaving no prisoners.  Neither does justice to the faith/reason divide.  I've been on both sides, and that may only be because I come from a country where disenchantment rules and magic is only possible in a sideshow.  We Westerners pick our beliefs from the life style delicatessen.  The people among whom I now live do not choose, nor do they need to claim knowledge like a philosopher judging cosmologies.  They have been taught how the world works and all their experience confirms the truth of their teaching.

I learned about Christianity from vacation Bible school when I was seven or eight, and from listening to episodes of "The Greatest Story Ever Told" on the radio a little later.  In high school I went to a church camp in the San Bernardino Mountains and accepted Jesus as my savior to impress a cute girl.  I had nothing against God back then but he and his son did not seem relevant to ordinary life.  Recovering from an auto accident, I turned to books and read about world religions and flying saucers.  The latter introduced me to the occult and New Age and the former gave me a whiff of something completely different, faith in non-Christian countries.  I explored Theosophy, the Self-Realization Fellowship and a church for all faiths in the hills above La Crescenta called Andanda Ashrama.   And I occasionally attended the Church of the Lighted Window in the Los Angeles suburb where I maneuvered through puberty, usually in the company of my latest girlfriend.  Religion for me was social and had little to do with belief.

At Berkeley at the end of the 1950s I listed to talks by Alan Watts on KPFA, the British Anglican priest turned Zen prophet, and I began to conjure up the mystery that I wanted to seek and solve.  As Shakespeare's Hamlet tells Horatio declares, "There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."  A few years later I would listen to Watts' deep and wise voice in a Santa Monica church but I was too far back in the crowd to get a glimpse of him.  His many books were very popular in the 1960s, but he died an alcoholic in 1973.  While he turned a generation on to the insights of Buddhism, he was never able to follow his own advice.  All my reading of spiritual alternatives undermined any confidence I had in the truth and value of establishment Christianity. And it strengthened my desire to figure out the secret of life, for I had no doubt that it was a mystery hidden from the eyes of the many.

I learned how to draw an astrological chart and I threw the I Ching to foretell the future.  Living in London, I read Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and was inducted into Subud, a religious practice originating in Indonesia, by a guitar player from California.  Prayer in Subud was called the latihan and to me it combined yoga with a speaking in tongues. Numerous entertainers had joined, including Jim McGuinn, leader of the Byrds, who had changed his name from Roger at the direction of Subud's leader, Bapak.  John G. Bennett, an early host of the London Subud center, turned it over to sufis a few years later.  Back in California I was initiated into Transcendental Meditation (TM) by my secretary and given a secret mantra.  Later I learned there were only a few mantras and many people probably shared mine.  Meditation, however, didn't mix very well with the drugs and alcohol I consumed during my career as a music press agent.

After a stint worshipping quantum physics (such as I could understand it), I moved east to work in New York City and raise a family.  Life was perfect and yet I felt empty.  Something (that pesky mystery) was missing.  At lunchtime, I visited churches, daring God to convert me, and in bookstores I discovered the religious speculations of Nicolas Berdyaev, C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and, ultimately Thomas Merton.  It was the monk from Kentucky who made it possible for me to become a Roman Catholic in the absence of any religious experience or belief.  He wrote in defense of civil rights and against the Vietnam war, but it was his books on Christian mysticism and the value of non-Christian religions that won me over.  Merton, on his first visit outside the monastery in many years, died in Bangkok when he was electrocuted by an ungrounded fan.  I have visited the site where he died.

Not once in all my searching did God speak to me in any direct way (although it's easy to give spiritual meaning to ordinary events metaphorically).  And yet I persevered, assuming on some authority that even doubts can be signs of the Spirit working within.  It was the apophatic path. I met Br. David Steindl-Rast, who some see as Merton's successor, at the Benedictine Grange in central Connecticut, where mass was celebrated in a barn, and he sent me to St. Joseph's Abbey, a gothic monastery in Massachusetts where I attended a retreat led by the marvelous ascetic Fr. Theophane Boyd.  His advice to us was: "Write your own Bible."  At the New York Zen Center I studied meditation   And back in California I read enthusiastically about liberation theology in Latin America where priests were leading revolutions against tyrants.  I wrote for "The Roll," a newsletter for a network of contemplatives in the world, and planned a retreat for west coast members at the Camaldolese Hermitage in Big Sur where I would spend considerable time over the coming years.  On campus, under the direction of the inimitable Noel King,  I organized a religious study group for students after the religion major had been disestablished. I joined Everyday Dharma Sangha, sitting with them weekly, and went on meditation retreats at Spirit Rock.  In 2004 I made the first of four trips to Shantivanam Ashram in Tamil Nadu, India, a Christian monastery that had become a place of pilgrimage because of its leader (deceased by the time I got there),  Fr. Bede Griffiths.

Following religious paths has been my life, although I've never gotten anywhere (and this, I interpret now, is a good thing).  I'm not sure if I've been motivated by a lack of something or an ineffable goal.  When I was a child I suffered from severe asthma.  As a teenager, perhaps I read too much science fiction.  My brother says I was an obnoxious rebel at an early age.  I've never been, in any serious sense, a believer.  My way was always pretending that it was so, and this enabled me to be deeply moved by the Catholic mass, whether in California, Mexico, Argentina, India or Thailand.  It was never easy to silence my mind in meditation (or what the Christians call contemplation) and I finally gave up the practice after 20 years, partly because my knees no longer would bend in the proper direction.

My self is the final frontier, the mystery that I've sought but could not find.  Even the philosophers and scientists of consciousness are stumped.  The brain, yes; the self, no.  Buddhist teaching says the self is an illusion, but a working one.  It enables us to inhabit bodies and stay out of the way of buses (if you don't believe in the self, try standing in front of a speeding bus).  The self is metaphysical because it does not reduce to the physics of brain matter.  It's something else, perhaps an epiphenomena of life, a by-product of standing upright, living in groups, and using language.  But it's closer to me, as the Sufis might say, than my jugular vein.  I cling to the belief that my intentions matter, and not karmically in some future lifetime.  Nan says I think "too much," and that might be a clue to how Thais are able to inhabit a universe full of unseen spirits, malevolent as well as friendly; they think less about it.  I'm not sure that secularism and disenchantment has done much for the world.  It's the rich and educated classes who are most destructive.  With any luck and a little less thinking, I might be able to see the ghosts, and might even be able to experience union with the divine.


Paul Garrigan said...

Wonderful post – your spiritual adventures are a joy to read. My own life has always been one of seeking. I've taken many wrong turns along the way, but more recently it feels like I'm getting somewhere - or maybe I'm just deluding myself.

One of the things that drew me to Thailand was Buddhism. At one stage I believed that becoming a monk would solve all my problems. I now suspect that would have been a huge mistake – it would also have meant that I wouldn’t have my wonderful wife and son. I continue to feel close to Buddhism, but I’m too much of a rebel (I don’t mean in a glamorous tough guy sort of way) to just accept other people’s claims. I can't help myself. I am unable accept things on faith, and I need to find out things for myself. During the last few months I updated my Facebook profile for religion four time; agnostic with Buddhist leanings, Possibilian, ignostic, and ignostic with Buddhist leanings – I can’t even remember what I have there now.

I agree with you that consciousness is the real mystery. I don't believe that neuroscientists are any closer to explaining it. They can't even agree what it is. The ‘hard problem’ ( as David Chalmers named it) remains and my own personal view is that the answer cannot be found out there.

rich.1 said...

Agreed. Wonderful post. What a spiritual journey you've been on in a courageous attempt to discover the secret behind what fellow searcher W.H. Auden called the 'hidden law'.

My own personal journey (having become disillusioned with my early readings of Buddhist ideas and the philosophy of Nietzchke and Sartre and others) began with a short period of church attendance. This was followed by readings of the Christian C.S. Lewis, Anglican S.T Coleridge, mystic Catholic Thomas Merton, the 'zen Jewish' Leonard Cohen, 'zen Catholic' Thomas Moore, Rabbi Harold Kushner and theosopher Madame Blavatsky (and many others). Reading about Madame Blavatsky's
esotericism and in her connection with 'Masters' in particular led to a resurgence in my interest in Buddhism.

More recently I have read several books by Karen Armstrong, John Shelby Spong, Bart Ehrman and Marcus Borg: progressive Christian variations on a theme.

I'm impressed that you have spent time at the Catholic hermitage in California attended by my favourite (non-Christian) travel writer Pico Iyer by the way.

Having spent a considerable amount of time in Thailand, I also fully understand your 'fascination' with
Thai 'Buddhism'and its contradictions. I have found that some Thai 'Buddhists' for instance
do not really fully understand the concept of the 'Middle Way' or 'Middle Path' which we in the West assume is central to Buddhism.

It may be (as you correctly point out) that our almost obsessive searching has its roots in forms of early rebellion and 'over-intellectualising'. As existentialist philosopher Albert Camus wrote: (The rebel's true intention is that) "he is seeking.... morality or the sacred.
Rebellion though it is blind, is a form of asceticism. Therefore if the rebel blasphemes it is in the hope of finding a new God."

Maybe we need to be more at home with the divine mystery and more connected to hope and trust. It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that the God who becomes known to genuine searchers can also become known to the power-crazy, the dogma-driven, the tyrannical and the purely evil too. And you and I are both aware from the American political and fundamentalist Christian example where this can lead. There are a hundred and one intelligent reasons why a supremely intelligent God would want to remain hidden!

My belief (for what it's worth) is that the very act of searching is a genuine, authentic (and largely peaceful)attempt to get closer to the 'divine' mystery and as such is close to 'holy'and as such it is 'enlightening'. Warmest regards
and thanks from a fellow traveller!