Ups and downs and spiritual experience

So, in my previous post I explored how pride is an attempt to feel in ourselves the greatness that belongs to existence itself. It’s an attempt to usurp our sense of awe at reality, and feel awe about our own selves instead.

Once you realise this, you’ll experience awe. And you’ll understand for a moment that awe just happens, there’s no need to cling to a sense of self as some kind of false centre of the experience.

But that realisation will be short-lived. Almost immediately you’ll start clinging to the experience of awe as if you can store it up inside you and make it your own.

You want your own sense of self to be the object of your awe.

The moment you bring yourself into it, the awe starts to fade. This happens because your sense of self is not a real thing, it’s just an impression. Treating an impression as if it were real is delusional, and delusion is not something that inspires awe.

Bye bye, awe.

So now you’re back, stuck in your sense of self again, and whatever you do at this point is probably going to exacerbate the delusion.

You’ll most likely feel some kind of bad feeling, because you’re coming down off the awe. You might feel hollow or empty or just miserable.

You might leap head-first into some kind of distraction, hoping to escape the unpleasant feelings that come from being deluded about yourself once more.

It might be a bad distraction that offers short-term relief but makes you feel even worse about yourself later. Or it might be a constructive distraction that leads you into a project with some real benefits for yourself or others.

But whether you find a way to feel good about yourself, or end up feeling bad about yourself, either way you are stuck playing the old game of up and down with your own self-centred emotions.

I used to go through this cycle a lot when I was younger. I would read a book, delve into the wisdom of mystics from various traditions, and for a brief time it would all make sense. I would feel as if the barrier between self and reality had fallen away, and all that remained was an experience of awe.

Then the “I” would creep back in. I’d start to wonder how I could capture, define, control this experience. I’d look for a way to remain in that state of mind permanently.

It didn’t work.

I guess you could say there was no stability to the insights I was having. I only achieved them briefly, thanks to great mental effort. It wasn’t sustainable.

I’ve only just understood what was wrong: even though the experience of awe is wonderful, it is still an experience, still a thought, still an impression. So long as we cling to experiences, thoughts, or impressions we are denying the complete truth.

Saint John of the Cross described the dark night of the soul as precisely an antidote to this kind of spiritual greed. God wants us to love him for himself, not for the good feelings that come from loving God. So at some point the saint passes through a purifying process in which there is no support and no comfort from the usual sources.

Likewise, Buddhist and nondualist sources attest that bliss cannot be the final goal, because the experience of bliss still implies a subject-object division. If you cannot pass beyond bliss, then it’s as if you stand forever at the door, refusing to enter.

So the awe I’ve always pursued is, finally, an obstacle and a hindrance to finding the truth. But I had to pursue it, had to recognise it as the summit of experience, before understanding that an experience is still not enough.

What matters is the source of all “experience”.  The thoughts and impressions that make up our entire reality – where do they come from? So long as we are attached to one experience – however elevated and spiritual it might seem – we cannot go beyond experience. That’s why Christ says we must lose our life in order to save it, why the Buddhist teacher Lin Chi said to kill the Buddha if you meet him, and why the Zhuangzi is just so damn elusive:

It’s easy to walk without leaving footprints; it’s hard to walk without touching the ground. Deceit is easy when you work for men, but hard when you work for Heaven. You’ve heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You’ve heard of understanding by means of knowledge, but you have never heard of the understanding that comes from not knowing. Look into the closed room, the empty chamber where light is born. Fortune and blessings gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still – that is called galloping where you sit.

You think too much

I’ve often been told I think too much, but it has – with no sense of irony – taken years of thinking for me understand what this means.

I would have said that in fact I do not think enough, and I continue thinking precisely because I have not yet arrived at the answers I seek.

Recently I have been thinking about the difference between training and performance, specifically in a martial arts context. My natural tendency upon encountering failure or less-than-ideal circumstances is to think about it. I think because experience has shown that thinking often helps me to understand, and that understanding helps me to do, and to do better than I would if I didn’t understand.

But there are exceptions, and martial arts is one of them. Because, if instead of ‘performing’ the moves I go back to thinking about them and analysing them, the actual quality of the move changes dramatically.  It turns out you cannot both perform a move and analyse a move at the same time. Then the question arises: what are you actually practicing when you practice your martial art? Are you practicing ‘performing’ or doing the moves, or are you practicing thinking about and analysing the moves?

By analogy, it’s as though I’ve found driving a car to be uncomfortable, confusing, and overall dissatisfying, and so I’ve resolved to stay on my learner’s permit for as long as it takes for me to “work it out”.  Sixteen years later, my instructor is thoroughly sick of me, and I’ve finally had to admit that there aren’t really any secrets or revelations to acquire from the learner’s stage, and that I will only ever be good at driving normally if I practice driving normally.

This has particular relevance in martial arts where various luminaries have extolled having a beginner’s mind a la Zen Buddhism, and others have admitted amidst the heights of their skill to be nonetheless always learning.

We obviously aren’t talking about the same thing.

I don’t really know what to make of having spent so long in a flawed approach to practicing a martial art. And paradoxically I still have to credit analysis and “thinking” with having brought me to these realisations. The best I can say is that previously I was thinking about the wrong things. Or I lacked information that I could only come across via the frustration built up through years of dissatisfying practice.

It took years of failure to break through the assumption that kung fu is somehow not dependent first and foremost on a sound physique, or that being bad at sport generally would have nothing to do with being bad at a martial art. Or that the esoteric allure of kung fu might be glossing over a number of more mundane requirements.

Ironically, if I had seriously thought about kung fu in the way that I have learned to think about philosophy, ethics, and other subjects, I would have known to start without assumptions, without desired outcomes. I would have been highly suspicious of the wishful thinking at the heart of my motivation.  At the same time, being more detached from the object of my desire might have left me more open to improvements and inspiration “out of left field”. Instead, my doggedness to pursue this long-standing ideal has been thoroughly detrimental to my development.

All I can say in favour of it is that I have persevered for a long time; but paradoxically, if I had not stuck to this unexamined ideal for so long I might not have needed to be so blindly perseverant.

Craving or desire warps the intellect. We tend to cling to our cravings and desires because they feel so deeply a part of us. But there is always something deeper and more wholesome that is not dependent on external conditions, and if I had been more honest with myself I would have recognised that the very appeal of esoteric martial arts was in fact a symptom of a deeper and more constant awareness that I was not physically strong, balanced, or at ease.

Sertillanges writes in The Intellectual Life:

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

I am familiar with this “zone of silence”, and it is the natural answer to the problem of “thinking too much” and thinking not enough. It is not thinking that matters or that gives answers; we do not arrive at truth by thinking about it, rather thinking is merely a manifestation of the work of attending to the truth in its entirety and without holding anything back.

This is our noble and excellent calling, and it is only in stupidity and vanity that I have failed to turn it to other areas of my life, somehow imagining that truth has no bearing on the mundane or strictly personal, perhaps afraid of what I might find when turning that brightest of lights onto the mess and darkness of my own orbit; or intimidated by the magnitude of the task ahead, bringing my own admittedly pathetic self into the same domain as exalted abstractions, principles and truths.

It’s one thing to know truth, quite another to know that you do not measure up to it, or how far you fall short; better not to ask that question, isn’t it?

Indeed, the prospect of bringing my own deeply held desires and ideals, the very personal themes with which I identify, and submitting them to this “zone of silence” is immediately terrifying. And that, more than anything, indicates that I should do it.