Thursday, July 02, 2015

From out of silence


I was dumbfounded: confounded and struck dumb at the same time. It was a congenial place to be, I discovered, being content to stay there a while, sheltered in the dignity and grace of not knowing, that is, shedding false knowledge. But now I find myself wanting to speak, for which I must pay the inevitable price of emerging from silence. For there is a contrary current in me, perhaps a less noble one, which demands expression at any cost, even when I have nothing to say, and no planned utterance ready. This inner movement, like an activist spokesman on behalf of quietism, has an even more exigent demand, that I consider speaking here daily, and make it into a proper diary. That way, it suggests, I could save time: just set aside an hour, and write. Indeed one faithful reader proposed I set myself a deadline to publish at least once a week. That was two weeks ago. We shall see. At any rate we have started. This blog has always seemed like a journey with no destination. A day will come where “the rest is silence” as in Hamlet’s final speech. “Not yet, O Lord!”, pleads St. Augustine. The sun still shines: there is hay to be made. Silence will end us all, for that which is born must die. There are those who would argue otherwise, but there we enter the territory of Ernest Becker, whose Denial of Death got him a Pulitzer Prize and remains in print, while its author remains dead. (For reasons unknown to me, my review of his book published 21st October 2010 remains the most-read post on this blog.)

So I shall just start, my purpose being to address a reader who will understand. With any luck that person will be myself. With even more luck someone else will encounter my words and find meaning or sustenance in them. The addictive ingredient of blogging is to enter into relationship with readers. The visible part of this is to receive responses, whether in public comments or private emails. These responses are invariably encouraging, regardless of content. Conversations spring up, the project is validated and invigorated. My silence has not been inert but strenuous, like wrestling with an angel:
And he rose up that night, and took his two wives and his two womenservants and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.
And he took them and sent them over the brook, and sent over what he had.
And Jacob was left alone, and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
And when the man saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint as he wrestled with him.
And the man said, “Let me go, for the day breaketh.” And he said, “I will not let thee go, unless thou bless me.”
Well, I have been blessed, again and again. If I know anything at all, I know that. Everything else may be false knowledge. The hollow of my thigh has seen better days, but my doctor says it’s “age-related”. That too is in doubt. But the day breaketh and I can let the angel go, and agree with him and myself to break silence and speak.

I can trace my dumbfounded state to a book, Fingers Pointing towards the Moon: Reflections of a Pilgrim on the Way, referred to in a couple of recent posts. In some mystical sense it has been the spiritual companion of my wayfaring for fifty years, though it’s only in recent weeks that I’ve held it in my hands once more. I first came across it in November 1963, by accident, so to speak, as I entered the bookshop on a different quest.

There are turning-points in life. Chance encounters, you become lovers, then nothing remains but fond memory; or you marry, found a dynasty, and live happily ever after. I’d gone into the shop to see Christina. We’d met in July of that year* & subsequently from time to time. She told me she’d got a job in the department which specialized in philosophy & oriental religion.

Anyhow, she said she could not speak to me now, as her supervisor was looking for any excuse to fire her. I should go and browse, and she’d let me know when the coast was clear. So I browsed and saw the book and knew it was for me, a kind of love at first sight, before her very eyes; which brimmed, as I did not realize at the time, with unrequited love for me. I went on to marry someone else, and so in due course did she.

I blocked her from my mind—it was necessary—to the point that I no longer associated the book’s acquisition with that moment in our relationship, but revered it on its own terms, and allowed its contents to sink into my unconscious mind. I see now that I was in no position to understand it. And because I was a wanderer of no fixed abode, it remained among the books I regularly packed in boxes and unpacked at the other end, until one fateful day in May 1972, when my wife and I, infected by one another’s craziness and hype about a certain alleged guru, left the bohemian commune where we’d been wintering and gave away our worldly goods, all except what we could carry in our battered van. They have a name for this kind of thing: folie à deux, though there were four of us, we had two small children to accompany our adventures. That’s what made it such a folie.

The author of Fingers Pointing towards the Moon is not to be blamed. Now that I have it again, and have read it all through, with an increasing grasp of its essence, I try to unearth any careless or inflammatory doctrine that could have inspired the eccentric direction we took. In vain. It’s the same book, in exactly the same first edition, but I hardly recognize it. Only this sentence leapt out as familiar, for some reason:
When a beggar renders you the service of accepting a shilling he thanks you for giving him the opportunity of rendering you that service.
The most striking idea I discover in the book now, reading it afresh, is his repeated assertion that Time is an illusion, generated by the human animal who can think. We are trapped in the Unreal, which he sometimes calls the “plane of seeming”. This is our everyday life, in which we discern chains of cause and effect, which he refutes:
There can be no such thing as a Cause, for the idea of causation presupposes the objective existence of Time. Cause-and-effect therefore are an illusion appertaining to the plane of seeming.
He says that freedom of action is also illusion. If time is illusion, how can the future be uncertain? How can it depend on actions performed in the present? Yet there is freedom of reaction. He quotes Hui Neng:
From the beginning, nothing exists.
The whole created world is illusion, according to this view: all except Consciousness, much of which is also illusion, especially our sense of a separate “I”. So what are we? Cogs in a machine we call Universe? He makes it clear throughout that our joy and freedom comes from ceasing to invest hope and expectation in the “I”. Does this sound like what Aldous Huxley calls “the perennial philosophy”? As viewed by mathematics, science & reason, the machine operates pretty much consistently, leading us to call it Reality. But it’s just a fairground attraction, which may sometimes seem like a nightmare. The author doesn’t mention it, but I’m reminded of the Hindu concept of Lila§, or Divine Game.

It’s in our nature to ask “why?”, to assume there is a cause for every effect. Accordingly, I had assumed my urge to buy the book again was pure nostalgia, a time-travelling device to waft me back to unfinished business of fifty years ago, when I made choices I’ve later regretted as “mistakes”, if not worse. But those posthumous Fingers, pointing towards their postulated Moon, have helped achieve far more than nostalgic indulgence. They have pointed me to a different way of seeing, in which no mistake was made, no regret or sense of guilt due. Scary as it seems at first, I find it a comfort ultimately to view my past life not as a series of misadventures best forgotten, but part of a fixed destiny, in which I was almost as helpless as the little children my first wife and I dragged along to witness the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

Could I have done better, or is there indeed a destiny that shapes our ends, in spite of all the rough-hewing we inflicted on our own selves? I know not, only that I listened at last like Jacob to the wrestling angel and let him go before the break of day, and accepted his blessing. Herewith, I release the memories of those past loves from my grasp. In a timeless universe nothing goes away, but in this “plane of seeming” where you and I connect, they died, while I’m still here, in health and thankfulness.
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* See this post. I’ve written a long memoir about Christina, and her widowed husband wrote another. Neither were intended for publication. She was born in 1944 and died in 1982.
Some of the book is available online, here
Hui Neng was the 6th Zen Patriarch.
§ Lila: see e.g. this article