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Living Skillfully

Michael R Finch

'Living Skillfully' is a Buddhist phrase from which I have tried to wring out all the Buddhist flavor. I orginally wrote this essay on Sep 30 2005, just before I went to New York to meet Gene Gendlin of Focusing fame. It was in effect my introduction to him, trying to put on paper where I was at that time, and from where I was coming.

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For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses...
[T.S. Eliot - Four Quartets 3: The Dry Salvages]

 

0) Summary

Any situation I am in seems to divide naturally into what is known and what is unknown. And the two are continually interacting and morphing into each other. It is as if I can scoop my hands into the sea of unformed possibilities that I am calling the unknown, and then hold in my hands something formed, an understanding, something about my situation of which I can say 'I know this' .

From this way of thinking, first and foremost I see how situations are fluid and changing; and I hold my understanding of today lightly, knowing that tomorrow I may need to let it go to pick up a further understanding. This loosens my fixations, which I regard as both a skillful thing to do, and also a practice that demands a skill to do it.

This skill lies in looping between the known and the unknown, between the doing of something and the reason why I am doing it, between being and becoming, between the fixed and the fluid, between the patterned and the chaotic, between the explicit and the implicit. As my skill in this looping process develops, I find I am equally at home in certainty as in uncertainty; and I allow my desire for the timeless and the undifferentiated to be enveloped in the temporary and the differentiated, and the interchange between them is what my life is all about.

Thus this skill in being able to play with this loop leads, in fact, to a skillful life, in which I can see when to grasp and when to let go, and have the ability to do either as appropriate. The outcome is a sense of freedom and expansiveness, and I live in a way that allows my own personal goals - to maximise kindness and minimise pain, both in myself and in others - to flower.

In the rest of the essay I unpack this condensed summary, examine the terms I have used and why I have used them, and develop this viewpoint from several different angles. I find that I am led naturally to identify practices which both derive from it and which lead back to support it.

 

1) Categorization

I begin with the act of categorization, of dividing my situation; but before I examine what I divide it into, I look at the act of categorization itself.

I have spent many years immersed in philosophies and spiritual disciplines where the goal was to get beyond all categories and all dualities. The aim of life was to experience an essential oneness, to see ourselves and our universe as fundamentally an undifferentiated unity, and to live in this world of multiplicity as guests with our roots and vision firmly fixed on our True Home - the One, the Tao, Godhead, Spirit, Center, Ground of Being, ultimate this or infinite that.

I see two ways to approach this Perennial Philosophy (as it is often named):

First, as a belief or article of faith I have much sympathy for it, and have derived much comfort from it. The question, however, is whether a belief in the essential oneness of the universe (literally 'turned into one') is a conclusion or a starting point. It is too early in this essay to reach conclusions, so here I need only consider whether such a belief can be a fruitful starting point. I don't believe it can for a number of reasons.

With any philosophical scheme or worldview, I need to find starting points that are clear, immediately understandable, fruitful and carry as little ideological baggage as possible. There will always be assumptions and ideology underlying any statement, and of course you have to start somewhere. But I want to start with as clean a slate as I can, applying a kind of Occam's razor to my starting points - to winkle out into the daylight as many hidden assumptions as I can, be aware of them, and attempt to keep them to a minimum.

To start with the assumption of an essential oneness seems to me to carry far too much ideological baggage. It also flies in the face of my everyday experience, where I perceive myself and the world I am in as overwhelming in its diversity and fecundity. I therefore reject ultimate unity as a starting point.

The second approach to the all-is-One idea of the Perennial Philosophy is to experience it. I myself have had peak experiences where I felt that all duality was simply an echo of an ultimate reality of unity, and I have met others who also claim to have had such experiences. I have also met some who claim to be always having such an experience.

Peak experiences, however, are just that - 'peaks' or isolated instances that are not our normal level of experience. We call them 'peaks' because we think of them as high points. I have found that I often hanker after some peak experience in the past; and that my memory of it, or my wish to recreate that same experience now, at best distracts me from the present moment and my current situation, and at worst can become a morbid obsession that crucifies me. I find now that it is what one might call the valley experience rather than the peak experience which interests and attracts me.

As I say, I have also met several mystics or gurus who either claim themselves, or of whom others claim, that they are permanently in God-consciousness, are totally enlightened, or are always experiencing the One. My own very subjective opinion is that most of these are charlatans, or at best misguided. But even of the few that I am prepared to admit could be in such a place, I find even them still dealing with the workaday world and its distinctions and categories, often with great skill and passion.

I thus see that whatever the truth of the ultimate oneness of everything, or anyone's experience of it, every person categorizes, and cannot avoid doing so. In fact, every living being categorizes; even the amoeba categorizes what it encounters into food and non-food. It might even be a definition of life: that it categorizes.

Most categories we form are innate, embodied and unconscious. But as humans we have the ability beyond most other living creatures to examine critically some of our categories and change them, and even willfully create new categories and use them to try and impose or discover meaning to the world we inhabit. Thus while we cannot avoid categorizing, we have some power to categorize in such a way that is skillful and useful. And that is what I am attempting to do in this essay.

 

2) The known and the unknown

In any situation that I find myself in, the situation is in itself more intricate, more detailed, more deep, more complex, than I think it is, or than I can think it is. Whatever form or pattern or construct or percept I attempt to map the situation to or with in my mind, I can never capture or enclose it. The map is not the territory. The situation will divide for me at its most basic into what I will say I know of it, and into what I will have to admit is currently unknown.

Much of what is unknown in a situation will surely forever remain unknown to me; but much of what is unknown is also potentially knowable. In the metaphor in my beginning summary, I cannot scoop up all the ocean of possibilities in my hand, but I can scoop up a handful at least, which then becomes known to me; and then perhaps another handful after that.

The ocean of the unknown appears so vast - endless in fact - that it seems presumptuous to try to say anything of it as a whole. But the part of the ocean within reach of my hands, the potentially scoopable, of that I can say something.

The first thing I can say of it is that it is rich. The unknown is always richer than I conceive of it, and than I can conceive of it. It is rich in several senses. First, there is always more to it than I think there is, and however much I look at it or investigate it or experience it or scoop up handfuls, there is always more; it is inexhaustible. I am reminded of a mathematically dense set, such as the real numbers, where between any two numbers, however close, there is always an infinite number of other numbers.

A second sense of richness is intricacy, a word Gendlin often uses. The 'always more' is not just more in quantity, but more in quality, in detail. Another mathematical metaphor I am reminded of is that of a fractal, a mathematical set that has order and structure however much I magnify it. This fractal metaphor also implies that there is undifferentitated detail, which becomes differentiated upon magnification. The more I know, the more I know I don't know.

A third implication of richness is just that - implication - that the unknown enfolds or contains within it the known. The unknown ocean I am standing in is the implicit, but the water in my hands is the explicit, the implicit unfolded, the known.

Once consequence of this characteristic of the unknown I am calling richness, is that any set of characteristics whatever, including this set of course, will never define nor contain what it is describing. A third mathematical metaphor comes to mind: that of Godel's work.

Godel's results are often incorrectly stated in popular literature, usually as there are 'unprovable mathematical propositions' or some such. Stated precisely, he shows that whatever rules of proof we have laid down beforehand, if we accept that these rules are trustworthy (that is, we agree that they are known), then we are provided with a new means of access to certain mathematical truths that those particular rules are not powerful enough to derive. The known, however brilliantly and cleverly we formulate it, can in principle never contain the unknown.

A second characteristic of the unknown is that, for all its richness, to become known it needs interaction with the already known - the explicit, the formed, the limited, the structured. It needs such interaction in a number of ways.

It needs such interaction to be experienced; and it needs experience to be interactional. Much philosophy, even some mainstream religions, postulate an unknown or an unformed in some sense, but have no mechanism for experiencing it in their philosophy. In my metaphor, these philosophies of the unknown are like viewing the sea of the unknown, and talking about it, but having no method of actually scooping it up and knowing it in the direct sense I am meaning.

Gendlin's famous example of this kind of direct interaction is that of the poet searching for the next line in his/her poem. The next line, which at this moment is unknown, comes not just from the poem as it is so far (the known), but from the interaction of this with the felt sense of the unknown next line. And that felt sense of the unknown next line in that situation can only be experienced in that situation.

In other words, the map (the known) is born of, and depends upon, the territory it maps (the unknown). If I need to fill in a missing detail in the map, I must obtain it from the territory in some way. But it must be true to the territory, as far as it can, so that in examining the map at a later time and in another situation, I can retrieve some understanding of that part of the territory.

In the same way, whatever I think about my situation must come from both the known and the unknown inherent in the situation itself, and each must be true to the other. The interaction must be two-way, what Gendlin calls 'zig-zag'.

We can go further: the two-way interaction is not just a zig-zag in the sense of experience bouncing or looping from one to the other, but is also a reflexivity in the sense of the explicit known being re-folded back into the implicit unknown.

Gendlin calls this 'restored implicit governing' - I restore the explicit known back to the implicit unknown, rather like I check an item back into a bank or storehouse, where it then becomes hidden from me in the implicit unknown. But I can usually re-check it out again into the explicit, albeit probably changed and enriched from its sojourn in the bank/store of the implicit. I let go of my handful of understanding, the water re-merging with the ocean, only to pick up another handful of understanding, which may well consist of some of the same water molecules as were in my first handful, but my second handful is nevertheless a different and further understanding.

So although I begin by categorizing, by creating a division between this and that, my categories are fragile and temporary, and the dividing line between them is seldom absolute and unchanging. To think that my categories are forever fixed, and to try and live my life by the dictates of my fixed categories, is I believe a mistake. In a slightly different context, Richard Dawkins calls this the 'tyranny of the discontinuous mind', where we think discontinuously, trying to force the seamless intricate web of nature into our discontinuous categories. Expanding my ocean analogy a little, it is as if we want our sea to become frozen into solidity, or try and act as if it is so frozen. Even if we succeed to imagine it so, under the ice the body of the ocean is still liquid and moving water; we then have to cut holes into the ice to reach it.

A final characteristic I identify here is this: from any interaction between the known and the unknown in a particular situation, many things can happen, but what does actually happen is precise and exact.

In the well-used example of the poet trying to find the mot juste, the pause between lines to find the right words to continue is not a structureless space from which anything can come, but a pregnant pause which will only allow as a birth just the right words.

In this example, we take to that space of the unknown many possible words or ways to continue the poem, but if we remain attentive in the pregnant pause or space, they are rejected as not being exactly what is required, unless and until just the right word or next line is suggested to the space, and it gives its assent. The pregnant pause has given a natural birth - no caesarian or still-birth or abortion.

Gendlin calls such a 'natural birth' a carrying forward. This shows that the structureless space of the unknown is not merely structureless, but is also implicitly structured. It is not preverbal, since it understands words, and rejects those words that are not precise nor exact enough.

 

3) Practicality

In the hustle and bustle of my everyday life, I often ignore such spaces, or force on them a word or an action to which they do not give their assent. I find that when I do this, I am usually the poorer for it. And when I recognise such a space, and stop to consult it on what is right to say or do, and wait until the known and my current sense of the unknown are in agreement as to how to continue, then I am the richer for it, and my living proceeds more smoothly, and with an inherent sense of rightness about it.

But it takes a committment and a determination to live like that in an ongoing way.

This essay is not intended as a dry or mental exercise simply for the sake of it. On the contrary, its subject is something that I am passionate about, it is about the practice of living. If it is philosophy, it is philosophy in the original and literal meaning of the word, as love of wisdom, rather than the modern western meaning as intellectual concept-juggling.

The characteristics of the unknown I articulated in the previous section are not abstract postulates, nor wishful thinking. They are all easily experientially verifiable. Just as I sit typing the above, I have been able to pause and experientially verify everything I have written.

Nor are they artificial starting points concocted so as to point to a pre-established conclusion. The few characteristics of the unknown I have identified are already rich enough in themselves to have a life of their own, and will not tamely lead to any hoped-for predetermined results, but to other results that may be quite unexpected, or even startling and surprising.

 

4) The goal and the strategy

To further my claim that what I have written is practical, meaning it can help me do things and accomplish things, I first have to identify what it is that I am trying to do or accomplish.

I live in a world where it makes sense to make sense. And to make sense means I must have purpose. Purpose is an essential part of being a creature with language and imagination, and I can no more step outside of these than I can step out of my body. For much of my life I have agonized over what name to give my purpose, my life goal. The best answer I can think of is 'to live well'. In fact, my original title for this essay was 'Living Well', but I thought it suggested the materialistic and the selfish.

In the past I would have described my life goal variously as to be happy, to be peaceful, to love all, to find the truth or some such. But following on from the first section of this essay, I now find all such formulations have too much ideological baggage and too many unexamined assumptions hidden in them. I would probably have capitalised my words ('to Love All' and 'to know the Truth'), and once you start using upper-case letters you know you have left solid ground and are sinking in ideology and unexamined assumptions.

'Living well' is the most neutral phrase I can think of that feels right to me. Its very neutrality, its vagueness even, means I have to fill it out with experienced meaning, rather than rely on predigested definitions. My purpose is to be lived in, rather than conceptualized and then aimed at.

And at first I may well choose to interpret 'living well' materialistically and selfishly. But as I live skillfully, looping between the known and the unknown, I find that in fact, as a matter of experience, I do not live at all well if my grasping is only for material things, and only for my own selfish gratification. I find that in order to live well myself, I need to take care that others live well; and that while material well-being is an important part of that, it is nevertheless only a part.

If living well is the goal, then living skillfully is the strategy. Looping between the known and unknown in a sensitive manner then constitutes the tactics, to stretch the military analogy further.

What is the nature of this living skillfully? How do I live practically in this workaday world? How do I live so as to discover my purpose, on a day to day basis, rather like a track-laying locomotive which lays down in front of its path its own tracks that it then rides on? A purpose that both evolves as I live, and that also guides my living? And not just any old purpose that I choose at a whim, but a purpose that is truly synonymous with living well? How do I live in a present which is born out of an unchangeable past and which faces an ambiguous and indeterminate future?

My answer is a set of practices that both rest on the distinction between the known and the unknown, and also ride this distinction skillfully, like surfing a wave.

 

5) The Practices

My practices start with the known, in its everyday common-sense meaning. I evolved to know middle-sized objects moving at medium speeds over medium distances in Africa, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins. Lakoff and Johnson call my sense of these medium things 'literal' concepts, which they compare with 'metaphorical' concepts that they characterize as thinking about these everyday literal concepts. Thus I take the 'known' to be the literal, the apodictic, the medium-sized things in front of me and my experience of them.

The unknown is within me and all around me, but I can ride the divide between the known and unknown most effectively as I sense them in my body. When Carl Sagan was asked 'What is your gut feeling?' about a particular question, he answered 'I try not to think with my gut'. I agree that thinking, in the sense of mentally manipulating concepts, is a function of the brain and not the gut. However, my gut (more generally, my viscera) is where I am most sensitive to that edge where the known meets the unknown. I find that living skillfully consists in surfing this edge wherever I find it, whether in mental understanding or in visceral feeling, or both.

In other words, my next step must always be taken from where I actually am, as opposed to where I think I should be or where I would like to be. I itemize six practices which for me both develop from this view, and which shape it.

What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
[From The Waking by Theodore Roethke]

 

5.1) Ethics

As I stated above, it may be natural at first to take 'living well' to mean acquiring material benefits for oneself and one's immediate family, rather as in Martha Stewart's show of the same name. However, I find as a matter of practical experience that this focus on only the selfish and the material is not a skillful way to be, and that I can only live well if I care that others also live well. This is ethics, which boils down simply to maximising kindness and minimising pain, for oneself as well as others.

I make a distinction between ethics and morality. The a priori certainty and rule-set of the 'moral person' is usually an inflexible boundary between the known (their moral certainty) and the unknown (ignored, if not actually invisible to them), and is thus almost the opposite of what I am meaning by living ethically. Ethics involves both the intelligence to understand the present situation as the result of former choices, and the courage to engage with it to create as kind and as pain-free a future as is possible.

Since my situation is unique, consisting of unprecedented and unrepeatable intricacy, how can I impose the rigid cookie-cutter of my moral rule-book on that situation, and expect it to be carried forward in Gendlin's sense? But I can feel into my situation, and empathize, and act from that - which I am calling ethical behavior. This behavior is 'right' because it leads to living well; it is not 'right' because it is in some book or precept (any half-decent moral precept is in a holy book because it is right, it is not right because it is in the holy book).

If I were to ever follow a religion (which I am not about to), I would follow Jainism. Its two main principles are no God, just the world as it is to our senses; and the ethics of ahimsa. Ahimsa is often translated as non-violence, but the Jains stretch this meaning in two ways: one is to include a sense of non-interference, letting be, implying that interference is often violence of a sort; and secondly, ahimsa is applied to all sentient beings, including most importantly oneself.

Richard Ryder coined the term 'painient' to apply to any being who feels pain, and our responsibility to keep that pain to a minimum. He wrote: "Our concern for the pain and distress of others should be extended to any 'painient' being regardless of his or her sex, class, race, religion, nationality or species. Indeed, if aliens from outer space turn out to be painient, or if we ever manufacture machines who are painient, then we must widen the moral circle to include them."

Although it strikes me as noble and right to think like this, its real strength and power is as a practice. And the practice is not to try and force myself to behave in such a way that I think is right, but to accept where I am now in my current situation, and to creatively act from my presence in that situation so as maximise kindness and minimise pain in that situation and what follows from it.

 

5.2) Beliefs

Many a doctrine is like a window pane. We see truth through it, but it divides us from truth.
[Kahlil Gibran, Sand And Foam]

A belief is a provisional knowing, a knowing on probation, being test-driven to see if it fits. The problem I see with beliefs, both in myself and in others, is that we have a tendency to harden and fixate our beliefs even more than our knowing. It is as if we can afford to be relaxed with what we know, because we know it; but because our beliefs are candidate knowings, and not yet made the grade, we feel we have to be more protective of them.

Riding the edge between the known and the unknown is challenge enough; throwing beliefs into the mix heightens that challenge. I am helped to meet this challenge by two observations on beliefs:

1) that much of our thinking is metaphorical, in a fundamental embodied sense, and that we can only think fruitfully about most of our literal concepts using conceptual metaphors. Whether I think of this in terms of Lakoff and Johnson's literal/metaphorical or of Gendlin's use-family crossings, the fact that I can intellectually see my beliefs as metaphors for reality or the literal is very liberating. I can even hold a Christian belief-system for example, play with it and learn from it, for a few hours or a day, and then let it go because it is a metaphor. In fact, I find this idea that I think largely metaphorically is particularly apt for religious beliefs. I am much happier having God being my today's metaphor for the universe as I see it; at least I won't feel the need to kill anyone who has a different metaphor.

2) by the Buddha's observation that the value of any philosophical view is better judged by its effect on the holder of the view, rather than the supposed truth-value of the view's content. We are so used to judging a belief by asking 'Is it correct?' or 'What is the evidence for this belief?' that at first it seems absurd to ask of a belief 'How will my thinking or behavior change as a result of holding this belief?' Yet, if my fixations on any belief are loosened by my point (1) immediately above, then it seems to me very reasonable, skillful even, to ask this of a belief. I am not suggesting evidence for a belief be replaced by its utility; but I am suggesting that both have their place.

I find a synthesis of these two ideas gives me a huge freedom. My fixations on my personal view of the truth of any situation is held lightly, and I can use beliefs as servants rather than have them as my masters. That does not mean that all beliefs are throw-away and of no significance, but I can judge better when to hold to a belief and when to let it go, and have the skill to act appropriately in either case. This is more than a belief about beliefs - it is an actual practice.

 

5.3) Bodily presence

We enter the silence of our own presence...and the dance comes alive in us.
[Gurdjieff]

My body is the instrument that is most effective in interfacing with the unknown: I feel it to contain as a unity or totality many a situation with all of its inherent contradictions and conflicts. In fact, what I call looping between the known and the unknown often becomes in practice looping between my mind and my body.

The interplay between an individual bodily sensation and the meaning or pattern my mind gives it, is certainly a practice. But I am more led to the overall sum of my bodily sensations, which I call my presence. I discovered this myself several years ago, and used the word 'presence' to myself. I have since found that others have spoken and written of this, and called it 'presence' - Gurdjieff and Ann Cornell being two that come to mind.

Sometimes I think of my presence to be the totality of my bodily sensations, but often I think of it as my 'base' sensation. By 'base' I mean the most fundamental sensation I am aware of currently. If I stop still at any time, I can just listen/sense/feel/see all my stuff, and detect something in there which I consider basic - that is my presence, at least at that time, for my presence is dynamic, and I need to track it - that is the practice.

An analogy is listening to talk at a party. When you first go into a room where there are many people talking, such as at a party, all you hear is a cacophony of sound. But after a little while, just by listening, the sound separates out into distinct and meaningful conversations, and you are quite able to focus on the most interesting one - even if it is not the nearest or loudest.

You can also be absorbed in the conversation of interest, and at the same time be aware of the fact that you are so absorbed. In the same way, the practice in relation to my bodily presence is just that - to be absorbed in it and to be in relation to it simultaneously. This self-reflection is looping between the known and the unknown at its rawest and most intimate.

One of the strange facts about this kind of looping, is that the more I am absorbed in my own presence, the more I can observe it. Absorption is usually taken to be exclusive, in the sense that more you are absorbed in something, the less aware you are of anything else. But when I am truly absorbed and intimate with my own presence, I am both in it and can observe it, and that is an interaction from which much can come. It is like a good musician, who can be playing her piece with rapture and immersion, and yet is still aware of her performance, noticing tweaks and adjustments she can make next time.

My bodily presence is where the known and unknown meet at one point, and if I can be truly present at that point, that is when I live well.

 

5.4) Nature's presence

The eye--it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where'er they be,
Against or with our will.

Think you, 'mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?

[William Wordsworth, from 'Expostulation and Reply']

I find that not only do I have a presence, but that everything has a presence. At least, I assume it does, but I have only been able to feel it so far in natural surroundings - sea, streams, sky, trees, grass, wind. Tree branches are nature's hands waving at me, the wind on my face her breath, the streams her veins and arteries. Poetic license perhaps, but it is a powerful and wonderful way of seeing the unknown manifest as the known, that everything visible and sensible is fundamentally contingent and conditioned, and emergent from prior conditions and causes which are unknown to me - a true mystery.

As I look closely, I see that I live in a continuum, from which all my distinctions and categories emerge, and on which they are imposed. In my example, I am standing in a sea, and scooping up handfuls of sea-water as my understanding; I am not standing by a heap of bricks or marbles or any other discrete objects and picking them up. It is surely a wonder of nature that we have evolved a body and a mind that categorises the continuum of nature and perceives this world in such a way as to be useful, to enable us to survive and flourish in our surroundings.

The challenge, as I see it, is to not let go of this wisdom so laboriously evolved over millions of years; but to supplement this unfolding from the past and cross-fertilize it with the wisdom of the conscious present. I can do this watching a sunset or sunrise, or facing a tree in a quiet forest with the wind on my face, or looking at a murmuring stream in a flower-filled meadow. But I have a much harder time doing it facing a concrete office building in downtown Boston with the roar and fumes of traffic all around me. I accept that this may just be my lack of practice.

But some half a million generations of my ancestors have been looking and wondering at sunsets, sunrises, trees, wind and flowers. Only about two or three generations of these ancestors have been looking at concrete office buildings. I will go with the majority.

We have evolved to the point where we can understand our own evolution, can make a conscious choice of how we want to live from here, and have the ability to do it. But I think our success depends upon our accepting our evolutionary past (do we have any option?!), recognising where we are and how we got here, and moving forward consciously from where evolution has brought us.

That is why I both practice being in nature, and regard it as a practice.

...all there is lives always upon all there is.
[Kahlil Gibran, The Garden of the Prophet]

 

5.5) Love

Love means to reach for the sky and with every breath to tear a hundred veils
[Rumi, 'Selection of Divan']

Love - agape, charitas, maitri, metta - is hard to write about without spinning off into religious sentimentality.

Love is connected to ethics, and certainly if I love then I will to a large extent automatically behave ethically. But it is different. While ethics might be the art of maximising kindness and minimising pain towards both myself and others, I would define what I am meaning by love as the art of passionate transformation.

I have to admit that the word 'love', in its most inclusive agape-like sense, strikes a resonance with me. Sometimes it annoys me as well, when it is used in a cloying artificial way, like a palliative - the uncritical answer to everything. But used in the appropriate way, I love it (excuse the pun). I find it hard to say what this appropriate way is. But for me, love in this sense must embrace the universal, and go beyond any particular; it must be expansive and inclusive; it must be warm and passionate; it must be freely given, without any desire for reciprocal benefits; and freely accepted, without any guilt or embarrassment.

The Greeks, in their use of agape, thought that you needed to start by applying it to yourself (at least Aristotle did). The New Testament suggests this too ('love your neighbor as yourself'), although St Augustine disagreed (he thought it was egotistic). I do want to transform the world, at least that part of it that we have degraded; but I certainly have to include myself in that, and accept also that of all the transformable bits of the world needing my attention, my own self is the most accessible and the most available to be transformed.

Whatever love is, it is not a philosophy, or a set of beliefs, that I somehow have to psych myself up into accepting; nor is it a way of acting towards others that I can pretend, or force myself to do. I cannot 'do' love; I can only love. I need to be committed to accepting all my energies, emotions, feelings, thoughts - all my stuff, good and bad - and transforming them with passion; that is love, and if I practice on myself, I might get better at loving others as well.

Love is the only freedom in the world, because it so elevates the spirit that the laws of humanity and the phenomena of nature do not alter its course.
[Kahlil Gibran, Broken Wings]

 

5.6) Meditation

All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone
[Blaise Pascal]

Finally, I take all the practices I describe above, and concentrate them into a daily practice where I sit still for an extended period (approximately an hour) which I call meditation. It is a style of meditation that I have found develops naturally, based on what I have written in this essay. It has a Buddhist flavor, but it goes where it will. It is both very concentrated and very open; I am certainly carried forward by it in Gendlin's sense.

I have been meditating committedly since 1969, and 'meditation' has meant many things to me over the course of that time. I have recently felt a strong need to understand just what I am doing in this regard, and why I am doing it - to put it into the context of my life, as opposed to it being an isolated practice which I do out of habit.

Is this essay just an attempt to justify and underpin my meditation? In part, yes, but not I think wholly. It is certainly an exercise in what I am calling 'looping', but which is the known and which is the unknown?

In the silence of my presence, what I feel is unquestionably the known; and how I might clothe that known in words and concepts is the unknown. But when I philosophize, it is in the words and concepts that I seek my comfort, they are the welcoming known; it is then the undifferentiated continuum of experience that is the paradoxical and the mysterious.

But whichever way round it is, the divide and the interface is still there. I now think of meditation as the hour I put aside to focus on riding this known/unknown divide, to the exclusion of everything else.

This hour of meditation is my hothouse where I grow my understandings from seed in a sheltered environment, before taking them out into the rough and tumble of daily living. It is a flight simulator, where I can practice the complexities of being human in safety before getting up off the cushion and having to pilot myself in the workaday world.

Meditation is a rehearsal for living.

Why are you so afraid of silence, silence is the root of everything.
If you spiral into its void, a hundred voices will thunder messages you long to hear.

[Rumi 'Hidden Music']


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