A Few Apophatic Reflections

I love the incoming links feature of wordpress. You never know what you’ll find!

Where Brad says “for a disturbing look at apophatic theology played out to an extreme, click here”, that’s me. I’m the disturbing look. Looking at a few of his other posts (ie. a Macbeth-esque contemplation of whether or not it’s OK to get a t-shirt that says “theology kicks ass”, concluding that it is fine to buy one because, after all, theology is “really, really cool” – but not OK to wear it because someone might get offended) I actually felt a rush of pride for being disturbing to a person like this. Not because I like to disturb people, but because being disturbed is often the first indicator of an unexamined, oppressive belief system that is begging to be re-evaluated – that’s crack cocaine to an apophatic. I felt like I’d done him a favour, although from our brief discussion it seems he does not feel the same.

Since I have begun to upset the Christians, I thought it might be a good time to elaborate on the perspective for which my blog is named. What I practice is not apophatic “theology”. In other words, it has nothing to do with imposing additional narratives (ie. gods and religions) on my experience of awareness, and everything to do with maintaining freedom from such impositions in order to enhance my awareness.

I have found life is enjoyable to the same degree it is experienced with open eyes, an open mind and an open heart, and upsetting to the same degree that I filter my experience through an inflexible narrative.

The foundation for this perspective was meditation. I didn’t know at the time that I was “meditating”. I thought I was just sitting on the beach – alone, in silence, thoughtlessly, sometimes long enough for the tide to come in and go back out again, a few times a week for several months. Eventually, I experienced a sudden, massive reorganisation of my psychology that has endured to this day.

In the weeks that followed I was in a state of epiphany, stamping out fallacy after fallacy as my altered psychology showed me submerged darkness underlying of everything I believed to be bright. I saw that I could not chase beauty without running from ugliness; that pain is the cost of pleasure; that I could not elevate people I admire without lowering people I find distasteful. I found I could only eliminate “evil” in myself by giving up my attachment to “good” – and everything became infused with goodness. I stamped out the “ugliness” in myself by letting go of “beauty” – and everything became infused beauty. The icing on the cake was that these were new forms of beauty and goodness, and they came packaged with their own dark opposites. After a few cycles, I began to suspect the process of releasing attachments and revealing ever more expansive forms of beauty and goodness was likely to be continuous.

At the time I was busking for a living on the streets of Vancouver. I left in the morning and stayed out all day, hammering away on my guitar and chatting with the sorts of people one meets while loitering on urban street corners. This era of listening to the stories of mad vagrants and the intoxicated graduates of Canada’s residential schools (while piqued professionals scurried by in wide semi-circles) is the first I time I experienced life with my eyes, heart and mind wide open. I had become the embodiment of divine love, truth and beauty: I felt a love which does not judge; I knew a truth which makes no claims; I found beauty in the ugliest of places.

All this seems very much at odds with “theology”. It’s unlikely I would ever have attained this perspective had I been distracted by the study of a god or religion (although nothing is impossible). As far as I have seen, western religions do not encourage their followers to become the embodiment of divinity; they point to a book, or an icon, or an abstract concept and insist that “divinity” lies within. They practice a “love” founded on shared loathing of the wicked. They dictate a “truth” that makes preposterous claims, then condemns the incredulous. Religious “beauty” is founded on the fear of death and decay, or it consists of nothing more than glamour: beguiling words and pretty things. In fact, I suspect the phrase “I became the embodiment of divine love, truth and beauty” makes western religious readers quite “disturbed”, but what can I do? That’s how it felt.

I don’t meditate any more, but I do napitate. I can conk out anywhere – planes, trains, family gatherings – for a period of mental inactivity that looks and feels very much like a nap, except that I am awake and aware of my surroundings throughout. It’s very refreshing, but doesn’t seem to result in any more profound awakenings. That is fine with me, though – I can happily spend my whole life integrating the awakenings I’ve already had.

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21 Responses to “A Few Apophatic Reflections”

  1. Richard Says:

    Something else about you I have found: you can relied upon to be absolutely honest; but your honesty begins with yourself. My compliment to you is that since I have met you, I have become more honest with myself too.

    (I thought I’d get a positive comment in before the others start flooding in.) 🙂

  2. apophaticattic Says:

    Aw, Richard, thanks. That’s sweet. *blush* I’m very flattered to have made an impact. You’ve had an effect on me as well, but it’s hard to put a finger on what it is. You’re impressively guileless and curious – I’ve become a bit less cynical because of it.

    The thing I love about blogging is that I can pick and choose who “floods in” with their comments. Not that I’m very picky – so far it’s just been a handful of spammers and one illiterate, abusive hack.

  3. Old Man Says:

    Not to say that you’ve “signed up” for any official religion, but what you describe sounds like Taoism in some respect (The Tao that can be named is not the real Tao) and in some respects like Budhism (attachment is the cause of misery). I’m sympathitic.

    However, the “apophatic” point of view seems to suffer from the same problem as atheism. It’s preoccupied with something that it insists doesn’t exist (or can’t be described as existing or not). I think it’s possible to move past that.

  4. apophaticattic Says:

    Hi, old man!

    One of my online friends is writing a book on this point of view – he’s sent me a chapter or two as a sneak preview, and the perspective he writes about sounds very familiar to me. On his website (www.apophaticmysticism.com) he defines apophatic mysticism as “an uncanny state of psychic integration resulting from the suspension of all mental estimates of the source, identity, meaning, purpose, or value of the world of phenomena. As a result of this surrender of ideation, which is seldom if ever complete, one is able to transparently perceive and precisely respond to the compelling force and content of immediate experience. It is through this encounter with pure immediacy that one most fully engages the source of spirit.”

    I suppose it’s accurate to say the apophatic perspective defined this way is somewhat preoccupied with a kind of divinity or spirituality (“source of spirit”), but an apophatic who has suspended the mental estimates described above realizes that just as it isn’t particularly relevant to the experience of consciousness whether or not there is a higher power, it also isn’t particularly relevant whether or not we believe in one. Raymond, the writer of the above, might arbitrarily pray to a red frog, but he doesn’t know or care whether anything outside his own psychology has been affected.

    I think that’s a good way to go. It seems to me there is an important segment of human psychology entirely dedicated to preposterous superstitions (how else could religion be possible?). An apophatic mystic enjoys poking at this part of the mind with a stick, stirring things up and regarding the effects with curiosity and amazement, without ever losing sight of the high probability that the contents of this part of the mind are symbolic, metaphorical or meaningless.

    The alternatives seem to be shutting that part of the mind out of conscious awareness completely, or commanding it to adhere to an external doctrine of organized superstition we believe to be “real” and “true” (which, after a bit of contemplation, I think is not significantly different from shutting it out). I don’t find either of these prospects appealing.

    It is something like Taoism, particularly the sort Zhuang Zi dealt with in bizarre, convoluted parables that are full of symbolism but seem to go nowhere. (“Right is not right; so is not so. If right were really right it would differ so clearly from not right that there would be no need for argument. If so were really so, it would differ so clearly from not so that there would be no need for argument.”)

  5. Richard Says:

    “without ever losing sight of the high probability that the contents of this part of the mind are symbolic, metaphorical or meaningless.”

    I have just found myself confronted by this quite by accident. I was writing about metaphor in Taoism and, being the conscientious researcher, looked up ‘metaphor’ in no less an authority as Wikipedia. I discovered there something called a ‘pataphor’. It says:

    “Whereas a metaphor is the comparison of a real object or event with a seemingly unrelated subject in order to emphasize the similarities between the two, the pataphor uses the newly created metaphorical similarity as a reality with which to base itself. In going beyond mere ornamentation of the original idea, the pataphor seeks to describe a new and separate world, in which an idea or aspect has taken on a life of its own.”

    It occurred to me that this is what we do: we create reality out of a mesh of metaphors and then explore that reality on the basis the metaphors are real. I am not saying that’s a bad thing, by the way. But I do think it is something we ought to be aware of. Then we can discard some of the metaphors handed down to us and start using our own ones; or even return to the ‘uncarved block’ and not use any at all.

    Is that what you’re talking about?

  6. apophaticattic Says:

    Hi, Richard,

    “Is that what you’re talking about?”

    Wow, I don’t know! That wiki definition was a mouthful and I’m a blockhead. Let me look at it again…

    Yes, that is what I’m talking about, to some extent. Religious belief, IMO would definitely qualify as a pataphor. What the apophatic method involves, though, is purposefully NOT ascribing any sense of reality to the mesh of metaphors kicked up by the superstitious section of the mind. The search for ontological truth / reality is not required of an apophatic mystic. We explore simply because it’s enjoyable to do so.

  7. Richard Says:

    The last part of my comment was what I was asking about really: “or even return to the ‘uncarved block’ and not use any at all.” It seems to fit with what you’re saying.

    I am not there yet, I think. Playing with the metaphors might be like turning the wheel on a kaleidoscope and seems like it could be interesting. But I wonder if pataphor can be ascribed to culture as a whole and not just religious superstition.

  8. apophaticattic Says:

    That’s an interesting paradox – “become an uncarved block by giving up metaphors!” 😉

    Seriously, though, I think of all the popularized metaphors for a Taoist perspective, “uncarved block” is the most misleading. The metaphors like empty vessel and the hub of a wheel – calling to mind space, change, motion, flexibility and potential – are more evokative. A lot of people talk about the “uncarved block” like our minds should actually be a block carved in the shape of a block. A good Taoist metaphor is the image of something which maintains unlimited usefulness, potential and flexibility because its use has not been defined, or because it is comprised of useful nothingness. But, yeah, I get what you’re saying, and that’s kind of what I’m getting at. Exploring the superstitious / symbollic part of the mind without concerning ourselves whether there is anything “real” or “true” coming out of it could be considered a return to the ideal Taoist state.

    I think you’re right that pataphor (as described above) applies to culture as well as religion. We are seeing a good example of this as the trillions of dollars worth of fictitious value disappears from the US economy. All those fictional dollars are, in essence, a metaphor for America’s real (and limited) resources. Not only did almost all of us agree that this metaphor represented something real, we built our systems of governing and trade around it. Belief in a growth-based economy is a type of superstition in my view (a pataphor, now that I know that word) but since it involves math and fancy language and sometimes translates into actual things (like food) that can be bought and sold, it is considered offensive to say so.

  9. Richard Says:

    Bloody hell, yes, the economy. The greatest pataphor of them all. (I just want to keep saying ‘pataphor’.)

  10. W Brown Says:

    Money is something that can’t really be thought of without some kind of metaphor. A stack of gold coins, for example. In fact, a loonie stands for nothing but a guarantee that it can be exchanged for another loonie or used as legal tender (exchanged for something real or some other nebulous economic entity).

    What that loonie really stands for is *trust*. If people stop believing in it, it instantly loses all value. Not much different from a St. Christopher’s medalion.

    What we’re seeing in the current economic meltdown is the fact that we cannot and should not trust in currency. Governments around the world print up more to meet the demand of the moment. Companies like AIG take your money to insure against risks, but can’t afford to compensate you if disaster happens. What did your premium buy? Trust. This isn’t much different from throwing virgins into the volcano to keep the gods happy. Except that I’d take a real virgin over a loonie any day 🙂

  11. W Brown Says:

    On the “uncarved block” subject.

    Your brain is a metaphor manufacturing machine. The brain is, in fact, itself an imperfect model of the real world. You can’t perceive or even think about reality without invoking a big pile of metaphors. Only the dead can see the world as it “really is”.

  12. apophaticattic Says:

    Hi, dad. Re. “Only the dead can see the world as it “really is”.” That’s profound. I’m not sure I know what you mean, but it does get me thinking, in just the right kind of way, like the verses in the Tao te Ching. Multiple layers of meaning with no conclusion.

    Re. investment insurance and throwing virgins into the volcano, that’s also very insightful. Not having any grasp of “the economy” beyond a long-standing awareness of its illusory nature, I have to admit I’m feeling more than a little relieved right now not to have worked hard, invested wisely and saved up for my retirement. I’ve gotten to see quite a lot of the world because of my deep-seated fiscal irresponsibility, and I met Jackie Chan because of my appalling career choice. I don’t know what kind of world we will be living in ten years from now, but I have a feeling multi-million dollar movies (which are having trouble securing financing) and cheap air travel could be a thing of the past.

  13. Old Man Says:

    “Only the deadsee the world the way it really is.”. I wondered about that myself. It’s a kind of brain twister that reminds me of the futility of trying to escape the human point of view.

    This may make a bit more sense if you turn it around. If you’re alive, you *cannot* see the world the way it really is. Your senses serve your particular needs as a human being. Strip away all the human bias and you’re dead. Or you could say that our experience of the world comes in the package with being human.

    It’s not supposed to make perfect sense.

  14. apophaticattic Says:

    It’s good that it doesn’t make sense. We language skeptics can’t get enough of sentences that remind us of the futility of trying to escape the human point of view. That’s a really nice one. Like a Zen koan, it looks profoundly meaningful and important but you just can’t get a bead on what it’s trying to say, so you think about it until your brain just pops and can’t be bothered with language at all – that’s when the birdsong becomes particularly vivid. The whole of the Tao te ching is written in this style – that’s my favourite thing about it – it doesn’t put any new ideas in your head but somehow takes the old ones out.

  15. sandrar Says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  16. raymond sigrist Says:

    “Religious “beauty” is founded on the fear of death and decay, or it consists of nothing more than glamour: beguiling words and pretty things.”

    Yes, well stated Kerri, this seems to be the conventional religious problem. Not being able to see beauty everywhere. And the beguiling words found both inside and outside conventional religion. Perhaps this was one of Bataille’s aims when he wrote “Haine de la poesie.” (Hatred of poetry).

    Bataille: “I have sacrificed everything to the search for a viewpoint able to disclose the unity of the human spirit.” trans by Peter Collier

    Thanks for your comments on my website. The book is delayed, and delayed again. Maybe by the New Year? You warned me when I told you it would be done by April 09!

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