“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Thomas Merton-Confessions of a Guilty Bystander
I have a long-standing interest in the role of contemplation and contemplative practices in education and with the development of the person as distinct from the individual through a process described by Thomas Merton as Sapiential Education, meaning the cultivation of wisdom and the whole person through the direct experience of the nature of reality in its complementary aspects of multiplicity and unity. No education can be considered holistic if at its roots, it doesn’t allow for and actively engage with these apparently dualistic apprehensions of reality or with the triune experience of every human life as a totality of mind, body, and spirit.
In his work on the Integral Self, Ken Wilbur draws an important distinction between state and stage change. We can consider a state change as something temporary and impermanent that we move towards, whilst a stage change is something integrated and foundational- a ‘level of consciousness’ from which we move into the world and through which we ‘live and move and have our being’. This movement between states and through stages can be considered in the context described by Plotinus, who posited that we live in a world that is at least superficially dualistic in nature, apprehended as both a multiplicity and a unity. Stage development represents an increasingly nuanced understanding of this apparent polarity to the point at its highest levels, in which the seeming duality is experienced as a single or total field of awareness with different but complementary aspects or expressions. The multiplicity arises out of the unitive, we experience for example the natural world as a theophany-the divine spark revealed in all creation-and both are necessary to account for our actual experience of reality. Every religious tradition makes the point that in one sense the experience of our life in ‘ordinary’ consciousness is predicated on a tragic case of mistaken identity. The person I normally take myself to be, the busy, anxious, little ‘I’, so preoccupied with its goals, fears, desires, and issues, is never even remotely the whole of who I am, and to seek fulfilment of my life at this level, is ultimately to pursue a narrow and limited-one might say futile, expression of the ‘all that I am.’
In considering the idea of Sapiental Education as conceived by Thomas Merton, we must engage in a shift of focus from the accumulation of knowledge about things- understood as our rational comprehension of the world of forms, typical of normal education in the west, to the cultivation of wisdom, conceived as the direct apprehension of the phenomenon behind the phenomena, the artificer behind the art, the First principles, including a deep connection with the eternal present which is the still point of the turning word, the barely conceivable ineffable face of the unitive principle giving rise to form. Rather than accumulation, this process of learning often involves a considerable degree of emptying and letting go of previously held views, as the Taoists, amongst others, appreciated very well. In Platonistic terms we recognise the truth of the allegory of the cave in which the shadows on the cave wall are both differentiated-relatively unreal figures in the corporeal or sensible realm- immediately connected to their archetypal eidos in the intelligible realm as sign to referrant.
Our experience of the world as dualistic is a function in part, of our attention as we experience it within the wider context of our upbringing, formal education, and cultural influences-our belief systems about the nature of reality. In modern western cultures predicated on the unchallenged tenets of scientific materialism, attention is understood primarily as the means, by which we (I) connect subjects with objects. The basic operating logic assumes a dualistic position as the fundamental truth based on observation, experimentation, and measurement.
From the dualistic or constructivist perspective common to the west, I experience myself as a unique and discreet being, separate from everything that lies outside me. To the extent that this understanding is experienced as real in an absolute sense, I establish a sense of myself in time as discreet and unique, with a particular history, with gifts, aptitudes, abilities and skills and the world outside I experience as more or less friendly, or hostile, based on my formative and later experiences-the story I tell myself about my life and the world. In this process I can function well to the extent that I can fit in to or manipulate the collective paradigm that dictates how I should or could show up, to be a ‘success’, or a ‘failure’, in the eyes of the world. The world itself is experienced from this standpoint as a collective rather than a community and I am first and foremost, an individual rather than a person-a small part of the atomised world.
Genuine holistic action from this perspective is impossible other than as a theory. We may for example engage in ‘good works’ such as acting towards another with ‘compassion’ but it will be transactional-really charity or pity by another name, based on a sense of lack or superiority rather than equanimity which is the basis of true compassion, arising from a subjective sense of a fullness of being, and it is liable to be withdrawn if certain tacit ‘agreements’ aren’t fulfilled in the bargain.
Traditionalism and the perennial philosophy tells us that this ordinary sense of self represents, at best, a partial apprehension of reality, experienced exclusively within the locus of the multiplicity-the maya, to use a Hindu term, meaning illusion, or better understood, the dance of life. In this context we inevitably live out of what Thomas Merton described as the ‘false self insofar as we live only partially in an ever changing world bounded by space-time.
The false self sees the world, sociologically and psychologically solely from the viewpoint of I, me, and mine, often in a context of some degree of lack or entitlement and represents what we could call the ‘unexamined life’. Beneath the surface of daily conscious activity there lie a cluster of ‘energy centres’ that are formed and informed typically, by our early life experiences. We can call them our reactive tendencies, usually hidden from view in the unconscious and clustered around specific dynamics of need, survival and support, esteem and affection and power and control. As these tendencies and patterns develop and deepen throughout our early and later life they begin, if ignored, to subtly define and guide our choices and behaviours and to the extent that they remain unconscious, they will show up as (often irrational) reactions in the face of certain demands placed on us by the external world, felt as attachments and aversions-what we like and seek more of, and what we dislike and seek to avoid or push away in order to feel ‘happy’. In part at least, sapiential education represents a pathway to a fuller understanding of ourselves, throwing light on these tendencies over time, uprooting them through various practices, allowing for the cultivation of more stable, congruent, and nuanced behaviours concomitant with the emergence of a more responsive, genuine, authentic, or true sense of self.
Part of the process of change has to do with the way in which we use our attention. We learn to pay attention in different ways. Typically, in a subject-object oriented world, in its basic form, our attention is grabbed by objects. Modern western culture is predicated on systems that grab our attention in very sophisticated ways, over and over again, thereby disconnecting us from ourselves, from our own centre of discernment, leaving us in a state of near permanent reactivity- a vicious cycle that both feeds and is fed by our false self, energy centres as described above.
According to the fourteenth century mystical text, The Cloud of Unknowing, there are four basic stages of human development. The lower active stage represents our early-stage formation, what we might call the unreflective but essentially moral life-in which, as has been described, we fit in and do as we are told and contribute to society and culture as we feel we should for our own benefit or maybe for the greater good, subject to the constraints of the patterns and pressures of our own unconscious reactivity.
The second and third stages which blend, one into the other in the Cloud, are the higher active and lower contemplative stages, representing a stage change, often triggered by some form of defeat, loss, disruption, suffering or pain, significant enough to overwhelm our stubborn, deep rooted egoic position towards greater self-reflection. At this stage we find ourselves concerned with deeper and harder questions; Who am I? what is my life for? Why do I do what I do? What gives my life meaning? How could I serve or make a difference? Why is there suffering? Does God exist? We begin to discover here that the bigger concerns of life-such as the meaning of life itself, and other concerns like love, death, suffering and the infinite, cannot be answered with the rational mind alone. At this stage, unless we give up in despair or distract ourselves into oblivion, we will engage with new practices to learn to function at a new level of consciousness. Perhaps it starts with an exploration of meditation to alleviate stress or joining a yoga class to rejuvenate our tired bodies but with time the initial impulse to move the furniture around may deepen further and become a genuine enquiry into life’s purposes-a process that has a genuine bearing on our stage of development as distinct from the state changes that add to the fund of our ‘experiences’ but do not really trouble the paradigm from which we make sense of the world.
In the Christian tradition a distinction is made between two approaches to change that are relevant to the development of the contemplative life: the kataphatic and the apophatic. In brief, the kataphatic has to do with the use of our faculties-including the reason, will, imagination and memory, to elicit and support the life changes we hope to make. In these processes, the subject-object dichotomy remains intact, and the work of change has to do with a deepening of self-understanding including a growing awareness of our reactive tendencies and access to subtler modes of knowing such as the affective, imaginal and intuitive, in support of cognitive reasoning. As part of the process of change we may develop a different relationship with attention itself, moving from the position in which attention is held by the object which grabs us, to holding attention as the subject, withdrawing it intentionally from objects and, as in many meditation practices based on concentration or awareness, learning to place it consciously on specific objects such as the flow of thoughts, the breath, or a mantra. The seat of ‘I’ remains but through a variety of psycho-spiritual practices we can also cultivate a ‘witness’ position that can see and reflect on itself in ways that are no longer simply reactive, allowing for the movement towards wholeness (healing) to begin and to allow for greater choice in the moment.
It is in considering the development of the higher stages of consciousness, the formation of the Integral Self or Self- Transforming mind, to use two possible frames, that we discover the limits of the kataphatic approach, discovering that it is insufficient for further growth, beyond a certain point of development. In terms of the Cloud of Unknowing, the higher contemplative self (awareness of the Self without qualifications) simply cannot be known through kataphatic principles. In mystical terms, one cannot get beyond the purgative (false) and illuminative (self-reflective) stages to the place of union or unitive awareness, without radically shifting the mode of approach-experiencing metanoia or a turning around; there must be a dying to the self, specifically to the dominance of the head as the mode of knowing self and world intellectually, the relinquishing of the centre of I, Me and Mine as the only way of being present to the world, in favour of a thoroughly or radically (is in root) new orientation. The apophatic approach-also called the negative way by St John of the Cross, is not based on the operation of the faculties, nor is it based on the directing of attention towards specific objects in a controlled manner. Rather, counter-intuitively perhaps, in an opposite gesture, the process moves us towards self-emptying or kenosis-towards the experience of what psychologists call stable non-dual awareness or objectless awareness-in Hindu it is called a-dvaita, ‘not-two’. In religious terms this is called resting in the Presence of God or in the Divine Presence- the experiential apprehension of the holistic universe directly- at once transcendent and immanent, macrocosmic and microcosmic, surpassing all theories of holism in favour of the felt experience of the holistic universe itself in its fullness and plenitude- a place, as the Christian-Hindu mystic Bede Griffiths would call it- of unity in distinction as represented perfectly by Wolfgang Smith’s ‘cosmic icon.’
In Thomas Merton’s terms, sapiential education has to do with the complete transformation of the individual from the false to the true self, that is, into a person, which would lead, as he saw it, to the transformation of the Collective into Community. For him this was always the basis of real education and he hoped it would be, ‘part of everybody’s normal equipment’ as he put it. Personal formation is not selfish or self-centred because it depends on the cultivation of a sense of interdependence and relatedness both with other human beings and with the living world.
In cultivating this stage of deeper contemplative awareness, much is made of silence. There is as Martin Laird put it, ‘a silence that has no opposite.’ In contemplative terms, there are two distinct kinds of silence we can attend to fruitfully. The first, called ‘free’ silence, has to do with our relationship with the natural world. We experience that silence when we walk in nature and apprehend the ‘theophany’-the living spark of the divine in all of nature, the living world as the sensible sign of the hidden referrant-sensing its intimate interrelationship with our own life-a case in point of unity in distinction. Our mind is free to relax, wander and play and in these circumstances, we often experience profound connection and peace (also awe, wonder and astonishment)-what I often call, the experience of our outer sanctuary. There are places we go that heal and hold us because we sense directly, our unity with the living earth, on that mountain, by that river, in that place, wherever it is-the sacred geography of our life.
A second silence is what is called interior or intentional silence. This I refer to as the inner sanctuary. This silence typically feels like ‘work’ because it rarely comes easily and is generically called meditation or contemplation and forms the basis of inner practice at the higher stages of consciousness. Silence can be cultivated in both kataphatic and apophatic forms. Contemplation in the apophatic sense of ‘beholding the still centre’ and of letting go (self-emptying) or hearkening is a fundamental practice for cultivating higher stage levels of awareness as described above and every tradition attests to this point as simply essential. It is to develop a moment-by-moment presence to the ‘all that is’ cultivating the capacity to hold the tension described as multiplicity and unity simultaneously, to live on the flashing wheel so to speak, yet ever grounded in the still centre of the world. For Thomas Merton ‘The real freedom is to be able to come and go from the centre and to do without anything that is not immediately connected to that centre’
In the epigraph to TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, we read Heraclitus. The centre is common to all, but Men live as though they have their own centre. The task of radical higher stage development lies in the deepening experience of the common centre without losing the sense of distinction- to apprehend the still point or nunc stans which is always present, eternal and never changing, which is the seat of our and every consciousness existing beyond the limitations of time and space and ever beyond the reach of the rational intellect. We can learn to enter it in any moment because it is always present within us- immanent and transcendent-we enter through the ‘narrow gate’ called eternal now. Apprehension of the quivering aliveness of each moment is the work of contemplative practices and lies at the heart of the art of re-cognition, of remembering who and what we always are at heart. It does not negate or seek to escape the world of things but right sizes our participation in the outer world in a wider, universal context. It is the eye of the needle through which we pass, dying to life whilst in life, awake to life as it is, moment by moment, gratuitously willing to be re-born into a different stage of consciousness. It is the great transformation everywhere present in the world, the breaking open of the seed buried in the earth, or the transformation of the caterpillar into the butterfly.
The real spiritual life is, as I understand it, a life lived in ‘right relationship’- that is to say with mind, body and spirit engaged and working in unison, fully embodied, in the world of time and space-the necessary conditions for experience- yet with a certain detachment (neither attachment or indifference) from the drama. We learn to act with sincerity in the world without taking things too seriously- a distinction that Alan Watts wisely named. Only through time, time is conquered, says TS Eliot; we come to know the eternal and the infinite only through the experience of our life in time and space, the very exact conditions of the corporeal world, but we must not get lost in the endless distractions and noise of the day, nor must we get misled by the false promise- of the inevitability of wisdom as a given entitlement bestowed on us simply because we have had a long life. We must exchange false and illusory expectations for what is real and true, even though the real is often-as TS Eliot put it, new and shocking in every moment. Those who live only in time will only die, he tells us; the houses all go under the sea and the dancers all go under the hill. There is no end to the endless wailing, and we should take note of that as we deepen our own perspective.
In Four Quartets TS Eliot called Love the ‘intolerable shirt of flame’. ‘Who then devised this torment?’ He asks in Little Gidding. ‘Love’ is the answer given. The work of transformation has, I suspect, much to do with the intolerable shirt of flame, with love. It is, suggests Eliot, quoting the Cloud of Unknowing only ‘with the drawing of this love and the voice of this calling’ that we shall be able to continue our exploration. And the end of all our exploring? Will be ‘to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’-which is to say, to experience our divine nature in the world- that with which we entered the world-our intimation of immortality-to experience it again, here, and now in this life and in this death-as Eliot described it- ‘a lifetimes death in love’.
There is an Eros to life, and it has been said that it is through love as Eros that we humans come to know God as it is through love as Agape that God comes to know us. At its heart what calls and draws us forwards then, is nothing other than Love. Love is the highest stage and expression of life in both the forms of multiplicity and unity. As we have seen, in the Platonic sense, we are told that what we experience at the level of multiplicity-ordinary consciousness- is in fact an imperfect image-a partial reality of the truth hidden in unitive reality, it is the art but not the artificer- an imago only though the two and connected in every moment. Yet, though temporal love may be imago to divine Love, as with all things made manifest on earth, we should not imagine the two unconnected or the lesser less important, because love is experienced by us in the world in all our passions and compassions for the world, for ourselves and for others and it is extraordinary, beautiful, and terrible for all of that.
Thomas Merton once experienced this love at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, the sudden and shocking unveiling of the immeasurable splendour of the world and the unity with others that is our birthright gift, so often hidden from our hearts, experienced for Merton as a life changing moment guiding the further cultivation of a profound gnosis and wisdom that informed all his future actions in the world, an apprehension that might inform our own, give us courage in our own quest for the real, underwritten in grace by a passion and compassion that is always real. Each of us must make this journey in our own way which is in itself, commendable-the most tremendous act of faith.
And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”