Saturday, April 21, 2018

How The Lord of the Rings Can Refine Your Outlook?

Does our journey from the beginning of time have a story to it, or is it “just one damn thing after another”? I’ve always intuited it has to be a story, albeit not a neat little one you can package in a Hegelian dialectic. In reading Peter Kreeft’s excellent The Philosophy of Tolkein, I realize there is much to be learned from a story about our story: “Philosophy says truth, literature shows truth.”

There is something in The Lord of the Rings that expresses the longing for something nostalgic: the bucolic nature of the Shire, the traditional values and heroic virtues of its people, the enchanted world where everything comes alive. But Tolkien knew as much as this would conjure up one’s fascination for “the good old days”, that such longing was not fulfilled by a return to the past but could only be attained in a transcendent future.

Yet, Tolkein does not ignore the immanent past or future. His heroes balance their reverence for tradition that can guide and take responsibility for the future. While he may be seen as more politically conservative (in the sense it is important to know what needs to be conserved within the change), he did not dismiss the notion of progress.

Instead, Tolkein came up with the word eucatastrophe as a joyful happy ending that we are surprised by. But unlike “progressivism”, this is sheer grace than a necessary goal pursued by man. In this, he avoids the Rousseauian optimism (a purely immanent activism) or the Manichean error that evil has the same kind of reality as goodness (a tragic fatalism). His story includes both history and supernaturalism. Sound familiar?

The moral posture of The Lord of the Rings is also often looked at too simply: Good (the Fellowship) verses Evil (Sauron and the gang). “But Tolkein restores the ancient, pre-Cartesian cosmology in which things are not that neat.” In his enchanted world where all things are alive, we also have characters who all struggle with both good and evil. As such, the “source of all external conflict between characters is the internal conflict between good and evil within each character” (see Solzhenitsyn).

“Tolkein is not a psychological absolutist but a moral absolutist: no person is absolutely good or evil; but goodness and evil themselves are absolutely distinct.” And therefore, all our victories against evil in this world are only temporary. What a tough pill to swallow – especially for a lefty!

So while the power of the Ring temps Frodo as well as many others, in the end Tolkein gets us to see that “wanting what you should is better than getting what you want.” The real Power comes not from the Ring, but the Cross — the self-sacrifice through love and the loss of hope that leads to a greater Hope.

So much like The LotR, Tolkein saw a heroic story to life and that such a story “cannot be understood until you have heard the whole of it.”

Thursday, April 12, 2018


I recently came across the term chiaroscuro which stems from the Italian words chiaro (meaning“clear” or “bright”) and oscuro (meaning “obscure” or “dark”), and refers to the arrangement of light and shade in a work of art. 
Raft of the Medusa

I appreciate how this word comes through in the work of Geracault's Raft of the Medusa, depicting the horrors in the aftermath of a shipwreck. Yet, it is considered an icon in French Romanticism as it culminates with a glimmer of hope at the horizon of a possible rescue ship. The juxtaposition of lighting and shading do not cancel each other out but instead reveal the moments of intense suffering in the context of Eternal hope. 
Rain, Steam and Speed

J.M.W. Turner is another painter that uniquely showcased chiaroscuro with the convergence of light and shade. Turner was particularly taken with finding ways to integrate Romantic idealism along with his admiration for empirical science. Unlike Blake, Turner embraced the industrial revolution as depicted in his paintings of locomotives and steamships. In his classic Snow Storm, with its “spiraling smoke, surging waves and swirling cloud produce a centrifugal vortex that engulfs the spectator” (Sam Smith), there is also a homage to the modern ship which survives the forces of nature. 
Snow Storm

The “huge, powerful masses of alternating light and dark swirl around an incandescent center of white light” (Ogle), models the asymmetries of nature. Moreover, the classic symmetrical Euclidean geometry is replaced with the asymmetrical irregular arcs in the form of a vortex or spiral. Things are going somewhere albeit with an emphasis of science over spirit. Turner's version of hope is one of man’s conquest over nature in place of one's surrender to Nature. (As an aside, Turner's disposition was mostly materialist, which comes through in Timothy Spall's curmudgeonly portrayal of him in the film Mr. Turner.)

For Turner, “a cosmos generated by the interplay of limitless forces lay in his liberation of color in the depiction of light” (Ogle). He believed the asymmetrical forces of technology would liberate man, where the shadow that falls between the potency and the act could be diminished. 

Yet, as we are more engulfed by immanent technological forces, we can now see deeper shadows emerging. Our emphasis may need to turn again to surrendering to the “incandescent center of white light” as transcendence — or a move upward in order to move forward.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

God Gets Skin in the Game

Jordan Peterson recently mentioned on a podcast that, “I do believe there are places where the mythological and the literal touch.” This was in reference to a question as to where he stood with the Resurrection of Christ. He expounded that “the material reaches up to the spiritual, and spiritual reaches down to the material, and they touch! And I do think that happens.” He didn't completely commit to an answer towards his Christology, but he acknowledged there is a mystery and miracle to all of it.

It took me years to understand what this meant, and Peterson himself noted that he will need further inquiry to the question of the Resurrection also.

What helped me with this is the idea that certain spiritual teachers have become ill by taking on the karma of their students. It's like a tonglen practice that goes awry. (In the Tibetan Buddhism, tonglen is a practice to connect with the suffering of others by taking in the suffering and giving out compassion.) So when Peter says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed”, it's not that much different ...except Christ takes on the karma for the entire cosmos! Such a sacrifice could only be encountered by a brutal death to such extremes as Jesus had. Yet, His Resurrection transforms the sacrifice to one of Eternal hope.

Another way of looking at it came to me from Nassim Taleb, whose new book is aptly titled Skin in the Game. Taleb is big proponent of the idea that real evolutionary progress can only come from agents who have skin in the game. You have to be fully accountable for your bad ideas, so those bad ideas don't inflict a culture for future generations. You must take the hit, so your idea can die for the greater good. (Keep in the mind the reverse is true for the ideas that do work!) As he would say: “If you give an opinion, and someone follows it, you are morally obligated to be, yourself, exposed to its consequences.” 

In regards to the consequences of Christ, Taleb remarks,
“This allowed me to finally figure out this business of the Trinity. The Christian religion, throughout Chalcedon, Nicea, and other ecumenical councils and various synods of argumentative bishops, kept insisting on the dual nature of Jesus Christ. It would be theologically simpler if God were god and Jesus were man, just like another prophet, the way Islam views him, or the way Judaism views Abraham. But no, he had to be both man and god; the duality is so central it kept coming back though all manner of refinement: whether the duality allowed sharing the same substance (Orthodoxy), the same will (Monothelites), the same nature (Monophysites). The trinity is what caused other monotheists to see traces of polytheism in Christianity, and caused many Christians who fell into the hands of the Islamic State to be beheaded. So it appears that the church founders really wanted Christ to have skin in the game; he did actually suffer on the cross, sacrifice himself, and experience death. He was a risk taker. More crucially to our story, he sacrificed himself for the sake of others. A god stripped of humanity cannot have skin in the game in such a manner, cannot really suffer (or, if he does, such a redefinition of a god injected with a human nature would back up our argument). A god who didn’t really suffer on the cross would be like a magician who performed an illusion, not someone who actually bled after sliding an icepick between his carpal bones. The Orthodox Church goes further, making the human side flow upward rather than downward. The fourth-century bishop Athanasius of Alexandria wrote: “Jesus Christ was incarnate so we could be made God” (emphasis mine). It is the very human character of Jesus that can allow us mortals to access God and merge with him, become part of him, in order to partake of the divine. That fusion is called theosis. The human nature of Christ makes the divine possible for all of us.”
So what a better way for God to show his Eternal love than to get skin in the game Himself. “The reason why the second Person of the Trinity entered human nature was to achieve a face-to-face, peer-to-peer relationship with humanity, a perfect act of empathy arising out of His unconditional love” (Spitzer). It's actually quite brilliant; as an act of love or even as a mythological idea.

It worked so well, it got many others to get their skin in the game. It encouraged many of the early Christians to risk their lives and to make their “suffering a self-offering in order to bring healing, light, and love to others” (Spitzer). And this continues to this day as a beacon to aim for.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Is Reality Empty or Real?

The Rangtong / Shentong debate in Tibetan Buddhism is a particular interest of mine these days. And I sort of know why: it's a desire for coherence between systems. The Abrahamic religions certainly believe in the distinction of God and world. Yet, most Buddhists are not theists, and many are purely idealists. In other words, the Rangtong view holds that all phenomena is empty of inherent existence, or an enduring essence. As such, all phenomena are constructions of mind. Conversely, the Shentong view holds that only relative phenomena is empty but what remains is absolute. 

And here's why even in an experiential path you can't escape metaphysics! Francis Tiso remarked about this in his book about Tibetan Buddhism:
“Granted, in a nondualistic system, perceiver, act of perception, and the one perceived are considered unitary— a moment in a flow of perceptions. Perception, too, is linked to the notion of the perceivable attributes of a particular phenomenon. One of the ways to deconstruct the notion of a phenomenon’s “existence” is to argue that once the attributes are removed, there is no phenomenon. Thus, there is thought to be no need for a metaphysical substrate to which attributes might “adhere.” In any case, this is a classic Buddhist argument. Nevertheless, when an action takes place subsequent to a moment of perception, conditioned by that act of perception, even a nondualist system will have to acknowledge a flow of causality at least on the relative level. This analysis of course proves nothing, but it does suggest that the interpretation of a phenomenon depends on reflection, knowledge of what system we are using to interpret it with, and what intention we are advancing in our interpretation.”
So who is correct? The mainstream interpretation of Nirvana for most Tibetan Buddhists fall into Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika (or Middle Way) camp. This philosophy is aligned with the Rangtong view that, “Everything—meaning all phenomena in all states—exist conventionally, or nominally, or provisionally, but not inherently. In other words, whatever exists, exists, or co-arises, interdependently with other phenomena. This dependent co-arising, or interconnected origination, is called “emptiness,” because it implies that whatever arises has no independent self-existence or self-nature; therefore its “essence” is emptiness” (L. Ron Gardner). 

But are all things really reduced to emptiness?

Let's first acknowledge that 'emptiness' is an unfortunate word. Emptiness does not mean nothingness, but rather the recognition and direct experience of the true nature of the individual and world that is merely a representation. All such phenomena is ‘free from permanence and non-existence'.

When we see things as empty, there is an opening. Eventually, it all opens itself onto it-Self.  We are no longer entangled with the contents of our consciousness. Yet, something remains.

Indian sage Shankara would often debate Buddhists around this issue, and hold to the idea that Brahman, not emptiness is Ultimate reality. For phenomena to have impermanence, something must remain the same. As such, there exists an all-pervading, spaceless substratum underlying phenomenal existence.  

The Yogacara (or Mind-only) school of Buddhism, which arose subsequent to Madhyamika in India, likewise rejected Nagarjuna's metaphysics by emphasizing Consciousness as the Essence of all phenomena.

Ultimate reality is not dependent origination, but an uncaused cause. The Unmade, Unborn can not be an empty, essenceless, no-thing that creates something. Something must come from someThing, that is not a thing, but the Self-Existing, Self-Radiant Self-Awareness known as many things: Absolute, God, Tao. 

The metaphysical implications are significant, since the transcendent allows us to have an ontological standard to order the good, true, and beautiful. 

Self-evidently, Reality is real, and therefore I side with the Shentong view.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Modern Times, Better Times?

I came across an older post from David Bentley Hart chiming in about Steven Pinker's pollyannaish views on the Western Enlightenment. This post was a response to Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature, although his follow-up book is in a similar vein.

Pinker obviously believes we live in better times, and in many regards he is correct. I am very happy that my dentist has novocaine or that I am not a slave to anyone but my mind parasites.

So while we cheerlead for Enlightenment ideas that made us seemingly more civil and advanced, maybe consideration is needed towards our simplistic notions around civility and progress. 

Hart notes, “It is perfectly fair for Pinker to call attention to the many brutal features of much of medieval life, but one would have more confidence in his evenhandedness if he acknowledged at least a few of the moral goods that medieval society achieved despite its material privations.”

And that's one good point: our ancestors achieved much (morally and socially) considering how little they had at their disposal.

When it comes to violent deaths, there are fewer when comparing the past to today as a percentage of global population.  Nevertheless, it is also about how we statistically view it. “Population sample sizes can vary by billions, but a single life remains a static sum, so the smaller the sample the larger the percentage each life represents. Obviously, though, a remote Inuit village of one hundred souls where someone gets killed in a fistfight is not twice as violent as a nation of 200 million that exterminates one million of its citizens” (Hart).

In absolute numbers around the count of human massacre, we aren't doing that well. Let's recall how bloody the 20th century was. 

Lest we forget, while the gang of Bacon, Descartes, and Kant get much of the credit, “The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century is the direct outgrowth of cosmological speculations in what we currently label the High Middle Ages — built upon the Christian theological insight that the universe God created must make sense” (Warren). 

But now we lack those Christian insights that once augmented the moral underpinnings to the scientific revolution. Western Enlightenment “reason” will only get you so far. As Thomas Merton once said, “the intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, actual practice.” 

As with any meta-narrative, the shortcomings often come more with omission than commission. We can all point to the material prosperity that has ensued over the last couple centuries, but we should also not forget how our new era brought on many murderous secular ideologies, destructive and addictive technologies, and the continuing lapse of hard virtues.

We are probably better in some ways, but not as great as we'd like to believe. Perhaps that's partly due to the fact we have lost some of the depth that would have given us better standards to see that.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Correlates Light Up

My meditation teacher for the last decade, Daniel P. Brown, recently published a study about mapping complex mind states using electroencephalography (EEG). There are many of these meditation studies in recent years. What makes this one different? For one, it is designed in the context of a particular Indo-Tibetan path for awakening. The concept of awakening is not something easily understood by researchers who are not practitioners, and even by many mind-full practitioners who are limited by their path. So, 
Within this framework, ‘ultimate reality’ is essentially characterized by the constructs of ‘emptiness’, ‘non-duality’, ‘spaciousness’, and ‘vividness’; such that the intrinsic insubstantiality (emptiness) of all (internal and external) phenomena is part of a unified (non-dual), vast (spacious) field that  constitutes a brilliantly vibrant dynamically ever-changing (vivid) objective reality. Importantly, non-duality refers to the absence of separation between oneself and the rest of one’s world or subjective reality, and awakening refers to the absence of localization of individual consciousness so as to operate from an experiential mode of “being” the unbounded wholeness (of objective reality). Ergo, to practice essence meditation (Mahamudra and/or rDzogs-Chen) is to refine the mental capacities to their full clarity vis-à-vis emptiness, non-duality, spaciousness, and vividness, not in a uni-leveled intellectual sense, but from a direct experiential awareness that is completely free of ‘conditioned’ mechanisms and responses of self and other.
The breakdown of Essence-of-Mind states for this path and the study include:
  1. State 1: timelessness (ocean & waves/freedom from conceptual elaboration). First, the practitioner refines one’s awareness so as to operate from a perspective of awareness beyond time and spatialization wherein phenomena of consciousness are experienced as an undulating timeless, ocean-like awareness within which events come and go like waves arising and passing in an ocean. Events are thus viewed from the vantage point of a changeless, vast awareness. Awareness of the field ‘opens up’. Once this high resolution perception is stable the practitioner recalibrates once again to coarse grain perception.
  2. State 2: non-preference, non-duality, non-conceptualization (automatic emptiness to natural state/one taste). Second, the practitioner refines one’s relationship to the emptiness of all phenomena, wherein experience of the constructs of nondoing and non-conceptualization remain the central quality of the meditation. Any residual tendencies to “do” anything or to conceptualize about state or outcome are immediately expressed as ‘empty’ in such a way that neither doing anything nor conceptualizing can obscure the direct manifestation of awakened awareness. At this point, subject/object duality also disappears, and the realization of emptiness is spontaneous and automatic.
  3. State 3: the view of luminosity and limitlessness (Lion's Gaze/non-meditation). Third, the aim is now to set up the optimal ‘view’ (termed Lion’s Gaze; or like a child viewing a temple taking in everything all at once and nothing in particular) for stabilized awakened awareness. In this state utilization of the entire, limitless visual field ensues so to envelop and transmute one’s awareness into the totality of the global field. This may be recognized via two pathways; (a) via focusing on the non-localization of the limitless infinity of the field, and (b) via identifying the lucidity or brightness of the field of awareness. Both pathways culminate in an appreciation of the ultimate luminosity and limitlessness of experience.
  4. State 4: unified compassionate experience of oneness (stable awakened-awareness). At the stage of stabilized awakening, any residue of self-reference and localization dissipates, wherein the self-referential and localization of individual consciousness fully shifts to the limitlessness of lucid awakened awareness. This is considered a shift from ‘ordinary mind’ to ‘awakened mind’, within which this unbounded wholeness, unification, interconnection, and its expression as compassion pervades consciousness. The focus of the field spans out, from focusing primarily upon the visual field, towards all possible streams of perception, wherein phenomena are lively, vibrant, and indeterminate. Here, the practitioner works to stabilize the clarity (awakened) of awareness, to experience the shift from ordinary to awakened mind more frequently, for longer duration, and more immediately.
The findings are summarized as follows:
Within this shifted tonic brain meditative state (State 1 onwards), collectively, enhanced ACC [Anterior Cingulate Cortex] and parietal cortex current density vector magnitudes in concert with increased activation within the insula, suggest the onset of executive brain networks involved in saliency, conflict monitoring, emotion control and shifts in perspective-taking. We may infer that such neural activity contributed to the cultivation and sustainment of intricate internal states encompassing experiences of non-duality, and having no reference point (thus non-preference). Furthermore, decreases in cortical networks involved with self-referential processing, such as the PCC [Posterior Cingulate Cortex], support the down-regulation of self-orientation, while the continued attenuation of these regions with a simultaneous increase in executive network activity between meditative states provides initial evidence of a dissociability of these networks within an active, ongoing movement towards non-dual states. Such complex functioning is consistent with selfless (and thus effortless), yet active meditation in line with the construct of non-localized awakened awareness and its expression as “unified compassion”.
I find such work mildly compelling and appreciate the deep refinement of the practice, but it's not my main interest. I am more drawn to causation than correlation. Sure, it makes sense that the brain would be a conduit to spiritual practice and experience; however, Dr. Brown and his students do not believe the brain is the cause. And to me, that's where the fun comes in anyways. Yes, there is the direct experience! But then there is also the playground of intuition and intellection. What can we say about it, metaphysically, relationally, poetically and so forth? And most importantly, what virtues do we cultivate? How do we change and live from our Realizations? 

The de-mystifying of mystical experience through scientific endeavor is not the allure in my inquiry. I want the unified mystery to ensue so I can continue to not-know and discover beyond. And yet, it has its place for those that require such a doorway.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Byzantium Joy

Since Western civilization was founded on Judeo-Christian values and Greco-Roman law, we are fortunate that Constantine decided to shift the capital of his empire from Rome to Constantinople. At the time, Rome had become vulnerable to the barbarian tribes from the north. This move to an eastern capital allowed the Roman empire to last another thousand years. Constantinople was a fresh start, a city without a history, founded exclusively on the new religion. This is the place where Constantine would elevate Christianity from a persecuted sect to the official religion of the Roman Empire.

The Eastern part of the Roman Empire known as Byzantium mostly prospered, while the Western part of the empire eventually collapsed under the weight of the Germanic invasions. While this led to a Dark Age upon Europe, this was not the case with Byzantium. Unlike the Western Church, which struggled, but eventually thrived by engaging in worldly affairs, the Byzantine Church withdrew to more monastic and mystical affairs. This would eventually take root as the Orthodox tradition of the Christian faith.

As part of lent season, I am reading several Orthodox contemplative texts by Frederica Mathewes-Green, Kyriacos Markides, and Martin Laird. The appreciation you find with the Eastern Church is the deep and rich mystical tradition that allows for the experiential connection to God. Yet, we come to see God is beyond experience. I suppose if more westerners were aware of this historic thread, they would not necessarily seek out those other Eastern religious traditions. As Markides points out, “Christianity, a Catholic bishop in Maine once told me, has two lungs. One is Western, meaning rational and philosophical, and the other Eastern, meaning mystical and otherworldly.”

While the Church of Rome's focus on the rational and philosophical had its place, it was the Byzantium tradition that gave the Church its center. This lineage began with the Desert Fathers and Mothers who sought out loving communion with the silent depths of God. It was by centering in these depths, that a soul strength in the early Christians began to endure. Mathewes-Green notes, “How come Christians who lived in times of bloody persecution were so heroic, while we who live in safety are fretful and pudgy? How could the earlier saints “pray constantly,” while our minds dawdle over trivialities? How could they fast so valiantly, and we feel deprived if there's no cookie at the end of the in-flight meal? How could the martyrs forgive their torturers, but my friend's success makes me pouty? What did previous generations of Christians know that we don't?”

One such early practice from the Desert Father Evagrius of Pontus instructs the following: “Let him keep careful watch over his thoughts. Let him observe their intensity their periods of decline and follow them as they rise and fall.” As we go deeper into the cave of the heart, we can inquire: Are we these thoughts? Where do thoughts appear from? What is the nature of these thoughts, and who is aware of them?

Laird says,
“Precisely because our deepest identity grounding the personality is hidden with Christ in God and beyond the grasp of comprehension, the experience of this ground-identity that is one with God will register in our perception, if indeed it does register, as an experience of no particular thing, a great, flowing abyss, a depthless depth. To those who know only the discursive mind, this may seem a death-dealing terror or spinning vertigo. But for those whose thinking mind has expanded into heart-mind, it is an encounter brimming over with the flow of vast, open emptiness that is the ground of all. This "no thing," this "emptiness" is not an absence but a superabundance.”
While we can't escape metaphysics and discursive thinking, such reasoning can be in service of the whole. As Theophan noted in regards to thoughts about God only make God appear outside you, it is the Byzantium practices of the Eastern Church that allowed for the Kingdom of God to be within you.

“In an age when people claim to be "spiritual, not religious"—not really knowing what they mean by either—lack of proper motivation is common. We must long for truth, freedom, loving communion with the silent depths of God. (Laird)”