John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: The Ambiguity of the Universe

Although most in today's academic world begin with an assumption of naturalism/materialism, Hick argues that the Universe is, in fact, ambiguous.  That is, it can be interpreted in a variety of ways including those which presume a God/Spiritual Reality, and those which do not.

In his chapter entitled The Big Bang and the Ambiguity of the Universe, Hick talks about the current scientific understanding of the creation of the Universe – the Big Bang.  In the process he references what some have called the teleological argument for the existence of God – the idea that the Universe shows design or that it leads to a telos, an end goal, which includes the development of intelligent life.  

"We know now that the form that the expansion has taken was determined by basic conditions which, if they had been even slightly different, would not have produced galaxies, including planets, including life, including us. There had to be very precise values for a number of basic constants for the universe as it is to have come about. One example is that in order for a universe of galaxies to develop there had to be just the right degree of non-uniformity in the initial state. The astrophysicists refer to this degree of non-uniformity, consisting in the energy difference between peaks and troughs in the density of matter, as Q. Q has to be very close to 0.00001 in order to account for the present-day galaxies and clusters. To quote Martin Rees,

If Q were much smaller than 0.00001, galactic ‘ecosystems’ would never form: aggregations would take longer to develop, and their gravity would be too weak to retain gas. A very smooth universe would remain forever dark and featureless ... On the other hand, a rougher universe, with Q much larger than 0.00001, would be turbulent and violent. Lumps far bigger than galaxies would condense early in its history. They would not fragment into stars.

Other such conditions include the electric charge of the electron, the ratio of the electron and proton masses, the strength of the strong force between nuclei. These are some – and only some – of the precise conditions needed if the universe as we know it, with ourselves as part of it, was to come about. In fact it looks as though our universe has been precisely designed to produce intelligent life. Martin Rees does not himself believe in a creator God, but he does acknowledge the extraordinary series of coincidences that has been necessary to produce ourselves:

A universe hospitable to life – what we might call a biophilic universe – has to be very special in many ways. The prerequisites for any life – long-lived stable stars, a periodic table of atoms with complex chemistry, and so on – are sensitive to physical laws and could not have emerged from a Big Bang with a recipe that was even slightly different. Many recipes would lead to stillborn universes with no atoms, no chemistry, and no planets; or to universes too short lived or too empty to allow anything to evolve beyond sterile uniformity. This distinctive and special-seeming recipe seems to me a fundamental mystery that should not be brushed aside as merely a brute fact."

Hick's point in this chapter by citing the possible teleology of the cosmos is simply to argue that the Universe can be interpreted theistically.  The reality we find ourselves in is open to a host of explanations, not just explanations that assume materialism.  As Hick notes below, each worldview can be internally consistent while taking into account the other side(s).

"So in the west today religious faith is on the defensive in the public mind. This is a reversal of roles. A couple of hundred years ago it was the naturalistic thinker who had to show the dogmatic religious believer that the universe is ambiguous and does not have to be understood religiously, whereas today it is the other way round. It is now the religious person who has to show the dogmatic naturalistic humanist that the universe does not have to be understood as solely purposeless matter. The reality is that the universe is to us at present ambiguous as between religious and naturalistic interpretations. There can in principle be both complete and consistent naturalistic and also complete and consistent religious accounts of it, each including an account of the other."


John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: Naturalism as Today's Starting Point

After presenting "the big picture" of reality as he sees it, Hick acknowledges that his position is a minority one in today's world.  In contrast to any kind of religious outlook, modern society, in Hick's opinion, begins from a starting point of Naturalism.

"Naturalism, then, is the belief that reality consists exclusively in the multiple forms of discharging energy that constitute the physical universe. This includes our earth and the human and other forms of life on it, and hence the multitude of human brains and their functioning, which in turn includes the production of thought, language, feeling, emotion, and action. The status of such supposed non-physical realities as God, Brahman, Dharma, Tao, the soul or spirit, is that of ideas in the human mind, so that before there were human mind/brains to create them, they did not in any sense exist. Naturalism is thus equivalent to the qualified materialism which does not deny the existence of mentality, but holds that it is either identical with, or totally dependent from moment to moment upon, the electro-chemical functioning of the brain. In our western world, beginning around the seventeenth century, the earlier pervasive religious outlook has increasingly been replaced by an equally pervasive naturalistic outlook, and during the twentieth century this replacement has become almost complete. Naturalism has created the ‘consensus reality’ of our culture. It has become so ingrained that we no longer see it, but see everything else through it."

I'm not as convinced as Hick that Naturalism – the belief that physical matter is all that exists – is all-pervasive in society.  Perhaps in more academic circles, and perhaps more in Hick's homeland of Great Britain, but maybe not as much in modern America.  I would argue that, although modern Americans aren't as monolithically orthodox as they used to be, we are still a religious and/or spiritual people.  Regardless, in a more academic setting, you are more likely to have to argue for a non-Naturalist worldview than to assume it.  

To assume Naturalism, for Hick, is to assume a very bleak outlook on the world.  In his chapter Naturalism as Bad News for the Many, Hick quotes Bertrand Russell, who gives a sober summary of this worldview:

"That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy that rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built."

Although those born is comfortable situations can ignore this depressing "big picture" and take solace in the simple joys of life, they are only for a moment.  And not only that, but the vast majority of humans throughout history have not been born in a time and place that allow them a comfortable and enjoyable existence.  Countless have been born into poverty, disease, slavery, early death.  Naturalism, for Hick, leaves neither the comfortable nor the uncomfortable with any future hope.  It is "bad news for the many."  


John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: The Axial Age and Development of Religious Traditions

I am beginning a series on John Hick's The Fifth Dimension.  In this book, Hick argues that Transcendent Reality – what various traditions call God, Adonai, Allah, Brahman, the Tao, etc. – is an actual element of reality and that our relation to It, what he calls the "fifth dimension" of our nature (he never explicitly states this, but I believe the first four would be the three dimensions of space and the additional dimension of time), is an essential aspect of our being.

John Hick was a religious philosopher and expounded religious pluralism – the idea that the world's religious traditions point to "the experience of God," but that no particular tradition has a corner on truth.  I believe Hick lived within the Church until his death, interpreting his tradition as a "true myth."  He also wrote significantly about liberal understandings of Christianity, for instance in The Metaphor of God Incarnate

In the Introduction to this book, Hick very briefly traces primal religion through the beginnings of man, for instance noting that Neanderthals seemed to have beliefs in the afterlife as well as ritual burials.  The archaeological evidence from the beginning of man's history have even led some to label homo sapiens as homo religiosus – religious man; we are beings that seem to have "an inbuilt tendency to experience the natural in terms of the super-natural."

After touching on primal religion, Hick turns to the "Axial Age," during which most, if not all, of the world's enduring religious traditions were developed.   

"... around the middle of the first millennium BCE, in a band of time stretching from about 800 to about 200 BCE, remarkable individuals appeared across the world, standing out from their societies and proclaiming momentous new insights. In China there were Confucius, Mencius and Lao-Tzu (or the anonymous writers of the Tao Te Ching) and Mo-Tzu. In India there were Gautama, the Buddha; Mahavira, the founder of the Jain tradition; the writers of the Upanishads and later of the Bhagavad Gita. In Persia there was Zoroaster. In Palestine there were the great Hebrew prophets – Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, the Isaiahs, Ezekiel. In Greece there were Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. This immensely significant hinge in human thought has come to be known as the axial age. If we see Christianity as presupposing Judaism, and Islam as presupposing both Judaism and Christianity, all of the present major world religions trace their roots to this axial period.

Pre-axial or archaic people generally just accepted the given conditions of their lives. They did not stand back in thought to engage in critical reflection. They did not envisage alternatives that might lead to a fundamental dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs. Life was for them, as one anthropologist puts it, ‘a one-possibility thing’. But during the axial age, in large areas of the world, there were several mutually reinforcing developments: the formation of cities; the emergence of individual as distinguished from communal consciousness, first in rulers and religious leaders and then increasingly widely; and a sense of the unsatisfactoriness, the felt incompleteness of our ordinary human existence, found somehow lacking in a higher quality that nevertheless stands before us as a real possibility."


In the Axial Age, Hick argues that a growing sense of incompleteness or unsatisfactoriness of life developed in the major traditions.  In the West, this was primarily interpreted through the lens of sin and guilt, while in the East it was interpreted mainly as spiritual misunderstanding or "false consciousness."  In either understanding, the solution was to fundamentally shift our primary concern from fulfilling our self-will – a centeredness on self – to a new grounding or centeredness in The Divine, The Transcendent, The Ultimate.  


"The ‘western’ religions call this general distortion of human life sin, thus identifying guilt as the problem. The ‘eastern’ religions call it spiritual blindness, thus identifying false consciousness as the problem. But whether we regard moral evil as the expression of false consciousness, or false consciousness as the expression of sin, the distortion itself is a manifest reality; and it is from this that the post-axial religions offer to free us. Their function is to be enabling contexts of the transformation of human existence, a transformation from sinful and/or deluded self-centredness to a radically new orientation centred in the Divine, the Transcendent, the Ultimate, thus freeing what they variously call the true or selfless self, the atman, the universal buddha nature, the image of God within us. This radical change is a re-centring which produces an inner peace, serenity, joy, purity of heart, and clarity of moral vision."

Of the Transcendent Reality which we are to find our grounding in, the mystics can only say that It is ineffable – beyond our human understanding to conceive.  God can be experienced, but not fully understood intellectually.  

"The fifth dimension of our nature, the transcendent within us, answers to the fifth dimension of the universe, the transcendent without. In speaking of this, the limitations of language create a problem to which there is unfortunately no satisfactory solution. We want to refer to that which, according to the religions, is the ultimate object of human concern. In a western context we speak of God. And it is possible to use this familiar term with the stipulation that it points to the ultimate reality without however defining it, and so without prejudging whether that reality is personal or non-personal or even such that this duality does not apply. But in practice the long-established associations of the word as referring to an infinite divine Person are generally too strong for this stipulation to be effective. And so we resort to such terms as the Ultimate, Ultimate Reality, Absolute Reality, the Real, the Transcendent, the Divine, the Holy, the Eternal, the Infinite – with or without capitals. I shall use all of these, and even the grammatically improper ‘ultimately Real’, as a reminder that no one of them is entirely adequate. But I shall tend to favour either the Transcendent or the Ultimate or, even more, the Real, because this latter is the rough equivalent of both the Sanskrit sat and the Arabic al-Haqq. However we shall be continually up against the fact that language has developed in our struggle to cope with the material environment and that when we use it to refer to the transcendent it inevitably has non-literal meanings (i.e. not in accordance with the ordinary dictionary meanings of words). It is now allusive, suggestive, metaphorical, poetic, pointing rather than defining. And so we have continually to try to focus, not on the pointing finger of language, but on that to which it points. The mystics of the great traditions affirm almost unanimously that the Real is beyond human conceiving. It is ineffable or, as I prefer to say, transcategorial – outside the scope of the categories with which we think."


In his Introduction, what Hick has basically described as his "Big Picture" for understanding the structure of the universe is The Perennial Philosophy – that there is a Spiritual Ground to our existence, that this Reality can be experienced within the soul of each created being, and that our ultimate good is to align, ground ourselves in, or even "become one with," this Reality.  

Hick will spend the rest of The Fifth Dimension expanding on this idea and arguing that it provides a compelling view of the nature of reality. 

Quantum Physics, Consciousness, and an Observer

After posting Huxley today, I went down the trail of consciousness studies.  The brain as a reduction valve, "cosmic consciousness," the relationship between the mind and the brain – I've never known what to do with it all.  But when you enter into the world of meditation, these are the kinds of topics that come up.  It's a weird world. 

In the process of digging around, I came across an old favorite video of mine about Quantum Physics and the effect of an observer.  In the famous Double Slit Experiment, the simple act of observing actually affects how "matter" acts.  That's crazy.  Like absolutely nuts.  Reality is so weird.  

Aldous Huxley: Who Are We?

This is a somewhat meandering lecture by Aldous Huxley entitled "Who Are We?".  

A few pieces I find interesting:

  • What we think of as "I" is really a small part of what is going on in our "mind-body." Our conscious self is not our total self. Huxley uses the example of raising our hand. We aren't consciously flexing the necessary muscles; we will it, and it just happens. Likewise there are a host of processes our body completes without our explicit effort (digestion, circulation, etc.). He also uses the example of a parrot (5:10), which somehow has the ability to mimic sounds. Huxley refers to these unconscious processes as a "type of intelligence" that we experience, but are not consciously producing. The identity and nature of "the self" is a massive ongoing debate within religion and especially in contemplative forms of religion. A takeaway for me is simply that, when thinking about "who we are," things are not as straightforward as they first seem.

  • (11:20) Huxley here speaks about his famous image of the "brain as a reducing valve," in the sense that its primary function might be to limit the amount of reality we consciously experience, selected for survival value. We simply can't be aware and conscious of all that is going on around us as we would be too overwhelmed. Huxley believes that this reducing valve can be opened, and has been opened, by the great mystics and that similar experiences can be induced by various substances.

  • (21:00) We experience the world in terms of concepts, not direct immediate experience. Right now I think of myself as sitting on my couch and typing on my computer. In fact, I am experiencing a huge variety of sensations including various color impressions, a variety of sounds in my basement and from outside, many touch sensations coming from virtually all parts of my body, etc. When we experience life conceptually, we are actually one step removed from out immediate experience. This is one aspect of reality that vipassana meditation (as well as other forms of meditation) helps us to realize. Language and concepts are always "fingers pointing at the moon" of actual experience.

  • (36:50) "We have to combine relaxation with activity." In art, sport, the intellectual life, the spiritual life, etc. we are at our best when we get out of the way of inspiration. The painting paints itself, the song writes itself, the dance dances itself, the life lives itself. We are at our best when we are passive channels of what might be called "inspiration." In the contemplative/spiritual life, this might be spoken of as "letting God live through you."

  • (44:40) How do we open ourselves to God / The Ultimate? How do we get rid of the "partial, relative, ego-centered view of the world?" At 51:54, Huxley discusses various spiritual exercises including concentration practices, and eventually seems to describe vipassana at 54:00, which he sees leading to "an awareness of consciousness," or "consciousness without thought." I would also posit Centering Prayer as a method of reaching this state. In my mind the practice of Centering Prayer is actually a more natural fit for reaching the state that Huxley describes. Of course one's experience of a particular practice is a personal matter and how each practice uniquely affects the mind is up for debate.

Progressive Christians and Loneliness

From time to time I'll shout out to great blogs out there.  I regularly read Richard Beck who blogs at Experimental Theology.  He recently did a series on post-Evangelicals and the lack of a "tribe" which I really resonated with.  I am post-Evangelical and miss a lot about the communities I grew up in.  I also now feel adrift – a lone wolf without much of a home.

One option for dealing with this that comes to mind is community based purely on spiritual experience, such as Quakerism.  As I've mentioned before, if I land anywhere as far as an official religious structure, it'll probably be there.

This is my favorite post from that series.

I also occasionally read Peter Enns, and resonate with his similar thoughts here.  

Singing Your Prayers

I've done a lot of things for a living.  Right now I drive a bus.

My bus is small, designed for people with disabilities and the elderly who have trouble getting around town.  So I get a chance to talk to my riders.

Last week, I picked up an older asian woman, and we had a long ride together.  On the way, she played some music from her phone.  

I didn't recognize the language, so I asked her what the lyrics said.  Her English was broken, so we struggled to have a conversation about it, but she told me they were "prayers to God."  She said they helped her "have a healthy mind and spirit."  It was beautiful music and I enjoyed listening on the ride, even though I didn't understand the words.  As a side note, she also told me she was Buddhist, so to say that "Buddhists don't believe in God" is too simple.  Buddhism is far too diverse for those kinds of statements.  

The encounter reminded me of an old co-worker I used to drive to work with.  She is Hindu and the music she played in the car was often prayers/chants in the Hindi language.  I found it beautiful. 

Singing your prayers.  

Psychedelics and Mystical Experience


Michael Pollan of all people has a new book about the history and potential current uses of psychedelics in America.  In How to Change Your Mind, Pollan reviews the scientific research around the use of these substances (focusing mostly on LSD and psilocybin) and even documents his own "trips."  

Aldous Huxely, The Doors of Perception, The Perennial Philosophy, "mystical experience," scientific understandings, the mind/brain problem, William James – it's all here.  And from a guy who mostly writes about food!

Coincidentally, the Buddhist Geeks have recently been doing a series on the use of various substances to induce "mystical experiences." 

I don't know that I would ever go down that route (and my hunch is that many of the historical contemplatives I study also wouldn't suggest it, likely seeing it as a "craving for experience" instead of a cultivation of detachment and a simple love of God), but the topic is one of the most interesting in modern discussions of spirituality. 

Eckhart as "Patron Saint" of the Perennial Movement?


"Despite Eckhart's longtime reputation as an honorary Protestant and his enthusiastic reception among nineteenth-century Romantics and Idealists, mainstream Protestants, particularly German Lutherans, have been slower to embrace the master fully because of his association with "Catholic" mysticism. The great church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) proclaimed that "mysticism can never be made Protestant without slapping history and Catholicism in the face." As theologian Karl Barth (1886-1930) argued, mysticism propagates a path to salvation "that completely bypasses the biblical history of salvation and the Last Days." Since the 1960's Protestant believers have been worried less by the Catholic context of Meister Eckhart and other mystics than by the latter's growing association with several New Age – and presumably unscriptural – approaches to enlightenment. That cautiousness continues today, although many American Protestants, including evangelicals, are increasingly discovering worthwhile spiritual insights in the words of the medieval master.

Most commonly since the mid-twentieth century, the master has been praised as a bridge to Asian religions and philosophies. In his correspondence with Thomas Merton, Japanese scholar D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966) called Eckhart "the one Zen thinker of the West." The just man's inner Christ nature described by the medieval master looks remarkably similar to the internal Buddha nature of Mahayana tradition, as does Eckhart's combination of the contemplative-active life of love. Letting-go-ness lines up nicely wiht Zen "no-mind" (wuxin) as well as the Taoist "no action" (wuwei). The Buddha also remained wary of human God-talk and aspired to a unity with the ultimate similar to Eckhart's deification. The many resemblances are indeed striking.

Several modern observers have also notes Meister Eckhart's kinship with parts of the Hindu Tradition, particularly the Advaita Vedanta school. The Tamil writer Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) exlaimed that "Eckhart's sermons might well be termed an Upanishad of Europe," noting the master's "astonishingly close parallel to Indian mods of thought; some whole passages and many single sentences read like a direct translation from Sanskrit." Here too, some Eckhatian terms seem to have other religious equivalents, such as Brahman for the ground, and neti-neti (not his, not that) for the ineffability of the divine mystery. Above all, both Eckhart and the Vedanta school emphasize the necessity of intuition to experience the entirely of reality, which then leads to loving kindness.

Both Islam and Judaism also have their own strong mystical traditions, and here too many notable similarities to Meister Eckhart's teachings emerge. Like Eckhart, his near contemporary, the great Sufi master Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) sought a religious philosophy that would above all be practical for genuine spiritual seekers. His Perfect Human, like Eckhart's Just Man, has realized the divinity within – the inseparableness from the divine essense in the eternal Now – and has dedicated himself or herself to a life of perfect love. The fantastically popular Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi (107-73) prefigures his Christian counterpart's language and message even more strikingly. With evocative images and meticulously crafted phrasing, Rumi describes his own relentless pursuit of union (fana) with "the Beloved." The experience of this mystery, which most non-Sufis reject as heretical, is like no other. Coincidentally, a Jewish contemporary of Eckhart and Rumi, the mystic philosopher Abraham Abulafia (140-91) taught a similar kind of divine union, known as mediative Kabbalahism, which remaines likewise controversial among modern Jews.

Meister Eckhart's seemingly universal applicability among virtually all the world's religions accounts for his particularly popularity in the rapidly growing belief in religious syncretism, also known as perennialism (and sometimes called religious pluralism). This is the conviction that all the world's religions share a common essential truth, which has since been fractured into various rituals, doctrines, and other structures. Given that Meister Eckhart in fact sough such a universal religious philosophy, it's little surprise that he has proven such a superstar among its adherents. The Neoplatonist Agostino Steuco (1497-1545) coined "perennial philosophy," to describe a common, transcendent truth evident in both classical Greek philosophy and later religious traditions. Steuco's idea lay largely dormant until spreading among the Deists of hte eighteenth century and even more spectacularly among the Transcendentalists, Universalists, and Theosophists of the nineteenth century. In 1945, Aldous Huxly (1894-1963) published The Perennial Philosophy, in which Eckhart plays a prominent role, taking the universalist perspective into popular culture. Since then, perennialism has become closely associated with various New Age writers as well as some ecumenists among Christian denominations.

At least on the surface, Eckhart could qualify as the patron saint of the perennial movement. Like its modern advocates, he rejected the materialism of human society to seek a hidden, spiritual truth. He was also remarkably inclusive in his sources for past wisdom, consulting not just Christian thinkers, but also Jews, Muslims, and ancient pagans. Although a Christian (and member of the clergy!), he stressed individual, internal transformation over external rituals or doctrines. His approach was egalitarian, not requiring a high degree of learning or other special gnosis. And above all, his sermons were practical and encouraging, full of colorful metaphors, memorable aphorisms, and answers to anticipated questions. There was but one goal, union with God, which modern followers refer to as ultimate reality – and Eckhart would not disagree with the characterization."

– Joel F. Harrington, Dangerous Mystic

Place Yourself in Darkness and in Unknowing


"Meister Eckhart's mature understanding of letting-go-ness was comprehensive. Not only must the sinner let go of the world and sin, but also of all the traditional remedies proposed by the Church: pious acts of devotion and petitionary prayer aimed at flawed human notions of "God." The seeker had to let go of all images, desires, and thought itself. Only then was he or she ready for the final step in Eckhart's way to God, which is to be silent and let God work and speak within. Typically, the seeker was more aware of a quiet places, but that requirement, Eckhart clarified, reflected human imperfection more than divine nature, for God is equally in all things and places. Most importantly, he continued,

all your activity must cease and all your powers must serve [God's] ends, not your own...No creaturely skill, nor your own wisdom nor all your knowledge can enable you to know God divinely. For you to know God in God's way, your knowing must become a pure unknowing, and a forgetting of yourself and all creatures. Now you might say, 'Well, sire, what use is my intellect then, if it is supposed to be empty and functionless? Is that the best thing for me to do – to raise my mind to an unknowing knowledge that can't really exist? For if I knew anything at all it would not be ignorance, and I should not be empty and bare. Am I supposed to be in total darkness?' Certainly. You cannot do better than to place yourself in darkness and in unknowing."

– Joel Harrington, Dangerous Mystic (italicized words are direct quotes from Eckhart's sermons)


The similarity of Eckhart's thought to The Cloud of Unknowing here is obvious.  

Man Reaches The Peak Of His Knowledge of God When He Realizes That He Does Not Know Him

Some irony from scholastic theologians, and perhaps for today's "Systematic Theologians" out there...

"Seven years had passed since Eckhart's previous professorship in Paris. Although he had continued to work on his Opus Tripartitum during that time, progress had been slow amid all his travel and administrative work on behalf of the order. Eckhart's second regent professorship in Paris offered him the time and resources to make significant progress on the Opus. Ironically, it was at just this point that his ambitious intellectual pursuit of God appears to have hit a deeply troubling impasse – namely the outer limits of human reason. It was a paradox that Aquinas too had discovered during the composition of his own Summa: 'Man reaches the peak of his knowledge of God when he realizes that he does not know Him, understanding that the divine reality surpasses all human conception of it.' Shortly before his own death, in fact, the Angelic Doctor had experienced a deeper understanding of the divine that 'made everything I had written seem as straw.' For Aquinas and Eckhart, all human perceptions, however logical, remained limited by the derivative and subsequently partial nature of our own understanding...

Over the past several years, the master had become increasingly intrigued by an alternate way of knowing God – the intuitive or 'mystical' approach embraced by his spiritual father, Augustine. According to Eckhart, Augustine had grasped that theologians were always trying to balance the understanding of God offered 'through a glass darkly' by reason with other wisdom obtained more directly by nonrational experience of the divine. Now Eckhart decided that knowing God intuitively from within was no longer merely a complementary method to knowing God from without through rational inquiry, but was in many important ways superior to it. The master never completely abandoned his philosophical work, but he increasingly acknowledged its inadequacies, particularly in reaching his own ultimate goal of achieving direct experience of the divine."

– Joel F. Harrington, Dangerous Mystic

We Do Not Know Ourselves

I'm not sure what to make of Jungian psychology, but I came across this statement today in his Man and His Symbols:







"Our psyche is part of nature, and its enigma is as limitless."







Its enigma is as limitless.  One thing a meditation practice will teach you is that you do not know yourself.  Not that you are analyzing yourself during meditation, but I think it makes you overall more aware of all the various drives, motivations, traumas, etc. swimming around in your mind.  I often think of the psyche as an ocean with no bottom.

One of the hopes of having a regular practice is that the psyche is pliable.  That we can actually be changed, through the practice, in a deep and lasting way.  

But I'm not sure we'll ever really know who we are.  I think what matters is the healing – the positive change – if such a thing is actually happening.  Not the self-knowledge.  

A Right State


"I was asked, 'Some people shun all company and always want to be alone; their peace depends on it, and on being in church. Was that the best thing?' And I said, 'No!' Now I see why. He who is in a right state, is always in a right state wherever he is, and with everybody. But if a man is in a wrong state, he is so everywhere and with anybody."

– Meister Eckhart, Quoted in Dangerous Mystic

The "right state," according to Eckhart, is a state of detachment from our own self-will.  

"In true obedience there should be no trace of 'I want so-and-so,' or 'this and that,' but a going out of your own."

If a man is in the right state, he is at peace in any situation, at any place, with anyone.  If he is in the wrong state, it doesn't matter where he is or who he is with.  Internal state trumps external circumstances.  

Dangerous Mystic


I just got through reading this biography of Meister Eckhart.  Very good.

The popular image of Eckhart is that of a pure mystic, probably out in an isolated cottage somewhere, absorbed in the presence of God, maybe occasionally counseling a wandering seeker. 

Eckhart was a professor at the University of Paris.  He held several official positions in the Dominican order of the Catholic Church.  He was extremely well educated in scholastic theology and philosophy.  But, like Aquinas, Eckhart eventually became disillusioned with academic theology and its ability to lead a soul to God.   Rather, he turned to experience, teaching that each individual could find God by turning within in silence.

Also his first name wasn't Meister, but rather just Eckhart.  Meister is a title meaning "master" or "teacher."  I did not know that.

Great, engaging read.  

Limit Your Screentime

The last few days I've left the computer at home, gone out with a stack of books, and got to it.  I often read on a Kindle app on my computer or iPad, but recently I've returned to good old-fashioned books.

It's better for your soul.  

A few observations:

1. I have got into more good conversations with people at coffee shops or book stores in the last few days than I have in the previous few months.  It's partly because when you're not "plugged in," you present yourself as more open to being engaged.  It's also partly because I feel like I am thinking more clearly without screen time.  I want to engage people in conversation more.  It feels natural.  I'm in "the real world."

2. We have way more capacity for sustained attention than we think.  Being on a device lends itself to constant distraction.  Read a passage, check your email, read a passage, look up a book on Amazon, check the news, watch a video, check the price of my cryptocurrency investment, read a blog, read a passage.  

Without the screen, I can give my full attention to what I'm reading for a significant amount of time.  I just got through reading a 500 page novel and a 300 page historical study.  No way I could do that on my iPad.  Even if I go back and forth between a few books during a specific reading time, it's just different.  I'm fully in it.  

An interesting study on this ability (or inability) for sustained attention is found in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

3. I don't worry about my stuff being stolen when I go to the bathroom.  I go to the bathroom in complete peace. 


The author of The Cloud of Unknowing recommends that an aspiring contemplative cultivates three habits.




"Nevertheless, anyone who aspires to contemplation ought to cultivate Study, Reflection, and Prayer, or to put it differently, reading, thinking, and praying."







Reading.  Thinking.  Praying.  I think I do those things better when I'm not on or near a screen. 

Spiritual Practice and Anxiety

Just a reminder that spiritual practice can induce periods of increased anxiety.  In Centering Prayer, my own tradition, this is sometimes spoken of as the "unloading of the unconscious" which can include exposure to past traumas.  

"I call this third moment in the circular movement of Centering Prayer 'the unloading of the unconscious.' 'Unloading' refers to the experience of psychological nausea that occurs in the form of bombardment of thoughts and feelings that surge into our awareness without any relationship to the immediate past. That lack of connection with the source of painful thoughts or feelings is what identifies them as coming from our unconscious...Having carried this emotional pain for twenty or thirty years (or longer), the evacuation process may be extremely painful..."

–Thomas Keating, Intimacy with God


"...Centering Prayer is a psychological method and will produce results in that realm, some of them initially painful. In Intimacy with God Keating recounts how a graduate student recently did a thesis on Centering Prayer, along with several forms of Eastern meditation, recommending them as a way to reduce anxiety. Keating wrote back to the man saying, 'Centering Prayer will reduce anxiety for perhaps the first three months. But once the unconscious starts to unload, it will give you more anxiety than you ever had in your life.' For individual practitioners he recommends a limited dosage— twenty to thirty minutes twice a day is the normal prescription— to prevent the premature emergence of material into the conscious. Ten-day retreats rely on a trained staff to help handle a more intensive unloading process."

– Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening


I have heard and read of similar experiences from those who practice Vipassana and Zazen meditation.  While "the benefits of meditation" in the long term may include a more consistent inner calm, ups and downs are a normal part of most spiritual paths.  

Boom goes the dynamite...


Schools of Buddhism


This is the best graphic I could find on the branches of Buddhism.  You can get a sense of just how much diversity exists within Buddhism, to the point that it may not even be helpful to talk about "Buddhism," but rather "Buddhisms."  


From what I understand, Theravada, sometimes called "the Way of The Elders," is the most conservative branch, and strives more than the others to follow every rule and every teaching of the Buddha strictly as found in the Pali Canon.  "Western Buddhism" draws mostly from the Theravada tradition.  Mahayana, sometimes called "the Great Vehicle," is the most liberal of the branches, being freely combined with other philosophies such as Confucianism and Taoism and even adding unique Buddhist texts, creating "hybrid schools."  In general, there is less stress on following the Buddha's teachings strictly and more openness to new developments in Mahayana schools.  Vajrayana, sometimes called the Thunderbolt Vehicle, is a smaller branch and is focused on ritual and tantras/mantras.  Tibetan Buddhism is probably the most well known modern expression of Vajrayana.  

Zen stands out as a "sub-branch" which is also familiar to Westerners.  I have heard Zen referred to as "Buddhism gone to China," and also as a fusion of Buddhism and Taoism.  There are, of course, sub-divisions of Zen as well.  

The branches of Buddhism seem to me far more diverse than the major branches of Christianity.  When studying a particular Buddhist teaching, it is important to know which type of Buddhism you are engaging.  

This will end the extended series on the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path of Buddhism.  

Jhana Meditation


Right Concentration is the eighth branch of the Eightfold Noble Path and involves the practice of Jhana meditation.

I understand the concept of a concentration practice, but dang official Jhana meditation is complicated.  The basic practice itself seems to start fairly simply, with concentration on the breath (as a side note, this is essentially zazen meditation), but as it progresses you are moving through a lot of different objects of concentration and there is a high degree of systematizing of various mindstates that arise (i.e. am I in First Jhana?  Second Jhana?  etc.).

From a non-Buddhist perspective this is extremely esoteric.  I can see why mindfulness practice is extremely widespread while Jhana meditation is not.  It's just flat out complicated, and far more embedded within the Buddhist structure itself.

This is about as accessible a conversation I have heard about Jhana meditation and the book is good as well.  


Joseph Goldstein on Vipassana Meditation

This is a guided vipassana meditation and lecture from Joseph Goldstein, a senior teacher at the Insight Meditation Society.  The first 20 minutes is a guided meditation; the next 40 minutes is a lecture on mindfulness; and the rest is a question and answer time.  Goldstein defines mindfulness as "observing present experience, free of any filters" (41:30).  This is sometimes stated as "non-judgmentally" observing present moment experience.  Right Mindfulness is the seventh step of the Buddhist Eightfold path.