Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Self Contemplation and its Excess; Traditionalism

My experience with words is that people often say things without thinking through what the words actually mean, or what they have actually said — as opposed to what they think they said.

I’ll give you a couple of recent examples. One person made the following public comment in a response to a post I made on facebook:

It’s a shame to believe all humans have the luxury of pursuing self contemplation at the expense of understanding the suffering of others.

I’m not sure whether the author of this comment was implying that I believe such a thing (I don’t.) It does however invite comparison to a comment I made in the selfsame piece, 

"This is what it means and how it feels to be blind in the soul; enraged at the lack of love in others instead of dismayed by the lack of love in myself."

At the same time, after thinking about the comment for a while, in trying to understand exactly what it meant, I asked myself whether self contemplation is actually a luxury. The statement, after all, hinges on this premise; and if there is any weakness there, the statement empties itself into the void.

The word luxury means excess; and it seems difficult to argue that self contemplation is by its nature excessive. There is no doubt some forms of it may be excessive; (mine? hmm.) but we have specific words for those forms, such as narcissism—which in its origins exactly mirrors excessive self-contemplation. 

The argument, in other words, casts far too broad a net to be valid in the first place. I shall explain.

To contemplate is taken from the Latin templum, place of observation: con-templation means nothing more than to be in a place of observation. If we don’t see ourselves and how we are, how can we know how we're behaving, and whether we even begin to understand the suffering of others? It seems to me that the classic conundrum in front of us with many world leaders today, including our own President, is that they spend too little time and energy observing themselves and questioning their own behavior. Every doctorate in insensitivity towards others begins, accidentally or otherwise, with a course in refusing to consider the consequences of one’s own actions. The course is called ITOG 101: "It's The Other Guy 101." 

Everyone gets an A in this course.

In this sense, it's impossible to see self contemplation as a luxury; it is instead an absolutely essential service to others that begins in oneself. 

I will take the point one step further. One cannot understand how others suffer unless one develops compassion. In my own experience, one of the chief aims of self observation is to develop a much deeper and more organic compassion. 

Another example was a comment recently made to me about the difference between tradition and traditionalism. It’s safe to say I didn’t understand that comment either; it was brought to my attention later that I had missed the gist of the comment in its larger sense. Not surprising; and without a doubt my bad. My attention is less than perfect, like everyone else’s, and the one thing that stood out about the remark to me was that the person who made it said that traditionalism was not alive and vital, but dead. 

Now, these were some super-smart people having this discussion, probably out of my league, but I stopped listening at that point because it sounded wrong. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but when I was busted for repeating it in an incorrect context, I began to think about it at a bit more depth to understand why I stopped paying attention and what my negative reaction was all about in the first place. 

Traditionalism, in the Oxford English dictionary, is defined first as a Roman Catholic doctrine from the mid-1800s which maintains that everything that can be understood by man proceeds only from God and is the exclusive result of divine revelation. Traditionalism believes that human reason is ultimately incapable of attaining moral and religious truth. At least this is what the dictionaries all say about it. 

The second, less specific meaning is "the upholding or maintenance of tradition, especially so as to resist change." That force is also, so far as I can see, not only alive and well, but growing and kicking ass. The whole world is engaged on a perpetual mission to defend the future from the present by preserving the past.

The use of the word traditionalism hence seems inaccurate. Something may indeed be dead when it comes to tradition; but this particular thing doesn’t look like it’s the dead one. Religious fundamentalism is all about exactly this idea; and fundamentalism, whether Islamic, Christian, or otherwise, is a major force in today’s societies. Far from dead, it drives a tremendous amount of anger and destructive behavior towards secularism. 

I say things that are inaccurate myself; but generally speaking, when I write, I try to think through what I am saying as carefully as possible and express the ideas I’m up against in the best and most accurate way I can, given my limitations. Among which is the fact that I am, in my own eyes, basically an idiot. 

Both of these examples serve as cautionary tales against the proclamations (shouting-outs, clamor) we are all so prone to making. I make proclamations myself; and everyone around me does it as well. They’re all suspicious; few of them are carefully examined, and they all come out of the starting gate running lean and mean on the four strong legs of assumption, with a jockey who is certain he has already won.

The whole point of questioning everything, which is the idea not just behind the Gurdjieff work but behind the necessity of self-contemplation itself, is to bring a healthy and intelligent suspicion to the act of proclaiming. Thus I hereby proclaim that all proclamations are suspect; and what is suspect should be carefully examined — probably through contemplation. However, don't be sure, for I have proclaimed it. Gavel down.

There is, to be sure, some truth to the idea that many folks are struggling so mightily in their daily lives that it appears they don’t have much time to contemplate themselves. This comes down to what Gurdjieff called “pondering the sense and the aim of existence.” The myth is that those in the midst of poverty and oppression don't have time to think about their lives. 

This however, is simply one more unintentional yet glaring degradation of those who are so challenged: that they aren't able, because of circumstances, to think about their lives with care, the way other people do. They are incapable of philosophy, of self reflection.

I reject this. It is impossible. Give them credit: struggle and suffering generally tends to produce more reflection about life, rather than less. Here again, it is no luxury; there is no excess.

Every person does this in one form or another; human beings have a surprisingly consistent habit of examining their lives. Whether they do it from deep, shallow, small, or large perspectives, the action is nearly unavoidable. We have to see how we are and question ourselves in order to make basic moral decisions, such as, in the case of millennials, whether to get that tattoo we always wanted, or pay our college loan. Whether to use the food stamps for Doritos or fruits and vegetables. 

Unexamined, decisions like this, each one of which defines our relationship between our inner and outer life, our responsibilities, our health, and how mindful we are of our relationship to the world and other people, tend to go off the mark.

Speaking as a recovering alcoholic, I can say for certain that the one thing that helped me get sober was the contemplation — the observation — of where I actually was while I was drinking. AA stresses this kind of self-evaluation. It is not a luxury; it is a necessity for survival. I not only had to see where I was; I had to call up many people I had harmed and make amends to them. That action took place only after I had engaged in enough self observation to understand the harm that I had done others. 

There was no path to putting things right without that work.

This tool can be useful in any ordinary life situation; and the spiritual side of that tool is also emphasized in AA.

As to traditionalism, I think it arose long before the mid-1800s. The idea that all moral and spiritual authority, in fact all knowledge itself, comes from God and is ultimately beyond human understanding, is an ancient one that was, at a minimum, nearly ubiquitous current in medieval European society, even if the word wasn’t used to describe it. 

The 1800s produced a lot of isms — traditionalism, rationalism, transcendentalism. Almost all of these movements seem to be alive and kicking around us as I write this essay. So we basically still live in the 1800's: we are colonial, rationalist, racist, self serving and imperialist. 

In a not-so-strange but instead predictable twist of fate, other nations and peoples who were subjected to these forces by white Europeans more than 200 years ago have followed our own society into the same quicksand, instead of improving things. So many want  to get on the bandwagon of hatred, blame, accusation and discrimination, one almost begins to think there must be something good about it.

We can do better; but not if we don't start by seeing how we actually are.

Go and sense, and be well.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

The Moment Opens

April 4

This morning I find myself in the middle of experience of life once again. 

I sit down. 

I don't know what I'll write.

The moment opens.

My imagination is designed to extend its branches into the future. It's designed to grow its roots in the past. Yet the trunk of my tree, the solid organ of awareness that keeps all the fluids of spiritual life flowing upwards and downwards, is here in this now. 

The stubbornness of my mind and its insistence on dwelling in the past and future causes me to look away from where I am now; and in fact where I am now is all there is.

I ought to pay much better attention to this. Everything that is truly needed in life can be found here and now. The past and the future are mere accessories to it. My sensation, my intelligence, and my feelings are all designed to be here where I am, not invested in things that have already happened or things that might happen or I wish would happen. The present can include all those things, but it is never of them.

This morning I was reading Meister Eckhart's sermon, On Detachment. In a certain sense, what he says in the sermon applies to my question about Being in the immediate. To Be in the present bereft of concern. To attend to it with attention and kindness and love, without any special regard for its nature other than these essential qualities of Being. All this has something to do with detachment. 

I meet today as it is. I meet the facts as they are. I don't use “alternative” facts – my own alternative facts, or anyone else's. The facts are simple things that emerge from within the receiving of life as it is. Each moment it is so… or it is so. This needs to be appreciated without baggage. Metaphysics travels best when its suitcases are left behind.

I don't even really want to think about being detached. That, as well, is a form of attachment. Much of thought begins by making things more complicated than they actually are. The immediate, if I understand the term properly within my organic sensation, is unmediated in the sense that it hasn’t been interfered with by my thinking part. It's simply what is here. It doesn't concern itself so much with what isn't here... only exactly to the precise extent necessary.

Speaking of the stubbornness of the mind, it must be noted that the mind – the associative intellect and all of its machinations –is largely dispensable. Like a disobedient child, it insists on being here and inflicting my presumptions on every moment that arises; yet the moment itself already has freedom in it insofar as the mind doesn't touch it. 

I can enter that freedom within the immediate moment if I'm willing to move one step —one tiny step, that's all—past where I am in my thought, and into my body and my sensation. This isn't far away, and it's not such a big thing. Not exotic; just practical. If I allow this, then life and the sensation of it becomes the teacher.

Ask a pupil in this action, I can learn something about what is happening here. About life. And I’d like to understand life: in every real moment I see so clearly that I don’t understand much of anything, and that any real understanding has to begin first with Being. 

Think about it. We all thought we understood what life was, what was going on—and then the virus came along and turned pretty much everything on its head. Now it turns out that the only definite thing we can say is, "I am." Most other assumptions are shattered. There's a lot of talk about that; yet the essential point is that this shock brings us a bit, even if a little bit, towards Being, by disrupting the perpetually arrogant flow of our assumptions.

I can’t begin with understanding in order to figure out how to Be.

I know this sounds complex and sounds like some sophisticated form of metaphysics, but it isn't. It’s an inner action that acknowledges the simplicity of life instead of embroidering it until the fabric is concealed under all the needle work.

This simplicity, which I can become much more intimate with, is of very fine texture and equal to the greatest of blessings. 

It’s ours to participate in in so far as we are willing to leave ourselves behind, and instead inhabit this most immediate and most sacred quality of Being—

which is our birthright.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

The Composition of Being

April 2.

I'm sitting here quietly with an eye to gathering inner force before the day begins in earnest.

There's always the outer world and my response to it. The circumstances in the outer world are immensely complex, beginning in the molecular and ending in the personal. 

My responses emerge from an equally complex inner space which, as Rilke pointed out, I don't know much about. 

Even if I become aware that it's there, its workings are mostly hidden and remain a mystery. Both worlds, inner and outer, begin with the molecular. I say this rather than with the atoms, because atoms as individual entities haven’t yet formed the complex and essential relationships where our level of life begins.

So everything begins in the molecular; and a gathering of molecular vibrations from outside meets a gathering of molecular vibrations from inside. It's between these two sets of circumstances —what Victor Frankl called stimulus and response, as a friend reminded me last night—that my agency inserts itself. By this I mean, my awareness, my Being.

Awareness, if it's present, causes me to become responsible to what takes place in the space between the two worlds. The moment that I become aware of them, a phenomenon called care has the potential to arise. I can take responsibility – that is, I can be there for what I do, instead of letting it affect me as a reflex.

In my own experience, there's only one factor that provides the continuity of awareness that makes this possible, and that's the organic sensation of Being. 

This sensation of Being is a subtle force of intelligence at the exact rate of vibration needed to fill the interval between the inner and the outer world. I'll draw an analogy in musical composition to try and explain this.

Musical composition finds its essential center of gravity in the tension between the moments of silence, where no note is played, and the moments where a note is sounded. There are times when the tiniest inflecion of when one of those notes begins makes a huge difference to the way the sound of the song projects itself, and whether or not it creates an interest in the listener. I've noticed, for example, when working with others on vocal parts, that it's very difficult to convey the inflection of phrasing to them. One might need, for example, to begin a note a tiny fraction of a beat early in order to make it sound right –and knowing this when composing is a matter of instinct. All of it depends on how all of the other notes are functioning together, the way their vibrations blend. It's in the timing. 

That being said, composition to a great extent relies on exploiting the spaces between the other notes, creating separations and then knowing exactly what to insert between them. 

A space between two notes with exactly the right vibration inserted between them creates a subtle form of magic which can't be explained in words; but anyone who listens to music carefully instinctively understands it with a different part of themselves. Musical theory knows that there are laws about such things, and manages to explain some of them. But you don't need to understand musical theory to know whether a piece of music sounds correct or not. 

Even when it does, a piece of music can be correct and not sound good.

The vibration of organic sensation is something like this. Like musical notes, it has a range of expression, but in and of itself it is an instrument – the instrument — which is uniquely capable of inserting a special kind of awareness within each moment. It's an organ.

It provides the continuity which is lacking in the attention-capacity of the intellect. Another way of expressing it is that it has a durability and a voluntary action that the intellect is incapable of. 

In actively experiencing this, one discovers that the intellect is relatively weak; but organic sensation is extraordinarily strong when it's active. It provides a bridge that fills the gap and allows a nearly constant sense of presence.

One might think this provides answers; but that isn't quite true, even though there are some significant “answers" in this observation. Actually what it does is position me actively in the place where the question of what life is arises. 

That question needs to be asked perpetually and without any respite. The moment that this question falls asleep, I act automatically and without care. 

My intention today – as every day— is to act with a little more care, and my sensation becomes the majority partner in that effort: but only if I understand its nature and make room for it. 

I'm called to care about life, especially my relationship to others. The parts of my inner being that are obscured from my direct inspection can provide tremendous support for that, if I learn to respect them and offer a place for them in the landscape of my daily awareness. 

Sensation is one such part.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Death has no Knees: From the Covid Diaries, May 29

From the Covid Diaries, May 29, 2020

Yesterday I thought and wrote about the Mediterranean, the deep blue and green colors that the ocean holds within its heart — a reflection of the depths of the universe and the same intuitive, yet unknowable, color of the sky. Water reflects the heavens; and somewhere in the fluidity and density of water there’s a mirror of flexibility and spaciousness, an echo of the medium the stars exist in. 

It’s not necessarily the density of matter that determines the nature of existence; it is its quality. There’s a finer quality in the nature of vibration that arises across the spectrum. It concentrates itself both in the dense and the rarefied.

I myself am pretty dense. I’m dense in terms of matter; my body is much heavier and thicker than the air I breathe in. But I’m also dense psychologically; I live in a thicket of emotions and thoughts that it needs more than a spiritual machete to cut my way out of. I can’t use the brute force of self-help to find my way into a clearing; yet I need to see where I am, and with all of this undergrowth around me, that often seems difficult.

Instead, I try to relax inside myself and sense the depth I live in, the colors around me. Like quicksand, it sometimes seems to me that the more I struggle in my psychology, the deeper I sink in it. Maybe you know what I mean. Our thoughts and our emotions are a viscous material; we get stuck in them and no matter how hard we try, they won’t relax their grip.

So instead I just sit here and let go. 

I exhale and let go. 

The birds are singing. 

I’m dictating this text. 

There is a goodness that flows into existence quite naturally in the simpleness of just being here. It brings a different intelligence into life. Yet no matter how much I am here, no matter how deeply I come into relationship with the unknowable colors of Being that exist in me, there is always a beyond into which I can’t penetrate.

From that place beyond, which is even more unknowable than the color of time and all its depth, comes a force that meets me. 

This force is so much greater than I am that it beggars the imagination. I see that even my imagination is a tiny thing, despite the expanse that it imagines it makes available to me. I come up against the unimaginable; it’s an unknown that I didn’t know I didn’t know about. From somewhere in that place, an emanation arrives: a love that flows into me which isn’t my own love, but the gift of life itself. It’s the source of the real, I know at once in the place where it so gently touches me; and I have the privilege, if I wish to exercise it, of carrying that in me during the day. 

So that’s where I’m starting this morning. At the point where the unknown touches my being from within in the darkness.

Yesterday, the news about my mother was relatively grim. She now has pneumonia, which the medical establishment — meaning well, and in its mindlessly infinite lack of mindfulness — is treating with antibiotics, even though we know it is Covid19 and thus viral in nature. We have to do something, apparently, even though there is nothing to be done. 

One option would be to wait quietly for the next truth; but our way as human beings is to always try to force the truth to come to us on its knees. Death, however, is the one truth that always comes to us erect and looking at us right in the eye. 

It has no knees.

I have to find a way to give this moment its dignity, regardless of the forms that surround it. It’s not, after all, even here yet; the doctor has advised me — based on her own real experience, which I also need to respect — that my mother could still recover. This is equally true; and so I spend each day balanced, from the emotional point of view, between many conflicting impressions: preparing for my mother’s death. Preparing for her to live. Wishing that she could be released from the limbo she has been in since her stroke. Wishing she would stay with us so that we can spend more time with her and the gentle charity of her simplicity and positive attitude. 

It turns out you can wish for someone to live and to die at the same time. They didn’t write about that in the novels; they didn’t teach it in college or in church. The very idea itself is as vast as the unknowable colors we dwell within. It brings a depth of feeling, which is different than the emotions and more objective. 

It just tells me that I am here and will need to move into the next moment with as much compassion and intelligence as I can muster.

I get a lot of advice from friends that love me, some who I haven’t heard from for several years. These are amazing people; I love them as deep in my heart as I can love anything, and yet they can’t really help. Even though it’s impossible for them to help me, or for me to help others emotionally, I have a duty to receive their offer of help and respect it. Maybe the most important part of that is to be there with the love that’s offered; it’s one more manifestation from the unimaginable realm where love flows into being, and I need to turn all of the force in my own being towards a better respect for that gift. In the end, after all, it’s the quality of the people that colors the universe around me; and I have been blessed beyond measure with the quality of the people in my life who I love and who love me. I see as I grow older that it’s functionally impossible for me to bring enough gratitude and thanks to my life and to God for the life I have been given and the people that have been put in it. Even the worst of them have been the best of teachers. 

When I pay attention, that becomes much clearer.

Now this place between life and death is the teacher. It’s interesting; when you are caught between deeply conflicted feelings, you have no choice but to surrender. To feel has its own rationale within it; it is powerful enough to defeat my wish to do anything with it. I just have to be here and accept.

I remember going away to summer camp in 1968. We had just returned to Hamburg and moved into a large house which befitted my father’s lofty position as the general manager of Colgate-Palmolive Germany. The house was haunted by a profoundly terrifying and deeply disturbing poltergeist which had, it seems, taken up permanent residence — according to reports from friends, it was still there many years later, long after my parents had moved into the suburbs, where the only spirits haunting the far newer house were the alcoholic ones. 

Getting me ready for summer camp was uncharacteristically disorganized. Despite the rivers of booze eroding the family riverbank, my mother usually had about 90% of her shit together. 

Not this time.

The summer camp was in Denmark, and I had to go up there on a train. I was to meet the other campers and a counselor in a group on the train. 

Somehow, trunks were not packed. Cars weren’t ready. The traffic was bad. 

Did I mention it? Does it even need to be explained?

German trains always leave EXACTLY on time. 

All of these facts militated together and produced panic. We ended up racing to the train station in a mad rush, got out of the car while my father tried to find parking, and made it to the platform in that exact scene from the movie where the train is pulling out of the station, people are waving out the windows, the conductor is scowling from the door at the late comer, and there is no time for goodbyes. We had zero time to find the right car; we only knew it was the right train. My trunk wasn’t with us. It was back in the car with my father, undoubtedly resigning himself to some debilitating form of blameful ass-kicking from Helen once the initial act of the fiasco was over.

My mother had her imperious, on-a-mission-from-God cloak drawn around her like a shroud. She looked me in the eye and said, 

get on the train. 

It sounded ridiculous; we didn’t know who we were looking for or where they were. No handoff had been effected. She knew it was ridiculous; there was a look in her eyes that was a mixture of both desperation, confidence, and trust. I think it somehow embodied this present moment of being between life and the unknown— and having to trust them both. 

I got on the train. 

There were tears and a hint desperation in my mother’s eyes. For me, there was nowhere else to go but forward. 

The conductor, who had developed a minor sympathy for this American kid that got shoved on the train by his objectively insane and irresponsible mother (sie sind aber verr├╝ckt, die Amerikaner), led me on a lurching exploration of car after car, until we stumbled into a car with a small group of American kids. 

I was saved.

The summer camp was populated with Americans from all over Europe. Hippie counselors sang Peter Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan songs to folk guitar, introducing us to innocent versions of the subversion and revolutionary spirit we would later adopt as we grew our hair long and swilled psychedelics that ripped the unknown open like a gift box on Christmas morning. My footlocker didn’t show up for three days, during which I lived in the same clothing and played soccer in my good shoes, which did not survive the experience. The counselors told ghost stories so horrifying we were afraid to get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I learned how to sail. We went on a 50-kilometer bike trek and slept in a barn on bales of hay. All of this from an experience that I was thrown headfirst into with no preparation to speak of.

I suppose, in the end, that it was an analogy for everything life is about. 

We’re forever getting shoved onto trains that are leaving the station, arriving at the last minute and having to take a leap of faith in order to find our future before it leaves without us. 

There are always ghosts in the basement and the attic. 

The hint of revolution is always in the air; it comes in innocent clothing, smiling and singing, and we forget how prone it is to smashing things in the name of goodness.

Somewhere in all of this there arises a great cry of anguish in me. I do not love enough; and I don’t know how to. 

Only that love that comes from the other side, from that place that I do not know and cannot understand, is truly real; and it seems to have put me on the train without the footlocker.

As always, I'll just have to work it out. It has to begin with faith and the trust that I am in the right place, and have been given the responsibility to meet the moment and to figure it out.

Go... and sense, and be well.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Owl at Lyons

Let’s consider, for a few moments, the age-worn owl carved on the otherwise unadorned exterior of the Lyons cathedral.

In the Middle Ages, cathedrals were meant to represent the entire cosmos — all of God’s creation. This owl in Lyons is a lonely little fellow surrounded by bare walls. It has silently and patiently presided over the bustle of the street for nearly nine centuries now.

Tiny owl, huge cathedral. Why did the builders put it there?

Symbolizing Athena, the goddess of wisdom, it’s meant to represent everything that man can know about the universe. The message of those who designed the cathedral was subtle: everything that human beings will ever understand is as nothing compared to the scale and magnificence of creation. Not an uncommon sentiment; but surely an uncommon way of expressing it. It represents a hidden understanding—an inner understanding.

In my writings on Hieronymus Bosch and his use of the owl as a symbol, I've often talked about how his owls are signifiers that a given painting is a wisdom painting, one with special inner significance. Bosch lived in northern Burgundy, and, as an accomplished, sought-after artist, we can presume he definitely would have visited Lyons during his lifetime. Not just Lyons, mind you: also many of the other great Gothic cathedrals in Burgundy. After all, the landscapes in his paintings are forever the rolling hills of Burgundy, not the flatlands of the Flemish countryside. This is the school of practice where he educated himself, visiting the heartland of gothic symbolic expression: Vezelay, Autun, to name just a couple of the utterly astonishing cathedrals in the region—and collecting a vast range of religious symbols, which he then deployed to incredible effect.


At the time, he was seeing these cathedrals only four hundred years or so after they were built. Time has not been kind; in his day, they were undoubtedly in much better states of preservation than they are now. I have little doubt that he drew inspiration from this single owl – unique, so far as I know, on the exterior of any Gothic cathedral — and what it meant when he chose the owl as his signifier for his paintings.

I used to think Bosch was telling us there was a special form of wisdom in a particular painting—spiritual insight, inner knowledge, embedded in the symbols. In pondering this today, I realize that there's an irony in this assumption of mine.

What the owl is actually meant to symbolize is the fact that we don't know anything. It's the equivalent of a “flaw” in each work which reminds us that our understanding is tiny and that we can create nothing perfect –that no matter how beautiful or smart or wise any painting is, it is as nothing compared to creation and to God. The owl serves, among other things, as a symbol of our limitations and a mark of humility.

We don't really know anything. If we reached the absolute limits of everything that it is in fact possible for a human being to know— if we understood dark matter, the secrets of creation – we still would know only a tiny little bit of what creation is. The fundament of its reality is shrouded in a mystery that will never be penetrated by the human mind or its proxies, our technical instruments. If we ponder the situation at any length, we may—as the medieval thinkers who put our owl in place did—begin to realize that the conceits of our sciences and technology are sheer arrogance. For example, we think we know a lot now, but in another two or 300 years, it’s nearly certain that much or even all of what we ”know“ to be true now will appear to the science of the future to be as primitive as the science of the alchemists is to us. Another 300 years after that, the same will take place all over again. Etc. This is an entirely normal course of events.

But why?

Our sciences and our knowledge are exclusively sciences and knowledge of the material—of stuff, of things. Even the psyche—which absolutely cannot be redacted to the realm of things—is expected to succumb to the same stupidness of modern western theory: inanimate matter animating itself by accident. Modern science—mechanistic rationalism— doesn’t want to understand the soul: its wants to exterminate it.

With all these so-called advances we have made (most of which have ultimately served as instruments with which to destroy other creatures and the planet we live on in one way or another, but why dwell on that perspicacious and supremely awkward fact?) there is no real science of the soul, no real science of responsibility. There is no real science of morality. If we studied these things with the zeal with which we study elements and compounds, materials and tensile strengths, perhaps something real would come of it. There’s evidence these subjects were studied in ancient times, but that baby was decisively tossed out with the bathwater during the Age of Enlightenment.
The center of gravity in a culture, in a society, in its Being, can’t be located in material things and our manipulation of them. We need to re-discover an intelligent moral, philosophical, love-based center of gravity. It's true that my generation seized on this idea when we were young and trivialized it by turning it into a hippie event; but the evident mistakes and accidents of youth and stupidity should not be used as an excuse to negate the very real need that they express.

We simply must try to do better than where we are now.

This time that much of the world is spending in self-enforced isolation can be compared to 40 days in the desert: a time to contemplate, a time to draw the center of one's attention back into oneself and discover a feeling for life that’s based around being a human being, not a fragment of flesh whose terms are dictated by the machines we invent.

We can’t know everything—yet we must know something more than nothing. If we are things, we know nothing. If we’re enslaved to things, we know nothing.

Where is our something?

I think it lies not the things we make, but the people we love.

It lies in our hearts, if we but seek it.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

May 30

So here I am this morning. 

I have a responsibility to life that begins when I breathe. 

It isn’t just some mechanical action; there is a duty to live. I haven’t been given life casually or by accident. 

My being is a container that was given to me to gather material. It is a delicate container with a lifespan; eventually, it won’t be able to collect impressions anymore. I’m a servant that was given this container with the task of going out to collect the goodness of life and concentrate its force.

All these things are, of course, allegories, yet they are a very good description of where I am. I start out with a responsibility; and yet instantly I forget it. 

When will I just be here instead of trying to be here? 

It takes a willingness to soften and receive life in a different way. That willingness has to begin at the root of who I am, not in the upper stories where I think about everything. I can’t even afford to think about the root; I need to inhabit it. 

I need to sense it.

There is a finer force even now that flows into me. My relationship with it can be the first thing I encounter, and the first thing I care about. My relationship with it can stay with me throughout the day. Believing that I will always fail and that this isn’t possible is a self-fulfilling prophecy, corrupted with confirmation bias. I have to have faith, hope, and love of and in consciousness. I cannot afford to disbelieve in my ability to serve.

Organic experience is factual experience. It’s objective experience. I inhabit this experience, and the mind quiets. It has so little power here, and it recognizes the authority present in a sensation of life. It is so different than thought itself that thought even stands aside in awe and respect. 

What is this new thing? It asks itself. 

Perhaps I should wait a minute and see.

Into this environment which pauses in my otherwise perpetual race downwards towards stupidity, a breath enters. 

Force is concentrated. 

A new relationship arises. 

Everything I wished for — even things I didn’t know I should wish for — is in it. In fact, it so far exceeds my wish I can see that my entire wish was mistaken. Yet it refuses to define itself; it leads and asks me to follow, always just out of sight. Moving into an unknown landscape that I am invited to participate in. 

The force merges with the search; they are one thing, this finer substance of Being and this longing for a return to the home that I left behind when I was born and no longer remember or recognize.

For a little while, I'm done with arguments. There is a gift here to be accepted; I can just take it and be with myself. 

Maybe this way, I will begin to better understand my responsibility, and the value which was put in my hands before I even asked for it.

Go... and sense, and be well.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Dead Kittens: From the Covid Diaries, May 28

The Covid Diaries

May 28

Yesterday it came to light that I had made a mistake in repeating something from a conversation that the other parties to it considered confidential. 

It was relatively minor, on the whole; nothing of any critical nature was revealed. On top of that, the person that brought it to my attention was surprisingly heavy-handed in the way they delivered the message. I was immediately irritated with myself for the breach of confidence; and paradoxically irritated with the individual who pointed it out, even though they were right. So my emotional reactions were well out in front of me.

First, do the right thing. I corrected the issue at once and apologized. After I had a bit of time to settle down, I realized that I shouldn’t take offense just because the other person was heavy-handed. On the whole, I decided, they were right; and this is what I should focus on. At the same time, I was left with that odd feeling of inner distaste for ourselves which we have when we have screwed something up. This, another emotional reaction, wasn’t helpful either. Before you know it, there was a whole ball of nylon fishing line knotted up inside me. 

I’m sure you know the feeling.

I’m going to mess some things up. I just need to move on. The question that the situation raises for me — and it’s a question with a much more global scope —is this: 

How can I allow the parts in me to criticize, and still love them?

That is, how can I love myself when I fail, and even love the parts of me that criticize myself for failure?

It begins with seeing that I’m human. It seems, coming gently to myself right here as I sit here, that it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to mess things up. There’s no need to engage in self-flagellation. Yet that gentle, very simpleminded approach to the question doesn’t seem to satisfy the complicated parts that want everything to be perfect and race around beating myself and others up for our lack of perfection. If one reads the news, one begins to notice how most articles are about criticizing the lack of perfection in our society and in other individuals. There’s very little media out there about taking a quiet, measured, and reasonable approach to things; about taking the time to get past the emotional reactions, to evaluate, to discern the center of gravity where the truth lies and try to come up with constructive and practical responses to that truth.

Perhaps it’s a mistake to try and extend this practice of seeing how I am in myself to society at large; yet society is made of people like me, other human beings. If we don’t develop a forgiving and intelligent attitude within ourselves, towards ourselves, I doubt we are going to develop a forgiving and intelligent attitude towards others. If we can’t do it at home, we probably aren’t going to do it anywhere.

There has to be a new kind of evaluation of the self in order for things to begin each day in a better way. There is a goodness in the world that is fundamental; it penetrates everything. Human beings may be specialists in ignoring this fact, but the fact remains. It would be worthy to focus on this, to begin with the organic understanding of the goodness of the world, and then see what happens. There’s no doubt that all the crappy parts of me are going to gripe about all the things that are going wrong; and I have to allow those parts some exercise, clip the leash to them and let them run around a bit every day. 

At the same time, the supervisor of my Being, the part that tries to keep all of the maniacs, prevaricators, intensifiers and arguers in line, needs to be mindful enough to recognize the nonsense. There is no way to extinguish the fire; but it can be contained. It’s much better contained, I think, by love and forgiveness than by constriction and punishment.

There’s an available action from within in which I just let go and be. I’ve been sitting here this morning, studying the relaxation and tension in me, and just allowing myself to be with my breathing. Absolutely no interference; I’m just here, breathing. I’m following the breath all the way out to its end, relaxing into it and seeing it as it finishes letting the air out of my lungs. 

At the bottom of that movement, there's a moment when I can feel myself becoming softer, less tense. It’s as though I can just receive life for what it is, without embellishment. There's a tiny kernel, just a taste, of love and forgiveness present at the bottom of that breath, in the pause before I begin breathing in again. The inward breath can give it a bit more life and help it expand within me. 

This doesn’t happen because I try anything. It just happens because I am there with what’s taking place. There isn’t a plan. It’s just life.

I recently wrote a chapter for a book I’m working on in which a man decides to dig a tunnel into heaven, digging out only 1/4 of a teaspoon per day. He’s lucky; he’s in purgatory, so he has all of eternity to work on this project. Generally speaking, I guess most of us feel we're under a little more time pressure. Yet there are some projects, especially with seeing myself from within, that can only be accomplished in very small measure over a long period of time. This is incredibly difficult for me in particular; one of my chief features is that I’m always in a hurry. One of my criticizing parts reminds me that I always seem to rush through things and not do them thoroughly enough. People marvel at how much I get done; but to me, I’m always too sloppy about it. By this time in my life, it’s probably too late to change that. 

Here we are. Get out the love and forgiveness and paint a little on that wound in particular, while I’m sloshing it around overall the other battered parts of myself.

In 1966, we were no longer an American family. We had been in Germany for three years, effecting permanent change in our outlook on the world. It was impossible for anyone in the family to foresee how this would form the trajectory of our future; we just lived it. 

My father took the family to Ibiza on vacation. This was before it became a world-famous hippie destination. 

I was absolutely opposed to the idea of going on vacation on this terrible little island—being psychic, I knew it would be terrible—opposed with every fiber of my incandescently furious 11-year-old being. I complained about absolutely everything—during the planning stages, before we left, at the airport, the flight down there, and once we got to the beautiful little hotel that we began our stay in. 

I remember it well; I was a-b-s-o-l-u-t-e-l-y horrible.

Eventually, my father blew his gasket. He grabbed me by the arm next to the swimming pool at the hotel and told me that the problem wasn’t with where we were. It was my attitude. 

He told me that I needed to find a better attitude. 

This was one of the most focused and intense things my father ever said to me. Usually, he was too busy drinking to give me any practical advice; or too drunk for me to believe his advice could be practical. In this case, however, it was a huge shock. I immediately saw that he was right, and hated myself for it. Hated him for being right. 

Hate and shame expanded in an instant to fill my known universe.

I ran from the hotel in a blind rage of confusion... to where, I didn't know. I had never been in this place and I was truly running off into the unknown. 

I found myself down at the water, which was swelling in on huge waves onto the massive rocks of the shoreline.

I stood on those huge rocks staring into the crystal clear blueness of the Mediterranean, which was very deep just where I was. The blues and greens took on a cast that only depth can produce: ancient colors that awaken the hidden parts of the soul. Huge, bulbous concretions of agate lurked beyond my reach, many feet below the surface; the water rose and fell over them like some magical force. 

Life seemed impenetrable, as though I could never understand what it was or who I was. 

I stood there staring for a long time, unresolved.

Finally, I turned away from the water. There, in a crack in the rocks at my feet—so close I could have touched them at any time, had I noticed—lay several drowned kittens.

The shock was terrible and great. I felt it go through me like lightning; all of the emotions I was feeling were paralyzed, stunned. Stopped in their tracks by the shock of death, of these tiny, bedraggled corpses. 

It was certain, I knew, that someone had drowned them intentionally.
I turned and ran back to the hotel. 

Somehow, the inner blackboard was erased. 

The shock had cleansed me of everything in me that resisted and rejected the idea of the vacation. The world looked like a new and different place; the hotel swimming pool was not a place of punishment, but a refuge. It was surrounded with beautiful flowers which hummingbird moths came to in the evening, and in the next few days I would come to love them with the curiosity and astonishment that I’ve always had for nature. I forgave my father without question, because I knew he was right. The rest of the vacation was wonderful.

I can discover a new attitude. If I look around me, when I need help doing that, it’s there. 

I just need to recognize it for what it is instead of rejecting it as one more event that needs to be stuffed into the old attitude, with prejudice.

Go... and sense, and be well.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.