Osprey, Sparkill, NY
Today is my birthday (I'm 59.)
Apophasis is a term sometimes used to describe language employed in an effort to resolve the dilemma of transcendence — the impossibility of saying what is, in essence, unsayable.
I was recently given a copy of what appears to be a fine piece of academic work on the subject, Mystical Languages of Unsaying, by Michael A. Sells. Having recently finished Meister Eckhart's The Complete Mystical Works (Walshe) in its entirety, the subject is much on my mind – although, it must be confessed, this is not exactly where the question of transcendence ought to be examined (with the intellect, that is.)
Yet we are perpetually confronted with the dilemma of the transcendent, because we are invariably forced to communicate with it using words.
While contemplating this particular subject, comfortably parked in the business lounge of Le Meridien Hotel in Shanghai, it occurred to me that there is territory much closer to hand than we might think that helps us examine this question from a more practical, as opposed to hypothetical, theoretical, or intellectual point of view.
This particular perspective arises from the difference between thinking, which is an activity of the intellectual mind, and the two sibling activities of being, sensation — which is emphatically of the body — and emotion, which is also experienced as physical sensation, but has a heightened nature referred to, in spiritual work, as feeling.
Human beings are accustomed to interpret their life through intellect, of which words are a direct function — and yet these two other faculties for perception, sensation and feeling, are sidelined, as though they did not represent a full two thirds of the activity of being. Neither one of these faculties, as it happens, is verbal in any way, shape, or form: and each one of them conveys intelligible, meaningful, and in fact vital and even (so to speak) earth-shattering facts about the state and nature of being, as well as the environment one is in.
So perhaps the faculty for directly experiencing the unsayable does not actually lie in any abstract philosophical territory whatsoever; instead, it accompanies us so routinely that it is completely overlooked.
One might ask whether it is in any way, shape, or form possible that the Masters who spoke of the transcendent — a piece of territory reserved, to all appearances, for some divine state of being completely inaccessible to mankind, as is maintained in The Cloud of Unknowing — could have possibly had any recourse to this particular perspective in their discussion of such lofty ideas. Perhaps that matters; perhaps it doesn't. I think the point is that we need to have recourse to it here, because to leave the question of the unspeakable and the unsayable on the table as a perpetually irresolvable dilemma cedes the territory to an argument that no progress in understanding this matter can ever actually be made.
In understanding the question of these two nonverbal forms of communication, each of which maintains a comprehensive validity within its own right, we need to understand the intersection between the inner and the outer natures of man, a subject that has been treated by a wide range of mystical thinkers. My own background, of course, has concentrated on a small group of masters to examine this question, specifically, Ibn Arabi, Dogen, Meister Eckhart, Swedenborg, Gurdjieff, and Jeanne de Salzmann; but many other names could be mentioned.
This question of the inner and the outer is a distinctive one that has to be appreciated quite precisely in order to understand the difference between the outer, which is emphatically and forever immanent, and the inner, which is transcendent. This transcendent nature is exclusively an inner experience, which can never be effectively externalized, objectified or expressed in words; everything that emerges into the outer world from the inner is a translation of sorts, and a poor one at that.
The inner life is transcendent in that all of it emerges from a place that both Swedenborg and Eckhart would have been entirely familiar with: and that is the emergent property of life and consciousness itself. This emergent property of Being, which is in and of itself inviolable, impossible to break down, and from which all experience of consciousness and nature arises, is at the root and the core of human life and understanding. Many different masters have pointed out that this inward experience comes from the inward flow of life itself, which is not at all the result of physical process (as modern science would have it) but a metaphysical property. Swedenborg, an accomplished scientist who achieved groundbreaking insights in the physical science and on the material nature of anatomy, laid this understanding as a cornerstone of his mysticism. He attributed that inward flow of life not to nature, but to God, as does Eckhart; and in both cases, this transcendent and unknowable level begins with the inward flow of Being as an experience of life, which has a primacy that cannot be trumped by any other phenomena.
This inward flow of life begins within the neural anatomy and neurological experience of the organism; it is, in other words, fundamentally organic, and arises from territory which, while it can be described mechanistically and in terms of physics and chemistry (molecular structure such as DNA, neurons, organs, etc.) is fundamentally impossible to break down into parts without losing the understanding that emerges from it. DNA, to put it in other terms, cannot understand itself on its own level. In this view, all of the material becomes a reflection of the inner, since the inner is what gives rise to all perception and interpretation of it. There is an absolutism to this position that effectively resists denial, whether or not one wants to invoke deism or theology to explain it.
So when we begin to examine the unsaid, the mystical language of unsaying, the mystery of silence, or whatever we want to call it, it always begins with sensation — a sensation of self that arises organically, and that exists before we apply the word sensation or the word self. In this way, we see that there is nothing mystical or inaccessible about the nature of what is unsaid— it is where everything always begins. That is the mystery we participate in. There are no exceptions to this rule; and only the intellectual mind, with its extraordinary ability to seize everything that it encounters and interpret it, pulls the curtain across this fairly straightforward situation. It is that selfsame curtain that masters such as Dogen and Jeanne de Salzmann ask us to pull aside; and, as Gurdjieff himself noted to Ouspensky, the territory behind the curtain is actually right next to us and not that difficult to get to, if one only knew how. This isn't far off what the Zen masters have always said about the nature of enlightenment.
We are, in short, not close enough to the organic sense of our own Being; and this organic sense of being, two-thirds of which is mediated by parts of ourselves that are distinctly nonverbal, represents the intersection with the transcendent that mysticism has always attempted to access. The irony of it is that it is always right in front of our eyes, so to speak, or, more properly put, behind them; because it is within this body and its already inherent nonverbal abilities that the access to the transcendent begins.
This admits of an unspeakable presence in mankind — a presence that is always there, but perpetually forgotten. The Self that needs to be remembered, in Gurdjieff's self-remembering, is this unspeakable presence, this organic nature of Being from which the actual fact of Being emerges, before Being begins to interpret itself. If one wants to engage in a bit of sophistry, of course, one can argue that this, too, is an interpretation; yet the simple fact of the sense of touch, or the presence of an emotion which is understood before one tells oneself, "Oh, I am sad,", belie that particular argument. One knows what one knows before the words know it; and that is the secret behind the nature of sensation and feeling. It's a simple secret, really; yet the intellect masks it so effectively that it is perpetually forgotten.
When Gurdjieff spoke of three-centered being, it was a call to return to an understanding of the very primary nature not just of the mind, but of sensation and feeling as well – thereby restoring a balance in which the majority of our life experience comes from unspeakable and unspoken faculties and territories.
This primary root of experience always begins within the inner nature and experience of man; and all of the outward designations, including language, speaking, writing, and all of its consequent results in the form of analysis and understanding, remain forever outward. A human being who wants to sense themselves wholly must understand the difference between these inward experiences and outward designations. There are two lives here, not one; and the critical faculty of consciousness, that which is able to perceive, without judging what is perceived, is the only mediating force that can have both an unspeakable and speakable presence that bridges the gap between these two parts of man's nature.
I'm irritated on principle by people who enjoy speaking about "the silence," that inward experience which is in fact unspeakable. There are parts of me that think it ought to simply be respected and left alone to do its own work; picking at it with the dental tools of the outward mind may appear to be removing plaque but, more often, is just puncturing the gums of the experience and causing an entirely unnecessary internal bleeding. There is a moment, as I have pointed out quite often in this space, where a sacred intimacy must be preserved; what is inward ought to be permitted to remain inward, within the depths of a man's or a woman's own soul, and not be put on public display in any way.
When we do display it — and I speak of myself as much as any other — we are, perhaps, guilty of the sins of both vanity and narcissism; an infatuation with how wonderful we are, rather than a respect for how wonderful God is.
This needs to be as carefully examined as any other question in regard to the inner and outer condition, and especially in regard to the question of Presence of Being.