Saturday, October 1, 2016


Reclining Buddha (back side)
Wat Pho, Bangkok

We spend most of a lifetime, if we are spiritual seekers, digesting a wide range of spiritual material that purports to know this, that, or the other thing about spirituality. Much of it offers well-known tropes; and the number of tired old adages that sound deep and metaphysically weighty is beyond measure, like the grain of very finely ground flour. 

No matter how stale this flour is, every generation meets it anew as fresh and consumes it wholesale; and although it reflects, in one way or another, some grain of truth, all becomes vulgarism— products of a spiritual mediocrity, meant in the strictest sense of the term of a mean, that is, a rough average—or, if you will, a meme. The internet has become a parody of even itself on this point, in its eternal and infinite celebration of the trite and trivial.

 I suspect all of us want to penetrate beyond the truisms and the glib assurances, these spiritual pancakes with pats of angelic butter and heavenly maple syrup on them. 

We hope for bacon

Yet there are few texts of any kind that truly have exceptional value. The sine qua non of all western spiritual literature are, without much doubt, Meister Eckhart's sermons; as Westerners, we can hardly pretends to anything approaching objectivity about the literature from other cultures, no matter how much we may esteem it in its various translations.

 What I am getting at here is that penetrating to something deeper involves the penetration of one's own human life, not spiritual literature. Digesting adages and passing spiritual sayings among each other is not enough; sitting in solemn groups together and nodding in agreement over tired, worn out old sayings, understandings, and insights isn't enough either. A much greater demand is placed on us; and that demand is to sink deeply into the truth of the impressions of our own lives, not just in this present moment — as we encounter it — but also throughout the breadth and range and depth of the experiences we have taken in—all the impressions that are already in there.

A single life takes in an incredible amount of information. I remember some notes from a meeting of one of Paul Reynard’s groups many years ago in which he made this observation; and although he was intensely onto something here— by the time those notes were taken, he had lung cancer and undoubtedly understood he did not have that much longer to live — I'm not sure some would understand what he was getting at. This extraordinary trove of impressions within each being is one of the essential conditions from within which our work emerges and is conducted: and if we do not ponder it deeply and for many hours each day, trying to measure and understand our experience of life and exactly what it means in relationship to our spirituality, to our inner work, to each other, and to God, we do nothing except chatter at one another like parrots.

We're in a moment, perpetually, where we face our own mortality. We do so under the eyes of all the generations that have gone before us, under the eyes of those we know who have already died, under the eyes of our family, our friends, and our loved ones. 

Under our own eyes, if we see with them.

We may not think ourselves examined; but we are examined by forces much greater than ourselves. All of those scrolls that Gurdjieff mentioned, which record everything in us? It isn't done casually. It is a record of who we are; and that record has a value, a durable one that lasts beyond the confines of this body and will determine everything in our next life.

As Swedenborg explained, after we die, angels inspect every atom and molecule of our being, every impression that was recorded, by going through us in microscopic detail, starting with our fingertips and moving through our whole body. You can take this as allegory if you wish; but if you do not undertake this same work within yourself now, within this life, you can't bring your own inner angels into contact with all of the material you have been given in order to understand who you are, which is our task in this life. We do not understand who we are; to gain real self-understanding requires heroic inward effort on a scale that outward effort can never match.

In going through the inward nature of Being in the soul, inspecting every molecule, one encounters the inevitability of one's heritage; not just genetic, but familial, social, cultural, intellectual, and emotional. Each one of us stands in a line that stretches back through ages; and every one of us needs to assume responsibility for what it means to be human in light of that heritage, in all of its aspects. This is the proving ground that separates decent from non-decent humans, as Victor Frankl would have put it; and from what I can see, sitting here at 61 years of age (today is my birthday), what separates decent from non-decent human beings is that decent humans beings see their own indecency; non-decent human beings are blind to it.

I'd like to elaborate on that a bit more, in light of my own pondering: an examination of who I am. 

I'll leave that for the next post.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for these perceptive comments. The only time I ever saw Pauline de Dampierre visibly agitated was when she thought pork had been cooked in the Paris work mansion.....


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