existentialist cafe

life is sacred

Tag: self

Thoughts from my journal

When I sin, is it really anyone’s concern but mine?

If I have retreated to my own interior kingdom, then I only lay my own interior kingdom to waste. That was what the prodigal son thought: “It is my money; I can do with it as I like.” So I think: “It is my soul, I can do with it as I like.” Awareness of my soul does it thereby confer to me ownership of my soul; rather, the soul must be given as an inheritance is given. Although it is my right from birth, I must wait to be given it, and in the meantime prepare myself as one who receives. The presence of God rests in me, and I destroy it when I destroy my own soul. To return, or to allow myself to be brought back, is a restoration of the universe, insofar as the presence of God is in me. The restoration is not complete until all things return – animals, plants, people, asteroids, hydrogen atoms. As all creation groans, all creation also sings a hymn of praise.

And the painted ponies go up and down

The notion of samsara is a compelling one. When cosmologies speak of cycles, I think they are drawing our attention to something which is at once both fundamental and profound. As much as we chart a straightforward course through life, it is difficult to ignore the cycles that gird us – day-to-night, season-to-season, the waxing and waning of the moon. But┬ásamsara is also a course. One travels through cycles of birth, death, and rebirth in the path of enlightenment.

Spiritually speaking, there are cycles of death and rebirth that we go through in our lives as well. In fact it seems to be a requisite part of the spiritual life. If we desire to walk that path, then we must be willing to let go of what is most precious to us. At times we get stuck at some place in the cycle, stubbornly clutching the doorjamb even as we are being carried to something new and better. In the contemplative Christian tradition, the guiding image is the ladder of divine ascent. In the foreground is the idea of slow-and-steady progression, though in the background is the idea that one must die to one’s self in order to find new life and that one must do this continually.

Although I think it would be a mistake to ignore the profound differences between Buddhism and Christianity (for instance, Christianity has a theology of the self while classical Buddhist teaching rejects the self), I think it is worthwhile to think about how the idea of cycle and the idea of ascent are both true pictures of the spiritual life.

Joni just had a birthday this week, so this is doubly appropriate:

From something I was writing…

These (various types of egoism) are the things that I use to attempt to secure, preserve, or hold the self. Self-consciousness I have found to be rather pervasive; it appears as a daily and hourly buffer against an awareness of non-being. The self attempts to hold back the tide of non-being by sheer force, in the strange belief that if I keep looking at my self, then my self will not go anywhere; I will be preserved through the act of self-consciousness. It is, in that moment, an effort to be the ground of my own being. This kind of bootstrapping ultimately fails, though it may seem to be successful for some moments. Its ultimately failure is precisely why we must first lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. This must occur daily.

For the first time in my life, I think, I squared terror in the eye and did not back down. Though I’m sure, now, that it was buffered or tempered by something. I do not think that I could stand to see terror in its raw and unfinished form. I think some people, who are well advanced in the spiritual path, can. But this I know: it was not tempered by action, which is a typical and preferred course: Fear leading to action-despite-fear. Generally, I do not even do that. Most often I temper it through retreat, by fleeing to some mindless or meaningless activity whose only purpose (a modicum of meaning I suppose) is to delay the terror. I can be largely successful at this for long stretches. But this time I let it seize me, and did not stop it from seizing me. Then the thought popped into my head – “this is abject terror, and I can smell in it the stench of bottomless hopelessness.” The term ‘abject terror’ did actually pop into my head as those words, but the stench was simply the dreadful awareness of it which I can only name now, well after the fact. In those instances, I was deeply frightened because it seemed that it was a bottomless pit that I was headed towards. And then another feeling came up which was not at all strong, but it was sufficient; in fact, it was a feeling I would say, of sufficiency, if sufficiency can be a feeling. Then I realized that the abject terror had lost the nature of a threat, and this was a great relief.

Most often I fight between two opposing forces – clamping down, while I desire to be opened up. When it does finally open, it is with great cataclysm in my soul; exhilaration. So I bounce back and forth between prolonged consternation and sudden exhilaration. This was much more of a diffusive calm. It seemed as though I had seen the terror through to its completion, in a small sort of way, and so was delivered from it.

Interestingly, both sets of feelings – that of abject terror/careening into hopelessness, and that of sufficiency – I would characterize as floating. But whereas the first was more a matter of being set adrift like an unmoored boat with no sail, the other was more a matter of being borne up as on an updraft.

Deliverance can take many forms. I think about recovery from addiction, how there is a pro-longed (sometimes very long) period of relapse, guilt, and coming-to-terms, which is filled with a sense of joy. The strength of joy can keep you going for a long time. But it is not sufficient. I think it is possible to become actually addicted to the joy, which seems to make up for all the times of self-destruction. But this is no life. Another deliverance does not quite have the same quality. I can only think of it in an image: it is like daily weeding the garden, rather than every few years doing a major tilling and overhaul, or breaking out the poison (the nuclear option) every year to kill everything.

And I can not resist a theological observation. Many forms of Christianity teach only the grand, sudden deliverance, which is expected to be once-and-for-all. It isn’t, and people are sorely disappointed. They maybe crave an experience of deliverance, or perhaps even feel guilty if they don’t feel saved. Other forms of Christianity teach its adherents to “work out their salvation.” That is, salvation is not something that happens to you once upon a time, but occurs in the daily habit of turning.