Now with a model of reasoning under our belts we can turn our attention to using it.
The program for using it is going to be multifaceted, a collection of intellectual chores taken up not for gaining academic tenure or impressing our friends but because we really want to know, to the best that we can, just what it is to be alive in this universe that appears to us. We have a certain faith that asking the right questions can itself teach us something about paying attention, being awake to the wonder of everything, and even how we might live the good life as philosophers have long recommended. The teaching is that we suffer because we are confused; we do not see reality as it is. So we train in seeing the universe as the saints see it, we train in what is called the view.
The crux of sharpening the experience of contemplation is a knack you can learn. It is an ability to entertain some way-out thoughts. Following a set of premises to their conclusions can uncover a universe not at all like the one that presents itself to us day after day. If we trust our reason (and what other choice do we have?) it penetrates another layer of understanding. All this is well known. Biologists teach us all plants and animals are constructed from cells which are intricate almost beyond belief, biochemically vast and complex. Yet only the eye of reason is able to picture the living world this way. It is very interesting, is it not, that in a sense it can be said that this cellular vision is more “real” then the picture we receive as our cognitive default, namely that all living things are wholly separate individuals?
This is why it takes effort to train the mind in what is called the view. It takes some mental exercise to overcome the cognitive default that believes the root of a tree, the brain of a worm and the life of a man have almost nothing in common.
Where the university student will memorize facts and pass tests about cells and a documentary film maker might find the cell a perfect subject for their film, the contemplative takes the same material and works on it in their own way. The contemplative goal is not to pass a test nor create a work of art, though what they are after is a bit of both. The contemplative is training in opening the eye of wisdom. In this example the inner apprehension of what it really means that all living things share the same fundamental biological building block, the same fundamental chemical and structural similarities. Then perhaps training in what it really means that the body, that feels so intimately one’s own, consists of trillions and trillions of these miniature galaxies of intelligence, these vibrating drops of awareness. The contemplative turns an artistic eye on scientific content and heals the split between reality and imagination in an alchemical marriage.
I think this is a valid first way to try and explain the way of meditation for we moderns.
I hope to illustrate how the application of reasoning to ultimate questions leads to radical conclusions. These conclusions or insights are difficult to fully experience in all their ramifications, so meditation is used as a tool by which we are able to become familiar with them. We train in seeing the truths of the world as we understand it really is.
It is easy to see how this might work by considering quantum mechanics. Our most advanced theory in physics assures us the world is “really” made up of molecules. The universe presents countless collections and aggregates but all its myriad forms are molecules none-the-less. It has also found that these molecules are constructed out of approximately 100 types of atoms. In all the universe stuff only comes in approximately 100 flavors.
Now here is the interesting thing. We can study all this and using our imaginations can form pictures of it but that’s as far as it goes in most western forms of study. To contemplate is to go a step further. If you were not studying quantum mechanics due to a mild curiosity attracted to the strange but were studying it desperate to discover what reality really is, with all the weight of life and death breathing down your neck… well then you would have gone a step further. With the silent stillness of calm-abiding meditation to ground our investigations the process is less like fireworks then the impression I may have left with that description but the key to turning up the juice is recognizing the existential nature of what is being considered.
Most schools of meditation have a traditional series of subjects for contemplation that progressively lead towards the wisdom and compassion that is the ultimate goal. This makes it sound as simple as passing through grades in school but we’re talking about training the mind where nothing is ever quite as simple, or complex, as it seems. In the Tibetan Buddhism I studied there are progressions of whole schools of philosophical thought. Progressing from one view to the next is also what is meant by training in the view. In the Ignatius spiritual disciplines I studied there is a progression through a whole set of prayers, images and meditations. Here too there is what I mean by training in the view. The human mind is not just going to turn a simple switch and achieve its end, the work is ongoing and the path defined by that act of going.
The next cycle of posts will be about sharing the foundational view which should be quite congenial for most of my readers. It is thoroughly dualistic and materialistic just like the prevailing consensus in the modern world about what is really real. It is considered foundational because before we can appreciate some of the advanced views, say those aligned with quantum mechanics and emptiness, there first needs to be a clear and distinct picture of what is being negated.
Before we begin proper, however, as is typical if one is trying to stay true to the systematic nature of things, we must set the stage, provide the context, sketch out the boundaries of our inquires. First, there seems to me is the rule above all others; we are seeking the really real, the truly true, whatever existentially are the “facts” and should be willing to cast aside whatever doesn’t jive with them. Second, that said we recognize the fundamentally probabilistic nature of reasoning and accept that we will need to update our understanding of just what “facts” might be as we learn. Third, there are limits to what language can accomplish directly as a medium for communicating meaning so look for the moon and don’t get hung up on the finger pointing to it. This is important as these ideas, ultimately, stretch language and with it conceptual thought, to its breaking point.
Another vital element of the context of the upcoming discussion is the intention. Times are tough. Not just the daily grind but the knowing that grinds at your heart, threatening joyfulness; the more you learn about ecological reality the more dismal it gets. I sincerely believe that for many people adopting a contemplative practice offers a lifeline as the cold wind blows. We are learning to be of benefit to others, training in a strength of mind that can meet these tough times head-on.
To prepare, if you want to play along, I’ll leave you with the assignment to ask in your quiet contemplative time just what is happening exactly right here and right now. Feel your way into just where does the moment of now arise and just where your experience is actually happening. Try to tease out the difference between thinking about experiences and being with experience directly.