Thursday 20 February 2020

Eastern meditation: An asymptotic approach towards the insensibility of extinction

I have been listening more to John Butler (JB) who seems a sincere, eloquent and expert Western (Christianised, but not Christian) exponent of Eastern meditation.

He seeks stillness and presence; he experiences what strikes him as infinity, complete inclusion, not time, no space, pure spirit.

He describes this as Love - but of course his is an extreme abstraction of love since there are no persons, nor beings and no relationship - and no change.

He describes it as God - but again this is an utterly impersonal and abstract God, pantheistically distributed throughout reality.

Over the fifty-plus years JB has been meditating, he has experienced a greater satisfaction, a larger experience, greater inclusivity - and in general a progression and expansion of experience.

He is trying to get rid of thinking - he regards thinking as perhaps the main problem of Man in the world. He is trying to get rid of the ego, the self - and equates this with spiritual progress.

My interpretation of what is happening, is that JB has approached closer and closer, without ever reaching, towards the cessation of self/ ego and consciousness/ thinking.

These can never be extinguished, or else JB would altogether lose awareness, and would not experience anything (much like deep sleep) - and would remember nothing.

As the self and thinking dwindle through techniques of disciplined and skilled meditation; there is a diminishment of the experience of time, space and all other experiences. All worries disappear, all attachments to the world - life is just here and now.

Since JB is prone to mental suffering and seems not to have loving personal relationships - he often experiences 'life' as a great trial without hope. He craves a permanence which mortal life cannot give. So for JB to dissolve-into less and less ego and consciousness is an end to all suffering, to all angst and loneliness, to all fears and the sorrow of change and loss.

JB regards this state of 'peace' as the highest goal of life - but it seems to reduce to less life, tending towards no life.

Myself - I see the highest and greatest happiness in terms of love between persons, in a marriage, family and among good friends - and it is that for which I crave permanence. Secondarily I seek to create - this has also been a deep satisfaction. Love-ing between persons and the act of create-ing are both phenomena that happen in Time, with Time, through Time; they both entail change, and depend upn the sustaining (and indeed increase) of the self/ ego/ thinking/ consciousness.

Which is why I am a Christian and hope for Heaven; and JB isn't and hopes for assimilation into an abstract aspect of God's love.


ted said...

Hi Bruce, Have you ever come across Bernedette Roberts? She was a Catholic mystic who laid out her path is great detail. While she does express at the end of the path, the self does drop away, she also talks about the degree of intimacy this creates with the world. She was able to engage with the world as it is, with her senses operating but without a center. I can only intuit this realization, but it would appear this is truly divine as my self would never be in the way with any relationship I engage in.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ted - I didn't know about her. But I recognise that that kind of spirituality has been a strand within Christianity over many hundreds of years. Nonetheless, I think it is mistaken, and that Christianity ought to imply something very different.

edwin faust said...

Teresa of Avila had some pointed words for "spiritual" people who try to stop thought and dissolve the mind in amorphous bliss through prolonged meditations. She thought it "nonsense." The whole point of Christian meditation is not to dissolve our self, but to allow Christ to grow in our souls, which He made in their several and particular ways. The way of the Eastern meditator is, ironically, very self-centered, the aim of his practice being a personal bliss that cancels all care for the world and others. I followed this path for a long time and am still recovering from it, much like a recovering alcoholic whose thoughts turn to the bottle when hardships arise. If the point of our life is to grow in love through Christ, it matters little what sort of meditations we enjoy or unusual states of consciousness we experience. All of this is what I call spiritual tourism. But the tourist always comes back home sooner or later, where he must face himself and others and God, rather than indulge in the distractions of extraordinary private experiences. We must look at the people close to us and love them as best we can, knowing we are loved by Christ, who gave His all for us and continues to do so.
I think it is good to be sympathetic to other spiritual seekers, but it is not good to confuse a selfish path disguised as an aspiration to "selflessness" with the true selflessness of sacrificial love, which embraces pain rather than runs away from it. And in this embrace, we can find the genuine love that is the heart of the Christian gospel, the heart of Christ, who shows us the Father. I love a saying I see often in shops in the rural Bible Belt area where I live: Jesus: It's not religion. It's a relationship.

Bruce Charlton said...

@edwin: "Jesus: It's not religion. It's a relationship. " - I like that too, hadn't come across it.

Maybe 'self-centred' would be more precisely correct that 'selfish' - in the sense that the Christian goal is self gratifying too, but in a different - relational - way?

I can't always hold-onto the fact; but when I see most clearly and deeply, I am always stuck by how Christianity stands-out from other 'religions' by its basis in loving relationships - with both 'loving' and 'relationship' carrying weight.

edwin faust said...

Christianity is essentially relational because the Christian God is a Trinity: not an abstract one-ness, but a Father loving a Son and the two embracing one another in the Spirit, which then pours out upon us, drawing us into relationship with the Trinity. The importance of the Trinity has largely been lost in today's Christian communities and theologies, but it was central to the early Church, which was obsessed with it. All of the great rifts and turmoils of the early Church were arguments about the nature of the Trinity. We prefer a God that is more understandable, more rationally explainable; we are by temperament and conditioning, in today's world, Arians. But the truth cannot be tailored to our capacities and prejudices. And it can only be experienced, not laid out in definitions that we can assent to and then forget.

Bruce Charlton said...

@edwin - Ah - I disagree with you about the Trinity.

William Wildblood said...

Like edwin I have been attracted to Eastern type meditation of the John Butler sort and like him I have found it ultimately lacking. In fact, I now think of it as something like spiritual sunbathing (cf. edwin's spiritual tourism). There definitely is an aspect of self-centredness to it and there is also a sort of death. Of course, this can be expressed mystically or metaphorically as dying to the world and the self etc,ll of which is fine. However, the death i am talking about goes deeper than this. It's a rejection of the fullness of life for life is not just existence in its perfect unmanifested 'is-ness'. It is everything, creation and non-creation together. This sort of meditation rejects matter for spirit but I believe God wants us to integrate the two as shown by Christ at the Ascension when he ascended into heaven with his body. Not reject the world of creation which is, as we have been told right from the beginning, good.

The search for unmanifested peace and oneness is actually turning your back on God's plan in order to return to the spiritual womb. I now regard it as a spiritual failure on the part of its practitioners while being quite aware that they think they have found ultimate truth.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I agree that this is a failure to fulfil God's hopes. If God had wanted us to 'return to the spiritual womb' there would have been no creation in the first place; certainly no mortal life - from that persepctive it is just a waste of time, and a needless increase in suffering.

However, I think there are some people - perhaps not a high proportion of people, but numerically quite a lot - who are not evil but really do not want to join with God's plan to raise us to become full sons and daughters. Probably these are mostly people who do not have a strongly loving personal relationship - their idea of love is very abstract, general, benign well-wishing.

As I said before, they want to hand back their entrance ticket to mortal life, regret having asked to be incarnated; and I presume God allows this, by enabling the kind of experience of this type of meditation - during mortal life, and perpetuated after biological death.

It is unfortunate that they preach to Christians asserting the superiority of their 'defeat' to the victory that Christa made possible with resurrection. And into such preaching typically creeps a great deal of either confusion or dishonesty - in asserting interpersonal love, morality, the appreciation of beauty, ecological and social justice concerns and goodness knows what else - which (if they were consistent) would all be thrown-out and ignored as mere illusion by the quest for loss of self, one-ness and negation.

But this preaching may be perfectly sincere and honest, from their point of view. They may see life as suffering and seek nothing more than release from suffering - forever; and they assume others feel the same.

Presumably this preaching is allowed as a form of resistance - and experience against-which real Christians can struggle, to clarify and strengthen their love for Jesus and their determination to follow Him.

William Wildblood said...

You're more tolerant than me! Perhaps it's because I was tempted in this direction myself that I now see it as a spiritual failure but I do. They may be sincere and honest but so are all sorts of people who are wrong and if you delve deeply into their psyche you see some kind of rejection of the truth and even, strange as it may seem in these cases, assertion of the ego. That is what I think is going on here.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - To be more exact, they are wrong about the nature of reality and human possibility - and therefore their teaching is objectively false. But the choice they make may be right for their own personal disposition; they may genuinely not want what Jesus offered, may genuinely not want to be a conscious resurrected person. .

edwin faust said...

Dear Bruce, I have read and will probably re-read your posts about the Trinity. I always accepted the fact that to be a Christian one must assent to the trinitarian doctrine, no matter how incomprehensible it may seem. To be honest, I can see that the real heart of any Christian life has to be Jesus, whose mission came from the Father and would be carried on by the Spirit. But no one at any time has seen God, as John says; it is the son who has explained/revealed him (the Greek verb is the one from which we derive "exegesis"). So, it all comes down to Jesus, in practical terms, and how we relate to Him and His example. But, as a respecter of tradition, I tend to assume that the fact that so many great men in the history of Christianity have assigned the doctrine of the trinity such a central position must mean that it is essential to our understanding of God's relation to His creatures and creation. But how? Since reading your comments, my mind is stirring. I don't know where it will lead me, but I cannot deny that your objections to trinitarian formulations make sense and they awaken in me a kind of sleeping resistance to them. In any event, I want to thank you for your honesty and courage. I don't know much about Mormonism, except that some guy looked into a hat and saw some things he dictated to another. It always sounded a bit silly to me. But many things worthy of consideration are caricatured and dismissed by mainstream orthodoxy rather than considered fairly and respectfully.

Bruce Charlton said...

@edwin - Unfortunately, I have never properly classified my blog posts due to laziness - but to understand my critique of the trinity, it may help to understand my attitude to 'monotheism'.

I believe that Christianity is henotheistic, not monotheistic - always has been; but that the early theologians tried to force Christianity into their prior monotheism derived from pagan Greek and Roman philosophy. The Jews and Muslims regard Christianity as polytheistic, and they are right - indeed Islam is, at root, the rejection of Christian claims to be monotheist (by the paradoxical/ mystical/ non-sensical Trinity doctrine) - and the more Christians try to assert monotheism, the more the religion converges on Islam.

I am not a Mormon, but Mormon theology is a wonderful, beautiful thing! For me, it is the basis of Romantic Christianity. I have a mini-book blog on the subject, from six years ago