On Not Seeing Things Clearly.
If anyone went on for a thousand years asking of life: “Why are you living?” life, if it could answer, would only say: “I live so that I may live.” That is because life lives out of its own ground and springs from its own source, and so lives without asking why it is itself living. If anyone asked a truthful man who works out of his own ground: “Why are you performing your works?” and if he were to give a straight answer, he would only say, “I work so that I may work.”
—Meister Eckhart. Sermon 5b.
The monk Fayan was going on pilgrimage. Master Dizang asked, “Where are you going?” Fayan said, “On pilgrimage.” Dizang asked, “Why?” Fayan said: “I don’t know.” Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.” -The Book of Equanimity, Case 20
Saturday, September 10th.
I woke up at around 3 am. I keep making the mistake of believing that the middle of the night is a good time to think. This is mainly because it actually is a good time to think. Everything is quiet and my mind is at rest. Once thinking gets rolling, however, it is hard to stop. It’s getting back to sleep that is the problem. As I lay there I very quickly began regretting my choice to think. No insights came, just the usual swirl of disconnected thoughts. To be sure, there are moments of clarity sometimes. Those moments have become increasingly few and far between. Deep insight into the human condition is always hard to come by. This is so particularly as of late. Never before have we had so much information, commentary, and expertise at our disposal. And never before have we seemed so confused. The situation has slipped entirely out of our control. And thus we continue on.
One remedy to sleeplessness is simply for me to go outside to look at the stars. As I’ve written before it truly puts me in my place, in both senses of that phrase. Under the sea of stars, I am rightly situated. I know who I am, though who that is I really couldn’t say. Looking out at the cosmos—out from the cosmos—I find myself located when most of the time I am not. At that moment also, it becomes immediately clear that I am vastly outmatched. Alas, I am not going to figure it out. So then so why worry about it? Sleep then becomes possible, even likely. And peaceful sleep, at that.
For all the thinking I’ve done over my lifetime though, most of it has done little more than firm up my existing prejudices and ideological priors. We humans have been long susceptible to being hedged in by our ideologies. So much so that we can hardly even see the prisons we create for ourselves.This is even more true in our current unnatural state of living we call modernity—and its radically unstable offspring we call postmodernity. The whole catastrophic slaughter of the 20th century, for example, was about which false ideology was right. Turns out nobody was right. Everyone was wrong. Though some were certainly far more wrong than others. We’re still at this game and have apparently learned nothing.
So seeking some respite from my thoughts I stepped out of the hermitage into the darkness of the night. Rather than the expected panorama of stars I was met by something very different. The entire canyon had become blanketed in by fog. No, not fog. Up here it isn’t fog. Up here we are in the clouds. The evening sky had been crystal clear the evening before so this caught me by surprise. There was only the slight hiss of misting rain. A bit of wind. The nocturnal song of insects now hushed. I could hardly even make out the other buildings a few hundred feet beyond me. It was beautiful.
There is indeed something strangely beautiful in not being able to see clearly, or very far. There is something oddly familiar in the familiar becoming obscure. There is comfort in it. The comfort of letting go of the illusion that I can make things clear. And that by that clarity I can make things right. I can’t make things right because it turns out I actually don’t know how to do that. Things aren’t clear. No known effort of my own can change that. I should know by now that my efforts to know and fix the world have resulted in further chaos and less clarity. I am unable to even fix myself. Yet I keep trying and failing at both.
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As a younger man obscurity and ignorance was my enemy. All must be brought to the light. I was certain that the confusion all around me could be fixed. Somehow we could get things right. This drove me to try and understand how we got here and what might be done about it—and honestly, it still drives me. I have long told myself I needed to be clear. Instead, the more I pursued clarity the more deeply I was confused. A confusion that could only be cured by more clarity. My general condition was opaque at best. I assiduously clung to the belief there was a way to fix things. There wasn’t then and there isn’t now. It’s long past time the time of repair. That is what got us here in the first place. Our own solutions are what is causing the catastrophe growing around us.
I often describe our situation as a catastrophe. This might sound to some ears like an exaggeration. The word itself is from the Greek and literally means an overturning or a sudden turning. In this sense, the catastrophe is already here. We live in a time of great overturning. I have to wonder if it has ever been different. Certainly, Modern Civilization itself has been a great overturning. Modern Civilization is therefore a catastrophe. The main difference now is the startingly rate and radical depth of the changes taking place. I don’t think anyone can even understand it let alone stop it now. Which won't stop us from trying. I would rather just sleep through the night.
The next day continued to be closed in by the low clouds. But it cleared up the day after. A return to the warm, sunny days of late summer. Though the morning air had that edge of coolness that tells of Autumn. After the noon meal, I decided to take a walk further down the narrow canyon and away from the monastery. The path begins by crossing over the small Tallahassee creek. Both the trail and stream meander together along a winding, often rough-hewn route. The trail frequently opens up to larger views of pines on one side and rocky crags on the other. Further on, I hopped the creek and passed through the wire fence gate meant to contain itinerant cows. Not much further along, there is a steeper path up the pine forest side. I am told that at the top one is afforded a view of the whole canyon and the surrounding mountain ranges, as well as the monastery down below. It seemed like a fine destination.
The path up the hillside, however, is not a well-traveled one and it is at times fairly steep. I don’t think anyone has walked it frequently enough to cut a clear path through to the top. The last time I traversed the canyon I actually missed the upward path completely, though I was looking for it. This time I did find it and quickly started my way up. I had made it a good, steep distance far up along the hillside before finding myself stuck. At that point, I thought could see the summit of the hill a few hundred feet beyond where I was standing. Nonetheless, I was simply unable to find a way to reach it. The thicket of trees and scrubby bushes became too impenetrable for me to proceed. I started back down in hopes of a different path back up. After a few false starts and dead ends, I decide to make my way down and back to the hermitage.
It is said that the Spirit of the Renaissance was born on April 26th, 1336. This was the day that the poet Petrarch climbed Mont Ventoux in Southern France. The claim is that he was the first person to climb a mountain simply for the view, i.e., “because it was there”. He brought with him a copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions. Upon arriving at the peak and in a very fine imitation of St. Augustine himself, Petrarch opened the book, apparently at random, to the following passage:
People are moved to wonder by mountain peaks, by vast waves of the sea, by broad waterfalls on rivers, by the all-embracing extent of the ocean, by the revolutions of the stars. But in themselves they are uninterested.
Needless to say, I am no Petrarch, and the hillside I climbed is no Mount Ventoux. Certainly, no new age was heralded by my ascent. All this should surprise exactly no one. And unlike him, I didn’t even make it to the top of my little hill. I wasn’t carrying any venerable and great book with me from which to quote upon arriving at the summit.Unlike him, I wasn't moved by the wonder of the mountain peaks because I never got to see them. And unlike him, I live in a time when we human beings have become far too interested in ourselves. In fact, we have a hard time talking about anything else. Nothing against Petrarch, but what he started is now coming to a screeching end. And not a moment too soon.
To the Renaissance man, a whole new view of what it meant to be human had become possible. The Age of Man had fully begun. This will be our time. The future was open and it was panoramic and moved us to wonder. We will now be free of the darkness and superstitions of the past. We can now finally—finally—see things clearly. The ascent of Mount Ventoux was for Petrarch and for rising humanism a symbolic triumph. My solitary failure was, at least to me, significant only in its total insignificance. Maybe it wasn’t even a failure. To me, it was just a lovely hike on a beautiful day. I didn’t know where I was going exactly other than up. I got lost. I turned back. That is more than sufficient.
We seem to be on the verge of choosing what and whether human life—and with it, all life—will continue to be on this planet. Whether science fiction or not there are a lot of brainy people with a lot of money behind them trying to turn us into something quite different than what we have been. I think they will fail. But I don’t really know, maybe they won't. They will likely do tremendous of damage in the process regardless. Yet nobody is able to give a fully coherent explanation of what we are doing or why. Instead, we are drowning in partial, often unhelpful explanations. I have to wonder whether our situation even can be understood. Have we reached our cognitive and moral limits? Or are the cacophony of reasons we give merely an implicit way of admitting we don’t really know why we do what we do? Admitting our fundamental ignorance would at least be refreshing in its honesty. Instead, it is not unusual to find various deep, sincere, erudite, and eloquent views of our situation that are in nearly complete contradiction with one another. It actually is quite common. Many of them are done with the same air of certainty—where there likely is none.
I myself offer only the Arsenios Option, i.e., fleeing the world of distraction and ambition, being silent, and dwelling in stillness. I don't offer it as way to understand our situation. It's what you do when all explanations have failed and when talking turns to gibberish. It isn't intended to be another ideological viewpoint among the billion others and therefore vigorously defended. It is certainly not something that constitutes a political agenda, and it can't be forced on anyone. It is just a hope—albeit a dark one. It is the hope that we can go deeper than the problem itself. In silence, stillness not-knowing, we might possibly learn to stop trying to fix everything. Maybe thereby we can avoid the inevitable catastrophe our solutions themselves are causing. We can learn to accept that we don't see things clearly and that we probably never will. We can accept that we don't really know and that not-knowing is actually the better and more human way to live. We can live humbly with each other and upon the earth and with the Divine. We can finally learn to simply let things be.
For although at certain times and in certain circumstances it is necessary and useful to dwell on the particular situation and activity of people and things, during this work it is almost useless. Thinking and remembering are forms of spiritual understanding in which the eye of the spirit is opened and closed upon things as the eye of a marksman is on his target. But I tell you that everything you dwell upon during this work becomes an obstacle to union with God. For if your mind is cluttered with these concerns there is no room for him.
—The Cloud of Unknowing
It is like my brain has a mind of its own.
And perhaps that’s where it belongs.
This is what makes propaganda so effective, We don’t see it. We believe we came up with it.
Actually “false ideology” is a redundancy.
This is the source of my swirling thoughts at 3 am, I would imagine.
Usually, the world catastrophe is used as a synonym for disaster. Or as a more intense and widespread disaster. The word disaster itself has an interesting etymology. It comes from Italian disastro meaning an ‘ill-starred event’, from dis- (expressing negation) + astro ‘star’. This is likely an astrological reference. But if you take the word further back to its Latin roots, i.e., dis- (meaning apart) + austrum ‘star’ you get something like “apart from the stars’. A fanciful etymology on my part, no doubt. Though it is relevant to our theme.
There have been more tumultuous times. More chaotic revolutions. Our catastrophe is of a different order. It is happening right in front of our eyes. Few seem to be able to do anything to stop. Maybe nobody can.
The noon meal is called dinner rather than lunch here.
Though I did briefly consider bringing a copy of the Tao Te Ching, which might tell you something.
I am guilty of this. I may be guilty of this right now
If there is one, I haven’t heard it.
I am guilty of this. I may be guilty of this right now. That said, there are many offering intelligent views with deep humility and knowledge. There is something in us that necessitates a complete and integrated explanation. It is comforting. Color me skeptical that we can find it. I do believe in truth.
See the Introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton. It’s all there. Thankfully none of the Arsenios Option comes from me. Merton proposed it for our times in the early Sixties. I am simply trying to bring it up again for consideration in our own more deeply troubled times.
Dear Jack, I am always so pleased when I see another offering of yours in my inbox. Reading your words and the eloquence of your readers’ comments too allows me to feel less alone in the spot I find myself in. It’s a strange one as a life long constant doer; mother, musician, and teacher and and and…but I have driven myself to the end of the road of worth defined through endless doing. So what now? I’ve been asking or I suppose, rather pleading…WHAT NOW? I haven’t found answers (I wanted to add “yet” but it seems I cannot) but I am somewhat relieved to read your words and know that my compulsion of figuring shit out isn’t all that uncommon.
It’s been quite the unraveling of which it only seemed natural at the end of the last string, I would find a God I didn’t give much thought to in my former life. Even now, as I acknowledge something was there through my ecstatic musical experiences and equally ecstatic addictions embraced by my industry, I am surprised that this…desire for silence and darkness is so strong.
I just want to share that your line “I got lost. I turned back. That is more than sufficient,” brought on a sensation of truth (capital T perhaps?) that only my body seems to be able to communicate these days. A part of me is sad to know it to be true and also heartened to know maybe it is enough. So thank you. And thanks to everyone here as well. It’s a lovely little community of wordsmiths that I enjoy immensely feeling a part of. All the best, Kenna
Thanks, Jack, for this beautiful reflection. Funnily, I never see the point of stopping for the silence and stillness, until I stop, and then it becomes clearer. I see how all the little words in my head, like lenses, amplify or distort bits of reality at high speed, often in the most selfish of ways. It is so strange, this contradiction of silence and words that accompanies us everywhere.
The Arsenios option, of fleeing distraction and ambition, and seeking stillness, is one that I find only in bits and pieces in my banal middle-class existence. The Machine is one thing; children, work, myriad worries about everything from finances to mini-crises, etc., are a whole other category of distraction (and often more immediate).
And yet it seems the Option is doable, in small ways, by slowing down, simplifying life, and by laying the words to rest a little, and allowing something else to rise. I’m not saying I’m very good at this, but the difference is striking. Sometimes confusing. How can life be so split, between the world of words and of doings, and the world of silence and stillness?
I don’t think it’s within human power to heal the split, though sometimes we experience glimmers of union. Still, one wonders, and tries.