Barbara’s kensho

Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Living with a Wild God, is being wonderful! Not far into it, but I am finding it fascinating, funny, and astounding all at once.

The heart of the story is her early adolescent quest for Truth, and the “mystical experiences” that seemed to attend that search. Growing up in an entirely skeptical, atheist family, she was disinclined to accept anything remotely religious in nature, so discounted these experiences at the time, and only recently – the last few years – has come to reconsider what they mean. The book is her coming to terms with those experiences, and the general quest which she recorded in a diary of sorts.

This description of her first “experience” is so near to my own that I felt I must include it here:

And then it happened. Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels, and words. I was looking at a tree, and if anyone had asked, that’s what I would have said I was doing, but the word “tree” was gone, along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language. Was it a place that was suddenly revealed to me? Or was it a substance— the indivisible, elemental material out of which the entire known and agreed-upon world arises as a fantastic elaboration? I don’t know, because this substance, this residue, was stolidly, imperturbably mute. The interesting thing, some might say alarming, was that when you take away all human attributions— the words, the names of species, the wisps of remembered tree-related poetry, the fables of photosynthesis and capillary action— that when you take all this away, there is still something left.

Ehrenreich, Barbara (2014-04-08). Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything (pp. 47-48). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

My own similar experience, as a considerably older seeker, is recorded in the earlier entry here as “Kensho, Krishnamurti and New Mexico“.

Barbara Ehrenreich on mystical experience

This is an interview with Barbara on her recent book _Living with a Wild God_. The interview is wonderful, can’t wait to read the book!

“Well I think the tragic thing about monotheism—and also about science, as I lump them together here—is they require that the rest of the world be dead. There’s this famous quote from Plutarch where a ship is going by and they hear the cry, “The great god Pan is dead,” and that marks the fact that the pantheon of the Greek gods has now given way, or will give way soon, to the risen Jesus, to this one-or-sometimes-three-part god. So, monotheism, all the other spirits and gods—done. And science! The Cartesian worldview is that the world is dead, except for human consciousness. It was only in the last twenty years or so that science began to acknowledge the feelings and thoughts of animals. And creativity. So I find the two kind of similar. As compared to a worldview more like my own, where it’s not all dead. There’s a lot going on. It’s a happening place.”

The online magazine is interesting also.

Sunday, March 11 – an aside re: theism

During morning meditation, it occurred to me that I had just thrown in some rather deep, perhaps controversial stuff in that last post, moving swiftly through the progress of my early life, and that it could be a problem for some people who came looking for meditation help, but with a Christian or other theistic background.

So just a word to clarify and maybe avoid putting too many people off with those comments.

The whole question of whether of not there is something like the Judeo-Christian God that actually exists in some way other than as a concept for us humans is not really germane to our discussion here, not really even important in the context of beginning and pursuing a meditation practice. Not that it’s not an important question – it clearly is in many ways – but it’s just not terribly important to decide what you think or believe about it before beginning a meditation practice. And whichever side you are on or come to be on regarding the question is not that important for your practice.

To me, practice is the most important thing, and it will help in answering all the other questions you confront. And you can develop a meditation practice with or without the concept of God in it, with or without having a belief in God or anything else. Because meditation is not about belief or about connection with some supernatural power. Meditation is about connection with reality as you experience it.

The words and thoughts and concepts used to think and talk about your meditation practice can vary widely from one person to another. Those words and ideas are not the practice. The practice is solely the process, the experiences that you have in your own body-mind, in your own silence, in your own space. When you think of it or speak of it, or hear others speak of it, you should be aware that the word is not the thing. Everything that anyone has ever said about meditation – including all the saints and sages and Buddhas – is just an approximation of the experience, a finger pointing to the moon, they say in Zen. It’s not really it. Nothing is it but it. So the only way to know what meditation is about, what it consists of, what it is, is to meditate.

There are, of course, forms of meditation that are predicated on God and aimed at making contact with God. But it’s not clear that what those people are actually doing is any different than what people who don’t have that idea about it are doing. I’ve read widely in the literature of various kinds of meditation including the early Christian monks and it sounds to me like they are all essentially relating the same interior states. And it is clearly possible to follow any form of meditation with or without a belief in God.

I have learned Centering Prayer, which is a form of meditation or contemplation (those words are used differently by different people) based on ancient Christian teachings and practice, and discovered that the very same principles are followed in the actual practice as in some of the explicitly Buddhist forms of meditation I’ve practiced. I also found that despite my own personal lack of a belief system that supports the theistic concepts, I was able to follow the Centering Prayer practice and experience deep meditative states.

All of which is to say, don’t sweat it. For most of what I will discuss here, your belief or lack of belief will not be a serious concern. As you look deeper into these questions, meditation, however you choose to practice it, will be very helpful in making wise decisions.

Beyond the pale

During college, as my awareness of the world of events and the world of ideas grew, my drift away from the faith of our fathers became a waterfall, and an intro philosophy course pushed me over it. I suppose much of my original skepticism was fueled by objection to the moralistic code that came along with church, but by this time I had cleared that hurdle and found an even stronger basis for morality in rational humanism.

I began to study history and to read widely, and realized at some point that I no longer had any doubts about my ideas concerning the existence of God. It just seemed clear to me that it was a pretty foolish notion. It wasn’t so much that it couldn’t be proved, it was just that it didn’t seem to fit the case of existence as I had experienced it.

This created something of a break with my family, though they didn’t stop loving me or accepting me, they just were very unhappy with me. It was just something that my parents and all their contemporaries found incomprehensible. They had never expected a child of theirs to go beyond the pale. I was the first among the cousins, as far as I know, to openly flout the whole Judeo-Christian tradition in this way, and they were just shocked and disappointed.

But I managed to graduate despite my moral decay, and found myself in a moral quandary. Having graduated and passed my Army physical, and with no exemptions left, I was prime draft bait for the Vietnam War, as it was called. I considered myself a pacifist, but without a religious community to support me I had no basis to claim exemption due to opposition to war.

Not that being a Baptist would have helped a whole lot. It was pretty much “Quakers only” in the pacifist exemption department. (I had never heard of the Koinonia Community in Georgia at that point.) I considered Canada for some time, but I just couldn’t go that far. It wasn’t the geographical distance that stopped me, but the personal and emotional distance that step would have put between my family and me. Especially my father. Daddy was a WWII veteran, a navigator in the Army Air Corps, and spent 15 months in a German POW camp.

Leaving the Baptist Church was one thing, leaving the country to avoid the war was another. Maybe it was the cumulative effect. Maybe it was all those years of war stories. I just couldn’t do it.

I began to look into the Air Force – Daddy’s preference – and though I was drafted by the Army, was able to enlist in the Air Force and eventually get a slot in OTS, as a pilot. I foolishly thought, oh cool, become an Air Force pilot, then I won’t have to go to the war. Not.

It was 1969 when I entered, and they were going through pilots like popcorn in a movie theater. Well before my year of pilot training was over, I knew I was headed for Vietnam. I was just praying they wouldn’t ask me to drop any bombs or shoot at anyone.