"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, February 12, 2018

On Fasting from Noise or Against Asceticism and Spirituality (I)

The paschal calculations are only out by a week this year (see here for some further thoughts on this absurd problem), so today begins Great Lent on the Gregorian Calendar, and next week it begins on the Julian.

Always around this time in the past, as here, I have listed some good books, especially Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, and I would not unsay what I have said there. But I am increasingly uneasy about much of this discussion and increasingly given to rethinking the categories of asceticism thanks to a book I mentioned at the beginning of the month in discussing the links between Freudian and Dominican notions of prayer: Maggie Ross, Silence: A User's Guide vol. I.

This builds on a longstanding dislike I have had of the whole notion of "spirituality." I remember very clearly in the early 1990s, as I moved from studying psychology to theology, taking my first undergraduate course in "spirituality" taught by a man who was bouncing across the stage with excitement that, at long last, "spirituality" was emerging as its own academic discipline, with new journals being founded every other week to prove its bona fides. The eagerness with which he raced to embrace all the trappings of middle-class North American academic respectability were then distasteful to me and have become all the more so over the passing years. I rapidly became deeply suspicious--before I had the language to express it--that "spirituality" was yet another triumph of the process of commodification that Western capitalism does with such seductive ease.

Thus I am increasingly inclined to the view that there is no such thing as spirituality, and that's a very good thing too. Some of this I got more recently from reading Robert Farrar Capon, as well as Schmemann's For the Life of the World. But the first two who really helped me to see this were, of course, John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory and John Bossy's underappreciated but delightful minor classic, Christianity in the West 1400-1700. Ross reinforces this suspicion early on in Silence: A User's Guide by quoting Meister Eckhart: if you think you are doing anything "spiritual" or "special," you're not seeking God!

But my few suspicious and criticisms are anodyne compared to the scathing, cold dissection in the hands of Maggie Ross. Her book seems increasingly to me to be a rare and welcome knife cutting through so much nonsense, some of it positively harmful. We'll start with the first two chapters before getting to the third chapter, which should really be called "A Glossary of Fatuous Terms of Destruction and Illusion Masquerading as Piety." In this third chapter she really takes the gloves off, though she drops a hint in ch. 1 when, e.g., she says that "mysticism (a dog's breakfast of a word that needs to be eliminated from the discussion) is tainted with voyeurism and self-aggrandizement and has become a consumer circus" (25). A little later on she will also scorn all language of having an "experience" of God, noting that "God" may be operative in the experience, but God is not the experience: that would be to hack Him down to our little self-conscious concepts.

The burden of the first two chapters is to sketch out her psychology, as it were, noting the tension between the self-conscious mind, which is always noisy, and the "deep mind," as she calls it. If the former, as she says, "makes us human, then its elision opens the door to...divinity" (1).

Too many of us are scared to open that door for several reasons. First, we may think that the deep mind is a morass of irrational instincts and urges, but, she says, it is itself also thinking. This deep mind, however, cannot be forcibly accessed: to get here you have to find ways to subvert self-consciousness. Perhaps, she says in a few places, the most common technique is to focus on a single word or exhalations until self-consciousness gradually falls away for a time.

However we do it, she makes the claim that putting on the mind of Christ is silence: to put on the mind of Christ is to relinquish projections and imagined stereotypes and to receive a transfigured mind back instead. This is impossible without the "work of silence," as she repeatedly calls it. The mind of Christ, then, is not an inhibited self-conscious mind, but the deep mind that avoids all notions of pious "imitation" because such ideas depend on our own suspect concepts and projections of Christ.

To become transfigured it is necessary to enter into solitude and silence: she notes the desert fathers and mothers (and modern commentators, as I have often noted--e.g., Thomas Merton) said that if you went and sat silently in your cell, your cell will teach you everything. This, she notes later, is surely why Pascal could claim that our unhappiness arises from only one thing: our inability to remain alone and silent in a room.

In reading her so far, I am put in mind of one French and two other British writers whom I read in the 1990s on these themes. The first would be the psychiatrist Anthony Storr's little book Solitude.

The second is the psychoanalyst Nina Coltart, the publication of whose Slouching Towards Bethlehem in 1992 was influential for me in deciding to enter full-time psychoanalysis in 1994. Among the many fascinating chapters in that book, I have often returned to her reflections on the silent patient, which she defines as the patient who speaks for less than 10% of the total analysis; and then her own experiences of solitude and meditation as an Anglican who later embraced Buddhism.

In the midst of reading these two, then somehow I discovered Simone Weil and her especially searing insights on solitude. One of these days I must go back to Weil, on whom an explosion of scholarship has developed in the two decades since I last read her.

For Ross, engaging deep silence requires no gimmicks, programs, gurus, or expensive memberships. It costs nothing. That, of course, makes it highly suspect to the powers and principalities of our present age, which can make no profits off it--but, as she shows, suspicion of silence goes back many centuries within a Christian context alone.

There is also another factor at work, one which, as I noted in previous discussions of Christopher Bollas, centres on the fact that many of us today dismiss and disdain any notion of an unconscious life not least because the unconscious, the hidden mind is a thinking mind and we don't want to entertain Freud's insight here about that. How dare our minds go on thinking without our self-conscious approval and, above all, control!

But Ross hastens here to insert a welcome reassurance, especially for those who are worried that--as she noted earlier--the deep mind, the hidden and unconscious mind, is an irrational mass of desires that will lead you astray and deceive you. On the contrary, she says, the silence of the deep mind is perhaps most objective of all insofar as it leads away from self-consciousness and its suspect motives to simply see what is real not just in ourselves but especially in the world around us. In doing the work of silence, we can see, but see differently: deep silence transfigures. We learn to figure things out differently.

And part of what we figure differently is the relationship between what is known and unknown--here echoing what Adam Phillips has written about in several places, as I've noted on here the past two years, and more recently in discussing Christopher Bollas's pivotal idea of the "unthought known."

And yet, in addition to fear of the hidden and unconscious, and to disdain for its simplicity, silence is also scorned by some who abandon the work because they think it should transform them into something unique, a new self--only to discover that it does not. It leads them into communion with the ordinary, and to seeing our life in the daily things.

Moreover, it is feared by some who think it will change them rather too much. But, she says, you have to abandon and change nothing at the outset! The silence will elicit changes organically. This is very much my own recollection of the analytic experience as well: the change comes quite as much as a result of the process itself as of (and perhaps more than) any individual insights developed or traumatic memories analyzed.

Silence, Ross argues, leads us out of our very narrow, repetitive, cramped, noisy self-conscious minds into what Weil called the absolute unmixed attention which is prayer. (Cf. Coltart's understanding of the analyst proffering "evenly hovering attention," as Freud called it, and as Coltart saw as a deeply spiritual, almost sacred, practice.) How can this happen?

For Ross, "the only requirement is to observe one's own mind at work, to discover its permutations, to engage, receive, and realize the effects that arise from learning to inhabit deepest silence" (32). From here, it may be useful for some people to try meditation as an entry-level way into silence but it is not the whole thing. It can also dangerously magnify existing beliefs. So context and intent become key.

Sometimes, she notes, the way into silence can be inadvertent and this is often a sign of authenticity. But the most common entry point is through focus on one thing only: e.g., a word. There is most likely not one universal way to do this, but much depends on the individual. The point is to find a way to defeat the self-conscious mind by turning towards liminality, where the self-conscious mind submits its knowledge to the deep mind and receives it back transfigured. In the end, she says, silence can effect such dramatic change that even the way a person looks is changed.


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