Archive for the ‘inquiry’ Category

A Triad of Wisdom, Far Afield   Leave a comment

Druid teaching, both historically and in contemporary versions, has often been expressed in triads — groups of three objects, perceptions or principles that share a link or common quality that brings them together.  An example  (with “check” meaning “stop” or “restrain”):  “There are three things not easy to check: a cataract in full spate, an arrow from a bow, and a rash tongue.”  Some of the best preserved are in Welsh, and have been collected in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein (The Triads of the Island of Britain*, pronounced roughly tree-oyth un-iss pruh-dine).  The form makes them easier to remember, and memorization and mastery of triads were very likely part of Druidic training.  Composing new ones offers a kind of pleasure similar to writing haiku — capturing an insight in condensed form.  (One of my favorite haiku, since I’m on the subject:

Don’t worry, spiders —
I keep house
casually.

— Kobayashi Issa**, 1763-1827/translated by Robert Hass)

A great and often unrecognized triad appears in the Bible in Matthew 7:7 (an appropriately mystical-sounding number!).  The 2008 edition of the New International Version renders it like this:  “Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened for you.”

Apart from the obvious exhortation to persevere, there is much of value here.  Are all three actions parallel or equivalent?  To my mind they differ in important ways.  Asking is a verbal and intellectual act.  It involves thought and language.  Searching, or seeking, may often be emotional — a longing for something missing, a lack or gap sensed in the soul.  Knocking is concrete, physical:  a hand strikes a door.  All three may be necessary to locate and uncover what we desire.  None of the three is raised above the other two in importance.  All of them matter; all of them may be required.

And what are we to make of this exhortation to keep trying?  Many cite scripture as if belief itself were sufficient, when verses like this one make it clear that’s not always true.  Spiritual achievement, like every other kind, demands effort.  Little is handed to us without diligence on our part.

And though the three modes of investigation or inquiry aren’t apparently ranked, it’s long seemed to me that asking is lowest.  If you’ve got nothing else, try a simple petition.  It calls to mind a child asking for a treat or permission, or a beggar on a street-corner.  The other two modes require more of us — actual labor, either of a quest, or of knocking on a door (and who knows how long it took to find?).

It’s possible to see the three as a progression, too — a guide to action.  First, ask in order to find out where to start, at least, if you lack other guidance.  With that hint, begin the quest, seeking and searching until you start “getting warm.”  Once you actually locate what you’re looking for — the finding after the seeking — it’s time to knock, to try out the quest physically, get the body involved in manifesting the result of the search.  Without this vital third component of the quest, the “find” may never actually make it into life where we live it every day.

Sometimes the knocking is initiated “from the other side”  In Revelations, the Galilean master says, “I stand at the door and knock.”  Here the key seems to be to pay attention and to open when you hear a response to all your seeking and searching. The universe isn’t deaf, though it answers in its own time, not ours.  The Wise have said that the door of soul opens inward.  No point in shoving up against it, or pushing and then waiting for it to give, if it doesn’t swing that way …

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*The standard edition of the Welsh triads for several decades is the one shown in the illustration by Rachel Bromwitch, now in its 3rd edition.  The earliest Welsh triads appearing in writing date from the 13th century.

**Issa (a pen name which means “cup of tea”) composed more than 20,000 haiku.  You can read many of them conveniently gathered here.

book cover; door image.

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Answering Molly   Leave a comment

I teach at a boarding school, and a few years ago, one of my freshman advisees asked a seemingly innocent question during one of our first meetings.  I was still learning the scores of new names teachers must match with faces each fall, but Molly’s inquiry made her stand out from the other students:  “What question should I ask, and what’s the answer?”

I vaguely remember replying that I’d have to give  her question some thought, but I’d be sure to get back to her.  As a bit of playfulness, the matter might have ended there.  But Molly brought up the question again, almost every time we saw each other in fact, and it soon became a kind of inside joke.  She graduated before I wrote this, but she’s on Facebook, so I’ll be sending this along to her, only half a decade late.

Ideally, teaching and learning invite questions.  Good questions distinguish students who are thinking well, and they can move classes in rich and unforeseen directions. Good students and teachers distinguish themselves by the mileage they can get out of each other’s questions.  How often I’ve shut students down by dismissing a question out of lack of time, answering it poorly, not hearing it as it was intended, or deferring it in the face of “more important things” and ultimately forgetting it.  A class often comes alive with student questions.  They break up a teacher monolog, and — better, often, than teacher questions — reveal student thinking, which may well be superior to anything the teacher has planned for the day.  For me, following wherever such questions lead at least once a week has proven worth the time again and again.

For questions imply answers.  Insofar as it can be put into language, a desire to know carries the seeds of its own response.  Often we already “know” much of what an answer should “look like” – which some might say is a problem, because it conditions the kinds of answers we can receive, or those we will devote the most energy looking for.  When the man searching for his lost key is asked why he’s looking under a streetlight, he replies, “Because that’s where the light is.”

If we ask simple informational questions, such as “What time is it?” we already know a great deal about the form of the answer.  “Half a cup” or “Poughkeepsie” or “grayish green” won’t do for answers in this case.  “Not yet” edges somewhat closer, since it has at least something to do with time.  “4:18 pm” serves very well, whether or not it’s accurate, because it has the form of the kind of answer we seek.  So it satisfies the formal requirement without necessarily satisfying the content requirement.

In the case of “large” questions, though, it can be more difficult to recognize whether an answer even satisfies the formal requirement.  But as The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy insinuates, though we may have an answer,  even one as specific as 42, without its “inciting” question to steady and direct it like a rudder on a boat, an answer by itself may not help us very much.

Mary Oliver notes in one of her poems, “there are so many questions more beautiful than answers.” Living in our questions is one way to keep a spiritual search alive. Resist the craving for an answer too soon. In her poem “Spring,” she asserts, “‘There is only one question:/how to love this world.”  The biggest questions may not have an “answer” in any  sense we expect or demand, but they may nonetheless propel us in necessary or powerful directions, ones we need to travel.

Molly’s inquiry is a meta-question – a question about questions.  It asks about quality.  It also assumes the listener might know more than the speaker, at least about questions and their answers.  It implies that another can recognize – and provide – good or worthwhile questions worth asking, can anticipate the kinds of questions you may have, and has good answers.

Now all of this is unfair to load onto a probably offhand and casually teasing question.  But by continuing to ask it, Molly slowly transformed it into a kind of riddle or meditation object, deepening its significance.  What a lesson there!

One kind of answer to that question is also a general one, and sounds like advice for someone setting out on a journey:  ask the best kinds of questions you can, and trust that you also need to seek out your own answers.  Those anyone else can supply, except for day-to-day matters, aren’t really worth your time, except as provisional responses, first approximations to the answers you can best provide for yourself.  Question authority, because some sacred cows stopped giving milk a long time ago.  Question authority to find out if that authority deserves the name — does it feed you stock answers, or does it actually possess the power to lead you toward your own answers?  And better, authorize questions — encourage yourself, and others, to keep asking.

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Image:  cartoon

Religious Operating System (ROS) — Part 4: “Things of Earth”   Leave a comment

Historical novelist Mary Stewart writes vividly of 500 C.E. Britain in her “Merlin Trilogy,” which begins with The Crystal Cave and the childhood and youth of Merlin the enchanter, who will become Arthur’s chief adviser.  Here (1970 edition, pp. 174-5)  are Merlin and his father Ambrosius discussing the Druids.  At this time, in Stewart’s conception, laws are already in place banning Druid gatherings and practices.  Merlin has recently discovered that the tutor his father has arranged for him is a Druid.

* * *

I looked up, then nodded.  “You know about him.”  It was a conclusion, not a question.

“I know he is a priest of the old religion. Yes.”

“You don’t mind this?”

“I cannot yet afford to throw aside valuable tools because I don’t like their design,” he said.  “He is useful, so I use him.  You will do the same, if you are wise.”

“He wants to take me to the next meeting.”

He raised his brows but said nothing.

“Will you forbid this?” I asked.

“No.  Will you go?”

“Yes.”  I said slowly, and very seriously, searching for the words:  “My lord, when you are looking for … what I am looking for, you have to look in strange places.  Men can never look at the sun, except downwards, at his reflection in things of earth.  If he is reflected in a dirty puddle, he is still the sun.  There is nowhere I will not look, to find him.”

Of course, anyone who followed this noble-sounding principle to even reasonable lengths would have a very interesting and possibly very exhausting time of it.  As I mentioned in my post about Open Source religion, when virtually every human practice with any numinous quality about it can be  and has been pressed into service as a vehicle for religious encounter and a means to experience a god or God, then sacred sex won’t even top the list of things a person might do “to find him.”

Yet Merlin (and Stewart) have a point.  Spiritual inquiry and practice require a kind of courage, if they are to remain fresh and not decline into dead forms and mere gestures of religion. It is these things that the media quite rightly criticize.  When I’m in the grip of a quest, I only hope I can continue to be brave enough to follow out conclusions and — if need be — “look in strange places.”  It looks like courage to an observer, but I find that ultimately it’s a kind of honesty with oneself.  I want to keep looking.  Anything less feels suffocating and aggressively pointless, like painting garbage or eating styrofoam.  Any self-disgust we feel almost always arises from living a lie, which poisons our hours and toils and pleasures.

“Things of earth” cannot ultimately satisfy the inner hunger we feel, but they are valuable pointers, sacraments in the full sense, vehicles of the sacred.  To return to everyone’s favorite numinous topic, pursue sex of any variety, sacred or otherwise, and you’ll prove again for yourself one of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell:  “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”  Of course, along the way, as a witty recent post on Yahoo Answers has it, it may often happen that “The road of excess leads to the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet of Gluttony, which leads to the Bordello of Lust, which then leads to the Courthouse of Divorce, the Turnpike of Bankruptcy, the Freeway of Despair, and finally, the Road to Perdition.”  Blake did after all call these the Proverbs of Hell.

We just don’t discuss what comes after Hell.  Blake says it’s wisdom.  Hard-earned, yes.  And there are easier ways, which is one good thing that the Wise are here for.  Rather than following any prescription (or Prescriber) blindly, I hope to ask why, and when, and under what conditions the strictures or recommendations apply.

So we return and begin (again) with the things of earth, these sacred objects and substances.  As sacraments, earth, air, fire and water can show us the holy, the numinous.  Their daily embodiments in food and drink and alcohol, precious metals and gems and sex, pleasure and learning and science, music and literature and theater, sports and war and craft, are our earliest teachers.  They are part of the democracy of incarnate living, the access points to the divine that all of us meet and know in our own ways.

Drink deep, fellow traveler, and let us trade tales over the fire.  And when you depart, here’s an elemental chant by Libana, well-known in Pagan circles, to accompany you on your going.

 


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Images:  The Crystal Cave; The Proverbs of Hell.

Religious Operating System (ROS) — Part 3: Questions and Authorities   Leave a comment

So if you found my previous post about fear and death (and nerds — yay!) a bit too off-putting, here’s a reprieve.  What else might a new “religious operating system” have on offer? In a Huffington Post article from some time ago (Sept. 2010) titled “The God Project:  Hinduism as Open Source Faith,” author Josh Schrei asserts that the principal distinction between Hinduism and other more familiar Western faiths is not that the former is polytheistic and the latter are monotheistic, but that “Hinduism is Open Source and most other faiths are Closed Source.”  (We’re already increasingly familiar with the open-source approach from computer systems like Linux and community-edited resources like wikis.) In this series on what a more responsive and contemporary religious design might look like (here are previous parts one and two), this perspective can offer useful insight.

If we consider god, the concept of god, the practices that lead one to god, and the ideas, thoughts and philosophies around the nature of the human mind the source code, then India has been the place where the doors have been thrown wide open and the coders have been given free rein to craft, invent, reinvent, refine, imagine, and re-imagine to the point that literally every variety of the spiritual and cognitive experience has been explored, celebrated, and documented. Atheists and goddess worshipers, heretics who’ve sought god through booze, sex, and meat, ash-covered hermits, dualists and non-dualists, nihilists and hedonists, poets and singers, students and saints, children and outcasts … all have contributed their lines of code to the Hindu string. The results of India’s God Project — as I like to refer to Hinduism — have been absolutely staggering. The body of knowledge — scientific, faith-based, and experience-based — that has been accrued on the nature of mind, consciousness, and human behavior, and the number of practical methods that have been specifically identified to work with one’s own mind are without compare. The Sanskrit language itself contains a massive lexicon of words — far more than any other historic or modern language — that deal specifically with states of mental cognition, perception, awareness, and behavioral psychology.

It’s important to note that despite Schrei’s admiration for Hinduism (and its sacred language Sanskrit — more in a coming post), the West has all of these same resources — we just have developed them outside explicitly religious spheres.  Instead, psychology, so-called “secular” hard sciences, social experimentation, counter-cultural trends and other sources have contributed to an equally wide spread of understandings.  The difference is that far fewer of them would be something we would tag with the label “religion,” especially since the pursuit of things like ecstatic experience — apart from some Charismatic and Pentecostal varieties — generally lies outside what we in the West call or perceive as “religion.”

The underlying principle that drives such a range of activity perceived as “religious” also stands in sharp contrast with religion in the West.  (Of course there are exceptions. To name just one from “inside religion,” think of Brother Lawrence and his Practice of the Presence of God.) As Schrei remarks, “At the heart of the Indic source code are the Vedas, which immediately establish the primacy of inquiry in Indic thought.” To put it another way, India and Hinduism didn’t need their own version of the American 60s and its byword “question authority,” because implicit in open-source religion is “authorize questions.” Nor did they need debates over Creation or Evolution, because scientific inquiry could be seen as a religious undertaking. Schrei continues:

In the Rig Veda, the oldest of all Hindu texts (and possibly the oldest of all spiritual texts on the planet), God, or Prajapati, is summarized as one big mysterious question and we the people are basically invited to answer it. “Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?” While the god of the Old Testament was shouting command(ment)s, Prajapati was asking: “Who am I?”

This tendency to inquire restores authority to its rightful place.  In an era in the West when so many faux authorities have been revealed as spiritually hollow or actively deceitful, we’ve arrived at a widespread cynical distrust of any claims to authority.  But true authorities do still exist.  Their hallmark is an invitation to question and find out for ourselves.  Jesus says, “Ask and you will know, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.”  These aren’t the words of one who fears inquiry.  To paraphrase another of his sayings, when we can learn and know the truth about something, we will meet an increase of freedom regarding it.  It will not intimidate us, or lead us to false worship, or mislead us.  One identifier of truth is the freedom it conveys to us.

Authorities also benefit us because out of their experience they can guide us toward the most fruitful avenues of inquiry, and spare us much spinning in circles, pursuing wild geese, and squandering the resources of a particular lifetime.  Whether we choose to follow good advice is a wholly separate matter.  Authorities can point out pitfalls, and save us from reinventing the wheel.  At a time when so many look East for wisdom, only recently have we been rediscovering the wisdom of the West hidden on our doorsteps.

Examples abound. The Eastern Orthodox church has preserved a wealth of spiritual practices and living exemplars in places like Mount Athos in Greece.  The Pagan resurgence over the last decades has done much useful weeding and culling of overlooked and nearly forgotten traditions rich in valuable methods for addressing deeply the alienation, disruption, dis-ease, physical illness and spiritual starvation so many experience.  Individuals within Western monotheisms like Rob Bell and his book Love Wins have served as useful agents for reform and introspection.  While it may not be always true, as Dr. Wayne Dyer claims, that “every problem has a spiritual solution,” we’ve only just begun to regain perspectives we discounted and abandoned through the past several centuries, mostly through the seductions of our increasing mastery of a few select processes of the physical plane and their capacity to provide us with comforts, sensations, entertainments and objects unknown until about 75 years ago.  We’ve self-identified as “consumers” rather than spiritual beings.  Hamlet identified the problem centuries ago: “What is a man if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed?”  Or as another of the Wise asked, “What does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?”  Let us be soul-finders and soul-nourishers.  Otherwise, why bother?

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Images:  open-source cartoon; veda; Mount Athos

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