The problem is that to the extent we believe we understand life, we clearly limit life's possibilities.
Concepts and Definitions
The central motif of the ancient Chinese apophatic Zhuang Zi is learning to embrace "not knowing." But he wrote a knowledgeable book on this subject. The reason he did so is that, in order to embrace not knowing we must first satisfy our mind: we need to know why we don't need to know.
Apophasis involves emptying the mind of its attachments to conceptual knowledge in order for the mystic to experience the mystical phenomenon. To suspend the mind's conceptual mentation, and thus open it for mystical reception, one must first rationally explain to this mind how and why such emptying/opening will be beneficial. In other words before we can help the mind become free of its conceptual attachments, we must use concepts to convince it how and why it will be better off for doing so.
This following section will explain the terminology used by the author, it is a bit dry, and if you want to pass and go on to the next section click: Here.
The human psyche
Apophasis: Part one
Apophasis: Part two
Why bother with philosophy?
Defining the essense of the mystical experience
Pin the wheel: Mike Butler
Just for the fun of it: Pragmatic mysticism
Spiritual force or forces
My use of the term "God"
The use of the term "psyche" in this presentation
When I use the terms psyche and psychic I will be referring to aspects of a communication system; I will not be addressing anything in the realm of para-psychology, that is to say, the so-called "psychic phenomena."
I use word psyche to indicate the human body/mind as an integrated communication system: a system of perception, integration of the material perceived, and of the generation of responses to this continually changing data. I am using the term functionally to describe a processing system, I infer no claim that this psyche I speak of exists as an identifiable entity.
When I use the word mind I will be using it as a synonym for psyche, that is to say, the entire mental/physical organ of mentation. If I hazard the use of the term soul in this project, I will be using it simply as a synonym for the psyche.
I use the word mentation to indicate the activity by which the psyche processes its world. This activity consists of perceiving, integrating, and responding to the world. Mentation is a physical and a mental process, a batter's response to a baseball is executed by integrated decision making processes which arise from both his body and his conceptual thoughts.
Apophasis: Part one
In simple terms, apophaticism is the cultivation and practice of maintaining a quiet mind, and involves the provisional elimination of those preconceived ideas and emotional tendencies that provoke unnecessary internal noise.
Apophasis is an art that is as least as ancient as human consciousness. All of us use this mode of mentation quite commonly. For example when we are driving and observe a red traffic signal, we do not usually say to ourselves, "Oh the light is red, I need to stop." We merely see the red light and our foot moves onto the brake and stops the vehicle. In the working mind of the apophatic practitioner, this mode of non-discursive thought is pervading consciousness and dominating all other modes of mentation, modes which may or may not be occurring simultaneously.
Apophasis, part two
A more technical definition
of would be:
Apophasis is a state of mind/body/environment inter-activity that is attained by reducing intellectual activity and by suspending any dogmatic characterization of the identity, meaning, value, source, or ramifications of the living world. As a result of this reduction and suspension of normal mental contents, which is seldom if ever complete, one is better able to transparently perceive and precisely respond to the compelling force and content of immediate experience.
The inchoate converstations in the depths of the soul
"He talked all the way from Cleveland to Texarkana. He was trying to tell us why a person could not talk about mysticism." Rawley Creed
Some would think that to define and conceptualize the mystical realm would be to directly oppose the apophatic approach. But the apophatic process does not eliminate defining, conceptualizing, and thinking in words. It only subordinates this type of thought process to its specialized and very limited role.
Words about mysticism are shells that can only make limited sense without direct experience. The words in this presentation can only vaguely translate what is a profoundly esoteric language, an ineffable tongue so abstruse that it can only be completely understood during the inchoate conversation of a soul speaking with itself and the ground of its being.
Why should an apophatic bother with philosophy?
The primary reason that the apophatic practitioner treats philosophy, and most particularly ethics, is related to the cultivation of inner tranquility. A mind that is harboring conceptual inconsistencies, whether overt or hidden, cannot attain inner stillness. Cleansing one's psyche of self-contradictions requires a thorough examination and elimination of a plethora of inconsistent beliefs, habitual self-deceptions which one has been taught by one's culture. As Lao Zi said, "The adept unlearns more and more every day." The more unlearning the less the mind is tempted to waste its potential power defending the indefensible.
A mind freed from self-contradictions will have little inner noise and thus will be able to hear and see its perceptual field accurately. An impartial awareness is able to grasp its world as is, and not skewed by preconceptions that would require it to be otherwise than it is. With clear perception the adept is able to respond with uncanny precision and timeliness (mystically) to the complex world of phenomena moving around him.
(see also: The false divide and Nagarjuna's philosophy)
Defining the essense of the mystical experience
"Here we pray God that we might be free of God." Meister Eckhardt (Michael Sells p 188)
"Lord increase my bewilderment in you." Ibn 'Arabi (Michael Sells p 108)
Defining the essense of the mystical experience is something the apophatic mystic does not do. He estimates his ability to be far too limited to know what that essence is, and far too modest to know what the source of that essense might be. Hence when he uses words like "the divinity," the "divine," the "numen," the "numinous," "god," "God," "Lord," etc., he is referring to an experience, not an entity. These words are indices of an experience that can be partially and provisionally described, but cannot be defined as a fixed "reality."
He is, furthermore, specifically avoiding defining this mystical experience as something static for a more practical reason: to define a thing, or even a process, is to limit one's ability to perceive potential changes in the way one continually learns to perceive how the process will behave. The mystical experience is, as far as the mystic can tell, continually moving beyond the limits of what we might think it is, and the mystic wants the flexibility to pursue his changing perception.
See also: Loving the spiritual source without insisting that she exist
Pin the wheel: a poem by Mike Butler
Pin the wheel from start to
stop and lines become skewed.
As skewed, lines become heartbeats, rhythms and time,
and the lymph within is reason, coalescing the shrine.
From fruit to limb to branch
to trunk to root to seed,
knowing our place oft defies possibility.
As all places are one, no place
do we rest,
simply turn along the wheel of ever-flowing change.
Just for the fun of it: Pragmatic mysticism,
mystical practice valued per se
"Being purely pragmatic, he was prepared to abandon pragmatism on a moment's notice." Rawley Creed
Most mystical traditions are incorporated within a religious doctrine that advocates a purpose far beyond the enjoyment of the mystical experience itself, for some examples: immortality, gnosis, deification, union with the ultimate ground of reality, or a final liberation from the limits of materiality. Pragmatic mysticism, the apophatic approach, is only interested in attaining, what seems, as far as the mystic can tell, to be available at hand right now: her purpose is gaining a continually increasing ability to be content with existence as it is unfolding in the immediate world around her. In the pragmatic view, if mystical practice amounts to a way of increasingly enjoying the world as it is, then it is to be valued as an activity in and of itself. It is self-validating; the attainment of the mystical state is valued per se.
Specifically, the apophatic mystic's effort is to become as satisfied as possible in the present moment, and to find a continuing and increased satisfaction in the succeeding moments. The motivation propelling the mystic to proceed on this path arises innately, and hence this form of mysticism is also called natural mysticism.
The apophatic is not interested (provisionally speaking) in the goals sought by most other forms of mysticism; she sees no practical way to determine if any of these aims, is or is not, a plausible possibility. (cf. Zhuang Zi: "How could I know something is truly so? How could I know it is truly not so?") Being pragmatic, she is not willing to put off the immediate pursuit of contentment for a distant promise which she, so far, has found no way to prove will be kept. But still, even this conclusion, just as all of her conclusions, is provisional. The pragmatic is ready to completely change her approach if and when any other approach would appear to become more satisfying.
Spiritual force or forces
On one hand these forces may be mentally depicted as individual external personas. (e.g. "gods," "angels," "ancestor spirits," etc.) But they may equally effectively be characterized as the sum total of forces and energies of any surrounding field of phenomena, which when one attains a certain psychic disposition, coalesce to communicate coherent information to the individual. By practice one hopes to become disposed to receive such wisdom.
In either of the above characterizations, the
perceiver may refer to these forces as being a numen, the numinous
forces, the divinity, or the divine. The apophatic mystic is entirely
focused on the relationship between the perceiver and the percieved.
Exactly what this perceived "is", is of virtually no
relevance to her practice. She is intent on cultivating an intimate
relationship with a force which/whom she is content not to define.
See also: Imagining gods
Do you want to be sure that you are on the right path, sure that you have not been deceived? Then surrender your passion for certainty; know that you cannot know and you will realize a way that is certainly right.
Apophatic practice requires discarding all assumptions. The apophatic does not assume there is a God; does not assume there is not a God. Does not assume the world makes sense; does not assume it does not make sense. Does not assume there is evil; does not assume there is no evil. Does not assume she herself is the only thing that exists; does not assume she is not the only thing that exists. Does not assume the fundamental way her world works will stay the same; does not assume it will not stay the same. Does not assume it best to have no assumptions; does not assume it best to have assumptions.
And the apophatic makes no assumptions as to whether it is best or not for other people to make assumptions.
Certainty is not an authentic element of the human condition.
See also: Divinity = hyperconductivity?
My use of the term "God"
The use of the word "God" (when used to refer to the spiritual source) in this writing is problematic, for the apophatic is careful not to demand nor deny the existence of a being called "God" by the historic religious convention. Then, you may ask, why do I sometimes use the term "God"?
The apophatic mystic, uninterested in theological "truth," is rather interested in an intimate relationship with something she directly experiences. She is not interested in knowing what the "essence" of that something may or may not be. The "something" manifests unconditional love and the fruit of that love, which is "the peace that passeth understanding." The compelling experience of intimate connection to unconditional love and peace may simply be a "naturally occurring" dynamic process, or it may be a relationship with the source of such a process.
The mystic seeks an intimate relationship with an ineffable source of love and peace, whatever that source may be. And experientially, it turns out that by "personalizing" the source, giving it certain archetypal names, like "God," "the mother," "Corn Goddess," "the one," the "friend," and even the "nothing;" the mystic is able to more intimately and effectively participate in the relationship. It appears that naming the unknowable source, and treating it as if it were a being with whom one can have a personal relationship, catalyzes the manifestation of its gifts. In practice, we say that this personalizing simply works well, despite the realization that the names given cannot plausibly provide an accurate description for a mystery that remains ever dark to the conscious mind.
The apophatic mystic is interested in mystical efficacy; she has no interest in theology. Naming or not naming the source of devotion is a purely pragmatic decision. It solely depends on whether or not such a naming deepens her experience of the love and peace of the mystical source.
I hope the above may help to explain my periodic
use of the word "God." To tell you the truth, other
than my experience of being here right now, I have no idea if
what I might call "God," or indeed what I call anything
and everything else, "really exists." Such ignorance
is mystically useful; not knowing is surrender. It is worth repeating
my above citation of Meister Eckhardt: "Here we pray God
that we might be free of God." (Michael Sells p
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