Apophat

Integral philosophy from a contemplative perspective.

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The Consolation of Philosophy

Philosophy as a Path

Hi Folks,

I was thinking about all of you and how I might reach out. I know this is a time of fear and worry for so many of us. Then I remembered that an ancient Roman named Boethius wrote a book called The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting his execution.

Then it occurred to me that some of you might find helpful to read why philosophy helps me cope with something as serious as this virus. It has to do with the power of Wisdom to serve as a reminder — there is far more going on than I can take in through the small world of my limited understanding.

Many great spiritual philosophers from the Buddha to Plato state that our ordinary view of the world is illusory and that we live in “a cave of shadows.” This means we don’t see things as they really are. I have always found this really helpful — to remember that I do not have the whole picture. That is my starting point.

Most people don’t think of philosophy as a spiritual path, but for me it is. By path I mean it uses suffering and fear as a means of seeking wisdom. It is the path of self-knowledge in the ancient meaning of that term. This is not knowledge about myself – an accumulation of data, but experiential awareness and contact with the deeper — or True Self — of one’s own deepest sense of “presence.” Contact with this Self is often the only real relief from fear and worry that I experience.

The questioning of who I really am can lead me past all the usual “answers” until nothing remains but silent awareness, the emptiness of full presence. In this space one can “know” things that are otherwise unknowable. I can’t talk or write about these things except indirectly because they go beyond language. But that does not mean this reality is not real or experienceable.

To know that when the pain of this world is almost too much to bear, I am reminded that this world is not ever going to give me the joy and peace I am looking for anyway. In some amazing sense then suffering becomes “a dark gift” because it can force me to look within for that which cannot be found without.

 

When I am in touch with my deeper self, the fear vanishes and only love remains. My path is to trust this love.

 

This, for me, is the consolation of philosophy.

 

Greetings Philosophers,


Shakespeare’s famous question “To be or not to be,” has some important psychological insights. The question can be simply whether to commit suicide or not. But to me that is too literal and shallow an interpretation of what this question could mean.


For me, the question has the sense of do I want to embrace my life with all its joys, sorrows, passions, problems, love, and suffering? Or do I choose to turn away from it and allow the many forms of distraction that surround us to avoid living my life?


Do I want to make my own choices, or do I want to follow the herd? There is a quote I love that says, “Do your own thinking or the media will do it for you.” Do I do my own thinking? Do you?


If I pay attention — that is, in itself, quite the task — I see that I have many opinions. For example, I have lots of opinions on the current war raging between Russia and the Ukraine. For instance, I worry about it spreading. But what do I really know? Do I understand the historical context of this war? Have I studied International Relations?


When it comes down to it, I don’t know much at all except I hate seeing all the suffering and misery experienced by so many people.


But in practicing noticing my opinions, I become aware that most of them are ill informed smatterings of what I have heard from other people or the media. I do not even know if I can trust what I am learning from the media.

What this opens for me is that my opinions cause me a lot of misery and as far as I can tell they do not help anyone.


What could I do in a situation I do not understand? Probably not much. But I can think of one thing I could do. I could send a gift to the Red Cross or other groups that are working with refugees. My point is that I could do something helpful and drop the story (opinions) that I have that may or may not be true anyway.


If there is not a positive contribution I can make, then why stress myself out with opinions? These opinions do not help me. They do not help anyone in the war zone. They just make me miserable.

To be, for me, is to do what I can and drop the story. To not be is to get lost in my head. My head is not a good place to get lost in!


To “walk the talk” I just inspired myself to donate to the Red Cross. That feels good. It does not make me miserable.


So, my thought is to be or not to be is a choice to be miserable or not miserable. This is an important choice, because my misery does not simply impact my inner life, but it impacts those that love me and perhaps it reaches even further out.


By that, I mean I believe (but don’t know for sure) that my personal state of consciousness impacts the consciousness of the world. If there is any truly real and lasting solution to the problems that we all face, it is not going to come primarily from political laws and changes. It is going to come from a change in consciousness.


To be, in this sense, is to choose love. To not be in this sense is to live in fear and confusion. I want to live my life from a place of love. It will be a better experience for me, but more importantly, it might help nudge humanity in the direction of greater compassion and wisdom.


The Gospels record Jesus saying: “For what shall it profit a [person], if [they] gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of [their] soul?”


Perhaps the choice to be or not to be is the choice to nurture or not to nurture whatever it is meant by the word soul.


Or perhaps a Buddhist teacher I love, Pema Chodron, makes the point clearer: "Feel the feelings and drop the story."


To Being!


Apophat


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With grief I greet you,


A favorite student of mine — Rae-Rae — passed away last week. I have been grieving more than usual. I think this is because she took several classes with me and so I got to know her well, including how her health issues made life difficult and precarious. She knew she did not have long to live, but she had hoped for more time.


One of the main goals of philosophy is to remember we are going to die and that it could happen at any time even though most of us wish to see that date put off to old age. It is not to be gloomy that we practice this awareness, but to live more fully. And this is what Rae-Rae did. She lived fully because she knew death was close in a way in which most of us avoid.


The lyricist Robert Hunter wrote in one of his beautiful songs.

All I know is something like a bird

Within her sang

All I know she sang a little while

And then flew on


I heard this song the evening I learned of her passing, and it made me cry. Rae-Rae was a beautiful person who did sing in the sense that the classes she was in were my best classes. This was because she would share freely her struggles. By risking vulnerability, she opened the door for other students to be real and authentic.


All too many students complain about all the work it takes to go to college. Rae-Rae did not need to take on all this work, but she did so because completing college was on her bucket list. It was part of what made her live her life to the fullest. During this past spring 22 semester, she missed many classes due to her health struggles, but she worked with me diligently, made up all the work, and received an A, as she did in all my classes. Most importantly, I never heard her complain.


“In Blackwater Woods,” Mary Oliver, my favorite poet, concludes with the following lines:

“To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it

go,

to let it go.”


When anyone passes, but even more so with someone so young and vibrant, it can be a call not only to grieve and celebrate a life, but also a call for each of us to embrace life more fully. Time is precious and when you remember that you waste less time. You not only love more, but you let other people know that you love them.


On the last day of class Rae-Rae came up to me and gave me a big hug. She told me that the study of philosophy helped her face her future and its uncertainties. I will remember that hug as long as I live. Such moments remind me that teaching — for me anyway — is a sacred experience. This is because I see philosophy as not abstract intellectual mumbo-jumbo, but as a path to transformational education. When philosophy is taught correctly as the “love of wisdom,” then it can help us seek wisdom and perspective on the most difficult subjects, including death.


Robert Hunter again in another song:


River gonna take me

Sing me sweet and sleepy

Sing me sweet and sleepy

All the way back back home

It's a far gone lullaby

Sung many years ago

Mama, mama, many worlds I've come

Since I first left home

Going home, going home

By the waterside I will rest my bones

Listen to the river sing sweet songs

To rock my soul

Rae-Rae was truly a ray of light in our dark world. Her body may be gone, but her spirit remains in all of us that had the honor to know her.


Apophat

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Greetings Philosophers!


Philosophy often takes hits for trying to answer the great questions. There is a sense that we can somehow develop an intellectual formulation that can explain this basically infinite reality we call the Cosmos.


However, my training in philosophy centered around Immanuel Kant’s assertion that “The mind can ask questions that it can’t answer.” In other words, the emphasis I received taught me that asking the great questions is still important because the act of questioning itself opens us to an experience of reality only possible when we acknowledge that we don’t know.


My favorite poet, Mary Oliver, wrote:


“That summer I hurried too, wakened

To books and music and circling philosophies.

I sat in the kitchen sorting through volumes of answers

That could not solve the mystery of trees.”


One of the reasons I love her poetry so much is that she acknowledges the great questions while bowing to the mysteries that can be experienced at times, but never articulated as intellectual formulations.


My growing love for poetry stems from the fact that it lends itself to pointing to the experience of everyday mysteries we can open ourselves to without making dogmatic statements. Even the very form of poetry lends itself to multiple interpretations.


The great religious scholar Karen Armstrong asks an important question: “What if all of the religious texts of the world were experienced as poetry rather than prose?” It seems to me that if religion dropped dogmatic beliefs and replaced them with means to open ourselves to mystery and wonder, we could have avoided all the religious wars fought over who was right and who was wrong in their understanding of God.


I am concerned about the growing ties of religion with nationalism. It is very dangerous. It has a long history of ugliness. To see this growing movement in the United States and other parts of the world frightens me because we know — if we are wise — what it will lead to.


To remember that we do not know is one of the important roles that philosophy can play in our lives. If we learn to love the questions more than the answers, we open ourselves to a life of “radical amazement.” We would abide in a state of wonder, a state of mind that seems impossible to hold and be violent at the same time.


We could enjoy the experience of trees even as we know that we cannot “solve the mystery of trees.”


To Wisdom and Wonder and Mystery!


Apophat

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About Apophat

So good to have you here.

I have been studying philosophy and religion my whole adult life. Intellectually, my home is in the world of Integral Philosophy. I attended graduate school at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, earning my Ph.D. in Philosophy and Religion. 

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