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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.

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Greetings Philosophers,


Now he knows.


I have lost my Socrates. My heart is crying. My gratitude is unending.


Professor Emeritus Jacob Needleman passed away November 28 at 88. He was my mentor. He was my Socrates — the midwife to my spiritual self, to my learning to love the questions more than the answers, and my guide to becoming a philosopher.


I will never forget the first day I met him. I was 29 and in my last semester of college. He walked into the room, and before he even said anything, I told myself: “Now, that is a real philosopher.” I don’t know how I knew that, but I left his class that day and went to admissions, dropped my other classes and took all four classes he was teaching that semester.


At the end of the semester, he asked to speak with me. My immediate concern was that I was in trouble. Writing four separate finals for the same professor had made me nervous. Perhaps they were too similar? He asked me “What’s next for you?” I told him the truth: I had no idea. I was about to turn 30 and was no longer interested in working in special education and had a “useless” degree in philosophy. I was lost.


Then he changed my life. He said, “Well I know what you should do.” “You do,” I asked? He said: “You need to go to graduate school and teach philosophy.” That was exactly 30 years ago, December 1992. He pulled some strings, and by March 1993, I was in graduate school. I never looked back.


Far more important, however, was his impact on my personal life and marriage. He was my guide. He helped me find my True Self, buried under my ego and identification with my outer life and personality. He pulled me through periods of suicidal depression. He could be hard on me. He did not allow me to lie to myself. He called me on my bluffs.


He taught my wife and I what true love is. Not romance or compatibility or friendship — important as those are — but that true love is the wish for the growth of another’s True Self.


People often ask me if I believe in an afterlife. I never know how to answer that question. I know a lot of stories — heaven and hell, reincarnation, etc. — but the real answer is “I don’t know.” I won’t know for sure until I make that journey to the other side. As a consequence, when someone passes away, my wife and I say to one another “Now they know.”


When I learned of his passing, I said a silly prayer: “If you are still alive, please send me a sign.” This is called magical thinking! Nevertheless, that night I had a dream that I received a text message. When I looked at it the message said: “Now I know.” My mind probably fabricated that, but it brought me to tears and an odd comfort.


The poet Claudia Jensen Dudley wrote some verses that I read shortly after his death:


“Years ago he quoted me Rumi, [which he did] /who said death is the wedding night. /And I think [Jacob] would now say /each moment is preparation /to let waves of sky sweep us /to a depth we could not otherwise know.

/And I ask him now: /Is this seeming oblivion /the guardian of a cosmos of light? /Of spiral and return? /Of a vast, ineffable, /and perhaps most fertile sleep?

/He answers not in words but in mystery.

/But you, little words, go to where my friend is now. /Gratitude, make him grow. /Strength and his purpose, remain. /And waves of Being, undulant, hold him aloft.”


I have lost my Socrates. My heart is crying. My gratitude is unending.


Now he knows.


Apophat

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Greetings Philosophers,


This consolation is especially dedicated to those who suffer from chronic pain. This is because I have experienced chronic suffering only in the last few years due to back issues.


Friedrich Nietzsche said: “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” One of the ways I have found meaning in suffering is that it has brought about a deeper compassion for all those people who deal with chronic pain on a regular basis.


Where I disagree with Nietzsche is in his wording. I would say to live is to experience pain. This is because the Buddha taught that we do not need to suffer. I think this means that pain happens, but what we do with that pain is causing us to suffer or be free of suffering.


In other words, if I tell myself that I should not experience pain, then not only am I lying to myself, but I am also fighting the nature of reality. The “story” that I should not experience pain only turns the pain into suffering.

Struggling with chronic pain is very difficult. In a couple of cases my pain was so severe that I ended up in the hospital. Pain that intense takes over one’s ability to be objective and separate pain from suffering. Thus, I have experienced the growth of compassion for those consumed by pain. So, even here, something good comes from chronic pain.


But my pain is not usually that intense. If I sit quietly with it and just surrender to it in the present moment, it is endurable. What makes it much worse is the “story” that the pain will never cease. That becomes unendurable.

Sometimes I must lay down and be as present as possible for the back to slowly relax. If I let go of the future and just be there, pain becomes an opportunity to meditate (since I can’t do much else).


I have also found it helpful to just let go of what I “should” be doing. That also just brings more suffering. There is nothing to do but be present. This “practice” has meant that not everything I want to get done gets done, but the main things do get done (even if a bit later than I wanted).


I have found that pain connects me more to the state of the world. It provides insight and perspective on all the pain experienced by so many. I am not alone. Knowing this is comforting. It motivates me to live in such a way that my choices and behavior do not cause more pain. And, even better, it motivates me to try and be an agent of compassion and service to help eliminate the needless pain so many endure.


If we work with our pain rather than suffer from it, perhaps it will help us see properly. Ken Wilber, a favorite philosopher who has had to deal with a chronic illness and pain for decades now, can nevertheless write: “I rise to taste the dawn, and find that love alone will shine today.”


My wish for myself and anyone else that has to endure chronic pain is that we will be free from suffering and let love alone shine through us.


To freedom from suffering,


Apophat

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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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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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