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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.

 

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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I send sad greetings to my philosophical friends.


I have been struggling to come up with something meaningful to write after the mass shooting in Buffalo and now there was another one in Texas. There have been 210 mass shootings in the United States in 2022 as of May 24, that is more than one a day.


“When nearly 3,000 people died on 9/11, it was enough to create massive change in our society. Over ten times as many people die from guns each year. Where is the social change?” DaShanne Stokes


What is wrong with our culture? What is wrong with me? What makes a person feel free to shoot African Americans or nine-and ten-year-old children? What can we do in the face of such madness?


Well, we should become politically active. We should get involved. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu


However, we can’t take on all the problems of the world. If we do so, we will be overwhelmed and do nothing. But it is possible to do one thing. Pick something to give some of your time and energy and money to that supports positive action.


Doing this will empower you because you will know that you are being part of the solution rather than part of the problem.


For me, the consolation of philosophy is to embrace the idea of all the wisdom teachings that call us to overcome ourselves — to answer the call for the transformation of consciousness. Unlike the growth of our bodies, our consciousness will not grow to the level of compassion and wisdom — love — without undergoing a process of intense inner work.


There is no one way to do this inner work. There are many ways such as meditation, journaling, and practicing mindfulness awareness. The ancient Zoroastrian religion teaches “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” Good deeds spring first from good thoughts. We must struggle with hopelessness and despair. We must not let them control us because then we only add to the problems we all face.


It takes courage and commitment to undergo this process of transformation. It is not easy for an acorn to become an Oak tree. But acorns cannot solve our problems. As a metaphor, this means only Oak trees have the wisdom to solve the many problems we face, including the one of violence.


"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


My overall commitment is to adhere to wisdom’s call to transformation. My personal effort is in working for change in our broken and racist prison system. One way I do this is by supporting Bryan Stephenson’s work at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).


Mark Twain wrote: “If you want to change the future, you must change what you’re doing in the present.”


Please join me in the overall commitment to inner transformation. And then join me by finding one problem that just breaks your heart — and then do something positive and constructive about it. Do your part to make the world a better place.


Apophat

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Greetings Philosophers!


Oneness: perhaps the master key to the meaning of life. It is not an intellectual construct, but an experience.


For some reason I found myself thinking a couple of days ago about my experience living with an Awakened Master.


This Master of Present Moment Awareness was my dog Jorg (pronounced George). He went to Nirvana, heaven, or wherever it is that saintly people go on July 2, 1994. And yet I still miss him. Everyday. I still have his ashes.


Have you ever had an animal change your life forever? For me, there was a “before Jorg” and an “after Jorg.” He changed my life because he was the embodiment of unconditional love and compassion.


I remember the day he found me. And he did find me. I was not looking for a dog. One day I came to school, and he followed me to my car. I sent him back and the next day he was there and followed me to my car again. So, I opened the door, he jumped in, and we were connected from that moment forward.


I can share two powerful experiences of many. Once, during a horrible depression I was laid out fully on my back in my bed. My side of the bed was close to the wall. It made it difficult for Jorg to come to me because he could not turn around but had to back out!


So, I am laying there and basically praying for some sense of meaning and love to continue down the path of life. My eyes were closed and then suddenly I felt his head on my chest. He had crawled into this tight space to be near me and share his presence. I can’t tell you how much this meant to me. He probably saved my life. Dogs have such a great emotional intelligence…especially when they are a Doggie Lama.


In the past, my experience of dogs is that they do not like to be stared at. I suppose they see it as a threat. But Jorg would hold my eyes for long periods of time. Once, for over 15 minutes I looked into his eyes, and he looked right back. Eye gazing like that is difficult for most people. But as we gazed into each other’s eyes I had a profound sense of unity. I did not know where he ended, and I began. We were one.


Oneness, as taught by all the great non-dual philosophers, is the nature of Ultimate Reality. Separation is an illusion, the primary illusion that brings so much misery to our lives. Humans have a need for connectedness that is very important. Unfortunately, most of us struggle living in the present moment, where can act from a place of mindfulness and compassion. This disconnection is one of our constant companions.


Once Oneness is experienced, however, it becomes easier to let go of separation and return to Love, the only place where I think we truly know reality as it is. It is a grace, I feel, and Jorg channeled this grace.


A professor friend of mine got to interview the Dalai Lama a long time ago. He picked his questions carefully. One of them was: “What is the purpose of life?” A great question! The Dalai Lama stated that humans are meant to “embody the Transcendent.” And that is what Jorg did. He was the living embodiment of the Transcendent.


It was a great blessing to live with this dog for a few years (he was older when he found me). He broke my heart when he passed away. But he broke it open rather than breaking it down.


For that, I will always be grateful.


Do you live with a Zen master? Perhaps you do. If not, then find one soon!


To Oneness!


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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