Monday, November 02, 2015

The silence that alone can rend them...

In his book Faux Pas (1943), Maurice Blanchot has an essay called "On Hindu Thought", in which he discusses studies of Hinduism intended for the Western reader. He writes:
…once this feeling of interest has been awakened, the same commentators risk distancing the minds, that bearing a more intense yearning, will see themselves threatened with being gratified too easily. For what have they shown? That Hindu spirituality has marvelously succeeded, that it succeeds at once by its extraordinary blossoming in all the people, and even more in the heart of each being, by the beatitude that it necessarily brings him at the end of long ordeals. After the commentators' explanations, we are forced to think that Hindu spirituality is a spirituality that succeeds too well, that is too satisfied with itself, that it promises and gives, reliably, by patience, knowledge, and technique, a definitive salvation. And the paradox that results from this is that the doctrine for which the soul has searched through thoroughly pessimistic questioning seems to end up in a strangely optimistic conception of spiritual life. The thought that constantly strove to place itself heroically before the Absolute now has for its ideal only a comfortable laying out of spirituality. Further, and this does appear in modern Hinduism, the clearest, purest religious devotion is finally destined to serve national and social claims, those that can best serve as an obstacle to that unity of life founded on a common awareness of profound existence. We repeat that those are the effects of an unfortunate exegesis and that it would be absurd to make the responsibility for it fall on the Vedanta or the Upanishads. But these judgments at least show that spiritual problems can only be approached with the greatest rigor and the most severe precautions. Westerners, who, like other people, are especially familiar with chatter and palaver, have the particular characteristic of talking nonsense and yet of believing in language. What words bring to them has a definite meaning that they recognize and that they then try to organize logically. Faced with any mystical teaching, they would do best to give up language and force themselves to the silence that alone can rend them. (translation from the French by Charlotte Mandell, 2001)
A few things come to mind reading this passage and the essay it comes from. Earlier this year, I took a meditation class; more specifically, a mindfulness meditation class. I am not what you'd call a spiritual person; god knows I'm not religious (ha! sorry), though I've certainly tried to distance myself from the stridency of my own youthful atheism, as well as the racist stupidity masquerading as intellect that is the wider, uh, movement of superior-than-thou atheist "writers" or "thinkers". The closest I've come to religious is semi-regularly attending a local Quaker meeting. Nor, for that matter, have I really investigated any of the Eastern religions.

[Incidentally, thinking I'd provide a link or two above to other semi-related posts here, I spent some time poring over some of my early blogging. It's interesting how concerned I was with explicating my thinking on matters concerning religion. A very early (2007!) post on how these new atheist types efface politics. And more: "some thoughts on reason", in which I riff off an interview with Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein (2007); one taking aim at both tiresome participants in a debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan (again 2007); on "atheism and indifference" (2009); another one on faith and reason (2009); and then finally my lengthy review of Christopher Hitchens' extremely terrible "book", God is Not Great (2008). I'm linking to these posts here, in part because why not?, but also because I can't imagine devoting the time or space to such matters again. I'm not sorry to have done so - some of those pieces are pretty good, I think, for what they are - but the urgency has long since subsided. It's curious. But I digress.]

So I'm not really a religious or spiritual person. Yet I have relatively recently learned and accepted that there are benefits to a meditation practice, and that there are good scientific bases for believing so. Mindfulness in particular appealed to me as a way to, among other things, better manage my responses to parenting challenges. But, while I liked the idea of regular practice potentially opening onto a more spiritual existence, I wasn't primarily in it for that. I was essentially seeking to instrumentalize a traditional practice for my own ends. Some would call this appropriation. Perhaps. I'm not convinced that's always such a bad thing. In any case, I have zero patience for the kind of corporate mindfulness training that's become something of a cliche - business types helped to sleep better, as they ransack the earth. No.

Anyway, I took the class. I enjoyed it. It went well! The book we read was Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. Which brings me back to Blanchot and to my point. You might think that a book with such a title would be doing exactly what Blanchot seems to almost warn against: that it would seem to gratify the seeker too easily, that spiritual life is made comfortable, comforting, all too optimistic. In fact, however, despite, yes, the book being written in plain English - that is, it is seemingly easy to understand - its subject remains in some sense elusive. It lays out clearly enough various practical aspects for embarking on a practice. But it's almost too easy! For someone like myself - lacking, as we have established, a connection to spiritual life, and despite relatively recent personal philosophical moves against this tendency, still very much a person of the Anglo-American culture of scientistic practicality (say that five times fast) - for someone like myself, at times it was hard to settle on what exactly I was expected to take from it. Sit how? Breathe how? What does it mean to focus your attention? To not? What does it mean to acknowledge a distraction? To let it go? As might be expected, these things take, well, practice. You can't just read a book (or take a course) and have it. Interestingly, too, the instructor and the author both cautioned against even attempting certain more spiritual aspects of the practice in the beginning. The author seems to even suggest it might be dangerous.

The essay, then, also brings to mind two other Blanchot essays from the same book, "Kierkegaard's Journals" and "The Experience of Proust". This is perhaps not surprising, since they also appear in the same section of the book: "From Anguish to Language". For Kierkegaard, despite his voluminous writing, despite his extensive oeuvre, based substantially on his life, despite this journal, communication remains elusive, if not impossible, the fugitive self hidden from view. Proust, meanwhile, over the course of 3,000 or so pages, unfolds an interpretation of the experiences which necessitated his writing. Yet despite his attempts to explain, to interpret, to convert his experiences into knowledge, the experiences remain ultimately beyond reach, keeping "the quality of the secret by continuing . . . to seem always more mysterious than the work itself". Language fails us, can't but fail us, life, spirituality, experience, remain finally beyond the reach of words, words, so so many words.

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