This post, the last in a series on practising contemplative inquiry, concerns interpretation. Previous posts covered values and methods.
In my post about values (1) I introduced ‘delicate empiricism’, an idea that goes back to Goethe and which I see as very Sophian. Arthur Zajonc recommends this idea to us by reflecting that “we have precious little information that bears directly on the true nature of reality. Data and theories are bound to experience, so we cannot say what reality is ‘in itself’, but only how it appears to us” (2). Such a view invites us to “set aside all notions of a real world beyond experience and stay with experience itself. We cultivate an attitude that values phenomena of all types”. We simply give space for experiences to unfold and “resist the tendency to explain them away as merely brain oscillations, or to imagine them as the visitation of angelic presences. Neither view is admitted. We stay with them, allowing them their time and place in our attention”.
When I do exercises from the Headless Way (3), I enter into a state in which I experience myself as ‘clear awake space, and capacity for the world’. I explore this state both as an experience and as a resource. Douglas Harding speaks with certainty that “this Clarity I see here and now (with or without the aid of this in-pointing finger) is that of each of my constituent cells, molecules, atoms, particles, as well as of my planet, star and galaxy and universe, no less than it is Douglas Edward Harding’s. As this Clarity or Void, I embrace this hierarchy throughout time, and I AM the Timeless and Changeless Origin and Centre of all those timeful and changing things. Not just his brain, but every part of him is born and dies. I do neither.” (4) I do not share the certainty that being ‘clear awake space’ fills a God sized hole that is also my ultimate identity. I know that this is the view of many non-dualist traditions. I entertain the possibility. At times I work ‘as if’ it were true, to get a sense of a life lived from such an understanding, and the difference it makes. Yet I remember that this story is not the state itself. Delicate empiricism finds strength and value in unknowing, gently contradicting any desire for closure, or for refuge in belief.
Sam Harris makes the opposite interpretive error, in my view. Harris is one of the “Four Horsemen of the Non Apocalypse” (5) linked to the emergence of the anti-theistic New Atheism of a decade ago. (The others are Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.) He rightly says, “there is experience, and then there are the stories we tell”. But he then goes on to assert: “these stories come to us bundled with ancient confusion and perennial lies … altered states of consciousness are empirical facts, and human beings experience them under a wide range of conditions. To understand this and to seek to live a spiritual life without deluding ourselves, we must view these experiences in universal and secular terms” (6). Harris values meditative states both as a practitioner and a neuroscientist. He describes Harding’s account of ‘Headlessness’ very respectfully as that of a “contemplative who, to the eye of anyone familiar with the experience of self-transcendence, has described it in a manner approaching perfect clarity”. But Harris will not entertain Harding’s further step. He dismisses the possibility that “a person can realize their identity with the One Mind that gave birth to the cosmos” as a New Age delusion. He shuts the subject down.
Harding and Harris would both claim the mantle of empiricism in their approach to spiritual inquiry. Both are willing to learn from ancient traditions, whilst seeking to update them with science based understandings and a scientific approach towards spiritual insight. But in each case there seems to be a point where they fail to recognize their own ‘story’ (in Harris’s case an anti-story) and fall all the more heavily into its trance. For me this perfectly illustrates the value of a more tentative, delicate empiricism to contemplative inquiry.
- Arthur Zajonc, Meditation as contemplative inquiry: when knowing becomes love Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 2009
- E. Harding The little book of life and death London: Shollond Trust, 2009 (First published by Arkana in 1988. Foreword by Ram Dass.)
- John Halstead (ed.) Godless Paganism: voices of non-theistic Pagans Lulu, 2016 (Foreword by Mark Green)
- Sam Harris Waking up: searching for spirituality without religion London: Transworld Publishers, 2014