contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: May, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: THE GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT IN LIFE (REVISED AND UPDATED EDITION)

Highly recommended for anyone drawn to contemplative and mystical traditions. R. D. Krumpos’ The Greatest Achievement in Life: Five Traditions of Mysticism & Mystical Approaches to Life (1) is now available in print, in a new revised edition. I like having it now as an old-fashioned physical book that I can leaf through easily both for reference and for inspiration.

The book explores the mystical traditions embedded within Hinduism (Vedanta, Tantra), Buddhism (Zen, Vajrayana), Judaism (Hasidism, Kabbalah), Christianity (Gnostic and Contemplative currents) and Islam (Sufism). Krumpos shows how, underneath their manifold differences, they share an understanding of mysticism as the direct intuition or experience of God, or of an ultimate Reality not conceived as God.

Mystics are described as people whose spiritual lives are grounded “not merely on an accepted belief and practice, but on what they regard as first-hand knowledge”. Krumpos spells out the uncompromising idealism of this project. “Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called ‘this life’. Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is i,e, the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now”.

The book is divided into two main sections: Five Traditions of Mysticism and Mystical Approaches to Life. Within these sections there is a further division into short essays, which can be read either in sequence or independently of the whole. The essays are based both on conversations with mystics and engagement with mystical literatures. Krumpos draws directly on the words of well-known mystics themselves, with 120 quotations interspersed with the essays. He also offers his own commentary and reflections. The book can either be seen as a source and reference book, or as a practitioner aide. It includes sentences and paragraphs that can themselves be used as a basis for formal contemplation. It is not just an ‘about’ book, though it serves that purpose well.

The traditions presented are seen as having much in common at the core, and The Great Achievement bears witness to that commonality. Yet there is enough interior diversity to make it clear that mystics in these traditions are not all the same, or saying the same thing, in the way that is sometimes lazily claimed. Overall Ron Krumpos’ sense of ‘direct experience’ and his definition of gnosis describe a gold standard for what ‘the greatest achievement’ is, based on the accounts of the mystics cited and discussed. In the second half of this book, the focus valuably shifts from the nature of mystical experience itself, to a consideration of its implications for how to live and serve.

For me, the cultural moment in which The Great Achievement has been offered is significant one. Perennialism’s ideas have been popularised and repackaged over the period since World War II at an ever increasing rate. There is now an extraordinary global spiritual hunger at least partly influenced by the spiritual paths that it includes – some, indeed, speak of a ‘spiritual market place’. This is a promising development, yet one with its downside. Krumpos’ work reminds us what these older traditions are and where they stand. For readers in new (or new-old) spiritual traditions with a different approach, the book offers opportunities for comparing and contrasting the fruits of the five traditions with those of their own chosen paths. Krumpos does acknowledge the value of shamanic and indigenous traditions, and practitioners within these traditions, reading this book, might be inspired to develop this conversation further.

(1) R. D. Krumpos The Greatest Achievement in Life: Five Traditions of Mysticism & Mystical Approaches to Life Tucson, AZ: Palomar Print Design, 2022. (Originally a free e-book available from http://www.suprarational.org/ as a printable pdf, published in 2012).

NB This review is a revision of my review of the original edition. See:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/03/06/

WATER MEADOW WALK

A water meadow during a dry spell. A secluded space on the fringe of the old city. Luckily for its own life, it facilitates the management of flooding. This space is available to the public, on this walk less frequented than I would have expected. It is not grandly wild, but feels different to anywhere else I have discovered in easy walking distance from my home. I like its flatness, its greenness, and its openness to the sky.

I walk here in the early evening, grateful for the path, challenging the pollen to do its worst. Lifelong hay fever has made me less of a nature boy than I might have been, certainly at this time of year. But I don’t like feeling restricted, even with my new health complications. Walking in an open space like this, particularly when there is a good breeze, lifts my spirits.

From a contemplative perspective, I am in very friendly territory. My senses relax into a more porous relationship with my surroundings. I begin to disappear into the landscape, losing myself in the experience of the moment. Very briefly, I am the path, the sky and the bramble.

Back in my envelope of skin I see grey above me, and I start to wonder about rain. I am not dressed for it. Luckily, at least for me, no rain falls. I do notice that the riot of life around me might like a good fresh soaking. But I’m conscious of my own interests now. I head for the shelter of my home.

A CELTIC MIRROR

“About 2,000 years ago a very important woman was buried high on Birdlip Hill overlooking Gloucester. This was the time of the Roman invasion and Gloucester’s farmland was turning into a dangerous frontier between the Celtic Britons and the Roman Empire.” The mirror and bowls on display above are part of her grave goods. I used a mirror of my own to read the Gloucester Museum’s information about what has now become an ‘exhibit’.

Naturally enough, people want to know more than this. Stories connect ‘the very important woman’ to Boudicca, whose campaign against the Romans two decades after their initial takeover was well-documented and is well-remembered. But the location and manner of her death after her eventual defeat are not clear and have provided space for all manner of speculation. This gives improbable possibilities a certain amount of traction.

I turn my attention back to the mirror, as the undoubted product of an iron age culture with a wealthy aristocracy who spoke a Brythonic Celtic language. The designs on the back of the mirror (below) reflect the tastes of that culture. To me, they seem almost alive. They give me a tenuous sense of connection with a real person who was in this neighbourhood (and I would guess came from it) 2,000 years ago.

Being connected by place but separated by time is an odd feeling, even more complicated for me than being connected by time and separated by space. I have to be careful not to let my imagination colonise the past. It can be a distorting and invasive mirror. At the same time I do want a relationship with the past. I want to acknowledge it and be open to what it might teach me. In this case, perhaps, a commitment to beauty in a time of turmoil and danger. Or a commitment to different ways of looking, in a world where past and future may not exist in quite the ways that they appear to do.

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