In my previous post, I mentioned my wariness of both orthodoxies and gnosticisms, and I affirmed the primacy of an individual’s immediate experience of Divine Presence in daily faith and practice. A number of challenges complicate the effort to live by such an affirmation.
Over the past three decades, I have taken refuge in the paradoxical religious life of a solitaire.
My faith and practice are rooted in the Christ-centeredness of my Lutheran upbringing and Quaker convincement, yet they are also profoundly influenced by Paganism and Buddhism. The paradox rests in this: I have a faith-led life for which belonging in community is essential, yet I cannot participate in community confessions or rituals which fail to resonate with my inner sense of what is true.
How does one sustain and advance such a life? How does one maintain both personal authenticity and authentically committed involvement in community?
I came to Quakerism because I recognized that such paradoxes are explicitly acknowledged and embraced in the Quaker tradition. Now I see these questions being visited anew in Quaker and allied non-Quaker dialogs online, in print and within and across religious communities.
In future posts, I want to go deeper into these paradoxes. For the remainder of this post, though, I want to describe three needs of human consciousness which remind even solitaires like myself that we cannot be human without other people.
Discerning what is real: The first challenge is that the human brain, as part of its normal functioning, creates, stores, retrieves and intermingles representations [see note] of both material world experiences and imagined experiences. The latter are representations which the brain pieces together from its inner repertoire of sensations, symbols and significances, and which it presents to consciousness as if they might actually have happened or could happen.
Without ongoing communication with other people, I cannot learn how to distinguish adequately between material and imagined experiences.
Granted, as I mature in attentiveness, I may become more disciplined in making such distinctions. However, no child can come to have such full and effective use of human consciousness without interaction with others, without receiving experience-based guidance and feedback from successful peers and elders.
As an important aside, I should note that both material and imagined experiences are real. That is, both have real effect on the brain’s perception and interpretation of its life. Both have real influence on how I understand myself and how I interact with my environment and with other people.
The all-important process of reality-checking, which for sanity’s sake I must learn from others, is not about saying that the material is real and the imagined, unreal. It is about discerning from which sort of reality a given experience arises.
Learning language: The second challenge arises because the faculty of imagination is, in fact, essential if the brain is to reach its full human potential for dealing with both outer and inner reality. The brain must accomplish increasing levels of abstraction: from neurological representations of sensory experience, to representations of categories of experience, to representations of possible changes and interactions among categories, and so on.
In other words, it must be able to name and conceptualize. It must learn language. And it is other human beings who introduce the infant primate to the experience of language.
I will return in future posts to how language both aids and confounds faith and practice and the sharing of faith and practice. The key point here is that the native language I share with those who first taught me becomes increasingly less exact and effective, the less material and more abstract the experience about which we strive to communicate.
Sharing companionship: The third challenge is even more basic and visceral than the human need for imagination or language.
We need company. We need nurture and affection and companionship. It is undeniable that we primates are hard-wired as social animals. At our healthiest and sanest, we live by sharing and cooperation, not by solitary foraging or predation.
Acknowledging this third challenge leads me full circle back to the paradox with which I began this post. I cannot be a solitaire alone. I must have deep, caring interaction with other people in order to sustain myself as a sane and healthy animal, in order to continue to discern what is real, and in order to be able to give expression, either inwardly or outwardly, to what I discern.
And that last points up another paradox. If I experience something and cannot express it, my ability to integrate it into my faith and practice is stymied. However, if I focus my attention on trying to express inexpressible experience, I lose the flow with which Spirit waters my life.
I come back, then, to the divine invitation to be in the present moment—but with an added dimension: the invitation is to be in the present moment with other people, as well as alone.
Even when we cannot agree about how to express what we experience. Even when we cannot trust for certain that we share the same experience or, worse, fear that our experiences contradict each other.
Again I come back to the divine affirmation: when you and I are together in faithful attentiveness, what saves and restores us is not attention to”you” or to “me” but attention to the Divine Presence.
And so it is.
Note: I am borrowing—and grossly oversimplifying— Antonio Damasio’s usage of the term “representations” in Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Viking Penguin, 1994, reprinted 2005) and later works.
Damasio’s research and writing are pivotal in explicating our growing understanding of the neurobiological basis and functioning of human consciousness.
11 comments On But not alone
Mmmm, this is good stuff to chew on! Some of your threads touch on my own thinking–about language, about paradox… I’m curious to see what else you’ll be writing about in the weeks and months ahead.
Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up
Have you ever sat down with a friend or relative and had them tell you all the reasons why they should be doing something, like exercising regularly for example. You nod and agree with them and then think to yourself “so why don’t you get up and do it?” If you as bold enough to actually ask this question out loud then the “reasons” start coming. It takes too long, I don’t like to sweat, no money to join the health club, etc. If you can articulate so clearly why you need a spiritual community then why don’t you just join one? Yes, I know any group will have its flaws. It will have members who are annoying or practices that make no sense. Yes, of course they will. If you wait to find a perfect group, then you are going to wait forever. What are you waiting for?
Thanks for the encouragement. I’ll be taking a look at your links tomorrow.
Thanks to you, too. You are completely right in your urgings, and I appreciate your question.
In fact, I became an attender of Columbia (SC) Monthly Meeting in 1987, and a recorded member in the early 1990s, around the same time I also began two years as Clerk of that Meeting.
For the past 7 years, my spouse Jim and I have attended Jacksonville (FL) Monthly Meeting, though our membership is still in Columbia.
I’ve also been active for years in Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association (SAYMA) and American Friends Service Committee.
All the questions I’ve voiced in this post are ones I ponder–and sometimes am led to address through vocal ministry–in the midst of Meeting for Worship. In fact, I think I am able to ask the questions precisely because I have been a convinced and active Quaker for so long.
The Quaker affirmation, “Christ himself has come to teach us,” allowed me to re-enter the world of Christian language as one who is now “multi-lingual,” yet to do so without feeling compelled to subscribe to outward forms.
I am grateful for the grace which makes this possible.
I have some thoughts, and I share them with a kind of trembling so read them in a spirit of kindness.
I don’t think we see an external reality and an internal reality. Everything is seen through our notions and the language that defines the notions. All we get through our senses is information: colors, forms, sounds, tastes, etc. Internally, we use logic and intuition and are compelled by internal drives like love, drives for companionship, compassion and fears. We make sense of all of this using our concepts, language, etc. which is based on what we learn but modified as we sort out our reality.
But at the level of concepts and language, we are only talking about our thoughts. What we are seeing is our own perceptions. So though it is probably informed by external information, we are essentially seeing our own mind. Even something simple like a table exists only in our collective thoughts and is supported by our language. The “tableness” of the table does not exist outside our thoughts. There is nothing inherent in the molecules or the properties of the table that make it a table. The same is true of community, families, love, money, traffic laws, God, success, failure, achievements and most of what we know conceptually. We use words and concepts that exist by a kind of collective agreement enforced by our language. We live in a world that is defined by this framework.
The Zen Buddhists talk about seeing the original self and seeing directly into reality. I think they must be talking about getting behind this conceptual framework that defines our reality and seeing directly without resorting to language. So how can you describe it? You can’t. What’s more, the framework is empty in the sense described in the book of Ecclesiastes that it is a striving after wind. Fitting it all together to make sense is a task that will not lead to divine reality. Even using the term divine reality is just using words to describe something that cannot be described.
What is more, seeking comfort and satisfaction from having a consistent conceptual framework is also a striving after wind just like seeking success and avoiding failure are strivings after wind. That does not mean we don’t do it. We cannot help but do it; at least I am not able to avoid it. I become obsessed with having the right answers and even the better things I do turn out on reflection to be be attempts to establish myself as something unique and admirable. (Maybe even writing this). But what is a person to do?
But there are times when I am brought to the present moment and feel a deep love for my partner in life, compassion for others who are suffering, and even a kind of compassion for life that includes even the fox that killed our chickens and continues to visit in search of food (there are no more chickens for her). At those moments, what knowledge I have is enough. Successes, failures, harm I have done, and moments of achievement I have had do not consume me. I am tempted sometimes to use words like divine presence to talk about such moments, but such descriptions do not add to the experience, and I am not really sure how they help. I fear that my use of the terms would say more about me than about the moments I am trying to describe. I just do not have clarity about what the terms say.
“I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
or like you write
“I come back, then, to the divine invitation to be in the present moment—but with an added dimension: the invitation is to be in the present moment with other people, as well as alone.”
To be present to other people don’t mean to be in a religious community but it helps !!!
European french speaking community of quakers
I’m really having a hard time understanding exactly what your faith is in if you imagine that consciousness has a “neurobiological basis.”
I’ll agree that human consciousness has a structure related to those yucky grey things people see now & then under highly unnatural circumstances, that you can change the form of human consciousness (generally destructively) by physical, electrical or chemical manipulations of these things
but there is no way imaginable for a network of neurons to make me experience anything at all.
Note that I am not saying that as an embodied being I don’t experience whatever particular signal these neurons happen to be carrying; what I am saying is that my existence (existence, period!) is not explainable by anything whatsoever those stringy little glups might do; rather, their existence is a side-effect of mine.
I was delighted to read your June 10th comment. It’s as if you have been reading ahead into blog posts I haven’t written yet.
I want to respond at more length in a new post, because you speak directly to a crucial challenge I have set myself in starting this blog.
“I don’t think we see an external reality and an internal reality. Everything is seen through our notions and the language that defines the notions…. We use words and concepts that exist by a kind of collective agreement enforced by our language. We live in a world that is defined by this framework.”
“But at the level of concepts and language, we are only talking about our thoughts. What we are seeing is our own perceptions. So though it is probably informed by external information, we are essentially seeing our own mind.”
“The Zen Buddhists talk about seeing the original self and seeing directly into reality. I think they must be talking about getting behind this conceptual framework that defines our reality and seeing directly without resorting to language. So how can you describe it? You can’t. What’s more, the framework is empty….”
I completely agree. Hence my name for the blog: The Empty Path.
I share with you the awareness that “we are only talking about our thoughts,” rather than describing the Real. Yet as I suggested on my About page, I am engaging myself in the exercise of looking for translators.
I embrace and am embraced by a multifaceted community of faith, people across the spectrum of theist and nontheist belief who clearly share an experience of and trust in Something which binds us together and lifts us into a better Humanhood.
My leading is to help us talk about this across all of our languages.
Your words are very helpful to me, because you articulate—more clearly than I had yet for myself—the difficulty, but also because you articulate what I trust in:
“But there are times when I am brought to the present moment and feel a deep love…, compassion…. At those moments, what knowledge I have is enough. Successes, failures, harm I have done, and moments of achievement I have had do not consume me.”
Thank you, and
Thanks so much for reminding me of the Stefen Grellet passage and comparing it to my words about being “in the present moment with other people, as well as alone.”
I agree that it need not be in a religious community. Nor need it arise out of an explicitly religious sensibility.
I have no argument with secular humanists who are able to say and practice what Frank Herbert’s Bene Gesserit nuns affirmed in his Dune books:
“I stand in the sacred human presence.”
I apologize if it seemed I was making a more complete faith statement in this post than I intended to.
I am striving to describe for my readers various facets of my current understanding of how my own faith and practice works, partly in the hope, as I just wrote to Jerry Rudolph, that I can help us translate our different experiences to each other.
I don’t need for you or others to experience or to express your faith and practice as I do.
“I’m really having a hard time understanding exactly what your faith is in if you imagine that consciousness has a ‘neurobiological basis’….
“I’ll agree that human consciousness has a structure related to those yucky grey things…but there is no way imaginable for a network of neurons to make me experience anything at all.”
I do not hold with the notion of separation of mind and body, or of spirit, soul and body.
Those terms might be useful tags—to borrow cyberspace jargon—for the constellations of concepts to which each of them refers, but the concepts themselves are still only attempts of human consciousness to label and describe experience.
I am currently interested in the research of neurobiologists like Antonio Damasio.
These students of life set aside any assumptions about “spirit” or “soul” or “mind,” in order to investigate just how it is that the biological organism of the human body brings in sensory data, stores, interprets and represents it in the brain, and uses those representations to cobble together what we call “consciousness.”
I am also interested in what 23 centuries of Buddhist pyschological research have been able to discover about the phenomenon which we call “the self.”
These students of life set aside any assumptions about the “I,” in order to investigate the flow of sensations, feelings, thoughts, etc., which arrive in and depart from consciousness—yet which have only momentary, not long-term, existence, and cannot add up to a “person.”
Neither of these paths of study explains what my faith is or how it works.
Faith is simply what happens when I stop trying to figure how to get out of bed, on those mornings when I awake distressed about my problems, and sit quietly, centering down and waiting.
Then that Something which I am wary of naming—for the same reason the Hebrews would not speak JHWH out loud—reminds me of its Presence. And of its unconditional affirmation of me, however I happen to perceive “me” at that moment.
Then I am back in the moment, and I am able to proceed with the day, dealing with what is happening right then—and right then—and right then, rather than with what is “happening” in my imagination.
And so it is.
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