One of my Friendly correspondents has reminded me that, back in February, I addressed some of the concerns of the previous post from the perspective of my alter-ego Walhydra’s hopeful skepticism.
In “The Virgin of Hollywood, Florida,” Walhydra groused at length about the gullibility of “the masses,” who blithely toss their belief after every tabloid headline, urban legend, or political sound bite.
Yet she found herself wondering: “How does one move from scorn for the credulous to a working, sustaining faith for oneself?”
I thank my correspondent for sending me back to read this piece again. Becoming audience to my own writing jolted me back into the present moment for which I’ve been longing.
This morning, I got a welcome jolt from another direction.
Elsewhere I’ve referred to Antonio Damasio’s book Decartes’ Error, the first of a remarkable trilogy of books in which the author explicates the field of neurobiology’s current understanding of how human consciousness works.
In this first book, Damasio demonstrates how Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum misses the organic reality of the workings of the brain. The brain, in fact, must make direct use of the information it receives through the emotions in order to be able to do any sort of reasoning.
In other words, the West’s classic elevation of reason as higher than and independent of emotion does not match biological reality. The two must and do work in tandem.
My jolt this morning, however, comes from a different writer’s take on Descartes. In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes the following:
Nothing could be more alien to contemplation than the cogito ergo sum of Descartes. “I think, therefore I am.” This is the declaration of an alienated being, in exile from his own spiritual depths, compelled to seek some comfort in a proof for his own existence (!) based on the observation that he “thinks.” If his thought is necessary as a medium through which he arrives at the concept of his existence, then he is in fact only moving further away from his true being.
At the same time, by also reducing God to a concept, he makes it impossible for himself to have any intuition of the divine reality which is inexpressible. He arrives at his own being as if it were an objective reality, that is to say he strives to become aware of himself as he would of some “thing” alien to himself. And he proves that the “thing” exists. He convinces himself: “I am therefore some thing.” And then he goes on to convince himself that God, the infinite, the transcendent, is also a “thing,” an “object,” like other finite and limited objects of our thought!
Contemplation, on the contrary, is the experiential grasp of reality as subjective, not so much “mine” (which would signify “belonging to the external self”) but “myself” in existential mystery. Contemplation does not arrive at reality after a process of deduction, but by an intuitive awakening in which our free and personal reality becomes fully alive to its own existential depths, which open out into the mystery of God.
For the contemplative there is no cogito (“I think”) and no ergo (“therefore”) but only SUM, I AM. Not in the sense of a futile assertion of our individuality as ultimately real, but in the humble realization of our mysterious being as persons in whom God dwells, with infinite sweetness and inalienable power. (9-10)
Damasio might well highlight this clause: “If his thought is necessary as a medium through which he arrives at the concept of his existence….”
From the perspective of neurobiology, thought is an organic process of the brain which does, indeed, create the construct of a “self,” in order to map and make more efficacious use of the higher order information it stores. The self only “exists” as the transient constellation of these maps of information…and ceases when the body ceases.
For me this morning, the jolt was in the second clause of that sentence: “…then he is in fact only moving further away from his true being.”
When I do manage to center down through my own noise, what remains is a consciousness, an awareness, an awakeness. The brain simply watching and waiting.
I am not saying that this awakeness is itself God.
Yet I suspect—and Merton seems to be suggesting—that for any and all of us who experience it, this non-selfconscious awareness is the “space” wherein we come closest to That which we tend to call “God.”
I don’t want to analyze this too much right now. As Merton writes, the key is experience, not analysis.
And so it is.