A few incidentals about this spring …
- Birds are singing in the deep starless night, not brief warbles but grand and lengthy songs, whether at midnight or 3 a.m. or on through morning.
- The annual scattering of sunflowers from bird seed fosters more robust flowers than any gardener’s hand could ensure. When the flowers grow large enough, an intrepid squirrel rushes at them, toppling them with a snap at the middle of the stem and a bite of the flower head, to be taken to the shade of a nearby tree and enjoyed fresh.
- The great bed of rosemary plants flourishes tall and fragrant but a bear urinated on one tall bit and it (the plant) died, turning brown and dry. One could suspect the bear not only because the adjacent plants were unaffected (hence not a plant disease) but because one night the bear had stepped through the rosemary in an attempt to reach birdfeeders hanging from the roof eaves. (The bear gave up but made a mess of the wooden feeders, though quickly repaired.) The bear, which was nursing three cubs, has since moved on.
- Molly, the Hermitary dog, suffered an acute inflamation that, over the course of several weeks, had her unable to stand or walk (walking being her favorite thing to do, after listening to music, watching or lounging in the outdoors, and sleeping). A dose of drugs has reversed the problem, and hopefully all will be well for this ten year old “octogenarian.”
The greatest challenge to one who wants to live in simplicity is to be able to do so fully and not as a psychological excursion cushioned by an economic safety net. People who have grown up in poverty tend to lack the psychological willingness — having gotten out of poverty — to throw away their new-found sense of security and stability. They are not risk-takers unless they are entrepreneurs or still abuse themselves in some way. They are not atttracted to simplicity because it reminds them of their childhood misery. What so many call adventure and risk-taking is hollow when we learn that the adventurers and risk-takers can always go back to family or trust fund to rescue themselves from that precariousness of having no money or place to live. At the heart of too many advocates of simplicity is a kind of “playing at.”
So how does a person brought up in reasonable stability take on simplicity without being hypocritical? It must begin with what the classic hermit knows: with effacing the self and desire, so that the products and contrivances of the popular culture do not trap the self in a material web. Simplicity is wariness of and ultimately disengagement from consumption and the commercial world. Simplicity carves out a psychological dimension that is removed from the artificial world and placed squarely within the natural world, as much as this can be. In an urban environment, simplicity has a personal touch, perhaps an intellectual or creative cast, or an engagement with objects and people that comes from an authentic core of selflessness. It is not the psychological baggage or refinement of manners that should impress, but the humility and self-effacement that must mark a person seeking simplicity.
Silence is generally feared in Western circles, especially among friends or colleagues. Silence is defined exclusively in social terms, and, of course, silence will not be considered helpful in such settings. In social settings, one is expected to participate, to contribute to the brain-storming, the evaluating, the planning, the negotiating.
In the Western world, consensus conflicts with authority. Authority is not consider authenticity or wisdom but power. So consensus, on the other hand, is seen as “empowering” everyone — ignoring the inevitable power dynamics of groups and the fact that consensus seldom means more than acquiescence to power. Silence refuses the premises of social relations; it refuses the premise that authority and consensus are necessary poles.
In the East, at least historically, silence was seen as a wellspring of wisdom, like a deep reservoir of strength. Decisions were entrusted to those who could hold silence as much as to any talkers. Words were means of procrastinating over action and decision, not means of reaching consensus or of presenting apologias for authority. If the thing was right, then it should be done. Experience, not reason, was sufficient for the deeper things. Silence, not discussion, was the context for knowing what to do.
In his book In Silence: Why We Pray, author Donald Spoto notes that the only legitimate form of prayer in the Western scriptural tradition (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) is, minimally, the prayer of abandonment. Only thusly can the notion of projecting human desires on God and claiming God’s sanctions for our personal and cultural demands — especially the hollow claims that God is on one’s side — be firmly and completly laid to rest. Abandonment means no presumptions of God’s will. It means affirmation of mystery, that catch-word for what it is we perceive but do not know. In this sense, abandonment of ego (of both the culture and of the self) is affirmation of mystery, which is the beginning of wisdom.
In the concept of a prayer of abandonment, wherein no demands are made and one abandons oneself to providence, we throw off not certitude but contingent attitudes and objects. We rely only on what is universal and not subject to contingency, even if we are not able to articulate this. We abandon false and presumptuous attitudes and claims to this or that possession or condition, knowing that we will discover in the simplicity of abandonment a revealing of all that truly matters.
A friend of Hermitary wonders if the entries here on atheism too narrowly identify atheism with modern Western thought, science, and technology, when atheism has been a factor in many other cultures having little to do with science. Our focus has been on modern atheism, which is based on premises that a Socrates or Lucretius did not hold as either philosophical necessity or cultural compulsion. Modern atheism is, as Robert Thurman puts it in his Infinite Life, “nihilistic materialism,” which even the Buddha — mistakenly called an atheist by many Western religionists — rejected as an error.
Classical skepticism was not so much a militant belief against Zeus or Caesar but a mild shrug at folly, discernible in Stoics and Epicurians, still observable in the constructs of Descartes or the reflectiveness of Spinoza. But mildness is not a characteristic of modern atheism, with its teeming metropoli and its death camps, its nuclear and bio-chemical weapons, its raising of a Babel-like world culture. As our correspondent rightly points out, however, it should be emphasized that atheism has not been alone in creating these horrors. Christianity and its scriptural siblings have supported and extended these horrors, and some of the more articulate defenders of war and destruction are emphatically religious in that convenient identity, spinning off new justifications for distinctly modern and ungodly contrivances. Thus many Christians and their coreligionists have embraced science and technology (after sanitizing its moral ambiguities) and all the horrors that science and technology are capable of. And not merely the horrors but the drab and oppressive ways of modern culture so inimical to holistic life.
A skepticism of culture itself is what is in order, not merely of its epiphenomena, and this is where modern atheism fails. Instead it has enthusiastically embraced culture as a field of contention for struggle and triumph, or if unable to capture culture — like capturing the state — it has dissipated itself in nihilistic materialism. Where classical skeptics remained doubtful of social change and functioned more like solitaries in their personal lives, the cultures of atheism have been secular versions of the suppressive cultures they hate, mirrors of what they rival. Who, then, is Dr. Jekyll, whom Mr. Hyde? Neither one escapes complicity. Both sit disquietly in the seat of judgment, for are they not one person after all?
Disbelief in culture — even mere disillusion, like that of the hermit — is the beginniing of an affirmation of values. The potential of evolving an ethos may not involve a metaphysical component at all. In fact, it is here, in this state between what has historically been called theism and atheism, that the diversity of peoples and cultures can begin to find something in common.