Self-effacement

Often one comes across lines of poetry and thought that express self-effacement. Self-effacement is simply the process of making oneself less conspicuous to the world. It is a difficult concept in the West and among people with no spiritual interest. Self-effacement is identified as the opposite of assertiveness and akin to shyness or insecurity. And perhaps the uncultivated soul may be expressing no more than what appears to be a psychological problem or a characteristic of personality. This only means that the person has to start reflecting and meditating on his or her life course.

Self-effacement rightly understood is the virtue of humility fine-tuned to a philosophy of life or a psychology of being. Self-effacement follows a continuum from humility to integrity, from passivity to consciousness, from psychological trait to mindful motive. No wonder it is a chief characteristic of every classic hermit.

Ten practices

The Zen master Soyan Shaku (mentioned a few entries ago), recommended ten practices applicable to everyone.

  1. Upon awakening, quit your bed at once, like discarding a useless pair of shoes.
  2. In the morning, before dressing, light incense and meditate.
  3. Eat at regular intervals and only to the point of satisfying hunger.
  4. Retire at a regular hour.
  5. Receive a guest as when you are alone. Be alone as if you had received a guest.
  6. Be aware of what you say. Say only what you would do.
  7. Do not forego opportunity, nevertheless, think twice.
  8. Do not regret the past but look instead to the future.
  9. Have the fearless heart of a hero and the loving heart of a child.
  10. When you retire to sleep do so as if it is your last night.

Technology and ethics II

The conflict between religion and science does not arise when each pursues its own field of interest. But it is not a mere academic divergence, as with, say, organic chemistry versus Victorian poetry. The conflict is implicit in that both science and religion are tempted to describe the totality of the universe, and by different and ostensibly irreconcilable criteria.

As mentioned in an earlier entry, the conflict tends to resolve itself as a clash between not science but technology and not religion but ethics. Both science and religion have the internal means to refute outlandish hypotheses in their spheres of interest. But manifested as technology — such as medicine, engineering, or manufacturing — science has been greatly abused. Conversely, the history of religion easily demonstrates ethical abuses, corruption, and scandals regardless of theological fine points.

In his book, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, the Dalai Lama rightly recovers the proper spheres and relations of science and religion, though intellectually and not by grounding both in culture. The concept of paradigm shift has shown that science and by extention religion are not realms of absolute knowledge. It can be pointed out that both depend upon cultural ambience, their cultural milieu, their material and intellectual environment, and the cues provided by culture. Hence the abuses to their practical applications of technology and ethics are essentially cultural, and the ontological status of either science or religion is distinct from real world applications. A proper view of what can or cannot be understood — and a focus on areas of mutual interest such as consciousness — will greatly benefit a humanity beleaguered by wars of religion and science, wars of ethics and technology.

Living water

The universality of religion is not in the various theologies but in the archetypes. To cling to a theology and not go beyond the human dogmas and representations to the heart of the archetypes is to favor the epiphenomenal, the historical, the particular, and the cultural. We must look beyond, to the universal, the abiding, the true. To ascend to the archetype is to see the face of the transcendent without the transience of time and our limited experience.

Here is a quick illustration. The Gospel shows Jesus in a brief conversation with “the woman by the well.” Jesus tells her that the water of the well will not satisfy but that there is a living water that alone will. She asks him to give her this water. And he speaks of himself as the source of this transcendent water.

The archetype, of course, is the water, not Jesus per se, although the writers wanted to make the story prove something about his status. Jesus is not the source but the conduit of the living water, for ultimately water has no single source but the few conduits must be ourselves.

Here is a quick Zen parallel. A monk asked Hseuh-feng, “When the old creek of Zen dries and there is not a drop of water left, what can I see there?” Hsueh-feng answers, “There is the bottomless water, which you cannot see.” The monk asks further: “How can one drink that water?” Hseuh-feng replies, “He should not use his mouth to do it.” The monk persists. “But what happens to someone who drinks that water?” Hseuh-feng replies: “He will lose his life.”

“In the moment”

The modern saying, “Be in the moment,” is true and wise, but very difficult. How easy to be “in the moment” watching a butterfly’s flight or a striking sunset, or the season’s first snowfall. But how difficult to be in the moment when we suffer wracking physical pain or learn of sad news or are in the throes of grief. We are told to bear pain and sorrow stoicly and impassively, that it will pass. Jesus on the cross, we are led to believe, suffered in silence and presumably remained “in the moment.”

It begs the question: If being in some moments is better than being in other moments, should we aspire to be in the moment at all? Or is it that we have nothing but the moment? No past will redeem this moment, and no future will reprieve us from it. Such a realization is not comforting to the sorrowful but neither is it comforting to be condemned to the moment only. Or, as Sartre puts it, to be “condemned to live.”

The injunction to live in the moment has been wrongly taken to be based on the pleasure principle, a sensual ground. Accordingly, it signals us to live to enjoy pleasure (however sanitized) because of duty or time or pleasure, whether sensual or aesthetic. This is a misinterpretation of the animal’s apparent lack of self-consciousness. So we subvert our own self-consciousness, fooling it with pleasure.

We must renounce the self as center for all moments, even the tragic and sad ones, especially these. For the real tragedy, echoing Unamuno, is the sense of immortality betrayed, unproven, elusive, undermined by the notion that immortaility is the moment. As the Japanese Zen master Takuan put it:

This day will not come again
Each minute is worth a priceless gem.