Night

For many, night is the signal for conviviality and entertainment. As if the glare of daylight inhibits emotions, night is nearly everywhere viewed as a time of reverie and socializing.

For the solitary and the reflective, night closes the labored schemes and necessary relationships of society and daytime. Night closes another output of work, study, service, or necessity, temporarily withdrawing from relationship to a particular structure in the world of culture.

But night is traditionally different. Night is for summing up, assessing, for reflecting. Night offers the potential for depth and strength of thought that the glare of daytime resists, the opportunity for thought that is free to associate with other thoughts without the definitions of social conformity and structure.

Human beings are not nocturnal animals. Our best creations of reason and material things are contrived in daylight and the revelation of detail. Conversely, night allows impressions to assemble and rearrange themselves in the mind without reference to logic and reasonable functionality. We are not nocturnal animals in the sense of honing survival skills for that arena called night. Our worldly skills are for daylight; night is for a different set of skills, for our ability to reflect, imagine, and wonder.

With sleep, exploration and reflection can continue, as our mind plays imaginatively with the matter of the day or recycles older themes promoted by day’s subconscious murmurs. At the same time, night gives us the conscious opportunity to mitigate the harshness of the matters of the day, and render them harmless for our dreams.

Night is as subjective as it is silent. What happens in the mind at night is not final or absolute, only tentatively awaiting refinement overnight, a transition to wholeness. But silence must underlie the whole process in order for it to succeed. Silence and night wrap themselves round like two parts of the taiji, the yin-yang symbol.

How can the process of reflection undo the constrictions of daytime stresses and structures unless there is silence to dissolve them? More noise would only constrict the mind. Silence at night is enhanced by complementary music or scent or shadow or the absoluteness of no sound. Our silence should reflect our night: sometimes faintly illuminated, sometimes utterly dark.

As night and day are counterparts of illumination, so too are they counterparts of perspective. Day is objectivity and night is subjectivity. This complements social roles: in daytime we wear a mask, a persona of service, labor, and dedication to externals. At night the mask is laid aside. For many, the mask laid aside means abandonment of duty and therefore purposelessness, but for the solitary it is a welcome recuperation from a false persona, a constricting objectivity, a constriction of self.

And we can further assign objective and subjective to day and night as metaphors. What we must avoid, however, is equating night with darkness in the sense of impenetrability, ignorance, or turpitude. Better to anticipate night as an unfolding, a logical turning like the face of a moon or star, a resting from the strained attention of tired eyes.

Snow Monkey

As an addenda to reflections on the possibility of a mystic personality (previous post) is this photo of a Japanese macaca or snow monkey, made famous by the documentary film “Baraka.”

The film opens with the familiar shakuhachi melody “Honshirabe,” and the camera lingers on the facial expressions of this monkey as a profound portrait of meditation.


Japan macaca (snowmonkey)
click image for larger view

Mystic personality

Western mystics describe similar experiences, but there is no mystic personality type. Nor, strictly speaking, are they necessarily solitaries or even introverts.

For example: Hildegard of Bingen was a strong-willed and creative artist willing to confront bishops and bureaucrats. Meister Eckhart was a scholar who preached regularly to a parish of intellectually humble minds. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were consummate administrators. Angelus Silesius passed his best years in fruitless proselytizing. Jonathan Edwards, the New England preacher, is not remembered for his youthful experiences of mystic rapture but for his fire and brimstone. The list goes on.

With Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, and perhaps the unknown author of “Cloud of Unknowing” we approach a parallel of mystical and hermit life. Solitude becomes a dominant theme, a priority for daily life, not merely a stage or setting for mystical experience. Including elaborations of imagery and symbolism in mystic experiences with descriptions of solitude and eremitism risks smothering simplicity. Those experiences which are especially controversial or hagiographical ought to be excluded at once from exploring a mystic personality. Otherwise, we verge toward the classic hysteria so repugnant to reason and authority.

As an antidote to mysticism as irrationality is the book titled “Quantum Questions” usefully assembled by Ken Wilber. It consists of “mystical” writings of 20th-century physicists. These are serious scientists, including Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Einstein, Planck, Eddington and others. They show that mysticism has little to do with epistemological frames of mind and even less to do with personality. They redefine and rescue mysticism.

The popularizer Evelyn Underhill wrote (in her “Practical Mysticism”) that

Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in a greater or less degree, or who aims at and believes in such attainment.

This description seems too literal, making mysticism an advocacy or station in life, an aspiration or goal like a vocation. Underhill describes the task of the simple reader turned want-to-be-mystic as a mundane one that merely requires an open mind or heart, as it were, toward Reality. If mysticism fits our personality, than we can safely pursue it.

These ambiguities are cultural and social. The Western world has little tolerance historically for hermits, anchorites, and solitaries, let alone mystics, most of whom were objects of suspicion of heresy. Inevitably, the subjective content of their experiences were bound to enrich their understanding of theological definitions, and therein confront ecclesiastical necessity of controlling dogma and teaching. Unwisely expressed, mysticism in the West was an intolerable projection of subjectivity. But so too was eremitism.

In contrast, Eastern cultures have not only tolerated hermits, solitaries, and mystics but fostered them. In the East the content of belief is fluid, not in the sense of relative but in being ultimately a matter of individual integration, with social and cultural latitude for this internalizing process and consequent expression.

Such a subjective process does no harm to culture and society in the East because it is viewed as a refinement of a personal gift cultivated individually and returned in a creative way to society at large.

In such a context, a mystic personality seems possible, even if stereotypical to critical Western onlookers. The life of the hermit, whether from historic India, China, Japan, Tibet, Thailand, or elsewhere in the East, does not threaten society or accepted beliefs. The lives of hermits are sources of edification in such social contexts. Where the lives of saints in the West serve to accommodate personality types and dispositions, this function is not taken literally but as a metaphor for expressions, carefully tempered. In the East, the saints are colorful, garrulous, even literal. It is hard to see them as merely mundane.

The famous photo of Ramakrishna in an ecstatic state confirms to every Western viewer the stereotype of the mystic. There are some equivalents in the West but they would not be allowed such a prominent influence in spiritual practice because mysticism is an uncontrolled element in the West. Yet this ecstatic state is not a norm, and is not expressed as a norm anywhere, for the East has a more carefully mapped study of enlightenment than exists elsewhere. Shunryu Suzuki, the Zen master, was always insistent that enlightenment was not a priority, a pursuit, or a conceit. For the mundane, it is all the same to just practice.

For the solitary in the West, the dominance of psychology and social conformity still permits a discrete pursuit of mystical themes, as even the great 20th-century physicists show. So, too, does solitude and silence have to underplay their presence in our public lives in order to safeguard themselves not from a past ecclesiastical authority but from the conformist society of the present.

Purpose

Teleology is an Aristotelean and medieval scholastic term meaning “purpose.” In its simplest form, teleology is easily demonstrated by example: the purpose of a plow is to plow the soil; the purpose of a spoon is for eating one’s soup, and so forth. The uncontroversial premise in these mundane examples is that these objects were fashioned by human beings (technology) for their desired purpose.

The premise shifts, however, when purpose is ascribed to mere facticity. For example, petroleum exists to fuel our machines. Here purpose is contrived from creative scientific human effort, in short, technology — or from mere utility, desire, and convenience. Our technology can sound useful and benign, and hence the purpose remains more or less uncontroversial. As long as the results are equally benign — something that only time reveals.

We make these ascriptions all the time and without problem, even when we realize that they are not strictly true. A butterfly flits by in order to give pleasure to our eyes and a bird sings in order to please our ears. We carve nature into useful and less useful, by which criteria we mean purposeful or less purposeful. The purposeness can betray us, of course, as in the instinctive repulsion at a caterpillar without realizing that it is the butterfly that will soon delight our eyes. If we destroy the caterpillar out of repulsion we destroy the opportunity to ascribe purpose to the entire cycle. This is what we do when we destroy a rain forest and its many plant and animal species, only to wonder at the laboratory’s latest synthesis of a healing herb.

Or rather, that is purpose put at a scientific level. For my part, I would want to anticipate the resourcefulness and beauty of everything, making it an ethical concern, and not having to calculate the utility that can never be exhaustive of every parameter. But that gets ahead of the issues.

The scale or depth of teleological complexities rise around us inexorably like a tide. Do the objects of our lives take on purpose or do we serendipitously ascribe purpose and therefore sentiment, attachment, and affection? It is not that the butterfly exists for our enjoyment, anymore than the petroleum in the ground for our convenience. Rather, we experience what things do, through observation or experimentation, and then cannot see them with neutral eyes. Even as we destroy them in our shortsightedness.

Sigmund Freud, whatever his excesses in psychoanalytical theory, wisely believed that existence was buffeted by two polarizing purposes, those of Eros (creativity, self-identification, potential) and Thanatos (aggression, destruction, violence, death). This Manichean scheme seems simplistic, but nevertheless forms the basis of all Western thinking, however configured. Regardless of how much good we assign to existence (to teleology), everything seems undermined by its opposite, whether we call this opposite sin or evil or fate or nature.

Practical examples always crystallize this problem of purpose. Remember the story of the child whose beloved pet has died? “Will I see my dog in heaven?” asks the child. What to reply? “Whatever made you happy on earth will make you happy in heaven” is all that parents or adults can respond. The child’s question, more profound than the adult’s dogmas, forces the question of teleology and collapses the belief-edifice of the adult into ignorance.

In childhood we become aware of purpose, especially in loss: the death of a butterfly or bird or pet animal, let alone in an elderly relative or someone even closer. Early childhood is the state of not-consciousness, which is to say the state of not demanding purpose (yet), that state of simply being. But this state does not last long. Dissipating, we are left with the awareness of mortality and the “knowledge of good and evil.” And we are never the same again. Purpose pales before existence and experience.

I am a little startled to read (though I guess I knew it) that butterflies live for a week or a month. What I see in the garden, so delighting my eyes, will soon be gone. The mournful chirp of the crickets in autumn reminded the Chinese and Japanese hermit poets of mortality. The purpose we assign to the butterfly, to please us, like the flowers and the birds and the pet animals and the forests, mountains, stars– and other people — also remind us of our mortality. Unlike the Roman emperor riding proudly in the chariot of his victory parade, we do not need a servant beside us to whisper in our ear: Remember that you are mortal. All of nature reminds us in its wistful and melancholic way.

We can enjoy the dark humor that pokes fun at this our weakest sentiment, this drollness that arises from the inadequacy of purpose, of humanly contrived teleology. Remember that popular saying intended to lift us out of the doldrums after making a big blunder or falling into a mood of depression? “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” I admit the wicked humor of that wag who rewrote the saying for the mayfly, the insect that lives for only 24 hours: “Today is the last day of the rest of your life.”

Actually, if we lived by that motto, we might find ourselves fiercely attached to the beautiful and the wistful in life without demanding for one moment anything from them.

Darkness

The most cogent of prophetic statements are not those that lament the corruption of their generation. Every generation thinks itself to be cursed with the worst morals and the most profligate people. From antiquity onward, cultures have looked back longingly on a lost golden age or paradise, and lamented the present. These are not cogent insights but reflect the psychology of insecurity.

Characteristic of the modern era (versus the medieval and ancient eras) is the insistence on a progression into the future, whether social or intellectual or technological. The hallmark of modern thought is the boundless optimism of its captains and elites.

The ability to describe the unchanging status of human nature and the state of societies around us as realistically as possible, without the illusion of progress, and to project it into the future, is far more insightful than the wishes of past generations, because it is historical, philosophical and scientific. Have we reached that potential for accuracy?

With the grip of industrialism and complex technology, the modern illusion of indefinite progress, realizing no good change in human behavior or human nature, collapsed among insightful observers. Not exactly among the social critics of exploitation as disparate as Marx or Dickens, who still had faith in human destiny. Rather, among those who got to the core of history and human nature such as Nietzsche, who said that humans had only 200 years left to prove that they could survive. This he wrote in the 1880s.

Reflecting on the experiences of the 20th century, two other thinkers speak clearly on this very topic of human survival: Freud and Heidegger. There are many others, of course, as the decades rolled by, but considering what they did not see, and what has suddenly loomed before us, from the nuclear age to the last age of climate change, Freud and Heidegger speak as clearly as if they were our contemporaries.

Nietzsche’s calendar ticks off the years like a terrible dripping water clock.

The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. … Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety. And now it is to be expected that the other of the two “Heavenly Powers,” eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert itself in the struggle with its equally immoral adversary [Thanatos, or Death]. But who can foresee with what success and with what result?
— Sigmund Freud

The darkening of the world, the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the transformation of men into a mass, the hatred and suspicion of everything free and creative, have assumed such proportions throughout the earth that such childish categories as pessimism and optimism have long since become absurd.
— Martin Heidegger