Sunday, January 31, 2010

"...stretched out upon Mother Earth"

I’ve spent a good portion of my Sunday reading The Book by Alan Watts—the sort of philosophical meringue that seems delightful as you consume it but leaves you hungry for something more substantial. Watts walks the thin line between expressing ideas simply and reducing them to something simple-minded. The Book’s considerable wisdom shares the page with a certain amount of 60s-style spiritual claptrap, which is kinda fun but doesn’t help me take the whole enterprise seriously. I thought about giving up on it a couple of times today, but I hung in there and was rewarded with Watts' quote of this passage from Schrödinger’s My View of the World:

“Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground, stretched out upon Mother Earth, with the certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you. You are as firmly established, as invulnerable as she, indeed a thousand times firmer and more invulnerable. As surely as she will engulf you tomorrow, so surely will she bring you forth anew to new striving and suffering. And not merely ‘some day’: now, today, every day she is bringing you forth, not once but thousands upon thousands of time, just as every day she engulfs you a thousand times over. For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.”

Alrighty then. That was worth wading through 100 pages of The Book to reach. I’ve seen the last sentence of that quote before, but never the bit that precedes it. Schrödinger expresses in a few elegant words the joyful intuition that lures me into the woods. I can grasp that sense of being continually brought forth only when I literally throw myself on Mother Earth. This blog is all about dancing around Schrödinger’s insight, seeking the eternal now of union and metamorphosis.

The Carrot, Willem Frederik van Royen, 1699


jmcleod76 said...

I have a kind of a like/dislike (it's not intense enough to qualify as love/hate) tension with Watts. I sense that he saw the world similarly to the way I do, and he seems to have been a decent enough guy, but I resent that fact that so much of our Western knowledge of Zen and "Eastern philosophy" in general ad been filtered through someone who was, at best, a dabbler. On one hand, lots of first generation American Buddhist converts' initial curiosity was whetted by Watts. On the other hand, they all report having had to unlearn everything they thought they'd learned from him. Of course, Zen practice involves a continual process of unlearning, so maybe that's OK. Still, I think Watts' unfortunate legacy is that of a guy who dipped his toes in lots of pools, but never actually dove in.

BitterGrace said...

I wondered how you felt about Watts, J. If I were to appoint myself his defender--not that I particularly want that job--I'd say he thought diving in to Buddhism, or anything else, was always a mistake. Diving in, to him, meant surrounding oneself with a lot of dogma and myth that ultimately obscured a vision of the truth. At least that's how I read him in The Book. Deciding whether that's a valid position comes down to how much you value sincerity and commitment. I get the impression he didn't value them at all.

jmcleod76 said...

I'll confess, I want to have it both ways. I value autonomy, skepticism and agnosticism. I have enough intellectual curiosity to enjoy the role of the set-apart observer, the chronicler, the scholar, the armchair enthusiast. But, ultimately, I think I have to align myself with Kierkegaard. At some point, if we want to lay claim to our own authentic existence, if we want to save our lives, we have to take a leap. Not necessarily for Christ or for Buddha - at least not by name - but we do have to lose ourselves, forget our dignity, and take a plunge. Sincerity and commitment are risky, to be sure, but the alternative is aimlessness, limbo, at least in my experience. That's a kind of commitment, too, even if unintentionally made. It's like Bob Dylan said: "You're gonna have to serve somebody." I may quibble with the hardline duality of "it might be the Devil, or it might be the Lord," but the principle stands ... not deciding is also a decision.

Now that I've said all of that, I have to wonder whether you experience a similar relationship, as a solitary practitioner, with your own spiritual path. Certainly, I get the sense that much of your practice or ritual (if those are words you're comfortable with) are metaphorical on at least one level, just as most of the cosmology of Buddhism is metaphorical to me to some degree, or as Trinitarian theology is likely metaphorical, on one level, for many liberal Christians. Certainly postmodernism is a game-changer in that respect for many people, of all traditions, who feel comfortable with the tension between reverence and skepticism. Watts was, I think, too much of a holdover from modernism to have been truly native to that way of seeing the world, but I also think that, in many ways, he was one of its heralds.

Does any of that make sense at all, or am I just talking out my ass?

BitterGrace said...

J, you make me sweat a little with this comment—that’s why I love your visits to the blog! Not sure I can spin a coherent response about my own practice in this context, but here goes: I don’t see any tension between reverence and skepticism. Metaphorical understanding is the only kind of understanding there is—or, as I once said to my Christian ex-spouse: It’s ALL made up. In this I think I am in complete sympathy with Watts, who says in The Book, “Just as sight is something more than all things seen, the foundation or ‘ground’ of our existence and our awareness cannot be understood in terms of things that are known. We are forced, therefore, to speak of it through myth—that is, through special metaphors, analogies and images which say what it is like as distinct from what it is.”

Does this erase the possibility of commitment? I don’t think so, because insofar as metaphor is the only avenue of understanding, one commits to the metaphor wholeheartedly. In a very real sense, a commitment to the metaphor creates the only god available to our understanding. The flash of insight, the intuition of union, is just a more perfect metaphor of god than we usually achieve. It is not a glimpse of the thing itself. Because that vision is so seductive, though, it’s hard not to slip into the idea that it is god—and next thing you know, you’re Pat Robertson. Or maybe just lazy and smug.

I think one big problem with Watts is that he tended to be a little cavalier about the power of the metaphor. He recognized the danger, but he seemed to think it could be talked away pretty easily. I don’t think so.

jmcleod76 said...

Yes! That's really what I meant by "the tension between reverence and skepticism." That is, understanding that it's metaphor, but being willing to give oneself over to it wholly anyway. In Zen, we describe this twin reality "the relative and the absolute" or "Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form." I have no doubt that Watts understood this very well from a philosophical standpoint. At some point, though, intellectual understanding isn't enough. Or, as the first Zen priest I ever met told me the first time we ever spoke "I can explain chocolate to you - the ingredients, the color, the texture. I can even try to desribe the flavor, but none of it is any good until you take a bite."

But, then, my impression of Watts is all just based on things I've read. I have no idea what kind of man he was, really. That quote you posted is pretty terrific.

JoeGreenHome said...

I'm also rereading "The Book", and also felt this quote was the best nugget. In a similar vein, but with less theory and much more practice, try "Becoming Animal", by David Abram.