Monday, 30 July 2012


Some of you may remember that a little while ago I wrote on this post the following:
 . . . this quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh:
“In Buddhism all views are wrong views.  When you get in touch with reality you no longer have views.”

Such an interesting and thought-provoking observation. But wait?  Is that a view?  I mean, what I just said.  Am I expressing a view about . . . er . . . his view . . . or the view of Buddhism?  I mean isn’t “When you get in touch with reality you no longer have views” what in normal parlance we call a view?  That is to say, it’s an opinion (I think) about the way things are.  Reality, surely is too large and too kind of dense for any one human being’s mind to encompass it – surely?

A Quaker friend, Bruce Arnold, who blogs here at Letters From The Street, commented on that post (very helpfully) as follows:
“That thing Thich Nhat Hanh said: it's not just an opinion, it's a description of the experience of sunyata. Here's the thing, though: it's only true while actually in that experience of samadhi or nirvana. The rest of the time, in ordinary mundane consciousness, it is a worthy cautionary tale not to take our views too seriously. Also, attachment to views prevents the experience of sunyata, so for those on that path, it is necessary to have that non-attachment, as part of the yoga of the path.”

There was too much in that comment to respond to in a comment box, so I said I’d write a separate post taking up the things it brought to my mind, which fall into two categories – about opinion and about attachment.

Thinking first about opinion – I find myself getting tied into knots about this, because when I say “Such and such a thing is true”, I believe myself to be expressing a view or opinion.  This is so (in my opinion!!) even when the assertion appears to be a matter of universal agreement.

For example, I might say, “Buttercups are yellow,” or “A jay’s colouring includes areas of vivid blue;” and I might believe myself to be not expressing opinion but stating incontrovertible fact.  Not so, it turns out.  In my early twenties when I read a lot of Rudolf Steiner, I learned from his writing that buttercups are “in fact” precisely not yellow.  They are every colour except yellow – yellow is the colour they reject.  That’s why they look yellow to me (and you).  Because they’re not.

Then, only last week I learned from reading the very interesting book by Helen Hoover, A Place In The Woods, that furthermore a blue jay isn’t blue.  That birds have no blue pigment in their feathers, only brownish-grey that looks blue to me.

When we come onto matters of spiritual philosophy and human relationship, statement of fact becomes almost an impossibility (in my opinion), because the experiential is per se subjective, even where it is a matter of common agreement. 

Some years ago a dear friend who’d been having a rotten week greeted me with the information that “the devil had been really attacking” her.  Then she paused and thought, adding the possible amendment: “Unless it’s the Lord trying to teach me something.”

A Christian of deep and experienced practise not being able to tell the difference between God and the devil suggests to me that discrimination between one spiritual state and another may be a subtlety almost beyond the human intellect, and we are rash to believe ourselves capable of statements that can be categorised as bald truth in this area, given that we can’t even tell what colour buttercups are.

In one of his books of neurological case histories (I would give full details to credit it, but I can’t remember in which book it occurs, I no longer have the books, and an online search is not tracking it down for me), Oliver Sacks wrote of a young man who joined a religious group which valued sexual abstinence, gentleness and docility, and long hours of sitting in meditation – all of which healthy young men are likely to find difficult.  This particular young man achieved spectacularly, making such apparent spiritual progress that he was revered as especially saintly.  After this went on for some time, it was discovered that in fact he had a brain tumour, and his apparent spiritual acumen was a symptom of his illness – masked by the desirability of these characteristics in his chosen milieu.

In my own life, I have been told every now and then that my preoccupation with simplicity is a manifestation or symptom of my depression, a re-routing or displacement of an unavoidable aspect of my personality – and possibly illness – into the more acceptable persona of aspiration or discipline or, at least, choice.

This reminds me in turn of a friend who served as a church officer in a congregation I pastored at one time, whose efficiency was so terrifyingly focused that I began to suspect that it was, despite its undeniable usefulness to the church, pathological.

When I read the comment Bruce had left on this blog, about Thich Nhat Hanh and sunyata, samadhi and nirvana, the first two of those terms were unfamiliar to me, so I went off to look them up so as to make sure I’d got a proper grip on what he was saying.

Sunyata, if I’ve now got this right, is a Sanskrit noun taken from the adjective śūnya, which means “zero” or “nothing”.    So sunyata is about a condition of emptiness, the nonexistence of the self.

Samadhi (again if I’ve got this right) is a higher level of consciousness achieved by long practise of meditation – a stilling and focusing of the mind to the point of being in effect one with the focus of meditation – eg, God.

And nirvana is the state of blissful union with the divine.  The word means “blown out” and therefore implies a state in which the separate individual self or ego has been annihilated or become irrelevant.

I see how, in such a condition, views of any sort would have been transcended, made meaningless, left behind.  I see how, experientially, a person immersed in religious practise might enter such an experience of transfiguration.  And I see that attachment to all things of this world – possessions, relationships, achievements, being right, status; everything – must be eliminated or left behind in order to enter this transcendent state.


I have an uneasiness here – not a mere niggle, a profound uneasiness. 

If my friend couldn’t tell the difference between God and the devil, and the religious sect couldn’t discern pathological symptoms from sanctity, and those close to me know well that the headf**k that is my constant companion is probably as responsible for my hunger and thirst for simplicity as any attraction to holiness and Reality with a capital R – well, this is a minefield, innit?

For any one of us for whom the world of the Spirit is more real and more compelling than career or wealth or relationships or anything else in life, there is a huge danger of mistaking our weaknesses for our strengths.

Those of us who can not only detach from anything or anyone but actually have trouble attaching to anything and anyone, run a much greater risk from being admired than from being pitied.  The minute we start to express and believe the opinion, the view that we are right – that we have left behind the ordinary human territory of views and opinions and moved into some exalted field (Rumi’s “field beyond right and wrong”) where we’re so transcendent that our point of view is no longer a point of view because it’s morphed into absolute truth – then we have left health behind.  In my opinion.

The safety harness of every aspirant to scaling the heights of the holy mountain is the remembrance that I might be wrong: that as long as I am human I cannot be capable of more than the view from here; everything I think is my opinion.

There is no danger in this.  There is no danger in saying that when Thich Nhat Hanh tells us “when you get in touch with reality you have no views” that is of itself a view, an opinion.  It may seem insulting to his wisdom and advanced spirituality, but even so, it is a safeguard.

There is, on the other hand, great danger in scaling the heights without that safety harness, in believing that one has reached the state when “I might be wrong about this” loses meaning.

As Bruce said in his comment: “Here's the thing, though: it's only true while actually in that experience of samadhi or nirvana. The rest of the time, in ordinary mundane consciousness, it is a worthy cautionary tale not to take our views too seriously.

But my uneasiness extends beyond the question of where views stop and samadhi begins.  I am also uneasy about making the attempt of complete detachment.  I, who find detaching easy, fascinating and compulsive, know full well how destructive it can be.  It is, as I once heard someone say, like a suicide without a body.  When God finished all that he had created, he looked upon it and pronounced it good.  That included Adam and Eve in relationship with each other and interwoven in the living tissue of creation.  It was, in part, the very business of attachment that he pronounced to be good. 

It’s a complicated thing because Thich Nhat Hanh also teaches with wonderful insight and wisdom on how “the Environment” is the wrong way to describe the Earth – we are Earth.  As he so wonderfully puts it, we “inter-are”.  There is no separation.

It is perhaps helpful to look at the whole thing as St Paul did, and think of the analogy of the body.  Though there are many organs, there is only one body – the eye cannot say to the ear, “I don’t need you”.   So we belong to one another inextricably (not just human to human but the whole of creation); we each have our individual part to play but separation implies just dead meat.  On the other hand, anyone who has suffered from adhesions knows that they are seriously bad news. 

So attachments – adhesions, are when we try to cling, to impede the movement and flow of life, to create stasis.  For our health it is imperative we learn to let go, to permit change.  Yet we do not cut loose. We do not attempt to become the world’s first free-range kidney (or whatever it might be – you may see yourself more as a pancreas).

Dears, I could go on about this all day and still not manage to make myself clear!!

In summary:

1) We are made to belong – we inter-are with all creation.

2) It is unhealthy to cling, to try to limit or possess others, or imagine ourselves as owners rather than stewards of the Earth.

3) Change happens.  We have to learn to let go.

4) Problems arise when things accumulate.  We have to learn to keep life simple to avoid trouble.

5) Pursuing any spiritual path calls us into simplicity.  Letting go is part of simplicity. 

6) Though we let go (non-attachment) we still belong (inter-being).

7) Though we come to see that a view is only a view, we remember that as we are only human, that also is a view.  So long as we are human, views R us.

8) The aspirations of religion – towards non-attachment, simplicity, self-denial, discipline etc – were made to discipline and channel our turbulent human energy in the direction of goodness and grace.  If it’s easy, get help because you’re ill.

9) An essential characteristic of health is when an organism is in balance. The wise relationship of belonging and non-attachment is found in creating balance.  Sometimes the balance (or lack of it) is more apparent to others than to ourselves.

Finally: I hope in saying all of this I have offended no-one.  If I have offended you I’m sorry.  I can hardly open my mouth without offending someone these days.  It is possible I should be wiser to keep it closed.  If you disagree with everything I have said here, I am not offended and you should feel free to say so.  It is all, after all, only my opinion.


365 366 Day 212 – Monday July 30th

Er - that's Day 212 of this.

A mirror.  The less I look at myself, the happier I am with my appearance.

365 366 Day 211 – Sunday July 29th

A ghastly little bag from a chain store.  Supposed to be a convenient accessory that would go with everything and be useful for every occasion.  It turned out to be especially useful for boosting the income of my chosen charity shop.  Now I look more closely at this photograph the bag seems to be smiling at me in a sinister fashion.  Who in their right mind would keep a purse which did that?

365 366 Day 210 – Saturday July 28th

Much harder to part with.  Really handy tongs made for handling sugar and used by me for handling incense charcoal.  But I have stick incense these days, because it needs less paraphernalia.

365 366 Day 209 – Friday July 27th

A dreary polyester skirt, bought in an attempt to look normal.  Ha.


Sherry said...

This post seemed to penetrate my poor befuddled brain with great force.

If an educated person has serious doubts, views, opinions (Or "non") then I wonder about my own vacant head searching for meaning.

I have views. I believe that God is and that is a view/opinion. I don't intend to give that up. But I realize that many of my views of God have been misplaced. I have suffered because of this. And it is because I took the views of others to be truth. I have suffered lifelong depession because this seemed to trigger the onset. Lifelong! can you imagine what I have missed in this life because of detachment? Will I live out the rest of my life this way? I suppose that depression is a view, too.

I really wanted to say that I so much appreciate your "coming out" with the condition of depression without apoligy. I am tired of pretending that it doesn't exist or that it will magically go away as I did when I was younger. I have more tools to deal with it thanks to you and others that deal with it on a daily basis.

God bless you, Sherry

Tess said...

I enjoyed every word of this post, although my brain hurt a bit after learning that buttercups are not yellow and bluejays have no blue in them.
I think (although it's only my view...) that the key point you make is around "If it's easy, get help". I suffer from a desire to have spiritual practice be aesthetically pleasing. And it can be easy to mistake the foothills for the peaks (which I've seen only once, as a child) when surrounded by nature, or candles, or poetry, or whatever your pleasure might be. Easy then to float along on a cloud of glorious incense!
One other thing struck me while reading you talk of mistaking one thing for another: this quest for simplicity can be another trap. Reading so many blogs about simplicity, there develops a competitive edge to it (I'm absolutely not talking about your own blog here). People seem to be becoming attached to the non-attachment of simplicity.
It seems to me life's layers become more and more subtle the more of them we peel away.

Pen Wilcock said...

Fab comments as ever, friends.

Sherry, I stopped on this in what you wrote: " I believe that God is and that is a view/opinion. I don't intend to give that up."
I really liked the idea of saying that something is a view that you don;t intend to give up. It implies openness, that all things are open for discussion; it is without arrogance - yet it clearly states a position and, yes, a FAITH. That's so helpful - thank you so much!

Tess - Yes, I'm with you on the need to have spiritual practice be aesthtically pleasing - sometimes I can't tease apart the inter-twining strands of 'beautiful' and 'true' - and sometimes the distinction actually blurs for me, and they fuse.
And I agree with you about the exhausting one-up-man-ship of the yawn-worthy simplicity game!
And I too am finding the layers within layers both intriguing and dauntingly complex!

Wimmera said...

Try to open up your mind a little, and move away from rigid opinions of what people should do and be - unless you have been there.
Ann Rule

I got this on my door

Ganeida said...

Pen, complications occur in overthinking things too. I can seem blunt but simplicity of thought [not simpleness or simple~mindedness] saves me a lot of grief because my tendency is to complicate things if at all possible. I forget where I read the quote or who said it but it was along the lines of holding things lightly. By implication we can't grip or hold onto things. I find God's like that too: simple ~ unless I muddy the waters.

Buzzfloyd said...

The Oliver Sacks story is from An Anthropologist On Mars.

This is a very interesting post. It reminds me of the two character, Vorbis and Brutha, in Terry Pratchett's Small Gods. Both were religiously transcendent, but Brutha's mind was entirely open, meaning he was the only person who could hear his god speak, and Vorbis's mind was entirely closed, meaning that he thought he heard his god speak, but in fact heard absolutely nothing but his own thoughts, and eventually went mad.

The difficulty in distinguishing between objective truth and one's own warped view on reality is, as we've discussed before, often a symptom of depression. I was also struck, reading this, that the same thing is going on with fascists or other bigots, and also with psycopaths. It's important to be able to hear the internal voice reminding us that the Emperor has no clothes.

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh, I love this blog! Thanks, friends! I am always so eager to read your comments because they are so interesting.

Excellent quote, Wimmera! It touches upon what Bruce was saying about Thich Nhat Hanh - that he has actually been there and knows what he's talking about. My own observations are more second-hand. Your quote also uses that good word "rigidity", which (along with stasis) is the other unhealthy, anti-life attitude. Thank you!

Ganeida - so true! After I wrote this, the Badger read it and we sat and talked about the issues in it and related to it over lunch - and the more we talked the more complications became apparent!
There is however a danger of mistaking being simplistic for simplicity. Michael Lorence describes life as "whole" rather than "simple" and I find that a good pointer. If we try to dismantle the wholeness to examine it, we find ourselves with a complexity to huge and unwieldy to handle. If, in simplicity as you suggest, we just live it, then it's possible to integrate and live gracefully into the direction of flowing truth. It's when we try to reduce the Mystery and believe it to be a) of itself simple and b) achievable - something we can master - that we run into delusional territory.

Pen Wilcock said...

Buzzfloyd - thanks so much for nailing the Oliver Sacks text! It's an excellent book, folks.

So interesting about Vorbis and Brutha - and thank you for mentioning the Emperor Who Has No Clothes, which is indeed a story of absolute application in this instance.

kat said...

I love all you've said here - how did you manage to read my mind so well?
Delightful ....
Oh and please don't try to look normal - "you" is much more enjoyable ;-)

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) Good morning, friend. "Normal" is out of the question, I'm afraid . . .
Love to you x

Pen Wilcock said...

Roberta, thanks for the links you sent me - very interesting! x

Pilgrim said...

Amazon just sent me an email. The book has finally shipped. :-)

Pen Wilcock said...

Hurrah! x

Pilgrim said...

I don't see detachment as a priority value, but a secondary one, and not always desirable. I think love is a priority value, first of God, then of others. I think love is more like attachment than detachment.
Loving God first, then people, calls for appreciating things, but holding them loosely, as gifts. We don't find our identity in them, hoard them, or refuse to pass them on to those in need--but we do see the creation as real and good, a reflection of God.
We do steward it.
My views!

Pen Wilcock said...

Good point, Pilgrim! Loving the living. And when we love the living, we keep the discipline of respecting the freedom of the other, always willing to let it go, never like keeping a bird in a cage. x

Buzzfloyd said...

Yes, if love comes first, the decision about whether attachment or detachment is appropriate evolves naturally.

Pen Wilcock said...

That makes sense :0)

Bean said...

Perhaps in labeling everything in this modern world we make people feel as if they need to fix themselves. We are all wired in our own unique way and we should embrace who we are. We accept that we are tall or short as there isn't anything we can do to change this. So why can't we accept other aspects of ourselves and simply be :)
On opinions, here is my opinion :)we shouldn't take our own opinions too seriously and we shouldn't take others opinions too seriously, just think if the whole of humankind lightened up how much less conflict there would be. And I have noticed that our opinions about things change over the years and for the most part they seem to mellow, soften, become more compassionate and less judgmental, perhaps because we take ourselves less seriously.

Blessings to you,


Disclaimer: These are only opinions expressed don't take them too seriously!! :)

Pen Wilcock said...

". . . if the whole of humankind lightened up . . ."
Oh yes, amen to that! x

Pilgrim said...

Re an earlier point, don't you think an event can be an adversity from the devil and a teaching opportunity from God at the same time? Isn't the book of Job a kind of winding way through that kind of situation? There is so much unseen.

Ted Marshall said...

Ember, nothing to do with this post, but I just came across these beautiful photographs of modern hermits, which I thought you would like:

Pilgrim said...

Yea, the book came in the mail today!

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Pilgrim - glad the book showed up - hope you like it! :0)

Re the devil - St Francis of Assisi had a lot to say about demons. He described them as "God's sergeants", because he felt they kind of helped him along by imposing a spiritual workout of sorts - limbered him up in the spiritual warfare department or something. I like his attitude, but I am not very strong on the devil - not my chosen subject area really. I prefer to stick to Jesus as far as possible. x

Pen Wilcock said...

Tess - thank you SO MUCH for sending the link to those images. The world of pictures is much more comfortable for me than the world of words - I find I need pictures as soul food. Last night I went roving around on the internet searching under every subject line I could think of looking exactly for images like these to inspire and edify and generally cheer me up. Drew a blank, only found mundane stuff that bored me. And now here are exactly the kind of pictures that feed my soul and make me happy. Thank you friend!! x

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for the shout-out. You've said so much here that is worthy of response. I've already written about some of these things elsewhere, and it might be easier for me to link to that instead of trying to summarize. So, at there are some pertinent essays: "Three Orders of Thought" and "Essay on Jnana Yoga", which may say something about this matter of truth and opinion, and "Samadhi", which discusses these states of consciousness in greater detail. Much greater detail. Oh, let's see. The intro essay "What This Site Is About" has some of my personal take on opinion, as opposed to the philosophical discussion of it. That might be more interesting. :-)

Anonymous said...

By the way, you have great commenters!

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi friend - thanks so much for the links - and yes, I love reading the comments friends post here. It feels like a fellowship place for me, and every time I find my own thoughts taken in new directions by the thoughtful and intelligent comments people post.