A few thoughts about spirituality from a mindsight perspective.

A friend of mine sent me the above picture of Northrop Frye with the following email:

‘Good morning, Stephane.
Hope all is well with you.
I was on campus of Victoria College at U of T yesterday (my Alma Mater)
and noticed this fine gentleman sitting on a bench.
Made me think of you.’

I was delighted. The Old Vic is almost an Alma Mater to me, too. In his last year before passing he had been a mentor to me and profoundly influenced my view of the mind. In the Mindsight Intensive we examine spirituality these days, and what better way to share a few thoughts about spirituality from a mindsight perspective, than to take destiny’s email invitation and start with a quote from Frye’s ‘Literature as a Critique of Pure Reason‘, to which I have added two quotes from two additional philosophers in square brackets [ ] (all quotes in blue).

“The word irrational is derived from ‘reason’ and the word reason summons up the ghost of the old faculty psychology, in which ‘reason’ is the thing that man has, and frequently regards as uniquely his, to be distinguished from other things called ‘will’, ‘feeling’, ‘desire’, [‘instinct’ or ‘intuition’]. …. It is the faculty that shows off man as the only organism in nature whose horizon is not wholly bounded by the needs of survival and adaptation. ….

….. Some time ago, in reading through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, I noted  a comment he makes in introducing Aristotle’s conception of physics:

‘To understand the views of Aristotle, as of most Greeks, on physics, it is necessary to apprehend their imaginative background. Every philosopher, in addition to the formal system which he offers the world, has another, much simpler, of which he may be quite unaware. If he is aware of it, he probably realizes that it won’t quite do; he therefore conceals it, and sets forth something more sophisticated, which he believes because it is like his crude system, but which he asks others to accept because he thinks he has made it such as cannot be disproved.’

A passage in Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, also about the Greeks, makes much of the same point:

‘Every philosophy is tinged with the coloring of some secret imaginative background, which never emerges explicitly into its train of reasoning.’

[Richard Shusterman in ‘Beneath Interpretation‘:

‘There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They show themselves. They are mystical. So said the greatest 20th century philosopher of language in his first philosophical masterpiece. What Wittgenstein fails to emphasize here is that the inevitable but manifest is as much ordinary as mystical, and it is only mystifying to those disembodied philosophical minds who recognize no understanding other than interpretation, and no form of meaning and experience beyond or beneath the web of language.’

Charles Taylor in ‘The Dialogical Self‘:

‘Our body is not just the executant of the goals we frame, nor just the locus of causal factors shaping our representations. Our understanding itself is embodied. That is, our bodily know-how, and the way we act and move, can encode components of our understanding of self and the world.’]

We get, then …. a conception of philosophy as a verbal clothing worn over the indecent nakedness of something called its ‘imaginative background’, so as to allow it to appear in public. It is this retreating nude that I have been trying to study all my life. I call it a metaphorical or mythological structure, and it seems to me that while a good deal of philosophy, as Russell and Whitehead say, consists in disguising it in various ways, literature approaches it more directly and re-creates it, age after age. ….

Our primary thinking, then, is not rational but metaphorical, an identifying of subjective and objective worlds in huge mental pictures. … Metaphor does not evoke a world of things linked together by overstated analogies: it evokes a world of swirling currents of energy that run back and forth between subject and object. Such metaphor may be followed by, or even translated into, more continuous or rational thinking, but when it is, it is not superseded by rational thinking: it remains in the background as its constant source of inspiration.”

I love Frye’s metaphor of the retreating nude I find myself incessantly trying to bring to the surface with my students – not only when it comes to helping them appreciate the immensity of the non-conscious, but particularly also in the inevitable matters of spirituality mindsight training brings forth. This socially unacceptable nude does not only retreat behind the cloak of rationality, but as the vast emptiness of Being as I call it, also behind our cherished beliefs and opinions we hardly ever recognize as so profoundly deluded as they really are.

When the spiritual dimension emerges, students suddenly begin to come up with ill-defined notions, such as soul, spirit or a bigger force, imaginatively placing them outside the ordinariness of everyday life and the human organisms we all are. The fallacious duality of the good belonging to God and the bad to some devil also creeps into people’s thinking, and before you know it, if you are not carefully examining the language used for these descriptions, the discourse casts human beings as fallen creatures living a humdrum ordinary life of platitude while yearning for liberation by an otherworldly superhero called God.

Many adults seem to never have transcended what Piaget called the ‘concrete operational stage’ of cognitive development (age 7-11). Only concretely touched reality that can be logically reflected upon is accessible to the mind, and abstract, hypothetical, imaginative or integrative mind processes are not available or not used. The aspects of reality that go beyond the reach of the concrete, problem-solving mind are either ignored, or worse distorted and squeezed into a simplistic form that upon closer examination cannot possibly make any sense. Our retreating nude remains elusive to all those who eschew the hard work of getting to know their own minds and becoming transparent and permeable to the immensity of non-conscious energy flow. Instead, like the alcoholic who vehemently denies having a problem, suffering continues unabated, temporarily mitigated by unrecognized delusions as poor substitutes for real insight.

Mindsight reveals that our retreating nude extends beyond Frye’s metaphorical and mythological structures, and is therefore only partially revealed more directly through literature. In our work we go beyond stories and language into the flow of direct experience called conduit, and then even further to the edge of all knowing, where any concept we may have about ourselves, the world and reality collapses, and we become that great contextual process of energy flowing into and out of existence.

As I mentioned elsewhere in ‘How the curriculum is structured’, our investigations into reality have to occur in several dimensions:

  1. Physical dimension: The brain, the body and behavior as they are objectively explored through science.
  2. Somatic dimension: The brain and the body as it is subjectively experienced through somatic sensations and emotions.
  3. Psychological dimension: The mind as it is subjectively experienced through emotions, thoughts and narratives.
  4. Existential dimension: The sense of an independent and embodied self in the form of a human organism or body-mind within a large universal context and the boundaries of time and space.
  5. Spiritual dimension: The dissolution of an independent sense of self as we tap into the nameless, timeless and spaceless essence of transcendence beyond birth and death.

If you were an ocean wave, spirituality is about the direct discovery that you, the wave, are the ocean in movement, not an entity separate from the ocean. The extraordinary is beyond our mind’s concrete operational abilities and requires our full human consciousness potential to be discovered. The spiritual is not there and then, but here and now; not somewhere, something or somebody else, but the very fabric of who we are; not the good to the exclusion of the bad, but everything; not the extraordinary beyond the ordinary, but the extraordinariness of the ordinary; not complicated, but complex in its simplicity. As the etymology of the word ‘religion’ shows (from Latin ‘re-ligio’ = re-connection), spirituality is about reconnecting with our wholeness we lost in the translation from child to adult. That wholeness is the nameless emptiness of Being.

Copyright © 2019 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

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