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On Unknowing

Posted by Luke Storms
Luke Storms
Luke is the digital director at Parabola.
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on Tuesday, 04 March 2014
in Practice · 0 Comments

It is not ignorance. Rather, one could say, a particular process of cognition that has little or no use for words. It is part of our heritage at birth, the infant’s first primer. And the young child lives by it, gathering into its growing body and aboriginal heart a cosmography of wonder.

“The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown,” says Thomas Traherne of this period. “I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious gold; the gates were, at first, the end of the world.”

But soon the cluttering mind takes charge and obscures. Unknowing with information. For the ego, while presuming to ape what D.H. Lawrence called the “truth of truth,” is avid, rather, for the truth of fact, relevant or irrelevant, and swells up, bloated, like the frog in the fable, as it records its dossier, the story of its ego-life. It has a name, if not a meaning, for everything and dares without compunction at any moment or on any subject to declare: “I know!”

But what if, in a momentary lapse in its knowing, it should stumble upon Unknowing? On Jalal-uddin Rumi, for instance:

Sell you cleverness and buy bewilderment,
Cleverness is mere opinion, bewilderment is

Or maybe it happens on a  passage in The Four Quartets.

What you do not know is the only thing
you know,
And what you own is what you do not own,
And where you are is where you are not,
Leading to a condition of complete
Costing not less than everything.

Will it have the courage, or even the wish, to pay the price? Throw overboard all the information that Unknowing does not need? Let go and set itself to listen so that the condition of simplicity may arise?

That is not the way of the mind though it is ready to make use of all the Unknowing that, over the aeons, has become manifest.

For instance, it is from Unknowing that all the myths, and, one may say, all religions issue forth and reveal themselves. Not invented but, as it were, summoned.

It is back into unknowing that the mind-stuff of all the burnt libraries of the world repair. Never a page left to turn, but what the spirit of man has once conceived it can conceive again. All that is lost is somewhere.

Destroy the world, you men of the atoms, and Unknowing will retain the pattern. “Trust that which belongs to the universe itself,” says the Tao, “From that there will be no escape.”

Unknowing, if one can be open and vulnerable, will take us down to the very deeps of knowing, not informing the mind but coursing through the whole body, artery and vein–provided one can thrust aside what the world calls common sense, that popular lumpen wisdom that prevents the emerging of the numinous.

Unknowing needs that a man be in a certain state of grace, playful, artless, inwardly aquitted of opinion, not at all as children are but rather as fools or saints.

One thinks of Ryokan of Zen, playing hide-and-seek with the village children, secreting himself behind a woodpile, monkish sleeves drawn over his head. The game was soon over and the players called home but Ryokan still stayed hidden and when found next morning by a brother monk who asked him what he was doing, an eye peeped out from under the sleeve.

“Hush! Don’t speak so loudly. The children will find me!” said Ryokan.

Or again, when thieves ransacked his house, Ryokan was at pains to thank them for leaving him the moon at the window.

We, too, in the West, have our quota of fools–Kasperle, walking forever through the world, his old grandmother on his back, the crocodile always at his heel, the abyss always before him. He lives with danger, safely, like the Fool of the Tarot, that zero of the pack, the nought, the nothing what, when added to any other number, inevitable exalts it.

And we must not forget St. Francis who called the ass and the mouse his brothers and sang songs with the birds. Nor St. Catherine of Alexandria, the saint invoked by learned men, those mighty scholars who, being ignorant of the Unknowing, have need of such patronage.

And what about the fairy tales, diminutive kith and kin of the myths, in which, coming as they do from the same ancestral stock, Unknowers abound? Think of the third of those ubiquitous three brothers. He is always the simpleton, the one who, aware that he has little wit and needs help, is humble enough to accept advice from the frog, the dwarf, or the little old woman which the elder brothers have spurned. And help never fails to come to him from the cauldron of Unknowing, the treasure, the princess, the cup from the well of the Water of Life.

But it is not only story or in calendar that Unknowers are to be found.They appear among us in the streets and in the fields, their feet are upon the mountains–lunatics, lovers, and poets in their train; Blake seeing angels preening their wings in the trees, and singing songs on his deathbed; the Sufi camel-driver whose very toes cried “Allah!”; the centipede, who, when asked by the one-legged man “How do you manage all those legs?” replied “I do not manage them.”

Such as these are natural Unknowers. But now the question arises–how can anyone intentionally attract to himself an epithet so impressive? What will lead us to that condition of complete simplicity?

We cannot wipe the mind clean of its knowing, as one would wash a face, for, indeed, paradoxically, we need that knowing. It is an essential part of living and not to be despised. Only when the mind attempts to usurp the whole realm of consciousness, of which, after all, it is but a fragment, are the possibilities of discovering Unknowing overlaid and lost.

The world belongs to silence and stillness. Unknowing, itself being empty, can be approached only in moments of emptiness which the ego-mind mistakes for boredom and hastens to assuage that condition with ever more and more learning. To it the phrase “I do not know” is one of self-reproach.

But for one intent on seeking the Unknown, that “I do not know” is the door to it, the “Open Sesame” which to pronounce costs nothing less than everything. So, he drops from his busy awareness into the stillness whence life springs, into the void within him.

Only by such means can he come upon fullness, the fullness that the mind, with all its acumen, cannot even envisage. Thus, self offers itself to Self, as once Odin on the tree of Yggdrasil, and he knows without knowing whatever is useful to him–that there is manna in the wilderness, that the stone dances, and the rain it raineth every day.

Thus provided, such a one can lay himself down contentedly between the paws of the lion.

–Pamela Travers, "On Unknowing," (Parabola, Volume X, No. 3, Fall 1985: "The Body"). Order this issue here›

Photography Credit: Minor White, "Barn and Clouds," 1955

Silence of the Heart

Posted by Luke Storms
Luke Storms
Luke is the digital director at Parabola.
User is currently offline
on Thursday, 20 February 2014
in Practice · 0 Comments

“What we like and dislike, our opinions, attitudes, and beliefs, are nearly always sustained by, as well as being the results of, that form of emotional identification that the hesychasts call passion. Our fixed, inner emotional attitudes are bricks with which the walls of our spiritual prison are built; it is because of them that we are not free to move inwardly, to open to all the newness and richness of life and people around us.”

–Richard Temple on the call for awakening in the Philokalia. Quoted from his article “Silence of the Heart" from Parabola (Vol. XV, No. 2, Summer 1990: “Attention”). Richard is the owner of the Temple Gallery in London, and author of Icons: A Search for Inner Meaning.

Photo Credit: Menahem Kahana: Israeli archaeologists excavate a 1500-year-old floor mosaic depicting the resurrection of Jesus Christ, in a newly-discovered church dating back to the Byzantine era, in the village of Aluma in southern Israel on January 22, 2014. (from Art Daily)

Wisdom or Happiness?

Posted by Patty de LLosa
Patty de LLosa
Patty de Llosa, author of The Practice of Presence: Five Paths for Daily Life an
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on Saturday, 15 February 2014
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Happiness or Wisdom?

We all want to be happy. Is that wise? Perhaps it only works the other way around: those who become wise find happiness. The Buddha explained that what makes us feel miserable is the hankering and dejection to which we are continually subject. We hanker after what we desire, and become dejected because life doesn’t offer up what we want.

Does it take a lifetime to find the wisdom to accept what we’ve got? Not necessarily. The minute some of what we had is taken away we begin to appreciate it! Then, oh then, how we remember the Good Old Days!

Then there’s the opposite message, the folk wisdom that your reach should exceed your grasp. How to bring these opposites together? In my opinion, the solution lies in practice and, above all, work. If you aim both body and mind at what you want and work hard for it, your feet tend to stay on the ground and, hopefully, your head this side of the clouds. So inner and outer work are part of real wisdom, expressed in Madison Avenue’s adage that there’s no free lunch.

And how about the Now? Perhaps we could solve the happiness/wisdom enigma by seeking happiness in the present moment, bringing awareness to what we do hour by hour, day by day, as well as in daily contacts with others. Then, in bad weather, our efforts sit solidly under two great, multifaceted umbrellas: Wisdom and Science. For just as the Bible tells us we are parts of one another, new experiments in neuroscience discover that relationships change the brain. Or, as neurobiologist Dr. Daniel Siegel said recently, “We is what me is!” (see Parabola Summer 2011, The Neurobiology of We).

The current Parabola celebrates wisdom by inviting us to receive the sagacity deposited in certain men and women by life experience and their own efforts, successes, failures. We hear from a wide range of voices, from Einstein on the nature of the universe to Bill W., father of AA, whose great gift was to offer hope when all seemed lost. From Joshua Boettiger, who speaks of learning from everyone we meet, to Jungian analyst Helen Luke, whose Apple Farm has offered visitors and members “a vibrant awareness” from 1963 to the present day. And near the end, a useful reminder on the 50th anniversary of the death of Herman Hesse, of how much wisdom he had to share.

Drink deeply, friends!

Verbum Ineffabilis

Posted by Luke Storms
Luke Storms
Luke is the digital director at Parabola.
User is currently offline
on Monday, 03 February 2014
in Practice · 0 Comments

“Before she could speak, my daughter taught me the language of silent things: fruits, flowers, an oaken chair. I came to understand, through my relationship to this small being, why the word adult forms the root of adulteration and adultery. Watching her, it became apparent that, as we mature, we fall from grace of the whole-seeing beginner’s mind that is our birthright. If, as Emily Dickinson says, “What awaits us in the unfurnished eye,” then what awaits us are the senses we were born with. She’s a teenager now, but when Lila was six months old she reawakened me to the way in which an orange speaks.

I had noticed one day that the oranges on the tree in our backyard were finally ripe, and it occurred to me that Lila had not yet tasted an orange, “A new adventure,” I thought, smiling, as I headed out the kitchen door, she straddling my left hip. I could see myself pulling an orange off the tree, splitting ti open and giving her a slice to suck on. To my mind, the full experience of orange lay in its taste. That was “the point.” Lila showed me just how limited my comprehension was.

As we approached the tree, she began to bounce on my hip, kicking her feet in a wild, dancing rhythm and reaching her hand in nearly desperate delight toward the most amazing thing: a shiny, bright orange ball hanging in the tree! Did I see it? Her astonished glance asked me. I let her know that I did. I placed my hand underneath it, and the fruit, perfectly ripe, fell into my cupped palm. Lila touched it, wide-eyed, felt the cool skin, at once bumpy and smooth.

We sat down on the patio retaining wall, she in my lap, and I transferred the orange to her. Startled by the weight of it, she rolled it between her small hands, lifted it to her nose and chin, and then back toward me, utterly transfixed. When my fingernail pierced the skin and a perfect string of tiny droplets arched out to land on her cheek, her mouth opened and her eyes widened even further. And when, with skin peeled away, the shiny ball suddenly disappeared from view, bewilderment crossed her face, almost grief, but only until the “new” ball caught her eye. A round puzzle, with crescent pieces that pull out one by one…ha! Finally, when I reached a slice toward her mouth, her brows knitted, unsure what I could mean. Taste it? Really? But it was only the barest moment before she was laughing in pleasure at the sweetness. Lila’s love at first sight-touch-taste taught me not only that oranges speak, but what they speak with surprising eloquence."

–an excerpt from Anita Doyle on letting the world speak from Parabola Volume XX, Number 3 "Language and Meaning," August, 1995.

Art Credit: Cezanne, "Fruit and Jug on Table" Detail (1890-94).

Zen Moments

Posted by Luke Storms
Luke Storms
Luke is the digital director at Parabola.
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 22 January 2014
in Practice · 0 Comments

We sit on our heels on the tatami, the Japanese woman and myself, telling the stories of our lives. One can do this with a stranger. Too near, and the perspective is lost. Only the far can be near.

A sound–a knock, intimation only–had come from the inner door. And there she was in her blue yukata exactly like my own–the only wear in a Japanese inn–bowing to me, like a branch bending.

“It is permitted to practice my little English?”

I rise and become another branch. “It is permitted.”

And so we kneel before each other, the foot-square mirror at which I make my toilet reflecting each in turn.

There is no need for us to commend the cherry-blossoms–they are doing no more than their duty. Nor to chatter about the shrine at Ise.

Neither of us is a tourist. We are just two women, gone beyond time, our talk a shuttle pulling weft across warp, no beginning, no end to the pattern.

The cauldron of plenty in each of us seethes with its ferment, sweet and bitter–the world to be carried and no plaint made; love to suffer long and be kind, not vaunting, not puffed up; the seed that we carry to be threshed, freed from its crusty husk; the aching question of who we are and for what made, answered only by its echo; the need to stand before the Unknown and never ask to know; to take our leave of the world, head high, no matter how hard the parting; and, coquetry no whit abated, offer the unassuaging mould an acquiescent lip.

Arms crossed, we rock from side to side. Hushing what? Ourselves, perhaps. And again and again she murmurs a word, as a counterpoint to her movement.

“What is it that you are saying? Tell me.”

She rocks and seems to draw it closer, folding the word to her breast.

“A–Wa–Re.” She stresses the syllables, as though teaching a child.

“A–Wa–Re. It means, in our tongue, The Pity of Things.”

I look at her long and in silence. Then I rise and bow.

“Do you know that what you have said is our word ‘Aware’?”

She looks at me long and in silence. Then she, too, rises and bows. And at the door bows again.

There is nothing to say. We say nothing.

–Pamela Travers from her article Zen Moments, PARABOLA Vol. XII, No. 4 (Winter 1987). Reprinted as the Focus to Vol. XXI, No. 3 (Fall, 1996).

Art Credit: Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Tea house at Koishikawa. The morning after a snowfall

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