A Few Apophatic Reflections

I love the incoming links feature of wordpress. You never know what you’ll find!

Where Brad says “for a disturbing look at apophatic theology played out to an extreme, click here”, that’s me. I’m the disturbing look. Looking at a few of his other posts (ie. a Macbeth-esque contemplation of whether or not it’s OK to get a t-shirt that says “theology kicks ass”, concluding that it is fine to buy one because, after all, theology is “really, really cool” – but not OK to wear it because someone might get offended) I actually felt a rush of pride for being disturbing to a person like this. Not because I like to disturb people, but because being disturbed is often the first indicator of an unexamined, oppressive belief system that is begging to be re-evaluated – that’s crack cocaine to an apophatic. I felt like I’d done him a favour, although from our brief discussion it seems he does not feel the same.

Since I have begun to upset the Christians, I thought it might be a good time to elaborate on the perspective for which my blog is named. What I practice is not apophatic “theology”. In other words, it has nothing to do with imposing additional narratives (ie. gods and religions) on my experience of awareness, and everything to do with maintaining freedom from such impositions in order to enhance my awareness.

I have found life is enjoyable to the same degree it is experienced with open eyes, an open mind and an open heart, and upsetting to the same degree that I filter my experience through an inflexible narrative.

The foundation for this perspective was meditation. I didn’t know at the time that I was “meditating”. I thought I was just sitting on the beach – alone, in silence, thoughtlessly, sometimes long enough for the tide to come in and go back out again, a few times a week for several months. Eventually, I experienced a sudden, massive reorganisation of my psychology that has endured to this day.

In the weeks that followed I was in a state of epiphany, stamping out fallacy after fallacy as my altered psychology showed me submerged darkness underlying of everything I believed to be bright. I saw that I could not chase beauty without running from ugliness; that pain is the cost of pleasure; that I could not elevate people I admire without lowering people I find distasteful. I found I could only eliminate “evil” in myself by giving up my attachment to “good” – and everything became infused with goodness. I stamped out the “ugliness” in myself by letting go of “beauty” – and everything became infused beauty. The icing on the cake was that these were new forms of beauty and goodness, and they came packaged with their own dark opposites. After a few cycles, I began to suspect the process of releasing attachments and revealing ever more expansive forms of beauty and goodness was likely to be continuous.

At the time I was busking for a living on the streets of Vancouver. I left in the morning and stayed out all day, hammering away on my guitar and chatting with the sorts of people one meets while loitering on urban street corners. This era of listening to the stories of mad vagrants and the intoxicated graduates of Canada’s residential schools (while piqued professionals scurried by in wide semi-circles) is the first I time I experienced life with my eyes, heart and mind wide open. I had become the embodiment of divine love, truth and beauty: I felt a love which does not judge; I knew a truth which makes no claims; I found beauty in the ugliest of places.

All this seems very much at odds with “theology”. It’s unlikely I would ever have attained this perspective had I been distracted by the study of a god or religion (although nothing is impossible). As far as I have seen, western religions do not encourage their followers to become the embodiment of divinity; they point to a book, or an icon, or an abstract concept and insist that “divinity” lies within. They practice a “love” founded on shared loathing of the wicked. They dictate a “truth” that makes preposterous claims, then condemns the incredulous. Religious “beauty” is founded on the fear of death and decay, or it consists of nothing more than glamour: beguiling words and pretty things. In fact, I suspect the phrase “I became the embodiment of divine love, truth and beauty” makes western religious readers quite “disturbed”, but what can I do? That’s how it felt.

I don’t meditate any more, but I do napitate. I can conk out anywhere – planes, trains, family gatherings – for a period of mental inactivity that looks and feels very much like a nap, except that I am awake and aware of my surroundings throughout. It’s very refreshing, but doesn’t seem to result in any more profound awakenings. That is fine with me, though – I can happily spend my whole life integrating the awakenings I’ve already had.