Sunyata

…And God is Empty, Just Like Me

Blog, Philosophy

Eckhart von Hochheim has become a big hit within these four walls I call home. Meister Eckhart was a great man for, well, you could just put a full stop there couldn’t you? What I meant to write was he was a great man for putting his thoughts about God into action. Of course, he’s one of the most well-known Christian mystics but rather than just writing down his ideas, in German rather than Latin to reach more people, he would also give lengthy sermons about what his thoughts were and the more you read up on him the more you will notice than he didn’t just stand on the shoulders of other Christian mystics that came before him, he also delved into Eastern and Ancient philosophies.  

Meister EckhartIn his own words “I have read many writings both of heathen philosophers and sages, of the Old and New Testaments, and I have earnestly and with all diligence sought the best and the highest virtue whereby man may come most closely to God…” (source)

Now, unlike most Christian preachers he would quite often use his sermons as what we’d call ‘thought experiments’ and challenge his congregations and audiences to ponder upon the being-ness and is-ness of both themselves and God. There are numerous occasions where we can read than in his sermons he would say things like, ‘I’ve never said this before,’ or, ‘the thought has just occurred to me,’ thus inviting those listening to engage with the same thoughts. There’s an often overlooked characteristic which most of the best teachers, gurus, yogis, whatever term you prefer to use, all share. They all wanted their students to think for themselves and to find God, being-ness, unity, again, whatever you want to call it, by themselves. They were more than happy to teach but ultimately it was up to the listener to do the work. It would appear that many, many people fall into the trap of following exactly what certain spiritual teachers say and end up idolising the teacher over the teachings. 

Is-ness and Being-ness

There’s two passages in particular I’d like to quote here:

Being is God…God and being are the same – or God has being from another and thus himself is not God…Everything that is has the fact of its being through being and from being. Therefore, if being is something different from God, a thing has its being from something other than God. Besides, there is nothing prior to being, because that which confers being creates and is a creator. To create is to give being out of nothing.

What is Life? God’s being is my life, but if it is so, then what is God’s must be mine and what is mine God’s. God’s is-ness is my is-ness, and neither more nor less. The just live eternally with God, on a par with God, neither deeper nor higher. All their work is done by God and God’s by them. (source for both).

Let’s have a gander at these quotes. In the first one Eckhart is saying that being is the same as God because anything that came into being not created by God wouldn’t be God and therefore just wouldn’t exist. How could something exist in God’s creation if God hasn’t created it? It couldn’t. This is Neoplatonism 101 here lads. I also like the final sentence and I think it’s something artists/writers/musicians/builders, those of us lucky enough to have a job/hobby where we create things should remember; to create is to give existence to something and to really think on that for a while can give some appreciation for how profound it can really be. For example, even just to write a song for a lover that you might only even ever play once for her is a thing of incredible, and heartfelt, beauty. To think of all the little things that had to happen for both you and her to share such tenderness and love to be inspired to write a song about that love and then to let it go out into the aether, back into the nothingness it came from. That’s just majestically mind-blowing.

The second quote then addresses that age-old question of why are we here? If God is life then we’re here living life because the being-ness of living is God itself. It’s almost too simple and yet too deep to really fathom isn’t it? But like Eckhart explains, God’s existence and our existence is the same, it is existence, so they must be one and the same. Our being-ness and is-ness is the same then as the Big Cheese’s. God, Twitter

But Being-ness and Is-ness, well, it’s not exactly tangible is it? OK, I can smack myself in the face and I’ll feel it thus proving I’m alive, to myself anyway, but if we sit down and meditate and really investigate the bejaysus out of is-ness and being-ness it’s not a thing that’s touchable, like my pretty face is anyway. But it’s still there, there’s still an is-ness or a being-ness to that being-ness. And indeed, it self-reflects because it knows that it’s there. We’ll come back to this self-reflecting later, for now let’s look more at emptiness.

Of course when you dip your tootsies into Buddhism the idea of ’emptiness’ is going to come up a fair amount. And it seems to be something that Westerners in particular seem to have a problem with. Even back in Eckhart’s stomping days, the late 13th and early 14th centuries, he wouldn’t have termed what the Buddhists call ’emptiness’ as that. For the most part he used terms like ‘silence,’ ‘stillness,’ and even ‘desert’ for example. If the argument that the Western mind is ‘more logical/rational’ then trying to rationalise ’emptiness’ is always going to be problematic. But we can all appreciate what ‘silence,’ ‘stillness,’ or ‘desert’ could mean in the context of deep contemplation on the mysteries of existence.

Tathātā

Buddhadasa BhikkhuIn Buddhism there’s a term, Tathātā, which has been usually translated as ‘thusness’ or ‘suchness’ and it’s the same as this being- or is-ness that Meister Eckhart spent so much time wrestling with. In Buddhism it’s seen as the absolute nature of things before even ideas or words concerning them exist. So, it is the is-ness of is-ness, again we see the characteristic of self-awareness here.  There’s a nice quote on the Wikipedia page regarding Tathātā that comes from Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a perennialist and reinterpreter of Buddhist doctrine. Look him up, his rejection of the idea of rebirth rattled a few cages a few years back. Anyway, he said:

When tathātā is seen, the three characteristics of impermanence, dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), and no-self are seen, emptiness is seen, and specific conditionality is seen. Tathātā is the summary of them all — merely thus, only thus, not-otherness.

In other words then, is-ness and being-ness is what there is. It’s all there is.

As you’ll no doubt be aware from listening to/watching the podcast, I’ve developed a major grá for Rupert Spira over the last few months and around seven years ago he put out a video about what we’re grappling with here; is-ness and being-ness. 

Matter and Consciousness

Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to dissect everything said in the video, do have a watch if you have the time after reading, but here are some thoughts about it. He begins by saying that is-ness is what everything and every object shares in our existence. And this being-ness is a kind of emptiness/void. This is the dreaded ’emptiness’ I wrote about above but here Spira says that it’s a first kind of emptiness. Matter is mostly empty, we perceive it as not being that but science will tell us that the space around atoms is mostly empty and while not empty in the sense of a vacuum, the space is  actually occupied by waves, perceived as points when observed. So, we can say then that matter is energy vibrating, it is a kind of emptiness yet we perceive it as matter. Bizarre isn’t it?Rupert Spira

Spira speaks about this is-ness and says there’s another characteristic though, that this is-ness is known by the objects, people, beings etc. So, is-ness has awareness. Is-ness, or being-ness is self-reflective, i.e. being-ness knows of its own being-ness.

This then is a second kind of emptiness. Consciousness knows of its consciousness, there is no matter involved, only self-knowing of its knowingness. He says: 

The emptiness of matter, which is made of being and the emptiness of thought, or knowing, which is made out of pure consciousness.

But that creates a question; where is the line between these two things? Well, there’s isn’t one. It’s the same as what Meister Eckhart says above, that our being-ness and is-ness is the same as God’s being-ness and is-ness.

Spira says about this:

“The reality out of which things are made, pure being, matter, and the reality out of which knowledge or the mind are made, which seem to be two; I, the inside self, made of mind and you, or it, the outside world, made of matter. If we explore them both, they are both empty…these two emptinesses are identical.”

He goes further and explains that space is what the mind occupies while matter occupies time. Both of which are ‘approximations and both are, as such, empty as well‘.

To end the video he explains that the experience of love (mind) and beauty (matter) are what happens when these two different aspects knowingly experience themselves. And who could argue with that? When you love something you know exactly what it is to feel and to be alive. The same goes for seeing or experiencing a moment of beauty.

What use is all this knowledge though? Well, if being-ness and is-ness and our knowledge of our own is-ness and being-ness is the same as God’s being-ness and is-ness then we can engage with it in three simple ways.

The first is to pay attention to sounds, pick something you hear often, birdsong or cars in traffic for example. When you hear them, pay attention to the moment and simply be present. Feel your body, witness your thoughts without judgement, do whatever it is that makes you feel there in that  moment.

The second is to just stop, engage with one, or more of your senses and say, I’m here and be present. Another is a meditation I made for myself based on Peter Kingsley’s mêtis because “when we live [the illusion] to the full, to its furthest limits, we are nothing but reality fulfilling its own longing” (source). Let’s ignore the ‘illusion’ word though, that’s not my bag at all. I sit or lay down and I say to myself ‘I see, I feel, I think, I taste, I smell, I hear’ as a mantra, repeating and repeating and repeating and doing the things I’m saying seeing, feeling, thinking, tasting, smelling and hearing. It’s not an easy meditation but when it all syncs up together, everything simply is.

What does ‘Man Up’ Mean?

Blog, Philosophy

Sometimes it’s good to take on a topic that’s a bit taboo so that you can straighten out your thoughts on it. the topic came up on one of the TaSTA podcasts recently and it wanted to go a bit more into it, so What does ‘Man Up’ Mean?

The phrase ‘Man Up’ has a bad reputation but honestly I’ve always seen it as a good thing. I understand why it’s a bit of a sensitive subject but associating the phrase with what has become known as ‘toxic masculinity’ is the absolute opposite of what I’d define it as.

Growing up in 1980s Ireland it wasn’t ‘manly’ to show feelings. I wrote last time about attending tons of funerals growing up and it was a rare event to see a bereaved man crying at a funeral in the village. It wasn’t gossiped about or anything like that, it just wasn’t really a thing. You’d see men crying at funerals on American television programmes or films but hardly ever in real life. The odd time it would happen but more than likely it wasn’t a thing. 

Now this can be put down to a few things. The man was supposed to be the rock for other people to turn too. He would put his feelings aside for the time being and be there for others. At least that was the way I saw it, it wasn’t until I got a bit older that I understood that for many people in rural Ireland showing emotions publicly, particularly sadness, was showing a weakness. Thankfully things have changed now and men are a bit more open in public with their emotions and there’s no stigma surrounding it at funerals anymore. 

It’s a weird thing to think that telling someone to ‘man up’ or ‘be a man’ has become entrenched with the whole idea of what we now call ‘toxic masculinity’. But first let me explain what I believe ‘man up’ to mean. 

What does ‘Man Up’ Mean?

 Luckily for me there was usually a bit of philosophy around my house, my uncle is a priest and he used to tell me about various philosophers, from Aristotle to Zoroaster, Plato to Nietzsche to Sts Francis and Thomas Aquinas. Martin Luther always got a bashing, not a philosopher of course but his name came up a fair bit, particularly as he came from the order of priests that ran my school, which wasn’t the one he’d gone to. Anyway, the wee geek that I am, I thought it was interesting stuff. These men of history wrote books and gave teachings on what were basically the ethics of being a good person. What’s not to like about that? It was back then I learnt about the four virtues, also known as the cardinal virtues in Christianity. They are; Wisdom, Justice, Courage and Temperance. The Christian versions would list them as; Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. 

So that was it for me and always has been. To be a good person you lead by example and try to strive towards seeking wisdom, being fair, being brave and having self-control. To ‘man up’ meant to be a good citizen of the world, an ethical person. Of course this is very much easier said than done but these four little words hold much power and you’d be hard pressed to argue against living a life that doesn’t involve them. They’re the opposite of what I’d think of when I hear the words ‘toxic masculinity’. Total opposite. Men who display toxic behaviour aren’t wise, just, brave or temperate. They’ve failed on all four counts. Failed spectacularly.

What’s gone wrong then? Or maybe I’ve misunderstood the term all this time? But for me, ‘man-ning up’ has always meant ‘be virtuous’. How could it possibly mean anything else? The Chinese philosopher Confusious once wrote “The virtuous is driven by responsibility, the non-virtuous is driven by profit.” and St Thomas Aquinas wrote “Happiness is secured through virtue; it is a good attained by man’s own will.” Confucius saying there that a good person is driven by his inherent responsibility to be good while Thomas Aquinas says that man’s will is to be virtuous, which is what brings true happiness. While these ideals of eastern and western philosophy are nice to think about and to try and live up to growing up in a culture/society or household where emotions are denied cannot lead to emotional happiness at all. But we can all take it on ourselves to break the chain of emotional denial. It’s not ‘manly’ to push down your feelings, it’s cowardly. The courageous thing to do would be to face them head on and deal with them and the consequences.  

Toxic Masculinity

There’s no need to go into a tirade about ‘toxic masculinity’ here. We all know what it means by now. There was a very interesting article I came across last week from Psyche.co entitled “Talk of toxic masculinity puts the blame in all the wrong places” where the author really went into why labelling a problem isn’t good enough to tackle it. There’s this common parlance on Irish radio where some pundit will come on a show and when they run out of ideas they’ll toss out something like ‘we need to have a conversation about XYZ’ all the while being totally unaware that they’re actually involved in a conversation at that very moment. But this is part of it, labelling something as a problem does very little, all it does is give it a name. Admittedly it’s a start but all too often we get stuck at the start of something and never progress, let alone bring it to a satisfying conclusion. Anyway, the article is quite good and really makes a great point of showing up middle class pontificating for what it really is; just that, all talk and very little action. If the west is to put an end to ‘toxic masculinity’ it has to tackle the root causes of social inequality.

Mirror NeuronsSo much of our behaviour comes from what we saw growing up and being raised by whoever it was that raised us and by our peers. If you’ve heard of mirror neurons you’ll know they’re bloody fascinating. Basically a neuron is a bit like a path builder in your brain, you take up a new habit and after a while a new neuron is established in your brain and it becomes associated with associated behaviours and triggers and the like. Mirror neurons pick up on the behaviour of others in your circle and your brain learns a behaviour from them. A bit like a crossroads or an intersection on a motorway. Fascinating stuff. This is probably why I would have voted for the same political party as me auld lad, or supported the same football team, or why we use the same swear words at similar moments. It’s hardwired into your brain from an awful long time ago.

But this is where we can break the chain of bad behaviour. Like stopping smoking or drinking it’s not easy because the brain has built some hardwired neurons in there and they’ve now part of the infrastructure. Finding a detour around them, over them, under them or just plain bulldozing right through them is how to break them on a personal level. If you want to give up smoking you need to stop the behaviour of having one while waiting on the bus, having a last one before bed, having one with a coffee at lunch etc. 

I’d like to think that most people want to be a good example for others around them. Some are, obviously many aren’t. But I want to be and I try to be and on my bad days I even try to want to be. None of us are getting out of here as a perfect specimen but if we want to leave this world a better place when we depart it then we have a responsibility to be virtuous, to be brave, just, temperate, wise; to man up.