19 June 2010

The banality of transcendence

A pivotal scene in the film of Paul Bowles' novel, The Sheltering Sky, has the main characters in conversation with fellow travelers and the husband begins to relate to everyone a dream of his. He gets into his monologue about four sentences and the wife cuts him off, "oh god not another dream." What is profound to him is dull to her.

I agree with her completely about almost all dreams. Particularly in psychoanalysis, there are many folks who prescribe recording and analyzing dreams. I agree this can be informative for the case of one or two recurring nightmares, but the big fraction of dreams not in this category are completely useless in my experience. I once did a bunch of T-group work with a person who was fond of dream analysis so I managed to acquire a good deal of this useless experience.

Nevertheless, there is abundant real world evidence that a life transforming experience can be otherwise utterly banal. William Blake was playing in the garden, looked up into the leaves of an elm tree, and behold there were ten thousand angels there in the sunlight reflecting off the leaves of the tree. Sidhartha held up a lotus blossom to Ananda and it was his bliss consciousness arriving direct to his heart from out of the universe. Henry David Thoreau was in his cabin at Walden Pond listening to the rain dropping onto his roof and suddenly perfect peace profound manifested in his heart. Ramakrishna saw it in a flock of snow-white geese projected upon the base of huge dark gray storm clouds.

It does not stop with real world testimony. The thinly disguised real world of fiction has even more examples, as fiction authors will attribute to their characters attitudes which the majority of people would never display in public. Faust saw heaven in the image of two peasants working in their wheat field. In War and Peace, Prince Andre discovered the truth of the possibility of happiness in the branches of an oak tree, and Count Pierre discovered the same in the freezing cold on a months-old battlefield. Leo Tolstoy was fixed upon this phenomenon, as is clear in almost every line of his memoir The Kingdom of God is Within You, although his own personal magic moment of transcendence is too obscure for me to have deciphered it.

The entirety of William James The Variety of Religious Experience could almost be described as variations upon this very theme. It is the best treatment of the subject I have seen, but he leaves out what I feel is the most important part. Preparation. If it is so easy, why do people live lives of frustration and sorrow for so many years before they stumble upon the one instance which converts them? Because is is not so easy. The final catalyzing event is an every day triviality, but it appears one has to seek it with devotion for some years before one is susceptible to its actually happening.

How much preparation? That is what I would like to know. I have looked in a lot of places--psychology books, philosophy books, religious and mystical books--and have not seen a quantity anywhere convincingly given. I believe it takes approximately 10 000 hours of work. This is only my best guess. Every once in awhile I will try and sum up everything I have done so far, and I am about halfway to 10 000 hours, right now, as near as I can calculate.

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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.