Tag Archives: Cognition

Imagination and God

When I was very young my family lived in the sticks of Arkansas and had no running water.  During the summer we would take a bath in a galvanized-tin “bathtub” on the front porch since we had no neighbors nearby.  One day when a long dry spell in the weather was breaking and it was beginning to sprinkle, a sister of mine who had a more active imagination than I did innocently noted,“God is pouring his bath water out.”  Neither of us took this literally but the image has always stuck in my mind.  And I’ve always regretted not having become pompous at that time for I would have reminded her that God does not get dirty and does not need to take a bath.  Furthermore, I would have dismissed the notion that Jesus walked around heaven with a baby sheep under one arm and a lightning bolt under the other.

Human imagination is a very important dimension of our heart and is critical in our religious experience.  Without it we are left with sterile cognitive images of our Source and it reveals just how sterile and barren our heart is for the “heart” is more than a bunch of ideas floating around in our head. And I find it very interesting currently how that many Christians who deny the “imaginary” nature of their Friend have now voted with great passion for someone who has, and is expressing the part of their imagination than they have never acknowledged.  For, imagination does include unsavory “stuff” and it is our fear of this forbidden material that deters us from utilizing the “mind’s eye.”  In Donald Trump all Americans need to consider, “Out of the abundance of our heart our mouth now speaketh,” to paraphrase Jesus.

Poet John Masefield wrote a sonnet that reveals so much about the role imagination has in our ideological formulations of God:

How many ways, how many different times
The tiger mind has clutched at what it sought,
Only to prove supposed virtues crimes,
The imagined godhead but a form of thought.
How many restless brains have wrought and schemed,
Padding their cage, or built, or brought to law,
Made in outlasting brass the something dreamed,
Only to prove itself the things held in awe.

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Confessions of an Hypocrite

When “god talk” is bouncing around in your head–words like “Jesus”, or “Holy Spirit” or “humility” or “the Bible”– it is really intoxicating!  I know, been there, done that.  It provides one the exquisite delight of feeling pious and righteous, knowing that one is “saved” and, very importantly, knowing that so many others are not. This cognitive experience allows one to live in a narrowly defined, safe world of “like minded souls” who are subject to the same cultural bondage, all of which have signed an unconscious bond to never question the premises of their mindset that would bring the “light of day” to their darkness and expose them to their hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is subtle.  Once again, been there and done that and technically still am!  Hypocrisy is being trapped in performance art, a performance which is carefully scripted by the “song and dance” of one’s spiritual tradition which is very comforting as long as one does not allow that cursed “light of the day”, aka “the Holy Spirit” to intervene and show them that their faith was only a perfunctory performance in compliance with those lofty notions cavorting about in their head.  What is missing is the wisdom of the Apostle Paul who noted that the Spirit of God, if allowed to, will cut into the depths of the heart and there serve as, “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”  But if that dangerous and damning insight is permitted, one would have to recognize the sham of his faith which would then allow the “performance art” of faith to dissolve into meaningful expression. But this is very painful as it requires the disillusionment, the anguishing experience of realizing that one has not been as pious as he imagined himself to be and then recognize and experience the grace of God which covers even that duplicity!  But if you “know” you are humble, the thought itself will deter you from allowing the experience of humility to wash over you. T. S. Eliot realized this when he noted, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility.  And humility is endless.”  Eliot recognized what I like to call the experience of “humility-ization” being operable in one’s life, as “humility” is nothing that can be acquired.  If you think you have “acquired” it…as I once thought I had…you are up to your halo in hypocrisy!

We are all “actors on the stage of life, who with his fear have been put beside his part” and finding the courage to recognize this can provide an opportunity for spiritual growth.   It requires, however, the relinquishment of the comfort zone provided by the cerebral “letter of the law” and a willingness to engage a heart which until this point has been dormant, “bronzed o’er so that it is proof and bulwark against sense.”  Shakespeare knew that a heart which has been customized, or enculturated, into mere rote performance is one that is a rigid defense network against “sense” or feeling.  In the same scene, he implored his mother to listen to him with a heart “made of penetrable stuff”.

Often persons of faith do not have hearts made of “penetrable stuff.”  In my case I was “christianized”, or indoctrinated with Christian teachings so that there was no room left for an open heart to make the dogma of the Christian teachings meaningful in my life, to allow them to filter down from my head into my heart.  In a sense, there was no heart as there can be no real heart until the circumstances of life have intervened and made in vulnerable, i.e. “full of penetrable stuff.”  Now, certainly I have always had a heart but a “heart” is an infinite dimension of our human experience…if we allow it to be.  It is so easy and convenient to allow it to ossify with the dogma that our tribe has provided us which leaves us as nothing more than the walking dead.  In fact, in terms of developmental psychology, our “heart” must ossify for us to join the structure of the human race.  But then in time to come there are opportunities to allow this ossification to break down under the influence of what my spiritual tradition calls the “Spirit of God.”  But this is painful and disillusioning and so we usually decline to listen to that “still small voice” that is always whispering to us and therefore remain in the comfortable darkness of dogma.  As W. H. Auden put it, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand.  But he clung in panic to his tall beliefs and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

In conclusion, you have just read something from the heart of an admitted hypocrite.  For, as long as we are human, we will be an “actor” to some degree and what makes hypocrisy such a problem is merely the inability/unwillingness to acknowledge it.  Self-reflection, that God-given capacity in our fore-brain is painful when our ego-driven identity is predicated upon disallowing it.   If you want to see an example, pay attention to American politics right now.

 

“The Closed Cab of Occupation”

THE CLOSED CAB OF OCCUPATION

W. H. Auden declared that “We drive through life in the closed cab of occupation.” Auden was, like myself, an alienated soul sentenced to life as an “observer” of life rather than a “participant.” But being an “observer” with the capacity to even “observe” himself, i.e. self-reflect, he realized that even his occupation of poet was a “closed cab” and he was fated to view life through the prison of metaphor. And I’m glad he accepted that imprisonment as his work has been a god-send to myself and to many others, though he suffered greatly under its torments.

My “occupation” from very early in my development has been to “observe” life rather than to experience it, a stance that eventually evolved into the “closed cab” of a diagnostician, a mental health counselor. In the comfortable confines of that self-imposed prison I could…and still can…categorize and label this beautiful mystery that we call life and keep myself insulated from its hoary depths which are often frightening. But, mercifully I have the gift that Auden had and can self-reflect somewhat even about my “self-reflection” and thus my clinical detachment is breaking down. Yes, the prison-bars are bending and with a “little bit of luck and a strong tail-wind” I’m gonna be able to slip between those bars at some point and come out to play for moment before that damn Grim Reaper has his way with me!

A recent phrase I stumbled across on a Paul Tillich Facebook page is someone’s observation that Tillich’s teachings had taught him “just how much I am embedded in my own thought.” This “embeddedness” is a critical dimension of life that is difficult to grasp; for, to grasp this nuance of life is to see and experience a schism in the depths of one’s heart and he/she begins to realize there is more to one’s “experience” that what can be “thought.” This insight can be the beginning of recognition of one’s “closed cab.”

I want to share with you the insight of John O’Donohue about this discovery:

Thought is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. The way you see things makes them the way they are. We never meet life innocently. We always take in life through the grid of thought we use. Our thoughts filter experience all the time…Even your meetings with yourself happen in and by means of thinking.

 More often than not we have picked up the habits of thinking from those around us. These thought-habits are not yours; they can damage the way you see the world and make you doubt your own instinct and sense of life. When you become aware that your thinking has a life of its own, you will never make a prison of your own perception…In order to deconstruct the inner prison, the first step is to see that it is a prison. You can move in the direction of this discovery by reflecting on the places where your life feels limited and tight…”Heidegger said, ‘To recognize a frontier is already to have gone beyond it.’” (“Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong.”)

More Perspectival Ruminations!

Perspective fascinates me. Even as a child when I was being taught a very rigid perspective of the world, questions would arise from time to time about this perspective and I would receive a pat answer should I dare to pose the question. My usual response, not being very daring at the time, was to accept the pat answer and resign to the fiat of the bromide, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” I learned that when I heard that bromide, it was a way of saying, “End of discussion.” I also learned that I could use the same bromide myself later to end discussions but that contrivance worked only as long as I remained ensconced in that insular little world, an insularity which began to crumble when I went to college.

I have often quoted here, “We can’t have a perspective on our perspective without somehow escaping it.” (I think it was the philosopher Ricoeur to whom I should attribute that bit of wisdom.) When a perspective on our perspective first dawns on us, it is the advent of meta-cognition and a Pandora’s box is often opened. Pat answers will no longer suffice.

Einstein once noted, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” This wisdom is valid on an individual and a collective level. Whatever it is that ails us, if we try to rely only on “figuring it out” we will only be stewing in our own juices in the long run, much related to Shakespeare’s observation about the human dilemma being that it feeds “even on the pith of life” when it opts for this self-referential cocoon. At some point we have to explore new horizons, venture out beyond the grasp of our cognitive grasp on the world, and that always involves faith of some sorts though I do not insist that it be called “faith.” Some of you might, for example, prefer a term like “courage.”

In my own personal life as well as in my professional life as a clinician, it was always important to realize that the ultimate issue in addressing the woes that beset us from time to time is trust. My natural disposition is to “figure things out” for I am very cognitively oriented and, yes, that is putting it mildly! But life is ultimately a Mystery and we can never “figure it out” and have to trust that Mystery at some point which usually involves trusting the life process itself and an individual or individuals in our life. It is easier to “trust” a “Mystery” or “God” rather than to trust that Process or Person in terms of flesh and blood. It is much easier and less risky to trust our noble and lofty ideas than to trust another human being.

Trust often means being willing to learn to look at life differently, to lay aside outdated, maladaptive behavior and thought patterns. For example, this change might be as simple as accepting the old bromide, “The glass is half full” and not “half empty”; or perhaps deigning to see the world as basically good as opposed to “deceitful and desperately wicked.” But it is very difficult to dislodge outdated perspectives and we usually fight the loss of these perspectives “tooth and toenail.”

I just ran across an observation by the philosopher Michael Polanyi which is very relevant, “Major discoveries change our interpretive framework. Hence it is logically impossible to arrive at these by the continued application of our previous interpretive framework.” I’m suddenly reminded of an old spiritual ditty at invitation time in my youth, “Let go and let God have His wonderful way. Let go and let God have his way. Your burdens will vanish, your night turn to day. Let go and let God have his way.” That was such a moving song, tugging at my heart so deeply, but I never realized that it would eventually mean even letting go of my faith as I knew it at that time in order to find a deeper more meaningful faith, one less steeped in the letter of the law, and one which would leave me more human. It would mean finding the courage to explore a new “interpretive framework.”

“Thoughts Are Things. Choose the Good Ones”

I receive an email each day from a New Age “guru” named Mike Dooley. I don’t always read his missive, but do check in from time to time as I find some of his observations very timely. And I love the quotation he concludes each email with, “Thoughts are things. Choose the good ones.” This pithy observation summarizes his central message, that our thoughts control us and that we do have control over our thoughts….or can have more control that we often think we do.

Here is his email of a few days ago:

Dominion over all things doesn’t come with age, spirituality, or even gratitude. In fact, it doesn’t come at all. You were born with it and you use it every moment of every day, whenever you say, “I will…I am…I have…” And for that matter, whenever you say, “It’s hard…I’m lost…I don’t know…” And he wittily concludes with, “Careful where you point that thing!”

The “thing” he is referring to is our mind, or better yet, our heart which makes the “decision” of which thoughts to pack into our quiver each day. Now this “packing” is usually an unconscious process but if we will slow down, pause, and pay attention to our heart we can begin to notice how certain thoughts and patterns of thoughts are predominating in our life, not all of which are productive, not all of which are even “nice” to others and even to ourselves.

The Bible tells us, “As a man thinketh, so is he.” Popular lore offers the bromide, “Our thoughts become us.” Shakespeare noted, “Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.” And even Henry Ford had very astute wisdom on the note, tell us, “Whether you think you can, or think you can;t—either way you’re right.”

 

Is it Feelings or “Old-brain” Passion run amok

“He who feels strongly behaves.” Marianne Moore wrote a beautiful poem about intense emotion and the heart’s ways of accommodating that intensity. She used beautiful watery imagery of those intense emotions doing battle with structure and describes them as “surrendering” but noted that “in its surrendering, finds its continuing.”

I think here a distinction must be noted between raw, unmediated passion which Freud would have called “drive energy” and feelings or emotions. Feelings are the product of the primal energy but they have been “processed” by our neurocortical machinery and can find expression in an “appropriate” fashion. Admittedly “appropriate” is a nebulous term and many people of mature, strong feelings must push the limits of “appropriate” to give expression to their feelings and to accomplish their purpose.

I have written lately of my three-decade long escape from “literallew” who preceded this present altar ego. And now I often have intense emotion burgeoning forth in my heart and life, emotion so intense that at times I don’t know what to do with it. Yes, it rattles my cage on occasion and besets me with a lot of anxiety. But I am blessed with the ability to listen to Ms. Moore’s directive and “behave”…most of the time! And my “behaving” includes a lot of attention to my daily devotional which I describe as “chopping wood, carrying water.” And I love T. S. Sliot’s wisdom on how to respond to intense religious emotional sentiment, telling us we have to offer only, “Prayer, observance, discipline, thought, and action.” And these actions, in my case, usually find me deeply immersed in “Mother Earth” and caring for her and her creatures, flora and fauna.

WHAT ARE YEARS
By Marianne Moore

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, –
dumbly calling, deafly listening-that
in misfortune, even death,
encourages others
and in its defeat, stirs

the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.

So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,

 

Simone Weil and Detachment

Simone Weil once said, “Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can only be attained by someone who is detached.” I have not read Weil at length though I think I will, having come across this statement this morning. And though I’m going to be critical of the tenor of her thought, I deeply admire her passionate faith and stubborn commitment to her beliefs. She definitely thought “out of the box” and, yes, I’m sure that her “god spot” was usually in over-drive. Yes, if prozac had existed back then, she could have had the gentle life of a nun, or school marm, or doting mother to occupy that mind that was fated to run amok with “big thoughts.”

I too am “detached” much like Ms. Weil but I have come to believe that one needs to be careful with any approach to life lest he/she take it (and self) too seriously and thus relegate everyone else to the category of “them” where, I am sure, there will always be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Even more so, a clinical awareness would have told Ms. Weil just how careful she needed to be with this “detachment.”

Life is to be lived and not merely noted. This detachment is a necessary stance that we need to bring to life and is sorely lacking so often. But too much of it will leave one in the position of Emily Dickinson who lived her cloistered life in her father’s attic, noting on one occasion, “Life is over there, on a shelf.” She saw life as a mere curio on the shelf for idle amusement; and, yes, I’m glad she lived her life that way as it provided us stunning poetic observations about life. But the price tag for my dear friend Emily was a very isolated and lonely life.

This detached perspective on life usually involves an analytical mind, a mind which is obsessed with making “observations” which is merely imposing the categories of one’s own subjective imprisonment onto other people. And, “mea culpa” but mercifully I have learned, and will continue to learn how to turn this feature of my cognitive apparatus off from time to time and allow others to “be” in their own right.

This does not mean that my “detachment” is wrong. It is my “gift” though I am not for sure what I have done with it or will and sometimes in private reverie fear I will one day stand before that Great White Throne and hear God say, “Well, IlliterateLew, that is not what I had in mind for you at all!” This is just who I am and it carries a price as does any stance in life, any perspective, or “cognitive apparatus” that we trot out each day of our life. But I must remember as must each of us that there is always another way of looking at the world and each day and moment of our life we need to be conscious of the need to open up our world view and give more space to some of the people we meet and especially to the ones who closest to us. I recently read someone who suggested that the real, etymological meaning of the New Testament Word “repentance” was to “let go of your small mind” and take on a larger mind that is more inclusive. In other words, Jesus was saying, “Hey, look at life a different way. That person or persons who you have subjected to banishment into “them” need to be included, to be embraced by your approach to the world.”