Two Opposing Tendencies


 In philosopher, Huston Smith’s, autobiography, Tales of Wonder, he writes about “the only person I know who was truly a saint.” (p. 113-117)

 Huston, the son of Methodist missionary parents in China, had thought he "knew something about piety.” 

 But upon meeting Swami Satprakashananda, his notions of piety flew apart. Beholding this man, he knew that he "hadn’t scratched the surface.”

 Huston wondered why the man was so different? How was he to account for such a distinctive holiness, where “goodness and insight flow so effortlessly?” 

 He soon learned that the sanctity was the result of the Swami’s regular practice of rising at 6:00 a.m. to chant the Vedas for four hours. He chanted the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, to attain wisdom, knowledge and vision. 

 "Only then, says Huston, "would he be ready for breakfast and to start the day.” 

 I shared this quote with my wife the other day. I don’t recall that she said anything then, but learned later that she'd been unable to stop thinking about it. It motivated her to rise earlier for meditation the next day. 

 When I shared the quote with someone else, her immediate response was: "I need to go home to restart my day.”

 The Swami’s way was fully to participate in what Indian spirituality calls a guna, in this case, the guna of Sattva, known as one of three particular cosmic tendencies.

 The way of Sattva is the way of purity and goodness. It has to do with increasing one’s awareness of the Divine and is therefore a participation in life’s vertical dimension, as opposed to the humanist focus on a horizontal plane

 The way of Sattva is to fill oneself to the brim with Shakti, or Divine energy, as the primary focus of one's life. It is to empower oneself in a way unlike any other.

 Now, there is a huge difference between choosing to inhabit such a vertical dimension, as opposed to the horizontal one. 

 A philosophy, or way of life, that grounds itself in an awareness of the Divine, stands miles apart from one that cares only to dwell on a horizontal plane.

 "I once asked an Indian philosopher," says Huston Smith, "the difference between philosophy as practiced in India and as practiced in America.

 The response: “In the West you philosophize from the waking stateas though the waking state were all-important,” he said. 

 This is the horizontal way, which is like living on the surface of the water on a floating lounge chair, oblivious to the depths beneath the surface. 

 In India, in contrast, he said, "we recognize four states of mind - wakingdreamingdreamless sleep, and fourthly, a nirvanic level below that. 

 The nirvanic fourth level is called Turiya, the highest statethe experience of pure consciousness, the background that underlies and transcends the three common states.

 Thinking ordinarily arises from the waking mind, or a mind on the surface of things. This is the surface mind, dwelling on a horizontal level only. 

 It was this horizontal approach that dominated the curriculum at Harvard when Jacob Needleman was a philosophy major many years ago. 

 After a few years of philosophy classes, he had become, sadly, 'modern and contemporary’, but felt uneasy about it. 

 Regarding the big questions, he had learned at Harvard:

 "God? A powerful, but outdated myth." 

    "Ethics? A systematic justification of arbitrary preferences." 

       "Metaphysics? A disease of language." (Jacob Needleman, The Indestructible Question, p. 1)

 Empty and unsatisfied therefore, he searched for something more. So he registered for a course with a visiting philosopher from India. 

 Upon arriving for class, however, he was shocked to find that no other students were there! He wondered if he had come at the wrong time, or had read the schedule incorrectly.

 Nevertheless, he continued to sit there waiting, when lo and behold, the Professor arrived, took his seat and began: "Our text this semester will be "The Subject of Freedom," by K.C. Bhattacharya. It is a very difficult book and we will proceed line by line. Please take a copy.”  

 I like that phrase, "line by line." The two men were to do a close reading of what was actually in the text as opposed to the increasingly common approach  of imposing upon a text the latest theory of some kind. Exegesis, instead of eisegesis. How novel!

 Needleman couldn't believe what was happening in that classroom: "I am the only student taking the course. Out there, other classrooms are filled with undergraduates signed up for courses in British EmpiricismDeductive Logic, Political PhilosophyAristotle, and Existentialism." 

 Elsewhere, graduate students are "packing seminar rooms to study WittgensteinFregeRussell, and Carnap." 

 He felt like a fool. Perhaps, he wondered - the other students were on track and he was the one off the rails!

 After all, as he reflected on the anti-Eastern bias: "Why should anyone want to study Hinduism? Do the teachings of the East even deserve to be called philosophy? Don't they, and Hinduism especially, represent all that is obscure and confused in man’s efforts to deal with the mysteries of life and the world?" 

 But Needleman was to find in taking the course, the very opposite of obscurity. He was to find the clarity that had been missing in his studies up to that point. 

 Thus he stayed in the course and felt such conviction about it that he carried the text book around with him "day and night.” And the book remained close at hand, even years later as it fell apart from constant usage.

 When he had begun reading it, he’d been astonished: "It is nothing less than an attempt to express the metaphysics and epistemology of yoga in modern philosophical, scientific language." 

 "The author is trying to prove, logically, that the problems of mind, nature, and ethics that have bedeviled Western thought since the Renaissance can only be solved through the ancient spiritual discipline of awareness.” 

 Here he was learning a way of doing philosophy, a way of attentiveness, that involved all four modes of knowing, in contrast to the surface, one-dimensional, horizontal way, that had so depressed him.

 The horizontal approach he’d been subjected to had been so severely limiting. Its approach was to start, and to stay with, the waking mindthe surface mind, which by its nature is atheistic, and bound therefore to come up only with reasons not to believe.

 To study from the point of view of the waking mind, or ordinary awareness, is to miss the depth and wonder. 

 That mind, the surface mind, from the perspective of Indian philosophy, has to be blasted out of the picture and humbled before anything of value can be detected and understood.

 That shallow mind has to be put in its place, so that the deeper levels of mind can be accessed. 

 Jacob’s conclusion: It is these deeper levels of awareness that have been missing from “all our thinking and life since the dawn of the modern era."

 Thus, in other words, if I try to see and understand from the waking mind alone, I am living on a horizontal plane. I am out of touch and out of sync with the fathomless depths below the surface. Gripped by the surface mind only, I am reduced to but a "nothingness eager for sensations." (Frithjof Schuon)

 This is the person without depth who restlessly searches for new and exciting sensations to compensate for her inner emptiness and vacuity.

 It is to live my life without a center, without a grounding in the vertical orientation, and therefore to be but "a disconnected set of arbitrary experiences”.

  It is to be the ordinary, or average man,“ a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody." (John Lennon)

 Ungrounded and uncentered in the vertical dimension, it is as if there is nobody there. Lights on, as we say, but nobody home. Only a shadow, an appearance of reality, without substance or depth. 

 Certainly not a fullness ready to overflow, as the monk who began his days absorbed in the chanting of the Vedas.

 Gurumayi, the meditation master, issues a challenge to this mind-set when she suggests that we pause to listen to what is going on inside, just prior to any action we take.

 Almost everything we do, she says, arises not from inner fullness, but from nervousness, agitation or restlessness. 

 Thus there is, for example, a quiet spot in the conversation and you fill it up with chatter, or with some inane comment that has nothing to do with anything.

 Thus, I come back to the point that everything depends on the quality of the vertical relationship.

 Which has to do with our relation to the Absolute, to transcendence, where, when properly oriented, our energy flows upwards, like a bird whose wings tip  upwards. 

 As I called it, the sattvic way. The vertical way. That way of being where goodness and love overflow like streams of living water from within.

 Now, this sattvic way of being, where there is an upward surge of energy, has to do with conserving that vertical dimension - protecting it, safeguarding it, looking after it, sustaining it. 

 It is critical that we do this for the quality of our life in the world.

 We could say that this is the conservative way, which is a disposition or direction of the heart and mind.

 In the last analysis, says William Stoddart, conservatism is “inwardness” and depth.  

 It is a cosmic tendency that is opposed to living in the way of tamas, the opposite of sattva. The tamasic way is to live, not with your wings tipping upwards, but drooping.

 This way of tamas, the downward way, is, according to William Stoddart, the way of socialism, where the focus is on "outwardness or superficiality. The emphasis is on quantity, not quality."

 Here we have two opposing tendencies, conservatism and socialism.

 "Using these terms," says William Stoddart, "one can say that conservatism is sattvic and socialism is tamasic(Remembering in a World of Forgetting, William Stoddart, p. 33 to 35)

 Humanism is the horizontal focus, placing the Second Commandment to love one’s neighbour, before the First Commandment, the love of God. 

 Fundamentally, the humanist places man’s ego (singular or collective) "above God.”

 Similarly, socialism, since it is a form of humanism, puts our faith in "quantitative collectivity, rather than in a qualitative principle."

 It is "the natural without the supernatural.” (W. Stoddart)

 Socialism is "the usurpation of quality by quantity, of profundity by superficiality, and finally, of God, by unregenerate human beings."

 It is, Stoddart continues, "the arrogant choice of the shallow, rather than the deepthe false rather than the truethe quantitative rather than the qualitativethe politically correct rather than the just. It is "new age religion, rather than authentic religion.” (Every Branch in Me, Frithjof Schuon p. 14)

 Whereas in contrast, "the vertical way, the way of sattva, is true religion, which implies depth, not surface. It is personal, and not a priori collectiveIt aims at salvation, not at a spirit-less - and in any case unrealizable - utopia."

 The necessity therefore, in light of these reflections on these two opposing tendencies of sattva and its opposite, tamas, is the critical issue of finding and cultivating a Center through diligent spiritual practices - so that our inner lives will be continually filled to the brim and overflowing. 

 What’s become, sad to say, normal today, is to live life without a nourished inner life, to live, that is, without a center, and therefore to live an unfocused, scattered, existence. 

 It’s to be on the go, and on the move, like the 'nowhere man.'

  The truly normal, in contrast, is to live from a richly fueled center - to live from within.

  Mother Teresa once issued a warning concerning her own movement: “There is always the danger that we may become only social workers.” By that she meant, as I’ve been saying, attempting to put into practice the second commandment - to love one’s neighbour - while ignoring the first commandment, the love of God. 

 "Our works,” said the Mother, "are only an expression of our love for Christ. Our hearts need to be full of love for Him.” (A Gift for God, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, p. 45)

 “We need to find God,” she implores, "and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness.”

 "God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass - grow in silence; see the stars, the moon and sun, how they move in silence." 

 "The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life. We need silence to be able to touch souls.”

 "The great hindrance to us in our work is that we are not yet saints.” (p. 77) 

  The cultivation therefore of the sattvic, vertical dimension is everything. Without that, we are lost.

 Huston Smith, himself was catapulted into this vertical dimension by means of a spirited conversation about philosophy that lasted for many hours.

 Something was building inside of him until finally exploding in the wee hours of the morning.

 Says he: "My mind detonated, demolishing mental stockades.” 

 It was as if he could see the Platonic forms right before his eyes. The world of ideas became totally alive for him.

 It’s a wonder, he testified, "if I slept at all that night.” 

  As an elderly gentleman, Huston Smith, testified that that awakening, "has stayed in play” all his days.

 We have therefore a choice between two ways of being, the sattvic way and the way of tamas

 It’s about whether to go up or down.


Big Sky, John O'Callaghan