The moment-to-moment phenomenon of experience is difficult to pin down and is probably impossible for us to fully understand, for the paradoxically simple reason that we are always in it. We can’t get the detachment and observational distance to see it objectively. There is no perspective on experience itself since experience is the place where all perspective is grounded.
But my conversation with Anthony De Mello, Walter Truett Anderson, and John A.T. Robinson has at least clarified terms that can help us slow down the process of experience and make some important distinctions.
Throughout our conversation, De Mello has spoken to the dual nature of awareness, in the way that experience looks within the self to its ground (the S-G axis), and beyond the self to the other (the S-O axis). Lying beneath the self-conscious ego (or simply “self”) and prior to it developmentally, ground is preconscious and “below” the reach of words, making it ineffable. Looking out, on the other hand, reveals a vast field of otherness, putting self in relation with an-other (countless others, in fact).
This is where language is useful: in the work of naming, classifying, defining and explaining this relational field in terms that are meaningful to the out-looking self. Of my three conversation partners, Anderson is the one who examines this construction of meaning from multiple angles – art, advertising, politics, psychology, science and religion.
Although he makes the unfortunate mistake of confusing our construction projects with reality – as others before him in the study of “the social construction of reality” had done – Anderson helps to pull aside the curtain on the wizard at work. For the purpose of constructing a meaningful world, the self (with assistance and guidance from the larger culture) weaves a complicated web around the primary concerns of security, identity and significance.
We spin our world, forget that we did it (and are doing it now), and proceed to assume and defend it as “the way things really are.” But it’s even more complicated than that: because identity is co-constructed with the world it inhabits, even our self concept is something we make up. What we might have thought was a stable place to stand as we put together and repair our world is not stable at all, but is continually adjusted and repositioned like scaffolding according to the work at hand.
All of this could leave us feeling rather nihilistic – that what we call reality is really nothing at all. Behind all the words, values and stories we string across the Void, there is no reality to speak of. Just emptiness, nothingness, no-thingness.
The key difference between the postmodern position of metaphysical nonrealism that I support and out-and-out nihilism is that nonrealism remains open to the mystery of a reality we can’t speak of, while nihilism is ready to throw out the baby (the real presence of mystery) with the bathwater (language and the meanings we project on reality). There is nothing logically or conceptually inconsistent with acknowledging a presence that can’t be named.
And yet, perhaps only mystics (or the mystic within each of us) can suspend the impulse to name the mystery. Meaning-making is in our nature and probably can’t be permanently suppressed without serious repercussions like depression, despair, and insanity. So the question becomes, What do we name the mystery? and How can we talk about it?
This is where Robinson’s “two eyes on truth” becomes relevant – especially when we consider the opportunities and potential consequences of inter-religious dialogue. Religion is frequently where our metaphors, stories and beliefs about the way things really are find supernatural authorization and proceed to become absolute, infallible, and inerrant. With only one eye on reality, our line of vision is flat and narrow, lacking an ability to appreciate background, context, paradox and transcendence.
One eye looks inward to the ground of being (S-G), as the other opens out to the otherness round about (S-O). One is introverted, contemplative and mystical, while the other is extroverted, active, and relational. The first one hesitates to speak in the face of mystery for the sake of prolonging the experience of real presence. The second one can’t stop talking, for the simple reason that talking about reality pushes it away far enough (so to speak) where we can begin making sense of it.
Talking about anything entails making it into an object of thought, and what we gain in meaningfulness comes at a cost of removing us from the stream of direct experience. But the mind needs meaning like the body needs blood, and so we talk. Robinson makes the point that healthy religion must honor the balance between silence and speech, experience and meaning, being quiet in the presence of mystery and engaging in god-talk.
Awareness, meaning, and dialogue: My three partners in conversation, then, complete a compelling picture of our human experience of reality and how we go about making sense of it. Together they offer an interesting model for guiding us into our shared future on this planet – if there is a chance of it being long, creative and prosperous for all involved.
We need to be more psychospiritually attuned with our own experience in the moment (De Mello), more intentional and honest in our construction of meaning (Anderson), and more committed to opening both eyes to the present mystery of reality (Robinson). If we can strengthen these disciplines within ourselves, our interactions with others – especially with those who stand in a very difference “world-space” than we – will bear fruit in understanding, compassion, community and well-being.
So I suppose we’re about as far away from realizing this vision of our future as we are willing to pick up these disciplines for ourselves, in our own walk through time on this planet. I can’t stand back and wait for you to get on with it, so don’t you stand back and wait for me either. Let’s become more serious practitioners of being and take responsibility in the time we have left.
There are generations coming up behind us. They deserve a chance.