The Third Way, 36: “The Cloud of Unknowing”

“He [the Creator] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11.

“It was not man who implanted in himself the taste for the infinite and love of what is immortal.  These sublime instincts are not the offspring of some caprice of the will; their foundations are imbedded in nature; they exist despite a man’s efforts.  Man may hinder and distort them, but he cannot destroy them.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1836.

“By making “God” a purely notional truth attainable by the rational and scientific intellect, without ritual, prayer, or ethical commitment, men and women had killed it for themselves. . . . For Marx the death of God had been a project—something to be achieved in the future; for Nietzsche it had already occurred: it was only a matter of time before “God” would cease to be a presence in the scientific civilization of the West.  Unless a new absolute could be found to take its place, everything would become unhinged and relative. . . . The [19th] century that had begun with a conviction of boundless possibility was giving way to a nameless dread.  But, Nietzsche believed, human beings could counter the danger of nihilism by making themselves divine.  They must become the new absolute and take the place of God.  The God they projected outside themselves could be born within the human spirit as the Übermensch (“Superman”) who would provide the universe with ultimate meaning.  To achieve this we had to rebel against the Christian God. . . . As an incarnation of its will to power, the Übermensch would push evolution of the species to a new phase so that humanity would finally become supreme.”

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God. (Vintage Canada, 2009), pp. 256-7.

“Nameless dread.”   That is how Karen Armstrong aptly describes the spirit which descended on the West’s intellectual and spiritual “überclass” as the 19th C ended and the 20th dawned.  The Law of Karma certainly seems to apply.  In Biblical terms, when we “sow the wind, we reap the whirlwind.”  Truly, “You reap what you sow.” 

The dominant view in the West’s intelligentsia had (and remains) determined to divest itself of all the vestiges and encumbrances of prescientific “superstition.”  But, despite all their most strenuous and constant efforts, then and now, they have not been able to remove “eternity” from their (or most of humanity’s) hearts.  De Tocqueville, a brilliant French sociologist, political scientist, and student of human nature who was so fascinated by the great American experiment in representative democracy as it evolved in the early 19th Century that he spent two years in America to observe it, was speaking of the peculiar role of religion in the new, rapidly growing nation when he wrote the quote above.  Seldom has anyone been so prescient about a nation’s fundamental character and the tensions it would have to resolve in order to survive and flourish in the future.  And seldom has any writer so pointedly and precisely described the truth about the essentially spiritual nature of the human soul.

In the 21st C we find ourselves in a “Cloud of Unknowing”, as the Medieval mystics called it.  The essence of reality escapes us despite all our scientific sophistication.  The more we discover about how the natural universe seems to work, the more we discover about how incomprehensible, how fundamentally inexplicable it all is.  We simply drive the ultimate questions back one more step every time we think we have discovered an elusive primal pre-particle or some echo or trace of the moment of ‘creation’ — the Big Bang, if you prefer — (without God, of course, thank you!).  Creation ex nihilo, spontaneous and without any apparent reason or cause, without any point of origin or ultimate purpose or design.  Somehow, it just appears, and in the same instant explodes, like an abracadabra moment.  Supposedly, this is not sorcery or superstition or even “faith-based” assertion.  We are told over and over again that it is indubitable scientific ‘fact’.

But the hunger for eternity remains in the heart, and even the most determined rationalist still sees what is in awe and stupefied wonder.  Having entered the “Cloud of Unknowing” we now see that, with no other point of common reference, it can only begin with the self, the consciousness each individual has of itself residing in and being part of something much greater.  So where to start? 

Enter mysticism, yoga, mindfulness meditation, or whatever label and technique of probing beyond the mere scientifically observable phenomena (which are awesome enough in themselves but stand outside us). We now face a smorgasbord of choices which, we are told over and over, all lead to the same ultimate destination.  You amy choose one and adhere to it almost exclusively or mix and match from the buffet. Only begin from “emptiness”, where the mind loses its attachments and distractions, the multitude of encumbering sensations that block the ability to penetrate beyond self, beyond the boundaries of a body and this physical realm that holds our true being captive to time and space.  Becoming “awake and aware” of being alone, “just being”, that is the place of meeting, the place of becoming one with the oneness of all things, of knowing, if only for a moment, how I too am one with the One.  No longer just this isolated sliver of awareness adrift on a cosmic ocean searching for its true place of rest, but One with the One-in-all.

This is Hinduism’s highest goal, what they call Brahman.  Buddhism names it ‘extinction’.  For both, abiding in the restful bliss of this state is nirvana.  It is the end of karma and all strife, and obviates any need to return to this illusory realm, maya, to continue the fruitless cycle of birth and rebirth.  The most direct route to enter this state is raja yoga — rigorously practiced, guided meditation, as led by a master, a guru. For Western dabblers and samplers, enter gently via some introductory classes, then grow/go deeper.

But is the human mind really capable of such stillness, such “extinction”?  Are humans really “made” to lose their individual awareness and be ultimately absorbed into anonymity and a sort of “pure being” without awareness?  Or is this too an illusion?  Is the Cosmos mere “maya”, a sort of karmic maelstrom-agglomeration of eons of outcomes based on all choices since the One exploded and countless errant entities went astray from the One? Or is extinction and Brahman another kind of maya?

The human predicament of the 21st Century is that we answer both “Yes!” and “No” to these ultimate questions at the same time.  On the one hand, the materialist West with its scientific and technological prowess tells us that this Time-Space continuum, however multi-dimensioned it may be in theory, is all there is.  It had a beginning and it will have an end.  Who we are in it are a sort of freakish accident that has gained self-awareness, against all probability.  We have seen how demoralized and rudderless we have become traveling this road.  In contrast to our schizophrenia, the greatest of all gurus once said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’. . . . You cannot serve two masters.”

Our “sublime instincts” demand that there be a meaning beyond simple recognition that we are an accidental blip with no more significance than any other outcome of what we call “evolution”, that our true destiny is to become “extinguished” in the great cosmic “Om”.  If extinction of self is what we are here for, why do we so stubbornly hunger to know and to be known as persons?  The guru emerging from the deep meditative state remains a self with awareness.

Why do we have such an ineluctable drive and ability to study the wonder of what exists to the very limits of the Cosmos, to learn, to fashion it in new ways, to admire it and stand in awe of it?  Finally, why do we insist on attributing meaning to it if, ultimately, there is no final purpose, or only a purpose which, as individuals, can satisfy nothing of our natural sublime hunger since we will not even be aware when all is resolved in ‘the One’, or when ‘evolution’ reverts to devolution and extinguishes everything once again?

This hunger, this innate predisposition for eternity which lives in the very core of our being, cannot, indeed will not, be denied.  When we deny it, what is becomes horribly ugly.  Once more, de Tocqueville nailed it: “Man [humankind, if you prefer] may hinder and distort them [the sublime instincts], but he cannot destroy them.”

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