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Self-Examination and the Consequent Nature of God


Jay McDaniel
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Process and the Japanese Practice of Reflection | Cobb Institute

 

Does self-examination, in the way described by Kathleen Reeves, imply or involve the consequent nature of God?   Does the sense of an inclusive whole, in which all events are felt and understood, assist us in thinking about the give and take of our own lives?  What do you think?

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Jay McDaniel
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I think it does.  I think we really understand ourselves only when we imagine our lives in the larger context of an inclusive love in which the give and take of our lives is understood, and maybe even judged, by the standard of love.

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Doug Holmes
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@jay-mcdaniel In general I'd say no.  I think conceptualizing some overarching entity passing judgement on us like a parent is not helpful.  Such thinking infantilizes us and obscures the very real work we need to be doing, developing our own independent moral reasoning and moral intuition.  The three questions in the article reference no outside standard, to me they are expecting us to rely on our own insight to see our actions clearly and our own strength to improve our actions in the future.  They are inviting us to be braver and stronger and more loving than we have been.  Now, I agree that there is a standard.  It is already in some sense written on our hearts, at least as an outline.  That faint tracery of moral insight is what we must work to develop into a deep understanding, into a commitment.  We, however, are the observer that should be judging our actions.  We must learn to parent ourselves.  Only then will we find our own wisdom.  I will concede that if you are in free fall, if you are bewildered, if you cannot find your own compass, then you can ask for help -- but don't abuse the privilege.  Be a grown up.

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Jay McDaniel
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First of all, thank you so much for responding!  That's the most important thing I have to say.  On, then, to less important things:

What prompted my own remarks was this line in Kathleen Reeves' essay: "This is the most difficult question, because it causes us to reflect on our impact on the world and see the reality of this life. What is it like to live with me? To be my mother, husband, child? Whether you see it or not, it's part of the world, or in Whiteheadian terms, it has become of the consequent nature of God. Whatever I do, affects others and becomes part of the world." 

In reading her reference to Whitehead's notion of the consequent nature of God, I was reminded of Whitehead's own intuition that this side of God (you might call it the world itself, albeit gathered into a unity of love) is felt or sensed by many as they listen to, in your words, "the standard written on our hearts."  And, in this sense, a kind of judge.

What is written is not simply an idea such as "it's good to love" but rather an intuitive recognition that I am nested within a larger context that is more than me, but to which I am somehow accountable.  Call it the consequent nature of God; call it the Dharmakaya; call it the web of life; call it the Deep Listening (my favorite).  

Of course it's not just the whole of things to which I'm accountable, it's also the eachness of things.  What Kathleen points out is that our moral intuition includes a recognition of other people, in all their particularity, of having to "live with me." 

The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas speaks of this recognition as our encounter with, in his words, "the face of the other."  He thinks that the encounter with this face, in all its otherness, is what prompts our moral intuitions.  A Christian theologian, Mayra Rivera speaks of this encounter as a touch of transcendence: that is, the transcendence of the other to our personal whims and egoistic proclivities.  

So....I'm wondering if the standard written on our hearts doesn't include these two intutions, a sense of a larger whole and a sense of the intrinsic value of other living beings in their particularity.  Put them together, and I think you have a taste of what Whitehead means by the consequent nature of God.  I think parental imagery comes later, although I myself am not that troubled by it.  Jesus spoke of God as Abba; Pure Land Buddhists imagine Amida on the analogy of a Grandmother; native Americans sometimes speak of the divine as Corn Mother or Great Father.  I think grownups, too, can be daughters and sons of the Holy, without falling into infantile projections.  It may even be that this recogniton is itself a sign of maturity, and those in free fall (what a nice way to put it, Doug) best understand it.

But back to what's most important: Thanks!

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Doug Holmes
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@jay-mcdaniel
To your comments about "...a larger context that is more than me, but to which I am somehow accountable." -
For a Buddhist, or for me, anyway, that larger context is karma -- my own karma, the karma of others, and the karma of just being a creature on this earth. I have history here, I've been a part of this this world for a long time, perhaps from it's beginning. I'm enmeshed in the results of my past actions now. In the Buddhist understanding of morality it's all about intention, so I know my intentions matter deeply. "I am the heir of my karma...all that I do for good or ill, to that will I be heir." as the Buddhist daily reflection goes. I'll continue to be involved in this world one way or another for a while yet, I suspect. My intentions going forward and the actions arising from them will have a profound effect on my future and on others around me. I see my accountability as no joke. Luckily for Buddhists, the karma of one's actions can be somewhat ameliorated by developing the Brahma Viharas, goodwill, compassion, joy for other's good fortune, and equanimity.

To your comment about "...a recognition of other people, in all their particularity, of having to "live with me." --
I think our overdeveloped sense of self, the false self we spend so much time propping up and defending, is a big part of what prevents us from seeing our relationships clearly. When we empty ourselves, those around us become more real. When we can see past our own selfish concerns, we notice that others are holding us together just as we are holding them together. When the insistent drum of our own goals and expectations is quieted, we start to see the quiet joys and struggles of our neighbors.

To your comment about "...grownups, too, can be daughters and sons of the Holy..." -
I can relate to the idea that human spiritual development can benefit from a sense of devotion. I didn't think this was true for a long time, but I reached a point where in order to continue my very self-powered, cussedly independent western Buddhist spiritual journey, I have to learn to kneel. There are parts of me that need to be in a relationship of service to something higher. Obviously a good Theravadin like me is going to devote himself to the dharma, but a funny thing happens when you activate that spiritual switch. The thing you're spiritually devoted to takes on what I can only call angelic qualities. One can't completely escape the archetypes. I'm not a theist. But, I get it.

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Jay McDaniel
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Thank you for such a rich response in all three areas.  This is the first time I've considered "karma" that larger context.  It is indeed a judge of sorts, albeit not a final judge.  And a flexible judge at that, since it can change.  Someone in the open and relational community needs to write an essay called open and relational karma.  And about appreciating other people in their particularity, I'm sure that some amont of self-emptying can be really helpful for those among us with secure or overly-strong egos.  I worry just a bit about the self-emptying theme when it's presented as a universal key to solving life's ethical problems, because, at least in my experience, many people who suffer from self-hatred or a sense of insignificance, or who are treated as worthless or irrelevant by others, need to say "I am somebody."  They (not I) need to enjoy the gift of being 'full of themselves,'  At least partially.  What role does positive self-affirmation play in your understanding of self-emptying. And, as for the third point, I love it.  It is interesting to me that, in the development of Ch'an in China, it was sometimes conjoined with chanting the name of Amida.  Seems healthy to me.  as is our dialogue.

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Doug Holmes
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@jay-mcdaniel 

To your comments about “...many people who suffer from self-hatred...treated as worthless…. What role does positive self-affirmation play…"

Jay, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I’ve thought about this ever since I heard you recount a conversation you had with a woman about “overcoming the self”. We need to discover a new sutra, perhaps one spoken by Long Nu the water dragon’s daughter -- she had no trouble speaking her mind to important people. It would proclaim the doctrine of an-anatta, “not-not-self”. The Buddha taught that to think one has a self or that one does not have a self are equally wrong, but the 2nd error, thinking one does not have a self or negating the self, is not explained very well. Our newly discovered sutra would explain in detail how thoughts of the negation of I, me, and mine create a false sense of no-self that is a stumbling block to enlightenment. Thoughts such as:

“I am inconsequential. My thoughts, hopes and dreams are worthless and wrong. My place is to take care of others, support the important people, soothe them when they are distraught, sacrifice my own needs to prop them up when they fail, and stroke their ego while they proclaim their truths. If I speak, I will be rejected, I will lose my place, I will put myself in danger. I must constantly deny myself everything I want just to make sure I am not cast out.”

These thoughts of the negation of I, me, and mine are just as ignorant as thoughts of one’s glory and importance. Obviously many of these thoughts are caused by one’s environment. Just as a rich man’s son will struggle to develop his spiritual life if he receives nothing but praise, is protected from the consequences of his actions, and has no expectations set for him, powerless and voiceless people will struggle to develop their spiritual life if they receive nothing but blame, are threatened with violence and ruination at the slightest mistake, and are completely controlled by the expectations of others. Both environments are toxic to the soul.

I’ll end with a verse from the Therigatha, the words of enlightened Buddhist women who left the domestic life to live in the forest and follow the Buddha:

So freed! So thoroughly freed am I!—
from three crooked things set free:
from mortar, pestle,
& crooked old husband.
Having uprooted the craving
that leads to becoming,
I’m from aging & death set free.

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Doug Holmes
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I forgot about positive "self-affirmation" -- I always tell people that if you are going to make progress in your spiritual life you will have to practice metta meditation.  If you can't feel any love for yourself, you aren't going to be able to feel that joyful, free, unconditional love for others.  The kind that can accept them no matter what. 

Also, if you want to develop those beautiful, deep states of meditation the sutras talk about, you will have to practice metta meditation.  Love is the answer to all important questions, as usual.

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