A short commentary on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis (Episodes 7–9)
How do we know stuff? Describing something is not the same thing as knowing it. To know somebody in the biblical sense means the highest intimacy, not merely ‘having sex’. Your lover is not a ‘feature list’ of different body parts and psychological characteristics, but a mysterious totality. A pizza is not just the buffalo mozzarella, the tomato sauce, the prosciutto, a golden crust—it is not the sum of its parts either. Knowing your lover—or a pizza for that matter—is grasping its eidos in Aristotle’s formulation, or the essence of that person or object, which is both form and function, spirit and matter.
There is a famous short story by Jorge Luis Borges where in a certain kingdom cartography becomes so advanced that a map is created as large as the kingdom itself. This is meant to show the absurdity of a merely ‘left brain’ representative view of knowing the world, where everything is extracted and described. Using mere descriptive logic to know things is profoundly absurd. It is irrational. It is mistaking the map for the territory.
Vervaeke points out that rationality is not ‘mere logic’ in Aristotle’s formulation—and Aristotle was the father of modern rational science after all. The problem is that today we have reduced the meaning of rationality to ‘rationing’ or the dividing and dissecting of parts, as well as mere intellectual, conceptual understanding. But the other aspect of rationality is ‘ratio’ which means ‘reckoning’—or a more embodied and contextual understanding—which Iain McGilchrist says is the unifying function of the right brain.
When Aristotle said that man is ‘a rational animal’—a debatable proposition at best—he meant that we have the capacity to make sense of the world to a certain extent. And sense-making—or Aristotle’s sense of rationality—also meant ‘being in contact’ with the world, not merely the ability to observe, divide, dissect, enumerate, and reduce reality to manageable information parts. For Aristotle form and meaning are unified, and therefore there can be participatory knowing and relevance realization.
John Vervaeke, in Awakening to the meaning crisis, is doing something similar to Aristotle in his series: he is trying to synthesize the scientific and existential modes, to create what he calls a ‘nomological order’. Furthermore, Vervaeke wants a ‘religion without religion’, or without beliefs, commandments, or mythopoetic baggage—just the essence. Personally, I’m not convinced that this ‘Buddhism without beliefs’—as one of Vervaeke favorite authors Stephen Bachelor proposes—is possible. And Aristotle’s ‘rational animal’, even if we expand the meaning of rationality, hasn’t exactly held up.
On the other hand, it is wonderful that science can objectively describe certain things that the mystics have known for centuries. And Vervaeke, as I have said before, is not a naïve ‘new atheist’ and understands the value of religion. Furthermore, he has taught me something about the origin of rationality. If being rational means being able to know something and not merely to describe something — then one can be a romantic as well as a rationalist. Hallelujah! The two hemispheres of life, the descriptive and the prescriptive, the narrow and the wide, can be joined.
To have or to be
Again, Being in love is different than having sex, as Vervaeke points out. Being in love — or making love for that matter — is a creative act, whereas having sex an instrumental one. You make love with a person, you have sex with an object. One requires intimacy and knowing, the other is about ‘getting your rocks off’. The difference is qualitative. Of course, we weave in and out of the having and the being mode, and there is nothing wrong with fulfilling our desires. But if we are really interested in a meaningful life, we will have to, at times, sacrifice the having mode for the being mode. And the latter is infinitely more valuable.
To be is to be awake. Enter, The Buddha. Buddha is a title that literally means ‘an awake being’. In Vervaeke’s terminology, Prince Siddhartha’s transition from his cosy pleasure palace to the Buddha’s final enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, is from the childish ‘having mode’ to the adult ‘being mode’. For the buddha — and for us as well — the spiritual path toward being and meaning begins with the visceral knowledge of sickness, old age, and death. To discover even the possibility of the being mode, we need a shock—the shock of understanding suffering.
Prince Siddhartha’s palace represents the having mode; he left when he recognized the ultimate impermanence of those cosy circumstances. ‘Having’ a lot of power, wealth, and sex will not give us a meaning saturated world. And most of us are spoiled brats like Siddhartha, asleep within our own palaces of empty titilitation, lost in the phantom worlds of Instagram and Facebook. The having mode, minus the being mode, equals a hell of jealousy, addiction, self-harm, and dissatisfaction—as any Hollywood star gossip column will attest. Having without being is the definition of zombie consumerism.
And yet The Buddha, in renouncing the having mode through asceticism, found out that self-denial was not the answer. Trying to annihilate the self is just another activity of self-obsession—it is playing the same game but in reverse. Buddha then discovered that the answer lay in something he called ‘The Middle Way’, which is similar to Aristotle’s Golden Mean. The Middle Way is not some kind of compromise or capitulation or mediocrity, but basically the art of life. A musician tunes his strings ‘not to loose and not too tight’ to become an effective musician, an analogy for an artful life beyond extremes.
Mindfulness has been marketed as spiritual technique and panacea. But it is not what we think it is. Sati, the original world for mindfulness, means something like ‘deep remembrance’. But what kind of remembering does this refer to? Being hyper-conscientious of all the minutiae of our activities isn’t what the buddha meant, nor is having a clean room in the Jordan Petersonian sense. Sati is not some kind of tunnel vision or focus; again, it has more to do with being intimate with reality or ‘remembering the being mode’. The deeper this remembrance of being — of what is already the case — the more awake we become.
We have created a lot of junk psychology around mindfulness, phrases like being present in the here and now. But what the hell does that mean? Of course, these expressions can be used for training, but the vital point Vervaeke makes is that there is a great difference between the language of training and the language of explaining. Just try to explain what ‘being in the present moment’ actually means. Not very much actually. Vervaeke is much more generous to popular mindfulness than I tend to be — as it is so often a lot of sloppy platitudes if not outright bullshit.
The problem with mindfulness is that it has been presented as a bunch of techniques — a feature list again. Mindfulness techniques can help Google managers be more efficient perhaps, but this won’t bring much enlightenment. What’s missing in a flurry of new age marketing is the ‘eidos’ or the essential meaning of mindfulness, which is ‘deep remembrance’ again. If mindfulness is merely ‘being present’ then the most obedient slave excels in mindfulness and most animals are far more mindful than human beings. Furthermore, mindfulness, in the true sense, is not about mechanical, directional, spotlight attention. It should be thought of in broader, deeper, and more existential terms.
Meditation and Contemplation
Vervaeke also makes an important distinction between meditation and contemplation, which can help us to understand what mindfulness is. To simplify: meditation literally means to ‘move to the center’, whereas contemplation means ‘to hold an idea in mind’. To meditate is to observe something in its naked state, whereas to contemplate that thing is to raise it up into meaning.
Vervaeke says that meditation is our attention ‘scaling down’, and contemplation is our attention ‘scaling up’. When we scale-down, we deconstruct our experience; when we scale up, we assemble a larger vision from disparate parts. To be mindful is to do both simultaneously: to be more precise and detailed in our attention, but also to be able to grasp a greater territory of insight.
Meditation deconstructs and narrows our attention, whereas contemplation constructs and widens it. We constantly oscillate between these two: between breaking down and reassembling, between making our experience opaque and having a more transparent overview. This is like the difference between looking ‘at’ our glasses, and looking through them, to use Vervaeke’s analogy.
It is important to point out that meditation without contemplation could make us crazy— cause us to become disassociated and fragmented in our attention. Conversely, if we remain on the level of contemplation we risk becoming conceptual eggheads, or losing our felt, embodied sense of raw reality (definitely a symptom of the meaning crisis). Just looking ‘at’ things is not really mindfulness, like staring at our glasses instead of looking through them. But it would be equally absurd to lose contact with the fact that we have glasses, or a body, or that we are breathing.
The classic instruction of meditation, to ‘watch the breath’, might be a useful psycho-technique in allowing us to return to the basic existential fact of breathing, but it could also be a harmful activity, if not balanced with contemplation. The answer is again a golden mean or middle way. Gentle vigilance rather than a monomaniacal attention, will tend to slow breath down and make it more regular, which will in turn effect and enhance our state of being. Mindfulness should then be a combination of both meditation and contemplation.
Pure Consciousness, Oneness, and Non Duality
The meditative experience, followed to its ultimate conclusion, could, according to Vervaeke, lead to a ‘pure-consciousness’ event. The contemplative experience, on the other hand, leads to a sense of ‘cosmic oneness with everything’. And yet there is an even further state. Beyond both meditation and contemplation is the non-dual experience, which transcends both pure consciousness and oneness—the ‘not one and not two’ in Zen. This is described as enlightenment itself, or the buddha’s awakened state. It has all kinds of names like satori, moksha, or union with God or whatever. But let’s not jump the gun here.
Note: This is not a summary of Vervakeke’s ideas, but a discursive exploration. In other words, I have scattered my own insights and examples among his. I may not be always representing his ideas fully or accurately, but I am doing my best to add something to the conversation, rather that just repeat what he has already said. My apologies in advance to the good professor if I get something wrong here. I’m open to correction.
Others essay in this series:
The Man, The Lion, and The Monster
Higher States of Consciousness
Christ and Gnosis
Science and the Death of the Universe
Metanoia — A change of heart
Understanding the Meta-Crisis
Religion and Horror
The Religion of No Religion
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