Notes on the God of Uncertainty

Hugh Gash makes an interesting observation in “Constructivism and Mystical Experience:”

” . . . when there is a mismatch between experience and what is expected, gaps are experienced that reveal an inadequacy in previously constructed ways of organizing the experience.”

Say that I often get irritated when people wake up and come downstairs because it disrupts my morning ritual of prayer, reading and writing. Then, one day, I notice that the presence of others is not disruptive but easily integrates into my morning dance with the sacred, and that this makes me happy – happier than my attempts at solitude.

Why? What happened? What is different this morning?

Answering those questions matters because I want to be happy, and I want to be socially inclusive, and happiness and inclusiveness are related. They are mutually generative. I value my family; I don’t want to be petty and exclusive with respect to our shared space and living. The more welcoming I become, the happier I become. They happier I become, the happier they become. They happier they become, the more welcoming I become. It is a warm and nurturing cycle.

Gash suggests that the gap between my expectation (which is premised on my usual response, my past response) and my experience (which is new) makes clear that the way I have been organizing this particular experience is inadequate, or flawed. I have constructed it in unhelpful ways, and have now learned that there is another – or better – way.

How shall I bring this better way forth more consistently and sustainably?

I think giving attention to this specific question is a form of spiritual living, in the sense that it recognizes something is missing and seeks to find that something and then formally integrate it.

But in order to be effective, this giving attention has to go slowly. It has to proceed with epistemic humility. If I quickly assert that what is missing is “God” or “Love” or “right understanding of A Course in Miracles” or “a consistent meditation practice” et cetera, then I am effectively shoveling the mud of the past into the gap.

Our work is to let the gap be! To let flow through it what flows through it: to see what flows, and to let what flows be what it is, without a lot of intervention and aggression. We have to let what is new be new, which means unfamiliar and surprising and probably a little uncomfortable.

This is not easy to do. And, that, too, is part of why I say it is spiritual, because my sense is that spiritual living requires attentiveness and discipline and especially maturity, the specific maturity of accepting the tedium inherent in simply being still (being attentive in a disciplined way), especially when the stillness isn’t instantly rewarding or sexy or remunerative or otherwise gratifying.

We tend to ignore gaps, to slide right over them. Or, noticing them, we fill them with past conceptions and practices. Often, we don’t notice we are sliding or mindlessly filling. And then when we do notice we try to unfill the gaps, or demand others gaps appear so we can handle them mindfully.

But that is now how gaps work! Gaps occur on their own; we can’t force a gap to appear. All we can do is go slowly and attentively, living the very lives we are living, and when gaps appear, respond to them gently and cautiously.

It helps me to think of gaps as stray dogs who tag along in my vicinity but who are too frightened to initiate or manage direct contact. I have to be quiet and slow. I have to murmur and coo. I have to carry treats. I have to kneel and open my palms, not make eye contact.

And after I’ve maximized openness, I have to let the dogs control the encounter. It’s their encounter. I have to be grateful for whatever happens, no matter how tentative or scant or apparently unsuccessful it is.

That’s it. I just live with my living. This is what living is. It’s this – this very this. It’s this very going slowly, this very going humbly, this very ongoing posture of a servant attending an uncertain god, whose uncertainty is holy and so can never transition to certainty.

Yes, in a way this is just wordy bullshit. Yes, we are always only loving our own self. Yes those gaps are just Sean another way. Those stray dogs are just Sean remembering Sean, the universe universing. Yes, yes, yes.

And yet.

The God of Uncertainty yields Her blessing only when we consent to not force Her into the high church of certainty, where the priests are devout patriarchs who wear blinders inside and are scared to go outside after dark. They’re big on obedience and faith; you can’t ask too many questions. Messiness is not allowed, beginning again and starting over are verboten, et cetera.

We don’t know what we don’t know ever. All our insights and learning are subsumed by a horizon of “what if.” Thus, the church of our not knowing – the altar of our slow and humble, our uncertain God – is everywhere always. We are never not praying. We are never not communing. She is never not in attendance.

What does the open heart learn who worships at this particular altar?

One, that they are not only the forever unknowable whole, for they are also always the sliver in whom the memory of original fracture tells and retells its origin story, forever insisting on its narrative prerogative. We are called to heed our stories for those stories are how we pray to the God of Uncertainty. They are alms and offering both.

The Gift of Attention is all She asks. And what she gives in reply is a reminder that the part being apart is also the whole, and in order to be a part apart it cannot remember the whole. We want to be the whole, secretly know we are the whole and yet . . . our experience is one of separation from the whole.

This separation begets yearning which is always for our God, whatever the particular object – a person, a dog, a landscape, a memory, a goal. The object (which is always an image) points to the God of Uncertainty, who Herself eschews direct observation, preferring hints and murmurs, glimpses and fragments.

Thus, our yearning is sacred, because it arises from separation and points toward oneness, towards unity. It is the very fulcrum on which the hymn of happiness is never not being softly sung. When we yearn for what is already accomplished – which is all the yearning there is, else how would we know what to yearn for (for our God has made us in Her image and what we are is expert yearners) – we know, without knowing, ecstatic unity.

And should we ever taste ecstatic unity – which we do, surely, from time to time – we forget it almost instantly, as condition of our being, which is forever bent on seeking and losing, having and giving away, remembering and forgetting. The one brings forth the other, and the other obliterates the one, and so becomes the one, the only, which then – by necessity, by love – brings forth the other.

On and on it goes, now as humans, now as maple trees, now as starlight, now as black bears, now as neutrinos, now as God-knows-what . . .

More on Illusion and Reality

Illusions always arise with respect to a referent: they are compared to what is believed to be real and on the basis of the comparison are found lacking in some fundamental way. That is how we determine whether an object or experience will be labeled “real” or “illusory.”

However, at the moment of experience, illusions are always experienced as real. It is only after we have had the experience and compared it to some other experience that we can say it was or was not an illusion.

Humberto Maturana uses the example of a trout leaping to a fisherman’s fly. At the moment the fish perceives the fly and executes its leap, the fly is “real” – a living creature the trout can eat. It is only after the trout is hooked that that the illusion becomes apparent. That’s when the trout can say, “wait – this didn’t happen last time. This fly is not a real fly.”

Thus, if I assert some object or experience is an illusion, I am doing so via a comparison. The question is: what is being compared to what? (And – if I am feeling particularly ambitious – who or what is doing the comparing?)

What is being compared to what? I want to go deeply into this. I want to answer it in a satisfying and personal way.

That is, I want to be careful that I am not saying “the world is an illusion” because that’s what A Course in Miracles says. I don’t want to say “I am awareness itself” because Rupert Spira or Leo Hartong say that. I don’t want to say “I am that” because Ramana Maharshi said it.

What is my experience? How does that experience express itself?

I want to be attentive to the actual process of observation and determination as it happens in my living; I want to be responsible for it. What is it? How shall I speak of it?

In general these days, I am less interested in arguing that the world – or some aspect of it – is an illusion than I am in thinking out loud about the unexamined interior certainty that underlies these concepts and our dialogues about them.

Say that you and I sit out by the apple trees at dusk. We share a cup of tea. We talk or don’t talk. Here is the view from earlier this summer.


Is the sky an illusion? Are the vivid colors real? What about the apple trees on the right? The hemlock trees on the left? The bodies observing it all?

Bracket those questions for a moment. Set them aside. Beneath them there is an underlying certainty or confidence that something – whatever we name it, however we describe it – is happening.

Is that point clear? Before we get into the metaphysics, the folk physics, the quantum physics, the biology, the theology, the soteriology, et cetera, can we just agree that something is going on? Something to which all the afore-mentioned conceptual frameworks might be applied?

If that is clear, then consider these questions: how do I know that something is happening? How does it appear? Is it real? Is it an illusion? To what would I compare it in order to know?

The feeling of certainty or confidence is internal and abstract. I can’t point to it the way I can point to the sky. When I am attentive to it – when I am curious about it – the focus shifts in a subtle way. In a recent newsletter (sign up if you like), I suggested a way to think about this interior abstraction is as “being.”

Can we glimpse being itself? Impersonal, unconditional, all-in-all?

If not, why not? And how do we know “not?”

If so, then what questions remain when we do catch that glimpse? What questions are dissolved?

This raises another challenge. Given that a previous experience taken to be real was subsequently revealed to be an illusion, how do I know this new one (this glimpse of being, say) will not also be subsequently declared an illusion?

The answer is that I do not know it won’t be!

And with that, the bottom just . . . falls out. There is no certainty; there is no end to the questions. It’s inquiries all the way down.

What do we do then?

Well, I want to go slowly with experience (like, say, the experience of seeing and suggesting that “it’s inquiries all the way down”) and the assertions that I make about it. I want to speak to my experience of truth without aggrandizing it (i.e., posturing as the one who gets it). I don’t want to arrogate more certainty than is justified, assuming any is justified at all.

We are averse to doubt. We like teachers who reassure us the ground is solid, not teachers who glibly profess that maybe it’s solid and maybe it’s not and we’ll never know for sure. Confident teachers declaring they’ve got The Answer™ will always distract us from our responsibility to explore the interior – answerless though it may be – on our own.

Often, people become frustrated at this point. They feel curtailed or confounded. Am I really saying we can never know anything for sure?

Well, yes.  (And I am also suggesting – albeit not so much in this post – that we investigate the stability and “realness” of the underlying knower who knows we can never know anything for sure).

But also, saying “I don’t know” is not the end of the road. The bottom falls out but the show goes on. There is still making love and gardening and baking bread and long walks to and from the river and sharing tea under the apple trees at dusk.

It all goes on just like it did, almost as if there’s nothing to get in the first place . . . This is a very important insight!

When we realize how little we know and accept that we cannot fundamentally know everything, then it becomes possible to lean into our actual experience. Who cares what it is? This is it! This very this! And we can be curious about it and responsive to it. We can revel in it and play with it. We can sing to it and listen as it sings back or doesn’t sing back.

In other words, we can consent to the gentle and natural bringing forth of love. We listen better. We become less insistent that this or that way of living is right or wrong. We soften; we melt. And as we do, life gives itself to us and we are adequate unto it. We are more than adequate unto it.

On that view, the question of illusion vs. reality subsides because the work is always to be attentive and humble, to go slowly and curiously, and see what happens.

Spirituality as Equality

This observation underlies a lot of my thinking and practice, half-assed as it is: “Spiritual” is in some important sense the equivalent of perceiving all being as “equal” or even “same.”

This is the miracle of creation; that it is one forever . . . Though every aspect is the whole, you cannot know this until you see that every aspect is the same, perceived in the same light and therefore one (T-13.VIII.5:1, 3).

Physical proximity matters to our species. We tend to care most for those who are near and dear. My kids are more important than the kids in the next town and I don’t even think about kids in China or Guatemala. Of course that’s not true – all kids matter. But my behavior certainly implies that it’s not true.

So “spirituality” opens up the idea that whatever love I offer my kids is the love to which all kids are entitled. I may not personally be able to love all kids that way, but I am going to look for ways to make it easier for all kids to know that love. Maybe I utilize resources differently (e.g., kids in Bolivia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo mine the metals for our phones), or vote for candidates with platforms that are more kid-friendly.

Spirituality asks me to look at the experience of love that I have locally – in this body, this family, this community – and then broaden it. It asks me to consider a collective in which all beings are worthy of love and then to act accordingly.

The other thing this leveling does is that it de-specializes folks. What I mean by that is that it undoes the emphasis on gurus or enlightened teachers as somehow not human. To call someone a “saint” or “master” is to subtly dismiss them, to place them beyond the periphery of self and world. It “others” them in unhelpful ways.

But if I don’t “other” Jesus or Saint Francis or Thich Nhat Hanh, if I insist that they are like me and what they experience I can experience, and what they extend, I can extend, then my responsibility changes. My relationships change.

If I can be radically loving, then I will be radically loving (which begins with undoing that which impedes the natural expression of radical love). And if I am not ready to be that loving, then I can at least see that clearly and be responsible for the gap.

That is the other way that spirituality matters – it undoes the hierarchy of achievement, of specialness.

A lot of this can be subsumed under the notion of “undoing self-interest.” Or expanding it infinitely. How shall I think about my being, such that sunflowers and ex-lovers and fireflies and kids in Africa are implicated in the love that is brought forth in my living?

We tend to measure ourselves against standards, right? Be this good, this generous, this activist. We have ideals of Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama. But “spiritual” as I am using the word, the idea, means not changing the standards but rather rethinking the value of standards altogether.

A big part of my thinking in the past two years – under the influence of Humberto Maturana, Ernst von Glasersfeld and Heinz von Foerster – has been coming to see the way that we are naturally structurally given to love and peace and that the work, so to speak, is clarifying this and facilitating its expression.

On that view, I don’t need to denigrate myself because I’m not the Dalai Lama nor praise myself because I’m not Donald Trump. I need to let go of reliance on standards – I need to see that the spectrum those opposites introduce is not natural and not helpful. I need to garden more, and bake bread more, and play more music – activities that naturally arise in my living as expressions of love, community, inclusiveness, nurture . . .

But I don’t garden because somebody said to and I don’t bake bread because of how it makes others think of me: those practices are just simple expressions of how I understand myself and my responsibilities to my family, my town, my planet and so forth. Other activities will arise for other folks.

In a sense, the point is not what we do but rather its source. How does it arise in us? What calls it forth?

I want to let love come forth in me the way it naturally comes forth. This requires attention, study and practice but it’s more like learning to ride a bike than becoming “a good person.” Riding a bike is mechanical. Yes there are psychological elements, but they are met in satisfaction of the mechanics. I get more confident as I get more effective at riding. This is true of love as well.

In the end, love does the work. This is the helpful insight. We don’t have to do much other than be present; love does the work. Love directs us, guides us, moves us, instructs us. Our job is to be gently attentive, to be open and willing. To be – as I wrote in this context – partners in our own healing.

Life goes on! The neighbors run their chain saw after dark and it’s frustrating. Chickens die and my daughter’s heart breaks. Teaching gets mired in bureaucratic mud. In life the bread sometimes doesn’t rise.

Beyond all of that is the gentle ongoing living that is not bound by form nor limited in expression. It bears us along and the work is to be okay with that, to see it clearly and be okay with it. To “perceive it in the same light” and know on that basis that what appears as many is in fact one.

On Helping Others

(A brief essay categorized under “Things Sean Is Learning Really Really Slowly And Should Probably Be Cautious About Sharing Publicly”)

If we do not recognize that everybody needs help, then we will not be able to help anybody.

Important corollary number one: knowing that another body needs help, does not mean that that we know what help is needed.

Important corollary number two: knowing that another body needs help, and knowing what help that body needs, does not mean that we are the one called to provide that help.

The corollaries make clear that we need to be humble and we need to go slowly. It’s tempting to visualize ourselves as saviors whose love will redeem all the world. But we don’t know what we don’t know, which mitigates against grand projects and big leaps.

When we know how to help – when it’s clear how to help – then yes. Help. But we don’t always know and it isn’t always clear and in those cases, “help” can easily unintentionally morph into “hurt.” Or “hinder.”

And sometimes, even when knowing the specific form of help needed, we aren’t the ones who need to bring it. Someone else might be better situated to offer the help. That’s okay. Perhaps there are no saviors, only patterns of saving, and the formal way in which we interact with those patterns is . . . not up to us to determine.

We are not dictators of kindness. We don’t get to insist that others accept this or that scenario for a solution to their problem. They are allowed to own the problem on the terms and conditions that resonate and make sense to them – up to and including not having the problem we think they have – and our work is to abide.

Note that sometimes we help others by acknowledging our own need for help. To ask for help is to invite the other to help us, which is itself a form of love. If we are always the helper – if we insist on that role, subtly or otherwise – then we are only adopting a one-sided vision of helpfulness. It’s okay – it’s more than okay – to be helped by another. What matters is the help – which is love – rather than the specific narrative assigned to it, or the specific role we play in the narrative.

The suggestion is that there is a sort of relationship premised not on a victim/hero or savior/lost soul dichotomy. Rather, it is a relationship premised on a level playing field, where asking for and responding to a request for help are features of a relationship between equals, each one of whom could be the other and, with respect to their asking for and offering help, have been and will continue to be the other.

There is no one. There is also no other.

On that view, being helpful is a sort of dynamic continuum, a sort of wave on which we surf – or through which we gently tumble – aiming for grace and balance rather than status or praise.

Sometimes there is a tendency to view problems as flaws of character. We shouldn’t have problems, nor should others. We posit a world in which there are no problems or flaws. Everything is awesome! But what if that world does not exist? What if what exists is this ongoing attentiveness and willingness to help and be helped?

In my ongoing interior dialogue between arrogance and humility, helpfulness and spiritual self-aggrandizing, I wrote a little screed in which I suggested that A Course in Miracles could be shortened to literally “helping others” and “letting our own self be helped.” Neither step can be ignored! We tend to cherish and idolize the first while suppressing the second.

But if we let go of the ideal – the perfect, God as perfection, our self in pursuit of perfection – then what remains is the collective in which we enact love according to our structure. There are ups and downs. There are steps backward. We help and are helped. And it’s no big deal.

On Love, Semantic Preference, Insight and Violets

Hilary Putnam suggests that “What is wrong is that Nature, or ‘physical reality’ in the post-Newtonian understanding of the physical, has no semantic preferences.” That is, there is no one way or right way or best way to speak/write. There are only more or less helpful ways and they are all contingent on context.

This represents, for me, a fairly grueling hill to climb, yet it makes a point dear to my heart (if difficult to embody in a lived way), and so it is worth the ascent.

this past summer’s violets

We are haunted by separation – self/other, self/world, sign/signified, soul/body, here/there et cetera. Duality pervades our experience – appears to be our experience – and with it comes a longing to unify or transcend or undo or bypass the various dichotomies through which dualism asserts itself. We want falling in love to complete us, want to be “one” with God, et cetera.

Yet all our attempts at unifying, transcending, undoing and bypassing – insert your verb of choice here – end up confirming (conforming to) the very divide they aim to go beyond.

Part of the problem is that the world and the other all arise by virtue of distinctions that are descriptive and are thus contingent on language. Words sever and curtail. Perception is a cut, and language is a cut (and good luck trying to figure out which comes first). Looking for the bottom or the edge – or the beginning or the end – is like wandering through a hall of mirrors after a few hits of acid.

God – the Whole, the Beginning-and-End, the Source, Brahmin, Void, et cetera – is not partial to any language or ritual or cultural expression. Nor does God embrace each and every one of them, as if in a show of cosmic unity. The Whole, as such, is sufficiently beyond our ken, in a way that makes all our languaging, ritualizing and expressing divinely irrelevant.

Thus, we are welcome to play our spiritual games, but they are games. They are play. And – critically – they are non-zero-sum games. There are no winners or losers. It’s more like we’re just dancing, from dusk to dawn, partner to partner, song to song. It’s messy, glorious, exhausting, fun, social, tedious, lonely, prayerful et cetera. And it has no point beyond its own play, beyond its own expression. You stagger out of the dance hall only to learn that it’s dance halls all the way down. Allamande left!

One of many ways to approach the dance is to adopt a spiritual language and practice that is helpful, where helpfulness is measured by its capacity to make us consistently happy, where “happy” is more or less synonymous with “coherent” and where “coherent” means “I know it’s a dance, and I’m okay it’s a dance, and my knowing and okayness are a form amongst other forms of me dancing.”

{I know that previous paragraph is a mouthful but it works}

Another way to frame this is to ask what allows us to go slowly and cheerfully through our living, without wishing it were some other living, while simultaneously doing what we can to make this living more happy, viable, open, just, sustainable for all beings with whom this living is shared.

This is an invitation to a spirituality that does not insist on its own primacy but only on its relative viability (i.e., it is open, not closed) and – critically, fundamentally – it accepts the complexity and uncertainty and responsibility posed by this openness.

In essence, I am decrying any easy unities or pluralisms, e.g., “we’re all human” or “all religions share the same goals.” We aren’t and they don’t. Since it is impossible to separate context from observer-of-context, agent from world-in-which-agent-acts, glib statements which effectively flatten out all difference in the interest of some pure objectivity or absolute are not viable. In fact, they are a form of violence. Beware the preacher extolling them.

For example, my experience and practice and espousal of A Course in Miracles is not consonant with lots of other serious students. At some point me and ACIM together passed a rubicon that most ACIM students either don’t want or don’t need to cross. Fair enough! Yet the passing – and what occurred on its far side – remains generative in my living. Thus, what nurtures me leaves another hungry. Any move to avoid or ignore this difference functions as an injustice to both poles.

Yet at the same time we are not allowed to simply enshrine any and all differences under the rubric of casual relativism. “Hey if it works for you . . . ” If what works for me is doing violence unto others, in any form, then it has to be ended, healed, repaired, and otherwise brought to love. When “hey if it works for you” tacitly allows violence to go on unimpeded, then it, too, becomes a form of violence. It’s nice to pretend that we aren’t the ones strangling whales with plastic refuse but . . . we are the ones strangling whales with plastic refuse.

{Yes that did escalate quickly}

So a kind of vigilance is called for and a kind of intelligence, because we are simultaneously judging and not judging others. It’s complicated. We are going to make mistakes. We are going to get called out. And we’re going to have to deal with all that.

It’s so much easier to just go on picnics with self-help Jesus and like-minded folks who share our sense of order – hikes, bluets and brook trout, New Testament over Old Testament, Emily Dickinson over Walt Whitman, “over” instead of “and” et cetera . . .

{note the last critical distinction – “over” instead of “and” – *and imagine a spiritual practice predicated on noticing when we use one rather than the other – and on evaluating the use – and on being both capable of shifting and willing to shift accordingly}

I am thinking here of something Donna Haraway wrote in “A Cyborg Manifesto.”

Some differences are playful; some are poles of world historical systems of domination. ‘Epistemology’ is about knowing the difference.

“Knowing the difference” is a learning process, including trial and error, study and dialogue, periods of silent reflection, abiding in confusion, relationship with teachers and fellow students and ex-teachers and ex-students and wanna-be students and teachers and . . .

Along lines implied by Haraway, I suggest that functional spirituality is in the nature of a learning process, one that we did not begin and should not expect to see the end of because it is fundamentally Protean, reflexive, circular, ever spiraling hither and yon. A lot of our unhappiness and acting out arises from insisting – sometimes consciously, often unconsciously – on linearity and absolutism. But linearity is a description of experience, not a law, and certainly not the law. There is – for there is always – another way.

For example, I prefer the blooming violet to the blank white snows of winter, yet beneath that cold flat surface of January, the violet, in its way, lives and enacts – in what to me is darkness, mystery, void – its return. On that view, why hate winter? It’s just violets another way, sort of like looking at your dog or child the side. Same person, different view, but your love doesn’t change.

Yet it is also possible to mow over the violets again and again, a sort of murder, so that they cannot reseed themselves, cannot return, and their absence is no longer “violets another way” but rather “not violets.” Their absence is deliberately constructed and intentionally enacted and – for me anyway – it hurts. For me, it constitutes an act of violence I cannot – will not – countenance.

The difference between violets in spring and violets in winter is – deploying Haraway’s construction – a playful difference, for it is not devoid of living. You see that? While the difference implied by repeated mowing is not playful because it ends the violets.

Let me say diverge for a moment on the subject of violets, for they are vital to my understanding of what I am trying to say here with respect to spirituality, God, self and so forth.

When we moved to this place, the remnants of an apple orchard dotted the northwest corner of the property – six trees, two of which were dead, a third of which was all-but-dead. Other trees appeared to have been cut down in previous decades but nobody really knew. The ghost of an old farm haunts the landscape but it’s been severed and sold and zoned so often, even the ghost has a hard time finding its bearings.

The little orchard, as such, was overgrown. It was dense and tangled. Maple saplings had taken hold; thimbleberry and goldenrod crowded the trees. A previous owner had tossed empties there: countless Bud Light cans shined in the underbrush like big blue sequins.

We cut down the two dead trees and all the maple saplings (I say saplings – a couple were more than seventy feet tall). Over the next year or so, I cleared the space – hacking and raking, collecting trash. The year after that, it was clear enough to mow, so I did.

By the end of that year, we had a decent apple harvest, and the space was green and open. We put lawn chairs there so we could watch the horses.

Next Spring, the violets came.

Purple is the union of red and blue and generally when I encounter it, a quiet sense of holiness abides. Plus, I like pretty things, especially flowers, and watching anything grow – a chicken, a tomato plant, an apple tree – quiets some interior discord. So it was easy to mow around those violets. It was therapeutic in a religious sense. It mattered.

But a funny thing happened. Next year there were more violets – like a small community of them. It was like somebody had seeded a little church. And so the space that went unmowed enlarged. And the year after that – which is this year – the space enlarged yet again and – to my delight and amazement – another patch of violets emerged about twenty yards east of the original patch. The violets are traveling, propogating, and their travel is amplified in my joy and wonder which, in turn, nurtures their expansion.

The suggestion I make here is that attention to the violets, as outlined above, and attention to attention to the violets, is a form of life-giving playfulness that gets at what I suggest is “helpful spirituality.”

The violets appear as other to me. They are alive and possessed of agency. In making space for them, I am also in nontrivial ways making space for my own self, my own living, my own agency. Else why would I be so happy?

But of course, nurturing the violets is a decision. By entering into relationship with the violets, other relationships are curtailed. For example, if I mowed more rigorously in that space, then dandelions might proliferate. Or we could plant another apple tree, or some blueberry bushes.

In attending the violets in and with love, the intention is to attend as well the space in which all-that-violets-are-not also dwells. The absent blueberry bushes, the absent dandelions . . . My play necessarily excludes them but if I recall them, then my play is mature because it is not ignorant. It accepts responsibility for itself. Since I cannot have everything – the Whole – then I must choose the part – the partner for the dance – and accept responsibility for my choice, and then love / dance accordingly.

If I put the violets at the center – a choice I make – then mowing them becomes an unacceptable form of violence. Yet if dandelions were central, then another approach would be viable.

We choose our living – and by our choosing construct our living – and a field of ethics emerges. Context brings forth responsibility. Knowing and living and loving are all situated, embodied, consequential. There is no one right way, and yet the movement is forever towards love and happiness and coherence, and so there are more and/or less helpful ways, and our living must attend to them in responsive and responsible ways.

Of course, the dialogue is relatively simple when we are talking about violets rather than blueberry bushes, but when we are choosing economic policies that oppress women, or military policies that make whole swathes of the planet unsafe for children . . .

Then it becomes messy. And complex. And recourse to simple utterances – “God is One” or “I am not a body I am free” and so forth – tend to function as blindfolds. They tend to promote the illusion of a knowable God, whose privileged vantage point can be ours if we only believe/act/profess rightly. Thus, they become lacunae in which seeds of confusion and pain take root.

They become utterances behind which we avoid responsibility for our choices, by which our spirituality becomes a bland patina of “I’m okay” rather than a deep dive with open arms and open hearts into uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity, difference that constitutes living . . .

The self-improvement or self-help project – which neatly swallowed A Course in Miracles – and was itself neatly swallowed by Patriarchal Capitalism – always promotes the abstraction of a perfect completed subject, which we translate as our own self raised to glorious perfection in both body and thought.

But attention – which is the light of Christ, in the semantics I adopt as most viable for me presently – reveals not only what is lovely in us (and others) but also reveals our inadequacy, despondence, infidelity, greed, selfishness . . .

Perfection, as such, is the vague grail that keeps us forking over our living – materially and otherwise – to a system bent only on depriving us of the only thing that matters, which is our living, our messy beautiful frustrating gorgeous ecstatically mutual living.

The suggestion is that we let go of those abstract ideals – the idealized self, the God taking a personal interest in us, the sanitized Jesus and Buddha, the easy spiritual outs, and take the hand of our kin – who are not family but with whom we share affinity, who are our kind – and together, in ways that resonate and cohere for us in our shared hand-holding, bring forth love.

This will be clumsy and inefficient and will almost certainly appear irrelevant but so be it. In our togetherness, we will remember how to be happy by making others happy, and perhaps recall some other ways of being that will be useful going forward.

So I wonder if in the end we are not like the violets?

They appeared out of nowhere. Yes, there is a handy story that explains their appearance (but note biology is a discourse about life not life itself), but it doesn’t comply with experience, which is that I cleared some land thinking “apple orchard” and was unexpectedly met with “violets.”

By all accounts the violets do not know me even though it is literally my indulgence and attention that allows them to live and thrive. And lest I become too self-righteous – Sean the God and Savior of Violets – I must remember that I cannot say who or what countenances my own existence. Who or what indulges me? Attends me? Takes pleasure in me?

I have thoughts and opinions about answers to those questions, but any answer I offer is necessarily partial and thus does not fully settle the question.

In these ways, for these reasons, the gap between me and the violets shrinks, becomes almost unnoticeable, and certainly less dispositive than it once seemed. We are all lovely, we are all processual, we are all giving – and being given – attention.

Did I bring the violets forth? Did the violets bring me forth? Are we together brought forth by God – the deliberate God of Christianity? The blind functionary of evolution? Or some other Holiness/Wholeness altogether? Or not?

And does it matter? For when I finish writing, I will wander out back to check on the garden, throw hay to the horses. I’ll visit the violets. I’ll come back in and tend to the sourdough starter and make a pot of tea to see Chrisoula and me through the afternoon. Is this not love? Is this not service? Is this not enough?