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.
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 . . .