Cave Painters

February 22, 2011 § 11 Comments

“In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer”–these words by Albert Camus have resonated for me often this winter.  I was on retreat with an interesting group of people in Boston over the weekend.  Sitting and breaking bread and moving around with them in a beautiful, harmonious space that was once a harpsichord factory, I was very aware of the way the container of a retreat supports the effort to wake up and be present to our lives.   Meditating with others who have come from different places heightens the awareness that our bodies have come from somewhere and not just Boston or New Hampshire or New York but from the distant past, from ancestors who have braved all manner of hardships.  In the container of a retreat, supported by the energy and intention of others, the experience of sitting on a cushion and turning the attention inward is no small thing:  it can feel like descending into a vast subterranean cave or series of caves full of forces and energies unknown to the thinking mind.  In the flickering light of my attention,  I was filled with an unusual mix of awe and optimism, fairly that if I kept going I would come upon wonders.

This is a paradox of retreat:  I didn’t go away to be “myself,” still less to bond with a new group, to be “ourselves.”  I didn’t go to a new city to have the feeling of being at home, but to have a feeling of intentional exile, to uproot myself from home and all the props of familiar habits and ties, to seek a greater reality.  Back and forth, I went, between letting go and grasping, between emptiness and identification.  At moments when I wasn’t grasping, t a new inner spaciousness seemed to open up.  In those moments it seemed extraordinarily touching to inhabit a body, heart and mind capable (in spite of a misspent youth!) to explore and discern the working of larger forces and finer energies, capable of being still and knowing.

Here is another paradox that pops up on retreat:  you confront how much you long for the unknown and how much you long for the familiar.  Years ago, in the early days of a week-long silent meditation retreat when, telling myself I wasn’t breaking my vow of silence, I checked my phone messages only to learn that the scientists at National Geographic “Genographic  Project” had succeeded in tracing my matrilineal DNA back to our earliest common ancestor in Africa.  What a strange message to receive on a retreat!  I called home hoping for a simple “I miss you Mommy” or some other cozy bit of news from home, sticking to the shallows before I pushed off for the depths.  I didn’t expect news of this scale.

“It’s so moving to look this map and see the route my ancestors took out of East Africa and on to Greece and Italy,” exclaimed my friend Liz ” in her phone message.   “To realize that my people founded Athens and then went on to found Rome.”   As silly as her identification was–her voice swelling with pride as if she personally was there with Socrates and Caesar–it inspired me to walk out in the woods behind the retreat center and furtively called my husband for my results. I wanted to enlarge and glorify my sense of personal identification too!   “Why are you calling?  I thought you took a vow of silence?”  He explained that yes, yes, a large envelope came from the National Geographic Society but it was far too strange and complicated to go into.  The red line appeared to leave Africa and then cross Siberia and enter the New World.  Siberia!  Mongolia!   As I’ve written before, dear reader, my imagination seized on this extremely unexpected and improbable result and galloped away with it.  What there was living on in my very own cells the effervescent substance of those mysterious beings who brought esoteric knowledge to the early Greeks?

There is the map and then there is the territory.  Retreats have a way of revealing the way we move between moments (seconds?) of openess to a greater reality and identification with what was glimpsed.  It is extraordinary to see the speed with which we attach “ourselves” to whatever is received.  In recent years, further National Geographic research has revealed that one branch of my ancestral DNA strain actually split off from those heading towards Siberia and headed towards France, upending all my theories imaginings.  And I did receive a legacy–we all have.  We have inherited bodies and parts that are capable of knowing more than we can imagine.  In certain conditions,  I can come down out of my head and descend into the cave of sensation and see something glowing just around the corner, the hint of something marvelous, something awesome to be known.  In that moment I realize something that humans have probably always realized when conditions were right, that we were made for something more than mere survial.  Afterall, didn’t “my” prehisoric French ancestors paint the caves in Lascaux?

§ 11 Responses to Cave Painters

  • artxulan says:

    Tracy said: “In certain conditions, I can come down out of my head and descend into the cave of sensation and see something glowing just around the corner, the hint of something marvelous, something awesome to be known.”

    Lord Pentland said in Exchanges Within:

    I mean that it is possible now to distinguish between different levels of energy – the sensation of moving, emotion, thinking, even higher feeling. What seems to be conflict is actually the appearance of different levels in me. All this is possible because of the work on sensation, to be able to sense, “this is a thought.” There is an electromagnetism that appears as a result of this work on sensing the body. This work also brings the possibility of being completely open, exposed to a situation in which forces are being manifested, to simply be in relation to them without resistance or covering.

    Seeing the friction between two forces leads to a result, the creation of new energy. As soon as this new energy appears, I see the ways, including thoughts and dreams, in which it begins to be wasted, to be drained off. But perhaps you could just begin with seeing two.

    …..

    The point is, the head, which takes in ideas, and the feeling, which takes in scale, can never meet. Sensation is the relating element. How to feel what you think or to think what you feel is through sensation. We practice sensation in a way unrelated; for the head and feeling to meet is … only in the body. My head feels all over my body. With the sensation of the body, the head and feeling can come together, and that is the basis for so-called inner life. How to call feeling back. How to call the head back to meet with the feeling is only through sensation, where feeling and thought can come together.

    Sensation is an extraordinary contrivance.

    Your head and heart are separate anatomically. There is no circulation connecting them. That is what sensation can do. Like two different bodies. Sensation relates these two, even from the point of view of physical equipment. Sometimes this difference can cause illness. And many exercises have the virtue of relaxing this. It is not a work ever done, ever finished. Sensation may come through the words spoken, but there is no sensation except in joining the head and heart.

    Excuse me, I’m boring you now, but you see what I’m saying.

    Artxulan says: From my point of view everything I receive is by way of sensation. The universe is vibrating matter. We receive some of these vibrations automatically. The ears hear, the tongue tastes – all is receive mechanically, automatically by the body. If I am to receive finer matter, faster vibrations then Attention must be in contact with sensation. Sensation communicates vibration and matter.

  • Nick_A says:

    Hi Tracy

    Talk about coincidence. You wrote:

    “This is a paradox of retreat: I didn’t go away to be “myself,” still less to bond with a new group, to be “ourselves.” I didn’t go to a new city to have the feeling of being at home, but to have a feeling of intentional exile, to uproot myself from home and all the props of familiar habits and ties, to seek a greater reality. Yet what can come, at least at moments, is a new inner spaciousness and the revelation that we are actually the inheritors of a rich legacy just by virtue of being human. We are given bodies, hearts and minds that are made to explore and discern the working of larger forces and finer energies, capable of moving forward and being still, capable of knowing.”
    *********************

    I posted a poem from Simone Weil on your previous blog entry.

    Towards the end of her very brief life of thirty-six years, having suffered so much with the world and humanity, Weil died of tuberculosis in England. Her spiritual goal, the insight that saturates her writing, is aptly summarized by the poem that concludes “Decreation”:

    It is necessary not to be “myself,” still less to be “ourselves.”
    The city gives one the felling of being at home.
    We must take the feeling of being at home into exile
    We must be rooted in the absence of a place.

    To uproot oneself socially and vegetatively.
    To exile oneself from every earthly country.
    To all that to others, from the outside, is a substitute for decreation and results in unreality
    For by uprooting oneself one seeks greater reality.
    **********************

    This is what I find so hard to retain. It seems so negative, It gives the impression of non existence being favorable to existence. But this is just my ego kicking in that doesn’t want to accept qualities of existence.

    Perhaps my potential future is a “middle” as Gurdjieff described in his book: “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson” as the “second fundamental primordial cosmic law, namely the sacred Triamazikamno,”…….

    If Jacob Needleman is right, then fussing about it cannot lead anywhere. It requires a quality of experience. He writes in “Lost Christianity:”

    “The principal power of the soul, which defines its real nature, is a gathered attention that is directed simultaneously toward the spirit and the body. This is attention of the heart, and this is the principal mediating, harmonizing power of the soul. The mediating attention of the heart is spontaneously activated in the state of profound self-questioning. God can only speak to the soul, Father Sylvan writes, and only when the soul exists. But the soul of man only exists for a moment, as long as it takes for the question to appear and disappear.”
    ******************

    This is where I believe a lot of new Age goes wrong for those that seek the truth of the human condition in themselves. It seeks to deny the conscious experience of the contradiction. It prefers fantasy. Just strive for “peace.”

    “When a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then we know that it is really a door.” Simone Weil

    Typical laconic Simone. The door invites the higher reconciliation of the “middle.” It is humbling to realize these ideas have always existed and yet are continually forgotten by those thought to be educated.

    As a side note, you referred to the age of the cave paintings. Have you read of Armenian Stonehenge (Carahunge) that is around 7,000 years old. It predates Stonehenge in England by around 3,000 years? It is really remarkable. Doesn’t seem like the work of men dragging women around by the hair and fighting wild boars.

    http://www.carahunge.com/

    http://www.tacentral.com/karahundj/karahundj1.asp

    It seems incredible that we have forgotten so much.

  • tracycochran says:

    Hi Nick, I’m glad you caught that! I was paying homage to that poem that you posted last time. In case you think I don’t read comments.

    Thanks for the links about cave paintings!

  • Nick_A says:

    Tracy, I see you can be subtle. I’m glad you appreciated it.

    By the way, those links are not about cave paintings but rather stone formations similar to Stonehenge. Carahunge is actually a precise observatory. Who was capable of moving these enormous stones 7,000 years ago and capable of building such an observatory? Who knows?

    We underestimate both primitive art and construction. I believe there is more in them then normally meets the eye.

  • tracycochran says:

    Who knows indeed….

  • Ron Starbuck says:

    What is knowing? What is epistemology?

    How do we come to know what we do know?

    Years ago I took a class in college on the psychology of women. I ended up with a B+, when nomally I made A’s back then. I love learning, but can’t always take the academic world, much like Mark Twain.

    I want to live the experience and work it out on my own. Maybe that is why I am a good match for the IT industry, since I am a hacker at heart.

    Anyway, in this class we read and studied the book “Womens Ways Of Knowing,” I remember it so well.

    See this link please:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_development_theory

    The point I’m trying to make is that we may move through these ways of knowing stages and phases from “Silence” into “Constructed Knowledge”, to knowledge we may create for ourselves.

    Constructed knowledge is characterized by a recognition of the interrelatedness of knowledge, knowing and the knower. Women (perhaps we can say people now) with this perspective considered all knowledge as constructed, and understood that knowledge is inherently mutable, subject to time, experience, and context.

    Knowledge is “a constant process of construction, deconstruction and reconstruction.”

    Women in this position (perhaps all of us) came to it after intense self-reflection.

    They were able to engage in “real talk”: the ability to listen, share and cooperate while maintaining one’s own voice undiminished.

    Are we not engaged in “real talk” within Tracy’s blog.

    The position of constructed knowledge often involves enormous “empathetic potential”: a capacity to feel connected with another person despite potentially enormous differences.

    What does this tell you? Where does this thought take you?

    Can we construct our own knowledge?

    Don’t we do so all the time, perhaps without knowing? 😉

    In meditation and deep prayer, what is it that we come to know?

    My mind is known for jumping arround a lot, and making many connections. In this case, it wants to jump to Patanjali and the Yoga Sutra, and what is known there as the Great Mistake. Do you know what the Great Mistake is?

    It is that our mind turns things around, meaning it turns things around the wrong way. And it is this wrong turning, wrong assumptions, that in turn can cause us so much pain and suffering.

    It seems like I catch myself in this all the time, more so as I get older. I hope that is wisdom at work, something good.

    I won’t say ultimately, but close to this, according to the Yoga Sutra, the Great Mistake leads us to making mistaken attachements.

    The worst attachment of all is to be attached to the idea that the things all around us exist out there on their own, concretely, in the sense that they don’t depend on how I lead my life.

    In Buddhism don’t they teach, the world is coming from you, not at you?

    A pen to me is a tool I write with, but to a dog it is only a potential chew toy. Where is the meaning of the pen coming from, from the pen, from the dog, from me?

    Our experience of the world is shaped by our perception of so many things. If we can change our perceptions, our points of view, cannot we change the world too?

    I love the Greek word metanoia, because it points us towards a change of heart, a change of mind, a change of how we perceive what is around us every day. Especially of looking at others, of looking at them with a single eye, and eye of compassion.

    And at some deep level, as Tracy mentions, are we not bound together by our common DNA, doesn’t this help to shape us not only as human beings but as spiritual beings. Where does our intelligence come form, our self awareness, our sense of self, our human consciousness?

    Is it fair to say that there is something more about us and relationship with the world, reality, and with one another, that is shaped by something greater than oursleves?

    A soul, a spirit, a mystery?

    Isn’t this what all the great core religions, spiritual traditions, and faiths of the world try to teach us?

    In closing I want to say how much I appreciate this Parabola Community, and even though it is not my only sacred community, it is certainly one that I highly value.

    You do help to keep me on my spiritual toes. Thank you for engaging in …. “Real Talk”.

    Peace,

    Ron Starbuck

  • Nick_A says:

    Hi Ron

    You asked “How do we come to know what we do know?” Perhaps Socrates added something important to this question when he said: “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.”

    He is not referring to knowledge of facts but of the higher perspective within which they exist as a unity including their apparent contradictions.

    “Years ago I took a class in college on the psychology of women.”

    It is good that you made it through in one piece. Even famous psychologists have to admit their ignorance as to female psychology:

    “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is “What does a woman want?” Sigmund Freud
    ******************

    The best a sensible man can do is to determine his aim in life and marry the woman that best serves this purpose. Socrates offers his advice in this well known quote:

    “By all means marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll be happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher…and that is a good thing for any man.”
    ****************

    On a more serious note, you asked: “Can we construct our own knowledge?”

    You also asked: “Our experience of the world is shaped by our perception of so many things. If we can change our perceptions, our points of view, cannot we change the world too?

    The question for me here is if you mean creating our own reality or becoming more realistic?

    When we create our own subjective reality, we are replacing one fantasy with another. Becoming more realistic requires opening to a human perspective that reflects objective reality. As Socrates suggests, as we are, we are incapable of a human perspective but are really slaves to a caricature of it much like a person who lives in a cave and considers reality to be shadows on a wall.

    The trouble is that cave life struggles against the collective awareness of objective reality and wants to continue as Plato and Simone Weil describe as the Beast, Jesus describes as the World, and Buddhism as the Burning House. If the Beast is content with cave life, why should it change?

    People opening to the light which reveals objective reality will be scorned if not boiled in oil. Plato describes what happens to these unfortunates that are becoming more realistic and also more influential.

    [Socrates] ‘And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the cave, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.’
    ****************

    This is why I’m concentrating on the human condition as it exists in me and in society as opposed to expressions of wishful thinking. This is why Simone is so valuable to me. I can discuss her without discussing a path or a school and getting others upset. She is both frowned upon and admired as is normal for anyone having seen the light.

    Albert Camus wrote:

    “Simone Weil, I still know this now, is the only great mind of our times and I hope that those who realize this have enough modesty to not try to appropriate her overwhelming witnessing.
    For my part, I would be satisfied if one could say that in my place, with the humble means at my disposal, I served to make known and disseminate her work whose full impact we have yet to measure.”
    *********************

    Even though finishing at the top of her class, the Director of Career Placement, Ecole Normale Supérieure wrote: “We shall send the Red Virgin as far away as possible so that we shall never hear of her again.”
    *******************

    Anyone that can generate two such opposing reactions has to be doing something right.

    She is called to the need for objective truth. She is willing to sacrifice the attractions of subjective satisfactions in order to experience it. IMO she raises an important choice that all people with sincere concerns for the experience of objective human meaning and purpose have to confront at some point. What do we want?

    I agree with you as far as Parabola. It is very worthwhile. I’m a lousy writer and responding as I’ve done here is good practice for me. It gives me the opportunity to organize my thoughts as to profound questions and to improve.

  • Ron Starbuck says:

    Nick,

    Archibald MacLeish, the 20th Century American poet once wrote; “We have learned all the answers, all the answers. It is the questions we do not know.”

    I’m smiling as I write this, I have a great wife with a heart as big as Texas. Sorry for the cliche there, but it’s a good metaphor. So, I smiled at this quote.

    “By all means marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll be happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher…and that is a good thing for any man.”

    So I guess this makes a poor philosopher, perhaps even a poorer poet.

    Still, I’d like to offer this modest piece.

    Just Around the Corner

    What I’ve learned
    to value most within
    this life, is that just around
    the corner of the

    next moment, there
    is always something
    new to love. What
    have you seen

    today, like a shiny
    new penny in the
    eyes of child, that
    you have learned

    to love? Where do
    you get your
    passion from? From
    what do you draw

    your breath? If you
    haven’t found it yet,
    I promise you, it’s just
    around the next corner.

    Pay Attention.

    Ron Starbuck
    Copyright 2011

    Perhaps I should have said, “pay attention to your life,” embrace it fully in other words.

    The following URL will take you to another poem about my wife I wrote a few years ago. Most people tell me it’s a good one, one of their favorites.

    http://ronstarbuck-poet.blogspot.com/2009/08/my-dearest-darling-for-joanne.html

    As far as perception and reality goes, perhaps we should touch on the Buddhist concept of Emptiness and Dependent Arising. Merton speaks of “Nothingness” in his work, Eliot of the still point of the turning world.

    Where indeed does the world come from? What is sin and suffering, aren’t they close to the same, interrelated with one another?

    Nick, doesn’t the concept of the Great Beast, arise out of this suffering, sin, selfishness, the satisfaction of what we want first? … Self Centeredness

    Why do we need forgiveness? What is gratitude and graciousness?

    The world is full of much sorrow, it is also full of great joy.

    What is the perfection of wisdom found in the Heart Sutra?

    Peace my friends on a cloudy Sunday morning, from Houston. Where a few of our Azalea’s are just beginning to bloom.

    Ron

  • Nick_A says:

    Hi Ron

    As far as perception and reality goes, perhaps we should touch on the Buddhist concept of Emptiness and Dependent Arising. Merton speaks of “Nothingness” in his work, Eliot of the still point of the turning world.

    Where indeed does the world come from? What is sin and suffering, aren’t they close to the same, interrelated with one another?

    Nick, doesn’t the concept of the Great Beast, arise out of this suffering, sin, selfishness, the satisfaction of what we want first? … Self Centeredness
    **************************************

    Here is one of the ways I think New Age philosophy goes wrong. It doesn’t appreciate the self and what self respect is. It would rather eliminate the self rather than discover it.

    This is one reason why Simone’s need for truth is important for me. She seeks “to be” rather than “not to be.” How can this be possible without being self centered?

    Simone Weil wrote: “When a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then we know that it is really a door.” This idea of self becomes a contradiction when the same word is used to unite truth and illusion. There is the potential for a self and our opinion of ourselves. Are they the same?

    Madame de Salzmann embarrasses me in the same way Simone Weil does since they make me aware of the potential for self and what is sacrificed through the defense of opinions of ourselves and fantasy. Rather than non-existence, they explain what self respect is.

    http://www.gurdjieff.org/salzmann3.htm

    You will see that in life you receive exactly what you give. Your life is the mirror of what you are. It is in your image. You are passive, blind, demanding. You take all, you accept all, without feeling any obligation. Your attitude toward the world and toward life is the attitude of one who has the right to make demands and to take, who has no need to pay or to earn. You believe that all things are your due, simply because it is you! All your blindness is there! None of this strikes your attention. And yet this is what keeps one world separate from another world.

    You have no measure with which to measure yourselves. You live exclusively according to “I like” or “I don’t like,” you have no appreciation except for yourself. You recognize nothing above you—theoretically, logically, perhaps, but actually no. That is why you are demanding and continue to believe that everything is cheap and that you have enough in your pocket to buy everything you like. You recognize nothing above you, either outside yourself or inside. That is why, I repeat, you have no measure and live passively according to your likes and dislikes…………………….

    No la la land here. She refers to self respect and honoring the potential for self.

    The point is that being “self centered” can have two different connotations: the need for truth or the defense of inner lies.

    The Great Beast does not create suffering in the World. The Great Beast is the normal result of the fallen human condition which in the process of existence, perpetuates the unnecessary suffering we call sin.

    Buddha was right. Life is suffering. The question is how to deal with unnecessary suffering. All the great traditions touch on this question. Simone’s life was dedicated to this question from her time as a Marxist and atheist until she died a Christian mystic.

    “The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it.” Simone Weil

  • Ron Starbuck says:

    Nick,

    I wouldn’t call the Buddhist concept of Emptiness and Dependent Origination new age, nor the Christian concept of Kenosis. These have been established for a very long time.

    Where does that leave us then?

    It’s all supernatural, above nature in many ways.

    But, is it not natural too, aren’t we made for heaven in other words?

    Aren’t we made to be in a relationship with the divine and doesn’t that change everything?

    Including your vision of the people around you, this is what a heart open to compassion brings us. A new vision.

    Ron

  • Nick_A says:

    Ron, perhaps what we are made for is not what we are.

    If that is true, it means we do not understand really what kenosis is much less compassion. If we are what we are and live in the dreams of Plato’s cave, how is a connection with higher consciousness possible other than in our imagination?

    If we are the wretched man as described by St. Paul, then we are stuck with the problem of making a silk purse out of a sows ear. It is made even harder when we don’t admit to being a sows ear.

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