Back to Lascaux

In the current “Love” issue of Parabola, I interview David Rome, a senior fellow at the Garrison Institute who served as the personal secretary of the great Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche for nine years.   Rome even took down the poetry that Trungpa spontaneously dictated and worked with him to edit it.  This proved to be a perfect preparation for Rome’s later work with a meditative technique called “focusing,” which aims to guide people back to the “felt sense.”  Rome describes the felt sense as the usually subtle experience of being in a body in a particular situation–it is knowing about your life in a bodily way.  (Sometimes it isn’t so subtle, when a chill goes up your spine).   This state of bodily presence that exists before experience gets filtered into words and defined emotions  is where poetry and other forms of art come from–the stuff that isn’t mere contrivance and imitation.   It is also the wellspring of symbols, myths, and the religious impulse.

In the past few weeks, since I’ve seen the movie Avatar, I’ve been reflecting on how mindfulness meditation and even childhood fantasy games (I was a jungle girl) can be like traveling back in time–not just in our individual lives, to a time of innocence, but back to a time when there was no hard and fast separation between art and religion.  Eugene Gendlin, the University of Chicago philosopher and psychologist who developed focusing  once said that the felt body is “part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people, in fact the whole universe.  This sense of being bodily alive in a vast system is the body as it is felt from the inside.”

It can feel this way to sit down on a cushion and meditate.  Returning to the sensation of being present can open us up again to the primordial mystery of life–and so can good poetry and art.   It leads us beyond what is present to the sublime.   In the old days, in days of the great cave paintings in Lascaux, there was no separation between religious and the artistic impulse.  These days, however, art that is deemed good by the art establishment isn’t supposed to have anything to do with the spiritual.  Yet sometimes the twin impulses can’t be denied.  In an article about the painter Agnes Martin,  Joanna Weber writes:  “In 1764, Kant wrote  ‘The sublime moves, the beautiful charms.  The sublime must be simple; the beautiful can be adorned and ornamental.'”  Martin’s work is  simple and sublime.  In her own description: “a work of art is successful when there is a hint of perfection present–at the slightest hint…the work is alive.  The life of the work depends on the observer, according to his own awareness of perfection and inspiration.”

I find in my own life that this felt sense is usually completely drowned out by thought–or else I’m not aware of it until there is a big explosion of anger or fear.   Yet I know there is something in me besides ego and mindless habit, something that yearns to be part of something bigger than my own piddling interests and subjectivity.   How to make a practice of this?    Drop everything the mind happens to be grasping.  Sink down under all the layers of care and views and languages, be with the prehistoric one who knows what is right here right now.

16 thoughts on “Back to Lascaux

  1. I can totally relate to being in your body and connecting to the larger “body”….We are not one part, but part of the whole. I think that this explains, in some small way, the whole pattern of life and spirit.
    For instance, we know that we are not just our organs, but the organs working together. If just one thing gets out of whack,the whole body feels the repercussions. (Stub yhour toe, and see what happens!)
    I think it is the same way in the spiritual sense. And that must be what all spiritual mentors mean when they tell us that to hurt one another is to hurt ourselves. “What we do to one another we do unto ourselves.”
    It reminds me of the “coincidence of opposites” that Nicholas of Cusa wrote:
    “I have found the place where one can find Thee undisguised. It is surrounded by the coincidence of opposites. This is the wall of Paradise in which Thou dwellest. Its gate is guarded by the “highest spirit of reason”. Unless one overcomes it, the entrance will not open. On the other side of the wall of the coincidence of opposites one can see Thee, on this side never.” (Jager, p.77)

    So, in one sense we are bodliy, physical beings, but on the other, we are spirtiual beings longing for our “home”, or wholeness, coincidence of oposites.

    How do we get there? again, a pardox: to get” there “we must be “here”!

  2. I think it’s a mistake to think of our interests and subjectivity as “piddling.” This is akin to thinking of the surface aspects of reality as “superficial” in a negative sense, as in shallow or insignificant.

    Part of our problem today, a big part, is the artificial split between the sacred and the so-called profane. But even the Pseudo Dionysius, master of apophatic faith, recognized and extolled the necessity of the created minutiae as a vehicle into union with the divine.

    We might be messy and confused, but all of that is precisely what we have to work with. All those little thoughts, those piddling interests and subjectivity, give us something climb on in our ascent into God. They must be embraced or we can never truly let go of them.

    I don’t believe there is a “there” as opposed to a “here.” This is it. We’re in it. We just don’t fully know it yet. One great, beautiful aspect of the body is that it’s always, necessarily, right here, right now. It has no choice. This felt sense you write about is gorgeous and inspiring. It’s like the sacred and the profane together again.

  3. I have heard, been told many times, that the higher needs me. Finally I felt this as a question. What of me does the higher need as food? Is it the knowledge of the process of transformation of Dark matter in me into finer/lighter manner that which is needed by the Higher? Within each of us this process is unique and only from each of us can this uniqueness be carried to the Higher. Of course the Higher participates in the transformation as do “I”, whatever that is? Only within me does a particular patnership occur. In seeing my two natures, the lower consisting of many selves/forms, and the higher; sometimes the feeling of ‘wishing to be home’ arises. Can I be Home amidst the the chaos of the lower forms of my selves as well as in that of the quieter, more ONE form?

    How to remember? Lord Pentland once said to me. “People are so forgetfull, but if we find the right time and the right way to remind them….”

    How do I find the right way and time to remind myself that I Wish to Be here?

  4. I really agree with Peter in the above email. It is in embracing our imperfections that we are able to surrender to them and possibly make some progress. It’s progress, not perfection, that we seek in this life.
    The intentionality that is implied in prayer and meditation helps me to, at least a little bit more, stay in the present.
    In my humble opinion, it’s our imperfections that call usto a greater connection with our Higher Being.

  5. “May I suggest that is the “coincidence of opposites”…of which
    I was referring.”

    Absolutely! It’s just that I don’t resonate with the use of the term “opposites.” That word carries with it the idea of opposition, or two things that are opposed.

    I see the body and spirit as parts of the same whole. Body without spirit is a corpse. Spirit without body is a ghost. The two complete each other and without both we are incapable of God.

    At least I am.

    : )

  6. How we each organize our thinking on such things is very personal and has to click with our individual sensibility. I guess your “coincidence of opposites” is another way of saying “integration.” For some reason, that just feels better to me.

    For some reason, I’m very sensitive to anything that hints of a value judgement when it comes to body and spirit. I’m not saying you’re making such judgements, only that certain terms tend to tweak that sensitivity and cause me to seek out other vocabulary.

    As a Christian, I’m enthralled by the presence of God in the flesh of Jesus. I think you’d call that the ultimate coincidence of opposites! If that means you find it as beautiful as I do, then we agree.

    In the end, the terms we prefer fail to serve us anyway, and that “felt sense” this blog post is about must take over.

    1. Sometimes, in a moment of that felt sense, I feel my piddlingness or nothingness and that beauty and grandeur simultaneously. It seems clear in such a moment that I must feel them together.

      1. Yes, it’s all or nothing. One of the most beautiful aspects of the Jesus story is his humanity: the weighed down, fearful, even doubtful humanity, right along side the joyful, both sharing the same being with the Divine.

        I think what you’ve described:

        “… I feel my piddlingness or nothingness and that beauty and grandeur simultaneously.”

        is the definition of humility. Both are true, like it or not.

  7. Peter, I agree with what you’ve said, and also that it is my “coincidence of opposites” that stirs the “value judgement. I”m sorry. It a case of semantics, I think.
    I am a Christian too, and yes, Jesus is the Ultimate “Coincidence of Opposites”.
    And as for the “here” and “there” that I referred to, it is the here (now) and the transcendence(feeling the connection to God, or HIs presence within) that I am talking about.
    Anyway, I bow to you and your expertise, even though I think we are on the same page!
    And yes, I find Jesus as beautiful as you do.
    Thank you for sharing and helping me to see your perspective or faith.
    Peace and blessings.

    1. thank you for “coincidence of opposites.” i don’t think i am going to forget that observation (i hope not)…so brilliant and true!

  8. There’s no need to apologize to me, Elizabeth, and I hope I’ve given you no offense. If so, I do apologize. I’ve enjoyed this conversation and I’m grateful for the exchange.

    I have no expertise to speak of, I just have ideas in my head and all of them need testing. I think we’ve been on the same page from the start, but I think it’s okay even if we are not. Your observations have helped me shape my perspective and given me reason to examine my responses. I’m grateful for that also.

    Exchanges like this one are the reason I visit this blog. There is no arriving at the truth except together, and even then we must arrive there again and again.

    I look forward to more.

    1. What you say is true, Peter. We must arrive at the truth together, and we must arrive there again and again. Looking forward to more….

  9. Ah, yes, we are a “we” people, and true spirituality is a job not done alone! We need one another.
    By the way, and as an aside, Nicholas of Cusa was a Cardinal who lived in the 1400’s. ;`)
    I too have enjyoed this dialog and look forward to more!

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