Three Things I Think Are True

At this point in my life, I think there are three things that are true–the first one being rather obvious: I am a limited being, embedded in the system I’m trying to explain. This means I cannot be wholly confident that I’ve got a handle on the ultimate truth (though I can speculate). On the plus side, I can get a handle on my phenomenological experience. That’s something.

The second thing I think is true is not quite as obvious, but in our democratic age it’s also probably not terribly controversial: The truth is the whole. In other words, I can’t bracket off small concerns from larger ones and still have the whole truth. If God exists (for example), God’s ultimate truth doesn’t negate my phenomenological truth. Time and space; center and margin; metaphysics and history–they’re all important; they all go together. You can’t really order what’s important about them into a hierarchy–or even hold them in a single vision. What’s good from one point-of-view is problematic (or even lacking sense) from another, and what is means from one vantage is ends from another. Perspective is plural.

Put another way, this moment in time and space, as I experience it, is means and ends to the whole cosmos up to this point. It’s of central importance now (at least to me), and also of utility to some future now.

Does that sound narcissistic? Well, maybe it is. But T. S. Eliot captured this narcissism (if it’s fair to call it that) quite astutely in “Burnt Norton” (1935):

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.

And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

And this brings me to the third thing I think is true: the now is important. This is why Buddhist meditation and reading poetry is probably worth one’s time.

I think meditation and poetry have value because they are, in part, about training a person in habits of waking up to what’s present now; to seeing and experiencing truth and wonder in each moment, as when the poet Wallace Stevens writes of time being the emperor of ice-cream (which is an end in itself–yum!–and also melting away):

Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

So a key aspect of suffering is missing the moment because we are discontent with some aspect of it. We make the discontented moment subservient to a craving, which leads to shunning this moment and grasping for a different moment, then holding tight to that better moment–which leads in turn to disappointment when it passes. It’s a vicious cycle; the Wheel of Samsara. Stepping off from the Wheel entails following William Blake’s admonition to see “eternity in an hour.” Along the way to something else, in our obsession with shoring up a boundary, we lose the moments.

Likewise with the truth. The truth is Nietzsche’s mobile army of metaphors; the turning of a non-symmetrical diamond that we can never stop rotating. There’s always more truth on the other side; always another vantage. It’s when we try to freeze the diamond of truth in mid-turn and say–“This is the one vantage on the diamond that should be taken as the ultimate truth”–that we start to feel unease. Our truths won’t stay fixed because we’re always leaving something out. Language fails.

Language fails because truth is akin to a hyperobject (a thing too large to wholly get one’s head around–such as an iceberg, world history, the complexity of a cell, or a galaxy with a billion stars). It’s also something ultimately non-dual–which is the first purport of the Tao Te Ching (in Steven Mitchell’s translation):

The tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named

is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.

Naming is the origin

of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.

Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Existence, being ultimately non-dual, makes for difficulties to comprehension because we are evolved and speaking animals–and biological evolution and language are concerned with noun and verb, subject and object, cell wall and environment, what’s in and what’s out. Locally and pragmatically, language and evolutionary boundary-making (I compete here and cooperate there; I don’t care here and empathize there, etc.) are important–you can’t say anything or survive without them. But ultimately, existence is non-dual and on the move; it’s a continuum, an interconnection, an emptiness–and these can’t be put into words; into tidy genus-species-specimen categories.

So no man or thing is really an island. Not ultimately. No thing has self-existence. Being and non-being are dependent on one another–which makes for a sense of conceptual emptiness and mystery (no flower in the flower, and yet–here’s a flower!).

So we should get comfortable with emptiness. The pot is inseparable from the form of the pot. You can’t have emptiness without the pot, nor the pot without emptiness. But we split them up–because we have to for speech. “This clay part here–that’s the pot. This empty part inside the pot, that’s not the pot.” We do the same with ourselves in relation to our environment.

And this brings us to the breath in meditation, for our lungs are pots–forms encompassing emptiness. What are you going to inhale (intellectually and emotionally)? What are you going to exhale? What in this moment will you notice and make important–and what will you make unimportant? What will you breathe in, and what will you breathe out?

It’s about accepting and letting go; making room for the new; relaxing. Will you see the truth in this moment in the sense of it being both an end and a means–or will you push it away for some other truth from the past or out in the future? Will you take Emerson’s advice in his essay, “Circles,” to “make the verge of to-day the new centre”?

That, to me, is the problem of our relation to truth: given our existential situation, what will we notice; what will we make important right now? If the ultimate truth eludes us because of the limitations of language; because the doors of our perception are conditioned by our habits, our evolution, our cultural zeitgeist, our desires, our embeddedness–we nevertheless have this moment. Are we noticing it, accepting it, resisting it–or simply missing it? What’s our relation to the truth in this moment–this moment of truth?

I’m not talking about just our relation to an uncertain truth out in the future–something we may have inferred or abstracted incorrectly–but to this moment right now. Means and ends are here. The kingdom of heaven is within, without, and now. In the great halls of truth, where does this kingdom of now reside–this play of matter and imagination in the present–but in ourselves most broadly conceived? Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself”:

There was never any more inception than there is now,

Nor any more youth or age than there is now,

And will never be any more perfection than there is now,

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge,

Always the procreant urge of the world.

Do we believe Whitman? What room will we make for the emperor of ice-cream? Because the realm of the emperor of ice-cream is the truth too.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Three Things I Think Are True

  1. Sebastian Normandin says:

    This is a great post. More “eastern” than past tones. I have shifted to writing about this stuff almost exclusively on the new blog, Pneumosophy, which centers on breath and Buddhism and Taoism and many other things (like Slack). If you don’t mind me saying it, since I have popped in and out on your blog for some time, it appears that there is a definite shift in your spiritual influences over time. Is this so?

  2. Santi Tafarella says:

    Sebastian:

    I’ll check out your blog.

    As for the eastern-oriented reflection above, I’ve been practicing yoga and meditation off and on for quite a while, but about eight months ago my meditation effort took on some fresh steam after I struck up a conversation with a Buddhist monk of thirty years from Sri Lanka. He’s sixty years old and has studied meditation in Malaysia, China, and Japan–so he’s well versed in Buddhist meditation across numerous cultural traditions (Theravadan, Chi’an, and Zen). He teaches meditation in Santa Monica. He also knows Stephen Bachelor–the well-known atheist meditation teacher. In any case, I said to him, “If I can get some of my friends from my college out to my house, might you consider coming out twice a month to teach us basic meditation?”

    He agreed, and he’s been arriving like clockwork every first and third Friday of each month. My wife has been wanting a sugar and caffeine-free, bullshit free church substitute, so we’ve basically just created something from scratch. We usually get about 10-15 people doing zazen in our living room while the kids (a number of us have children) play in the backyard and back bedrooms. Somebody started coming who is a Tai Chi teacher, so he’s been teaching us some basic Tai Chi exercises as well. And we’re a tough crowd–among the regulars are a couple of philosophy professors, a physicist, an engineer, a mathematician, my wife and I (English professors)–pummeling the monk with questions after we practice. We keep him on his toes because we’re all pretty much skeptical seculars, agnostics, and atheists culturally.

    Then we have soup, drink wine, and yakety-yak. We’re low key and fully accepting of whoever comes and goes. A mini-sangha.

    But the meditation practice is starting to gain some traction for me–and I’m getting insights. I’m especially interested in cultivating what David Loy calls a “no-lack mind,” (maintaining a calm equanimity in the present, and learning to be more present in the moment). And I’m reading Whitman as Western poetic-Buddha support and inspiration. Anyway, I’ll probably be posting more Buddhist stuff as I think it through more. I’ve also been reading Nagarjuna and using, in my reflections, Aquinas as a foil for thinking against him. We’ll see where I end up over time.

    If you haven’t read David Loy’s books, find them. Good, intelligent stuff.

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