Comments on “Ritual vs. mentalism”

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Michael Nieman 2015-04-04

This seems to me to tie in to an interesting, paradoxical fact about creating art. My particular art is poetry. Beginning poets often think that sincerity is the most important thing in a poem. Later, you discover the extent to which artifice is needed in order to create something that can live on its own, separate from yourself, and do some work in the world. Jack Gilbert has a great poem called, “Poetry Is A Kind Of Lying” that beautifully expresses this fact. It ends with the lines

“Degas said he didn’t paint
what he saw, but what
would enable them to see
the thing he had.”

It also occurs to me that one of our challenges is that we only know one way to know things, but one of the things we know is that our knowledge is always partial, and that there will be consequences of our actions that we cannot anticipate. Still we must act, and we cannot retreat into unknowing, or pre-knowing. But ritual may offer us another way to know things, things that we already know in a part of us that actually is connected to the universe, a non verbal, non mental part.
I love your blog. Keep it up.

mtraven 2015-04-05

Well, don’t stop just because another book hits some of the same points you are going for. Surely your perspective and style is different enough to be valuable. And maybe you should reflexively apply these ideas to your own work – maybe writing is not so much about coming up with original truths but a ritualized retelling of some things that everybody already knows to some extent.

Most people our age have a jaundiced view of rituals because we were force-marched through dead ones as children, and our experience of them is anything but improvisatory or innovative. In some cases we’ve found or created new ones that have those qualities.

BTW I gave a short talk on play recently that glancingly referred to your grad school work.

David Chapman 2015-04-05

Michael Nieman — Yes, that point about art seems exactly right. Thanks!

mtraven — Good advice. I’ve always said my writing is non-academic, and makes no claim to originality.

Thanks for the pointer to your talk on play! Interesting points. Ritual and its Consequences also discusses Bateson’s and Huizenga’s theories, and convinced me that I need to read Homo Ludens.

jayarava 2015-04-07

This all seems very familiar from my own upbringing both before and after I became a Buddhist. I suppose I’ve never been mainstream.

Michael Nieman 2015-04-11

The following passage from a long discussion of “faith”, in the chapter on “The Hermit” in “Meditations On The Tarot” seemed relevant to this discussion. What he says about “faith” seems congruent with your comments about “ritual”. MedTarot is a book that is endlessly rich for me.

“A force which can move a mountain must be equal to that which piled it up. Therefore, the faith which can move mountains can neither be an intellectual opinion nor a personal feeling, no matter how intense. It must be the product of the thinking, feeling and desiring human being with cosmic being-with God. The faith which moves mountains is therefore complete union-even if only for an instant-of man and God.”

floodmouse 2015-04-12

You mention storytelling as one of the “as-if” activities (like ritual) that allows us to mediate between “what should be” and “what is.” Storytelling–in the form of novels–is the form of “as-if” activity most familiar and beloved to myself. Many of the themes you mention in this post about ritual resonate with the novel I’m currently reading: “Leaven of Malice,” which is Book Two of the “The Salterton Trilogy” by Robertson Davies.

In “Leaven of Malice,” the eccentric cathedral organist, Humphrey Cobbler, unlocks the cathedral on Halloween night–‘All Hallow’s Eve”–and leads a group of students in a “bawdy” dance, accompanied by music from the church organ. The dean of the cathedral is surprised to find himself admiring how strangely beautiful and proper he finds the sight of these young people amusing themselves. He strives to keep the musically talented Cobbler from losing his position as organist, in the face of disapproving conservative members of the congregation.

The innovative rebel, Cobbler, represents the forces of play and transformative ritual. The bawdy dance on Halloween night ritualizes the chaotic Halloween pranks that are going on all over the town. The next day–All Saint’s Day–order will be restored. (“Hallow” is an old word for “holy.”)

The conservative members of the congregation–led by “Auntie Puss” Pottinger and Mrs. Roger Warboys–want to oust the renegade organist. The ritual they want to see in their cathedral is the purely formal kind, subject to inflexible rules and oppressive authority. They fear these ecstatic outbursts by Cobbler, the renegade musician–because after all, a “bawdy” dance can undermine the whole social order of marriage and authority.

The dean of the cathedral stands in the middle, with the task of balancing the disruptive and overly-staid factions of his ritual community. Dean Knapp has a reluctant sympathy for Cobbler’s antics. “[The dean] had never been the sort of Christian who wants to have things all his own way–to preach the love of God and to deny the existence of the Devil. Well, if he had to meet the Devil in the line of duty, he would do so like a man.” Dean Knapp marches into the cathedral, to face the boisterous organist and the girls showing too much stocking–but though he speaks sternly to Cobbler, he resists pressure to dismiss him from his post, for the dean appreciates the beauty and playfulness that music can bring to religious ritual, and does not see it as a pure “anathema” of chaos.

I appreciate academic discourse on ritual, but the storytelling of Robertson Davies, which illustrates it, really resonates with me. One of Davies’ frequent themes is the illusory or transitional character of Canadian democracy–although democracy exists, it exists in uneasy tension with entrenched social classes and cliques, inherited from history. This is a beautiful local example to illustrate how ritual can be used (or abused) to mediate the fluid but tangible social boundaries we are all enmeshed in.

Foster Ryan 2015-04-16

David, as always, awesome post! I am most of my way through Ritual and its Consequences and my head is also spinning- started by your post. It has triggered a lot of thinking on a subject that I have been wrestling with for some time- usually provoked by friends with ideas that drive me insane for some mysterious reason. The insanity seems to be triggered by something along the lines of the Mean Green Meme, or Boomeritis. Specifically it gets triggered by Radical Dzogchen ideas. It gets triggered by people who say such things as “I don’t believe in teachers. We all have the Buddha Nature within us so we just need to rest in it. All the rituals do is distract you. They are just for those who can’t rest in their Nature.” I then typically point out that those ‘rituals’ are how we unite Nature with Embodyment in a laboratory like setting. We also get out of our personal ego in the process. The teacher, along with teaching, acts as a placeholder for our egoistic selves to submit to the higher Nature. In addition, how can one be so sure that one is accessing one’s Nature? If the great masters continue to perform those rituals don’t you think there might be some reason that you don’t yet understand? One of the responses to that last question was “Well, that’s just a cultural habit and has no purpose.” I liked that one- greatest masters who don’t notice their performance of stupid habits. OK. Sure… This subject reminds me of one your articles about AI and how you couldn’t have intelligence without a context (or something along those lines)- we can’t just use logic to think. This connects to the idea of embodied cognition, or to the left brain/right brain idea. I’ve been slowly making my way through The Master and The Emissary by Ian McGilchrist and have been reading about embodied cognition for some years. In this view there is no thinking without context, or the thinking/intellectual function is only a servant of embodyment or the emotional/holistic self (‘right brain’). It is the holistic right brain self, the embodyment, that is actually the Master and is primary. Thought is only its tool. In the same way, the left brain, or atomized self, is only a component or servant, of this greater self. Applied to meditation, the search for the Self, or the Nature, would only be auxiliary to the holistic, ritual embodied self. The individual, similarly, is nothing without the community- which is primary- or more complete. Both work together, as neither is complete without the other. To get to the point: ritual is actually more complete. We need to have access to the Nature underneath, yes, but actually ritual (ideally) points to an integrated Nature and Form. Ritual gives us an embodied feeling experience of these principles, which is far greater than an isolated yogi staring at his inner sky in a cave. Dharmakaya is nothing compared to Svabhavikakaya- all form bodies together in union. When practitioners abandon ritual they are throwing out the entire Bodhisattva ideal and 2/3 of enlightenment. Big topic, very interesting!

David Chapman 2015-04-16

Thank you very much! Yes, those are all good points.

Sometimes it seems that when I write about Buddhism now I’m just translating the approach I took to cognitive science 30 years ago. Odd thing!

Dharmakaya is nothing compared to Svabhavikakaya

That’s a way of putting it that I hadn’t thought of. Nice!

floodmouse 2015-04-26

I enjoyed Foster Ryan’s comments above: “This subject reminds me of one your articles about AI and how you couldn’t have intelligence without a context (or something along those lines)- we can’t just use logic to think. This connects to the idea of embodied cognition.”

I love the idea of an AI having to learn from its physical and social experiences (the same as everybody else). To quote from the novel I’ve just been reading: “The metamorphosis of physical man into philosophical man: a great theme.” The novel is “A Mixture of Frailties,” which is Book Three of “The Salterton Trilogy by Robertson Davies. Davies opens the novel with the following quotation from Halifax; “Nothing softeneth the Arrogance of our Nature like a Mixture of some Frailties. It is by them that we are best told, that we must not strike too hard upon others because we ourselves do so often deserve blows.” Clearly, the Skynet supercomputer in “The Terminator” movies could have benefited from some ritual, to offset its mentalism.

It’s really striking how Davies’ themes resonate with the subject of this thread. His main character is alone for the first time in Paris. She goes to the Pantheon, which is an old church converted into a “Temple of Reason” during the French Revolution, when they banned Catholicism. She can’t find any comfort there, so she goes a cathedral instead, where she stumbles on the tomb of a saint who was once a living, breathing person. The physicality of the tomb, and the ritual of kneeling to pray, give her the comfort that she couldn’t find in contemplating the intellectual works of Voltaire.

Anyway, thanks for the great posts. They gave me a lot to think about and helped to develop my ideas.

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