My Musing Mind Podcast Interview: “Finding a New Center”

I recently spoke with Oshan Jarow on his Musing Mind Podcast. What’s lovely about his podcast is that its focus is on the connection between worldly questions (those of economics, politics, and culture) and contemplative questions (those having to do with meditation, consciousness, and so on).

You can listen to the interview here. Below, I include his write-up on me. More show notes, references, and so on are available by following the link I just provided.

Musing Mind Podcast

Oshan writes:

Andrew Taggart is a nomadic philosopher and contemplative currently writing about ‘Total Work’, where the paradigm of work is becoming the central mechanism of our identities.

Andrew wrote an essay for Aeon Magazine on the subject. In our conversation, we dig into the relationship between Total Work and postmodernism, the shortcomings of radical leftists in considering what constitutes ‘the good life’ beyond material subsistence, his experience with meditation, consciousness, and various methods – from education to psycho-technologies – for moving beyond nihilism.

Andrew’s found a way to build a life around a gift economy, so he offers a unique perspective on what it’s like to participate in alternative economic arrangements. Speaking with him was a delight, as the depth of both his contemplative practice and philosophical study swirl together into a really eloquent, generous, and fascinating human.

Notes On Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way

What does it take to transform the whole person?

You sit and meditate, sinking deeper and deeper into This. You disappear, falling down through an unseen door. You transpare into the Absolute.

You open your eyes and return. Moments later, you are angry or disappointed. What gives?

Your body is frail, so you exercise it. It becomes strong. You like what you see. Vanity wraps you up in it. Which turn was the wrong one?

You become equanimous, feeling your emotions as they arise, giving them shape and room to breathe. But your intellect is like a car, gutted, sitting for ages in the desert.

The modern mystic Gurdjieff thought the ways of the fakir (the emotions), the monk (the physical body), and the yogi (the mind) were insufficient. A “Fourth Way” was required, one that brought all three into “harmonious development.” His Movements, a kind of sacred dance, was and was to be at the heart of this development of human beings into those who could be said to have genuine souls.

Yet is even this enough for a human being to be fully transformed?

The Desert Is And Is Not A Peaceful Place

A woman once said, “The desert is a peaceful place.” I wanted to say but didn’t: “It is and it isn’t.”

It isn’t first. It is one great via negativa. Take away water from the ground and the air. Make food scarce. Let the sun range, and rage, overhead. Let few trees grow to provide shade, timber, or shelter. Let people be fewer so that no help is on the way. Let loneliness and the threat of death insinuate themselves, sinking in with frank obduracy. You are alone; there is no one; you may die; and there is no place, as your thoughts and feelings harangue you, for you to turn toward.

Ergo, not peaceful.

It is second. The desert, like the ocean, is an image or symbol of abiding stillness. Movement, one comes to observe, is secondary and, when it occurs, deliberate. Ontologically primary is stillness. Yet it is not that nothing moves (for hawks and ravens and vultures do fly) and it is also not that nothing moves is an allusion to a paucity. Quite the contrary, “nothing moves” should really mean “all, as it is, is perfectly still and present.” In this sense, the desert is a representation of the very spirit of contemplation.

Quite apart from larger historical and religious reasons, these two metaphysical reasons, I have no doubt, explain why the Desert Fathers first came to the desert. To strip bare, yes, and, in a landscape intimating so, to experience the Ground of Being.

Without Stirring

I’m fond of the Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo translation of the opening chapter of the Daodejing:

TAO called Tao is not TAO.

Names can name no lasting name.

Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth.
Naming: the mother of the ten thousand things.

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.

These have the same source, but different names.
Call them both deep —
Deep and again deep:

The gateway to all mystery.

After meditating yesterday, I came back to the fourth stanza: “Empty of desire, perceive mystery. / Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.”

Could “desire” be a bit misleading here? Imagine that the Absolute is the ocean. Imagine that the ocean is perfectly, abidingly still. Then imagine the very first “stirrings” (Nisargadatta) of the ocean, the nascent agitations or perturbations or vibrations that ultimately give rise to waves.

Let us translate thusly: “Without stirring even a bit, the Absolute.”

For us, there is usually the faintest or grossest stirring. A sensation combined with the desire to do something about it. The first stirring of an image. A hint of anxiety. A feeling of restlessness. Some movement anyway. Stirring, we perceive the manifestations. (Which, ultimately of course, is fine.)

But then what is ‘behind’ or ‘underneath’ all manifestations? What is the ground of manifestation? If everything (every thing) returns to the One or Source, to what does the One or Source return?

Without stirring even a bit, sinking, sinking, and sinking until the completest abiding stillness unveils itself. As it is.

DIY Ecology Of Practices Or Iterative Best Practices?

A recent post summarizes the argument in the title: “Why The Therapeutic Needs The Spiritual And Vice Versa And Why They Both Need Philosophy.” On Twitter, I discussed the matter further with my friends @DGozli and @peternlimberg:

I’d like to reflect further on this spiritual and historical moment with special reference to this chart.

Historical Context

In my conversations with people at new spiritual and religious schools, I’ve noticed that more are taking an “integral” (Wilber) or an “all hands on deck” (Taggart) approach. I believe the cases of Zen masters involved in horrendous scandals provide sufficient reason to re-examine what it means to be a more fully transformed human being. My sense is that these schools are, in some respects, the products of examinations like this one.

Puzzles: DIY Ecology of Practices

The puzzles flowing from a “DIY ecology of practices,” however, become abundantly clear upon further consideration.

  • First, one accepts the categorial framings (body, mind, spirit, and shadow) without asking whether they are accurate, whether altogether the model is complete, and so on. This is one of my main objections to “the entrepreneurial mindset” more generally: it’s perfectly happy to use any framework as a tool to see what it can do with the tool. Yet contemplation and examination, by my philosophical lights, should almost always precede any pragmatic talk.
  • Second, consider the Spirit category. This is very far from a complete and accurate list of the different spiritual paths, Eastern or Western, existing today.
  • Third, take the example of weightlifting provided under the Body category. It’s perfectly possible, as I can attest from being a weightlifter in the early 2000s, to lift weights out of vanity. And vanity is an impediment to the realization of Spirit. What this critique illustrates is that (a) the Body activity should be consonant with the Spirit activity (e.g., sacred dance could be consonant with seated meditation) and (b) the quality of the activity itself needs to be brought into question. You can see a similar shortcoming under the Mind category: does it not matter what one reads?
  • Fourth, the biggest objection, of course, is that DIY is so often a way of propping up the ego. The ego chooses what it wants rather than the person surrendering herself to something beyond herself. This is why traditions, schools, and spiritual teachers can, at their best, provide a much needed corrective to the ego’s claim to autarchy. (At their worst, they can be corrupt.)

Mixing and Matching or Best Practices?

While an ecology of practices is a fine idea, a DIY ecology of practices may be misguided. I believe it would be wise, then, to rule out syncretistic mixing and matching based on the ego’s predilections.

Yet consider, in closing, the approach taken by the Monastic Academy. Imagine there being, say, four monastic branches; imagine each branch testing out different “technologies of transformation” (Daniel Thorson’s words) to see how well they bring out the transformation of the practitioners in question; then adjust and tweak the practices over time according to this iterative process in order to come up with a set of “best practices.” This seems sensible.

Call this approach a genuine contemplative science.