Thoughts after reading Andre Comte-Sponville
I am tempted to go back to the beginning. But I think I will focus on what I learned today. I could happily spend all day reflecting on this magnificent thinker.
He called this section: ’Is It possible to Speak About Silence?' 1
Even that question I love. (It makes me think of 'The Fruitful Use of Silence’ by the Quaker, Jim Platts. I will return to that one day.)
Sponville says, recognising the irony here, 'We must try to say something about silence.'
He suggests that only in silence do we experience the mystical, the absolute, the fact that we are eternal here and now. He talks about the experience of living eternity, not just contemplating it. He calls it an 'eternity of becoming, the perpetual impermanence of everything.'
I like that paradox.
He says, ’Though few and far between, these experiences have changed my daily life, making it a bit less heavy – and even, on good days, happier.' He finds similar eternity in Vermeer and Mozart.
This silence he describes as a 'suspension of familiarity, banality, repetition.'
'All at once, it is as if everything were new, singular and astonishing. There is a suspension of questions and problems. The question vanishes and all that remains is the answer, which is no longer an answer, since there is no longer a question. All that remains is being, reality.'
All of this transports me.
He goes on:
’Another thing that is suspended in these moments is lack. This is an utterly unique sensation. We spend most of our time running after things we do not possess, things we consider to be missing and wish to procure for ourselves. We are prisoners of lack, prisoners of nothingness.
‘There are the occasional moments of grace, when we cease hoping for anything other than what is – and this is no longer hope; it is love. Moments when nothing is missing, when there is nothing either to wish for or to regret.
‘It is like a pilgrimage through immanence.
‘These are moments of grace when all that remains is the music.’
For many years I have carried with me the rapture of his reflection on the night sky. I have referred to it in speeches about attention and thinking. It describes both I think.
'This is something anyone can experience by looking at the night sky.
'Darkness, which separates us from what is close at hand, brings us near to what is far away.
'You cannot see the far side of your own garden, but you can see billions of kilometres away with the naked eye. What is that whitish, opalescent streak? The Milky Way, ‘our’ galaxy or at least the one to which we belong – some one hundred billion stars, the nearest of which, with the exception of our own sun, is thirty trillion kilometres away.
'What is that bright dot? Sirius – eighty trillion kilometres away.
'The universe, whether finite or not, surpasses us in every direction; its limits, if it has any, are permanently beyond our reach. It envelops, contains and exceeds us. We are inside it – we live within the unfathomable.’
For Sponville this is incomprehensible eternity. And it is silence. It is simplicity.
For me, too.
For me, too.
1 From Andre Compte-Sponville, Atheist Spirituality, pp. 144-167
What is the purpose of life? he asked.
To be yourself, she answered.
But aren’t I already myself? he asked.
You are now, she said, but people over six usually aren’t.
Why is that? he asked.
Because when they are little, she said, no one ever asks them what they think.
The true cutting edge does not cut. It curves. Sometimes it is a soft blend of things - a meeting of two uncertainties, and then a shooting froth of seeing, then a setting down to withdraw, then to surge again.
The edge of discovery is a kind of breathing, like the waters off Ikaria.
What drives you? they ask. What keeps you going (as if the natural state is to stop)?
Discovery is what drives me, this fleshy muffled edge that does not cut, but conceives. The so-called ‘cutting edge’, pandering to corporate and professional boasts, trends and then collapses into cliché. Imminent discovery hovers, misty, in no need of recognition. We are privileged to be welcomed there.
We need only be thrilled to see.
Face it. They are not going to do it for you. Ever.
It’s not that they won’t. It's that they can’t. There’s no plotted wilful ineptitude here. They just can’t. Because they’re not you. No one else is, sadly.
And the completely counter intuitive thing, the maddening thing, the thing that just should not, not, be so is that only you can meet your expectations.
I know. The whole point of expectations is for someone else to meet them. That’s baked into our adult selves because when we were babies, when the baking-in marathon took off, people did meet our expectations, those physical, life-dependent ones, which were all we cared about then. So we got used to having needs and then having them met by someone other than ourselves. We expected something, and we got it. Life was good.
But fissures appeared early on as our emotional needs became distinct from our physical ones and our expectant selves stopped being smug and started being wary, hopeful at first, but increasingly slightly disappointed and soon perpetually scouting for betrayal ahead. In those very early scouting years we still needed attention of the most extraordinary sort in order to build our brains fully; we needed interesting conversation even before we could speak or think fully in order to think and speak fully later; we needed massive exposure to joy in order to feel complex versions of it ourselves later. And most of all we needed almost nonstop appreciation, admiration, affirmation that who we are was magnificent so that later we could know that for ourselves.
We got some of that. But only some.
And way too soon we ran into too many noes and too-soon scowls and bouts of isolation with only chilly readmission.
There began the biggest need of all that no one at all could meet, and still can’t: the need to find out how not to need. Not knowing how, we limped along, and still do. Succeeding sometimes, always valiantly. Stumbling other times, usually with head-pounding self recrimination: ‘when will I ever learn’?
So now I take this challenge one needy moment at a time. First, I notice that it is exactly the kind of need that no one else but me can meet. Then I do a little genuflection in honour of the almost super human sacrifice I am about to make by giving up right this second the search for someone else to pitch in.
Then I sit down with myself in silence and say the things I wish someone else would say to me. Then I smile, even if I still feel wretched (I’ve read that a smile can change the brain’s chemistry towards happiness even if we don’t mean it). And then I remember that I am a perfectly perfect source of need-filling; I’m a wonderful person, so why why shouldn’t I fill this also wonderful person’s need? Why do I need some other perfect person to do that? And I give thanks for the capacity to honour myself as I wish others would honour me.
That usually gets me back on my feet and I ‘return’ to my life. There I nearly always find that because I gave up the need, the other person meets it right away. I am tempted to think, ‘perverse’. But instead I smile. This time, I mean it.
We get what we need when we no longer need it. Maybe that helps us learn to honour ourselves first.
We are, after all, the only person we have forever.