Bearing and Understanding

by Allan W. Anderson, Ph.D.

Allan W Anderson - PortraitWe have been taught since the beginning of western classical metaphysics that what is is to be understood in terms of itself or as a substance, a constant; its cause is a constant also, whether we term it “God” or “Being” (with a capital B). This reduction of things to their virtual atomic, constant identity was given enormous emphasis in the Middle Ages when the salvation of the individual human soul was the overriding obsession. In our own time this religious perspective has largely given way to an impersonal focus on what we call the phenomenon whether it be observed in language or experimental science. But this change in perspective has not altered our inveterate habit of seeing things as fixed ontological units, limited to and by their own essence.

We pay a severe price for this view of things. We lose the freedom of what Krishnamurti   calls “the choiceless awareness of our daily existence and activity.”3 We cannot realize and enjoy that freedom while we are busy worrying over how to protect and maintain our fixed identity from colliding with other fixed identities in a world of essential oppositions and estrangement. The psychological ramifications from this self-misunderstanding are not confined to western civilization. The Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most influential Hindu Scripture, describes the Lord Krishna’s appeal to Prince Arjuna to drop this very same   self-misunderstanding.   That   fully   eighteen   chapters   are   required   to complete this Scripture indicates how grave and all encompassing this self-misunderstanding is.

The prince is willing to listen to the instruction that, if followed, will release him from self-bondage, but he cannot know beforehand all the spaces he must encounter. Each of these spaces if not met openheartedly will become roadblocks to his enlightenment. Each space, chapter by chapter, opens up a new abyss. The prince must walk up to each one without flinching and hold patiently until he grasps the attitude and movement that will carry him safely through one crisis to the next. Each new space affords the prince another context within which to face up to the awful question: what and who are you. Are you constantly, concretely your self-image, your idea of yourself?  How can that be since it is always changing?

Krishna brings Prince Arjuna around again and again to face the same question because of all questions it is the most difficult to stay with and to hold to courageously, patiently, soberly and quietly. Perhaps, impatiently, we will explode with: “Oh, for heaven’s sake, this is ridiculous. If I didn’t know who I was I’d be an amnesiac!” But this won’t do either, since no one is willing to be reduced to one’s name, form and activity. As with Arjuna, so with us. We either stay with the question until breakthrough or we bolt from it hoping that, in our rush to rejoin the crowd, the question will not follow us.

Existence, which has always the first move, lays this question upon us at a very early age. Not that the question is intellectually formulated at that age. Indeed, it might never be so formulated for the term of one’s natural life. However, the normal child between the ages of two and five feels itself subjectively as subject. This felt self-identity is often called “ego-consciousness,” a rather unhappy term since it appears to collapse subjectivity into the function of ego. This verbal collapse is indulged in a great number of writings on spirituality which advise that the destruction of the ego is the means to release from self-bondage. This is a misleading notion since it is not the fault of the ego that self-misunderstanding occurs. Without the function of ego, we should lose personal pronouns whose grammatical uses are spiritually neutral. Self-misunderstanding belongs to the self, not to the ego.

Let us return to our Chinese model in the I Ching. The six lined hexagram is composed of the two trigrams for Heaven and Earth. Human nature is displayed by the two middle lines, the topmost line of the lower trigram for Earth and the lowermost line of the upper trigram for Heaven. As we noted earlier on, these two lines, while representing human nature are not intrinsically our possession. On taking seriously this image, it invites us to step back from the classical western view of ourselves as individual selves, as substances, separate from the interplay of Heaven and Earth, which are respectively primal energy and its embodiment. On accepting the invitation to step back, what comes into view is human nature as pattern, an embodiment of primal energy. As such we are but players in the interplay of the primal powers of Heaven and Earth and subject to their suasion. They are the playwrights of our ways in the play of the one cosmic dance.

Here, there is no ontological estrangement between self and other. Instead of a cosmic arrangement of fixed substances here is a panorama of integral movement bound only by the Unconditioned. Each of us is a way of primal energy patterning itself as the cosmic drama unfolds. The career of this boundless movement is not imposed from without. Rather its activity is intrinsic to itself; it is satisfied by its own exercise. Lao Tzu describes the intrinsic, non-authoritarian hierarchy of this cosmic movement this way:

Man patterns himself on Earth,
Earth upon Heaven,
Heaven upon Tao (the Way of ways)
And Tao accords with itself.

Elsewhere he says: “Tao (the Way) does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone.”5 This marvelous vision of the Groundless Ground, this intuition of Tao, the Way of ways overcomes the dualism of the One and the many. It is the One as the many and draws us back to the originary and absolute present. Lao Tzu says that the movement of the Way, the Tao, is a turning back. It is a turning back from the multiplicity of beings to Being and from Being to Non-being from which Being comes. It is precisely this turning back that discloses the role of bearing at its depth.

Before opening out the character of bearing let us note how self- misunderstanding arises. It is much less complex than we might flatter ourselves is the case.  It must not be confused with clinical neurosis with its attendant visceral symptoms, anxieties and phobias. As Kierkegaard noted, “losing the self can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.”6 On the other hand when self-misunderstanding collides with the self’s readiness to become healed from it and accepts the course of healing, symptoms very like those of neurosis often obtain. They are the result of withdrawal from habitual misperceptions of the way things really are. However, one does not become dysfunctional in the ordinary affairs of living during that withdrawal.

The beginning of self-misunderstanding occurs upon the instant reflection seizes upon a memory of the self’s behavior whether of action or reaction. Imagination then fixates that image. When the self identifies with that image or representation it has misunderstood itself. It has reduced itself to a belief in a disembodied consciousness which remains constant. The self invests this fiction with a name and properties. True, it is tinkered with and edited over the years under the duress of changes in body and opinion but the belief in its permanence is held indefinitely. It is now the self’s final arbiter and judge of any and everything.

What is it that draws us toward and into self-inquiry? It is the abiding pressure of bearing. Western culture, with its inveterate alienation from nature, tolerates thinking that bearing as suffering belongs primarily to our human species. It is argued   that   since   animals   do   not   have   verbal   language   with   which   to communicate thoughts and feelings that animals do not think and feel. The seventeenth-century philosopher Descartes believed animals to be nothing but automata, machines.

In a remarkable and scholarly book by J. M. Masson and S. McCarthy, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, the authors quote an unknown contemporary of Descartes:

The [Cartesian] scientists administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain. They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling. They nailed the poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them to see the circulation of the blood which was a great subject of controversy.

Not all thinkers were persuaded by Descartes. Voltaire, Newton and Locke took the side of the animals. Lest we think that our alienation from nature affects only species other than our own we should remind ourselves of the atrocities we have wreaked upon our own kind since time out of mind, the Inquisition and the Holocaust are but two instances of our depravity. Human nature continues to display unimaginable extremes from sacrificial love to intense, heartless cruelty toward all forms of life. It is not difficult to agree with the prophet Jeremiah who cried out that the human heart is desperately wicked and deceitful above all things and who can know it? [Jer 17:9]

Our usual human response to this spectacle is to avert our gaze from it, as long as we can, since to dwell on it leads only to despair and perhaps even to clinical depression.  But this attitude does not take bearing seriously.  It seeks only to escape from it. To take bearing seriously entails a shift of perspective, a shift from seeing bearing in personal terms only to contemplating it for what it really is, namely, a permanent and irreducible feature of all existence. This shift is not easily made. It requires a deep empathy with the lot of any and all creatures that share life with oneself. Linda Hogan, the Native American poet, essayist and novelist has said, “A change is required of us, a healing of the betrayed trust between humans and earth. Caretaking is the utmost spiritual and physical responsibility of our time….”8 She offers a beautiful example of this reciprocity on nothing “how water and earth love each other the way they do, meeting at night, at the shore, being friends together, dissolving in each other, in the give and take that is where grace comes from.”

Let us note now how we as human first encounter bearing. Whether there was or was not a preexistence for us, it is certain that upon the moment of conception we are housed as the sheltered promise of our birth. Earth which is housed in space houses our mother who in the deepest recesses of her person houses the promise of our birth, our arrival into the world, itself a house, a dwelling awaiting us and given to us in advance. This is how Existence conditions us and mothers us into being. Our life career is an embodied one from the start. This principle of embodiment the language of myth calls Earth. The spirit that is embodied is called Heaven. The I Ching calls Heaven the Creative and Earth the Receptive. They are the Father and the Mother of all lives and as primal energies they specify our natures in advance. But the Classic teaches us also that unconditioned spirit is unfathomable, unbound by any determinants and utterly beyond explanation. This is Tao, the Way. As conditioned spirits we must revere it in silence yet it is our true origin and ultimate nature. The relation between it and our conditioned existence provides a way to contemplate and ponder the mystery of bearing.

As human we enter the world unable to stand. For many months we lie most of the time parallel to Earth. As adults we can hardly, if ever, recall how arduous it was for us to raise ourselves from our horizontal posture to the vertical one of standing upright and unaided. On standing upright, on our own, we make our first formal gesture of independence; but it is a conditioned independence. What conditions us lies much deeper than our need for continued parental care and social affirmation.

The depth of our conditionality discloses itself if we suspend our calculative point of view and adopt for the time being the mythical or intuitive perspective. This is the meditative one within which our potential sageliness can flower and poetry sings. For example, it is only within meditative thinking that faith, hope and love truly reveal themselves. They consistently elude rational explanation but we do not on that account regard them as illusory.

How does our human standing upright condition us in depth below the psychological and social spheres of our needs and desires? Mythically speaking, by standing upright, we mediate what is above us to what is below and what is below to what is above. We are the face of that midpoint between Heaven and Earth, the Creative and the Receptive, Spirit and Embodiment; but we do not stand as effortlessly as we recline. Standing tires us, so we sit or lie down where and when we can to compensate for that fatigue. In fact, at least one third of our lives is spent in reclining for the sake of restoring our energy through sleep and rest. It is in standing that we bear our humanness.

This point of view discloses that the moment of the infant child’s first standing unaided is, humanly, the first decisive moment of its life’s passage. In standing alone it declares its individuality and all the inwardness which that entails. Yet, ironically, this very statement of individuality provides our principal occasion for self-misunderstanding. This crucial point will be developed in the next and last section. In standing alone, Existence has called the child to the universal human vocation which the child must bear and carry through in its own way. Human nature’s vocation is to mediate, to bear spirit to body and body to spirit. The intersection of these powers tradition has called the soul which is an unstable equilibrium. It is an unstable equilibrium since every instant is fraught with the unexpected, the unprecedented, whether observed or not. The soul is the intermediary of endless beginnings and it is only through memory and imagination that it can fancy itself to be otherwise. Try as it might the soul cannot in fact, in actuality be elsewhere than upon the threshold of every present instant.

This link between spirit and body which, from the individual standpoint, tradition calls soul is from the cosmic standpoint the intersection between being and becoming, the axis of value and process. Yet, beyond these, there is a deeper intersection, one which today we hear almost nothing about.  It is the point between what Plato called the Good and the whole interplay of Being and Becoming. Here, the Good is beyond the correlation good/evil. Plato tells us in the dialogue, the Republic, that the Good is beyond being, surpassing it in dignity and power. Precisely as one is enabled to pass between being and becoming, one comes upon this deepest of all intersections, that between the Good and the whole manifest world of coming to be and passing away.

Bearing does not disclose itself in its radical character until the intersection between the Unconditioned and conditioned existence is intuited. Since the Good is beyond Being it is beyond conceptualization.  Plato’s calling it the Form of forms does not reduce it to a concept except negatively just as the name Non- being is a negative concept which is simply to say it is beyond what can be conceived. The Good, the Ultimate is not this and not that.

Allan Anderson with J. Krishnamurti

Allan Anderson with J. Krishnamurti

If we can for a moment disengage from our collapse into abstract, disembodied consciousness and ask seriously what is the condition for relating viscerally to Non-being, we should have to say it is bearing, which is to say, plainly, suffering. Precisely here some non-dualists will object by asserting that with self-awakening suffering disappears.  But this is a hasty notion.  Rather, it is suffering over suffering that disappears and not suffering itself. If suffering as such disappeared with enlightenment, how is it that some sages have died so painfully from cancer? To say that they did not suffer their pain is a trifling, semantic quibble. On the contrary, their bearing and their sacrifice provide us a profound lesson. Existence is not meant always to be docile to our arts and sciences, five-year plans and manipulative cleverness.

The intersection of Ultimate Spirit with the flux of existence occasions detachment in us. The occasion for detachment does not actualize it. It only invites our consent to it. Yet without detachment bearing, as suffering, puts us in bad faith with existence. Another mistaken notion is that adversity produces fine character. On the contrary, without detachment adversity alienates and embitters us. However, detachment rescues us from self-pity and returns us to origin, to our natural state in which we do not act for an object but from timeliness, the detached response to necessity.

In the detached response of timeliness we lose the illusion of agency and so act without contrivance.  Complete detachment within the intersection of Ultimate Spirit and the world turns over our view of things 180° and what appeared above is now below and what was below is now above. This is beautifully portrayed in the eleventh hexagram of the I Ching in which Heaven is placed beneath Earth rather than above her. The hexagram is called Peace. Peace is not the cessation of hostilities.  Peace is dwelling in our natural state, our original innocence. Masculine and feminine energies once estranged are now nearer than near.

Our natural state reflects the point of which Ultimate Spirit meets whatever body it energizes and informs. This point of our original innocence has no lust to possess an end in view and no nostalgia for a beginning once enjoyed. Our natural state abides in the time between times which is the timely, the ever present and unprecedented now, obedient to the suasions of Heaven in which is perfect freedom—the freedom from having to choose. Visionary matters are notoriously difficult to communicate and prose is not the happiest medium to convey them. So I shall try a poem and call it: Between.

Who can wander for a lifetime
In the valley, on the hill,
And not see the face of heaven
On the swift and in the still

On the swift and shining waters
In the smooth wet-molded stone Wide,
wide heaven beds among them
Lies where all the leaves are blown

And the wafted leaf in autumn
Comes, like us, to find its ground
Falling where the hand of heaven
Cups the seeker and the found.

If one is not vigilant, the perspective of these lines can encourage a false comfort. It is infinitely more pleasant to imagine the ideal embrace of Heaven and Earth and how they cradle us than it is to remain alert to the inevitable contradictions and collisions of our embodied existence. Abstract contradiction we take easily in stride. It is when contradiction touches our being that we are devastated since it overturns all we have taken for granted. The real tests me through contradiction in being. Without existential contradiction we have no occasion for learning detachment and distance on our surround.10 Only in detachment is the spirit free to discern the false in the false and the true in the false. Spirit is released to its vocation when soul lets spirit be its eyes and ears. Unfortunately, the soul usually prefers to outward eyes and ears of the body and rarely discovers the inward eye and the inward ear. Unless the soul makes the transposition from the outer to the inner it remains turbulent indefinitely, unable to rise above the storms and stress of material flux.

In one of the uncanonical gospels, the Acts of Phillip, Jesus is recorded as saying, “Unless you change your ‘down’ to ‘up’ (and ‘up’ to ‘down’ and ‘right’ to ‘left’ and ‘left’ to ‘right’) you shall not enter my Kingdom (of heaven).” Clearly, this oracular admonition requires us to transpose our levels of being, the horizontal (right, left) and the vertical (up, down). Our transfiguration depends upon it. Naturally, if these relative qualities are exchanged on the same plane, they cannot effect an inner transformation. The depth and character of their transposition appears in St. Matthew’s gospel. This text is usually given a tiresomely moralistic interpretation. But Jesus was not a moralizer (had he been one he might never have been executed). In this text bearing becomes acutely aware of itself. The following is a standard translation of the text [Matt. 7:13-14].

Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

The word ‘hard’ that describes the way or road that leads to life is not, in the Greek text, a simple adjective opposed to the word easy which describes the way leading to destruction. The Greek word translated ‘hard’ is tethlimménē which is a form of the verb, thlibō meaning to press together, to compress, to contract. What is hard about the way that leads to life is its pressure, its compression. The word tethlimménē beckons us to look at it still more deeply. This form of the verb ‘compress,’ means literally ‘in the state that results from the act of compressing.’ Now our text reads more amply and precisely. It tells us not that the way itself is hard but that the way is a result of something else that is hard, namely, a compressing which metaphorically means an oppression, distress, affliction.

Strictly speaking, the one thing said of the way is that it is a result and this result leads to life. Further, the only thing said of the act of compressing is that it has a result. Neither the act of compressing is the way nor is the way called an oppression, an affliction. This distinction is far reaching and a check against hasty conclusions about the spiritual life. Some see the spiritual life as an agony undergone for the sake of a later, a heavenly reward. Others see living spiritually as a blissful deliverance from bearing, from suffering. The text supports neither of these viewpoints. Rather, it implies that bearing as suffering is a necessary but not sufficient condition for realizing life and that the way to life is a state that results from that condition.

Etymologically, result derives from Latin salire, to leap. Result, then means to leap back; to reverberate, to echo. As a leap it is a transition from one level to another, as a reverberation, an echo. Just as an echo is not a repetition of the material conditions that produced it, so the way that leads to life operates in a higher sphere above our personal sufferings; yet, these sufferings abide as that out of which the way is realized. To put the matter simply we can say that while we are bearing our trials in good faith, we are upon the same instant leaping into the only life worth living, the life of peace that passes understanding. This leap is intuitive. It has no causal antecedent nor can it be anticipated as something waited for. It can only be waited on; it will come or not come in its own good time. In the meantime bearing remains. It abides impervious to our manipulations. It does not change.

Since bearing does not change it is given to us in advance. We cannot choose it. Like language, bearing, given to us in advance, is fraught with mystery. We speak of understanding language but we do not understand its origin. We speak of understanding bearing as a personal response to adversity and we think we understand what it is but we do not understand that it remains abidingly the case with every existent from stone to star.

Since these things are so, our understanding does not transcend its primitive meaning in English which is to stand under. Ultimately, what is it that we stand under? It is the obligation to be true to one’s nature, one’s own way of being who and what one is which existence has required from the moment of birth. This requires patience and an undistracted listening to the voice of primal intuition.

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From an excerpt of the talk titled Inner Transformation and Bearing, presented by Dr. Allan W. Anderson, in November-December 1995 at the International Foundation for New Human Paradigms in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Allan W. Anderson, Ph.D. was born in Hastings, New Zealand but grew up in England. He moved to the United States in 1936 where he remained most of his life.

Dr. Anderson began teaching at San Diego State University 1962 and retired in 1985. He was a founder of the Department of Religious Studies, established in 1969. He taught courses on philosophy of religion, metaphysics, ethics, scripture, and psychology with a focus on Hindu and Chinese canons. Additionally, he received the 1970 California State Distinguished Teaching Award and the Alumni Association Outstanding Faculty Award for 1982 and 1983.

Perhaps his most well-known work is the eighteen one-hour dialogues between Dr. Anderson and J. Krishnamurti entitled A Wholly Different Way of Living. The talks were broadcast every Sunday on KPBS between January and April in 1975, and were later published as a book.

Allan Anderson was a good friend of Inner Directions and played a significant role in the production of the following two DVD titles: Abide as the Self: The Essential Teachings of Ramana Maharshi and Awaken to the Eternal: Nisargadatta Maharaj-A Journey of Self-Discovery.