I AM not I

Over many years the philosopher, Jacob Needleman, has been exploring the nature of consciousness and the search for truth through the lens of the philosophical and religious traditions of West and East.

The first book of his I read was at university, 'The Heart of Philosophy' that, in its first part, describes Needleman's experience of teaching an introductory philosophy class and, in the second, looks at the authors of the classical Western tradition, beginning with Descartes, through the lens of his teaching discoveries. Like all his books subsequently, it beautifully evoked the guiding wonder and questioning at the heart of a genuine love of wisdom. It was less interested in the what of each particular philosophy's 'answers' as in how they deepen our critical questioning of the world and how such questioning might lead us to living a fuller, more abundant and good life.

His latest book, that I read yesterday (it is very short and my flight very long), is structured as a staged conversation between Jacob as he now is and Jerry his younger self (as a fourteen, sixteen and twenty year old). What would the elder Jacob tell his younger self? What questions would his younger self ask his future?

Three things stood out for me. Needleman's focus on the 'taste' of truth - how does an idea rest in our awareness? How do we consciously hold it? For Needleman, as for Plato, ideas are alive and an idea not fully tasted, digested, understood, can easily become toxic. How, for example, has our idea of 'freedom' been constrained by seeing it simply as freedom from? A freedom not to be rather than a freedom for? And for what?

Second, how we forget the first force of a truth, when it awakens wonder, stills us with awe, gifts us the possibility of a genuine awareness and how quickly we move from that state to seeking to capture and display it in the appropriate dress of words. The most moving part of the book is Jacob/Jerry's exchanges on Elias, their friend of childhood, who died at fifteen of leukemia. Jerry and Elias would sit on a stone wall, exchanging facts, mostly scientific, but would always end in silence, as their answering of information, slowly gave way to a wondering after meaning, where the friendly assertion of having gave way to the possibility of being with.

Third that as time (and books) have proceeded, Needleman's indebtedness to Gurdjieff becomes more overt (presumably because in retirement one can admit to such 'disreputable' company).  At the heart of this indebtedness is a commitment to 'self-remembering' (as Gurdjieff called it) as essential part of receiving truth. This, in part, a call to an ever-deepening awareness and observation. What has this to do with philosophy?

I was reminded of giving a talk to a combined meeting of the Faculty of Theology and the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge on the relationship between the Desert Fathers of the Church and people in prison who practiced yoga and meditation (with whom I worked through the Prison Phoenix Trust). I was struck by the myriad ways people did not attend to the evidence of the talk.

One such was emotional - how could one possibly compare the lives of criminals with saints? To which the answer was consider their lives? Consider the back story of many of the Desert Fathers, criminals amongst them. Consider the reality that as one deepens one's awareness - through a spiritual discipline of awareness and intending good, you become more vividly aware of all the barriers that displace you from missing the fullness of the mark of your being, sin? Consider St Augustine's observation that the 'depths to which you descend are an indication of the heights to which you can aspire'?

Another such was intellectual, surely the notion that conscience was anything but a 'social construct' was inadmissible? Here 'theory' took us away from observation, the phenomenology of conscience in both desert monk and prison inmate, as their attention deepened, as they remembered and observed themselves more deeply, was that conscience emerged, colored undoubtedly by their manifold experiences, but yet with something resonant, objective, speaking towards them from within (and beyond), calling to a new life, renewed struggle.

Philosophy, Needleman would maintain (and Gurdjieff would second) is born out of observation rooted in the deepening practice of awareness otherwise there is no place that can hold and nurture and withstand, as well as understand, truth and rather than be transformed by it, we merely put it to use from whatever level of consciousness (or conscience) we now are possessed by. We begin in wonder rooted in the close texture of observation.


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