Thursday, November 06, 2003

One of the most delicate tasks required of guardian angels must be that of keeping their charges away from books until they're ready for them.

I've just read the first chapter of Varieties of Religious Experience. I know I've picked up the book and read a page or two before. Not just once -- several times. What could have motivated me to put it back down? Only supernatural intervention strikes me as a likely explanation. The book is enthralling, and the voice -- so humane and generous, and yet so cogent and unapologetic -- is simply wonderful.

At the other end of the spectrum of reading experiences -- I read some stuff at that some spirit of another variety drew me to. A simple-minded rejection of Buddhism, by someone whose brains and sensitivity would have led me to expect much better. I don't think I'm just being swayed by my own bias -- I admire many writers who think Buddhism is untenable or unacceptable. But at some points Horgan was just plain wrong about what traditional teachings about karma and enlightenment are: and taking the perception of his own monkey-mind as a refutation of the efficacy of meditation was really breathtakingly wrongheaded. Perhaps he was just very unlucky in the teachers he found?

A typical sequence is when he writes of walking in a winter landscape and thinking about it -- and then catching himself thinking and thinking that he shouldn't be thinking. And then he becomes resentful: why the hell shouldn't he be thinking? His failure of understanding here is in supposing that catching himself thinking, and thinking that he shouldn't be thinking, were things that any legitimate Buddhist teacher would encourage. Mindfulness is not engendering lots of conceptual thinking about thinking. Mindfulness is paying attention to what's present. Horgan has something of a knack for getting things exactly backwards. Of course the project of trying to loosen the grip of conceptualization can generate lots more conceptualization. But the solution at that point is simply to laugh. Make gooney faces. Scoop up the snow and dump it on your head. Didn't any of his teachers tell him that?

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