Tuesday, March 26, 2013

paths to enlightenment: action or retreat

The other day I was working with a student on an essay comparing the idea of transcendence in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature. The student in question was struggling to articulate a clear thesis statement and was looking for help with that as well as how to organize and structure his points. He knew what he wanted to say: that Hesse sees transcendence as something to be attained through experiencing the world whereas Emerson sees it as something to be attained through retreating from the world. However, in the end, both see transcendence/enlightenment as being similar in nature once attained.
This morning, as I was relaxing in bed, my mind drifted back to this paper and the odd paradigm that it seems to present.

As a culture, the West tends to exoticize the East, seeing it’s mysticism as being based on renunciation and detachment. Think if you will, of the main tenets that we tend to fixate on in Yogic philosophy, Zen, or Buddhism. Each in their own way, from the Western perspective, seems to advocate this idea of stepping outside of the flow of life and becoming detached from the world. We think of the East and the wandering hermit, either in the Chinese mountains in his Buddhist robes (much like a traditional Northern Chinese landscape painting) of the wandering Yogi, dressed only in his dhoti cloth, living off the charity of the world around him. In each, we see, stereotypically, a vision of the male stepping outside of the day to day mundane world in his quest to find inner knowledge. After all, did Siddhartha himself not give up everything in his quest to know more?

And yet, what my student was presenting me with, was a very different vision. Instead of detaching completing from the world, Siddhartha stepped outside of his normal environment and then used his material, mundane experiences as the doorway to examining and understanding his own nature. In contrast, Emerson retreated from the public sphere completely in order to enter a world of contemplation in nature. Both stepped outside of their normal lives, but one stepped outside but stayed within the world whereas the other stepped outside and retreated from the world. I find it interesting that culturally we tend to value the 2nd option on some level as being the way towards enlightenment, but yet, fail to recognize that this is more often than not, our vision, not that of Eastern traditions. After all, while we find Buddhist monks living far away from the world, we also find them very often, very much part of the world. Hell, the Dalai Lama is on twitter. Is the Pope on twitter? (I’m being a bit tongue in cheek here people).

don't mind me, I'm just contemplating the universe for a moment...

I’m not saying that one path is better than another. In fact, I think that both paths are equally valid but that they might shed some intriguing insight onto the way we go about understanding the world and thus, our paths towards stepping outside of ourselves in order to see the world and ourselves within it.

Does our individualistic nature in the West (and increasingly more so in the global world village) lead us to seek enlightenment differently because we see it as an individual quest? Can we dare to say that more communal based societies with a concept of continuity through lifetimes might seek this enlightenment vastly differently? I think that in this day and age, saying something like this might be a bit reductive to take as is, but the underlying concept might be worth more thought if we shift it out of an East/West divide and think about it as something that varies from individual to individual in order to think about it in terms of a pagan path.

As pagans, do we seek enlightenment (or whatever word you prefer) through experience, retreat, or another means? Obviously I’m aware that I cannot possibly answer that question with any accuracy for all pagan paths. I can only speak to the way I see it, on my path at the moment. And what intrigues me right now is the idea that perhaps Wicca (my path) is fusing both concepts together as it attempts to unite mysticism and magic into a spiritual path, or the God and the Goddess if you prefer. There is always a balance of action and non-action, darkness and light, retreat and engagement, meditation and service within my line of Wicca.
The longer I walk this path, in this particular lineage, the more I come to see moments of retreat (meditation/contemplation) as being about learning myself better in order to be able to be more actively engaged in my world, without the trappings of my own ego wants and reactions. It’s a tall order, but I think very much a noble thing to strive for: acting in the world and trying to move beyond my own reactions to see things more clearly.

And while I’m so far from being there, that’s ok, the work itself is the journey, not the result.

I'm curious though, how do others see this journey? Is there a balance between retreat into contemplation and action without expectation? Is this something that is true on your own path or do you see things vastly differently?

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