Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Overlapping Parallels: Thoughts on Synchronicity in Vedanta, Blackfeet Culture and Hasidism

I came across something interesting the other day while reading Ron West's book Penuncquem Speaks. He mentions that in the traditional Blackfeet culture and religion there is no belief in coincidence; in other words, everything happens for a reason. I found this so striking because I had heard the exact same thing from Swami Tyagananda in speaking about Vedanta. At least so far as the members of the RamaKrishna Order are concerned, there is no such thing as a simple coincidence. This startling concordance of belief in two so geographically and culturally distant traditions is, I think, no mere coincidence. I think it points to something profound about the nature of life and to an experience of life lived that is the shared inheritance of all humanity. If there really is a common root to all the world's traditions of religious and spiritual wisdom; if there really is a Philosophia Perennis, as Aldous Huxley and others have claimed, then I think this seemingly peculiar idea, that there is no such thing as coincidence, must certainly form a part of it.

And this idea is peculiar, at least from the standpoint of the modern Western mind, because it denies the purely objective nature of our world that most in the West, even the devout, take almost entirely for granted. To the Westerner, all life is coincidence. Occasionally, events may occur that seem to have special relevance for us, but they are the exception, not the rule. Events happen because of impersonal natural laws and random chance, not for any particular reason. To deny coincidence is radical from the Western perspective because it implies synchronicity on a much wider scale than Carl Jung ever imagined. To deny coincidence, as the Vedantists and the Blackfeet Medicine People do, is to claim that in some way all events are synchronistic, all events have meaning.

What this axiomatic principle of thought (which opposes so profoundly our common principles) leads to when applied to everyday life is at least two-fold. The foundational idea that all events are sychronistic, that is, personally meaningful, leads too an increased sense of meaning in life and a much closer observation of and attention to our immediate, lived-in, environment. The two effects are not separate and distinct, however; they supplement and fuel eachother.

To begin with the second: in Penucquem Speaks Ron West says that
"A necessary circumstance to bring real ceremony...into your life is the idea that meaningful life is an observational meditation interacting with nature."

Already we can see meaning and attention getting wrapped up together in this beautifully succinct summation of the basic Blackfeet outlook on life. We can see clearly though, that for Ron and his Blackfeet teachers, the conviction that all life is meaningful and synchronistic leads to a heightened observation of one's surrounding environment*. This observation is not simply a "looking around," but acquires the character of a meditation. Not a meditation in the sense of sitting on a pillow and watching your breath, but a meditation that continues throughout all one's actions.

The other effect of applying the "synchronistic axiom" to our lives is an increased sense of meaning. From the western psychological/scientific perspective we could claim that this is merely projection, that the meaning is simply in our heads not in the world. This is beside the point though, from the synchronistic viewpoint, as all things are assumed to happen for a reason, including psychological projection(which is, at any rate, merely a description of a process and does not answer the why of it's occurrence).

And this synchronistic view is not limited to non-Western or aboriginal cultures. I believe it was Rabbi Schmelke who said, "In my old age I have reached such a state that when I come to a bundle of sticks lying cross-wise in the street I take it as a sign that it does not lie there length-wise." From the Western perspective, this is shear projection, bordering on delusion, but from the Blackfeet and Vedantic views, it is entirely appropriate. All things are inter-related and all events have significance, so of course the bundle of cross-wise sticks is "a sign." We must note, however, that it is still up to the individual to determine (or rather to feel) what the meaning of the sign is.

This process: of observing one's world, looking for meaning in that world, and finally by responding to that meaning is, perhaps, what Ron West means by "interacting with nature." This process, or rather, this particular way of experiencing one's life, is, I think, an important part of human spirituality, cross-culturally. As such, I believe it is worthy of consideration (and practice) by all people, regardless of particular religious or spiritual background (or lack thereof). The proof is in the pudding, so they say, and the menu is not the meal. It is only by applying this seemingly radical concept to one's life and watching for the results that one can be convinced that all things are, in fact, related. The universe speaks as well as listens, and if we can hone our own "listening" skills, we will be able to hear what it is saying.

We speak to the universe through our actions, and we listen through "observational meditation." When we are speaking to the universe through our actions, that is prayer. The object of the spiritual path, in one way of thinking, is to turn one's entire life into a prayer and what all wisdom traditions try to teach could be summed up by, as Ron West puts it,
"The idea that the most powerful prayer you can know is how you live your life in respect to all other life."

*Which for each of us is what makes up our individual worlds. This type of meditation, then, leads not out of the world, but deeper in.

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