The following is an interview that I conducted with the noted author and poet, Paul Lonely on the occasion of the publication of his book ‘Suicide Dictionary’. The interview was first published on the now defunct blog ‘The Voice of Humanity Healing’ in December 2007
My Humanity Healing guest this time around is Paul Lonely. Paul is the author of the recently published and very highly acclaimed poetic masterpiece ‘Suicide Dictionary’. As Paul has stated, Suicide Dictionary is intended to be the first volume in a life-long work. He has also said that he would like it to be viewed as a contemporary Upanishads – which is most definitely quite an ambitious undertaking! If you are not sure what the Upanishads are, at the bottom of this post is a brief introduction to what is possibly one of the greatest spiritual texts ever written.
Suicide Dictionary is already being regarded by many noted authors and leading exponents in the fields of spirituality and Integral theory as a work of genius. Noted author, philosopher and founder of the Integral Institute, Ken Wilber has called the book “A startlingly original work of sheer genius…” The work of genius or not, Suicide Dictionary is without a doubt a critically important work that spans the interface between literature and spirituality, poetics and the numinous. At a time in human history when we are all learning about and interacting with people from other cultures and societies, people with other political and religious convictions, due to the advent of the internet (which is still, let’s face it, in its baby stage of growth) a new spiritual awareness is taking root. One that is metamorphosing out of the chameleon skins of all that we have shed as well as all that which we still hold as immutable. Suicide Dictionary is a poetic phoenix rising from the ashes of post-modern thought/post-modern spirituality and giving birth to a new resonance within the energetic matrix of spiritual art. Paul Lonely is clearly working at the cutting edge of a new integral art or an integral poetics. This is arising out of Ken Wilber’s notions of Integral theory and Integral Spirituality. If you would like to read an interesting piece on Integral art by Michael Garfield, then click the link here.What is interesting is that what we have developing here is a symbiotic relationship between reductionist science and that which has always represented the interface between humanities rational and non-rational relationship with the world: the arts. In bringing all that humanity has used and developed to make sense of the physicality that we inhabit, it is clear that science too must play its part in answering the questions that religion/faith/belief have never really been capable of answering on their own.
Ken Wilber has pointed out in some of his writings on the nature of consciousness that we cannot escape from the intersubjective worldspace that we are born into. In this sense it is then, according to this theory, not possible to transcend that worldspace, That all works of art, as a product and exploration of consciousness, great or not, are in some ways impacted by the world in which they are created, but there must also be a sense that some aspects of art, and perhaps those aspects which might lead to the general agreement on ‘greatness’ are reliant in on a subconscious or higher state of consciousness that perhaps is less prone to a cultural or social bias – is more primordial. For instance, one of the fundamental building blocks of art; The Golden Section (which is a method of dividing a line or space in a perfectly harmonious and aesthetically pleasing way) has not changed from one culture to another or from one-time frame to another. It is a rule that transcends cultural and socially specific influences.
Whether or not Paul’s work will eventually be seen in terms of ‘greatness’ only time will really tell. We are still, historically speaking at least, far too close to its birth to see what it will grow into, or whether or not it has that primordial connection to something beyond that which is immediately apparent in the world. Perhaps like Rothko the ‘greatness’ of Suicide Dictionary will eventually be measured only by its historical time-frame and the cyber-culture that promulgated the milieu from which such a work could find expression. In then end of course, it actually matters not a jot. What we have here right now, for all to read, enjoy and contemplate is a poetic collage that will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the development of a new poetics for a post post-modern audience. Over to Paul:
Paul, I want to thank you for agreeing to take part in this interview with me today. I understand that this is the first interview that you have given on your work?”
Thank you for the kind introduction, Steve. And yes, this is the first official interview I’ve agreed to participate in. I truly appreciate your interest in my work
My first question must be of course; why did you write the book and why ‘Suicide Dictionary’? Not a title that might inspire a sense of optimism or hope perhaps?
To answer the first part of your question, I must begin with a few childhood and adolescent memories. I was raised in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky which is firmly settled in what is called The Bible Belt. My parents were both avid Christians. So I was brought up, first, in the Nazarene Church of God and a little later as a Pentecostal. Nothing too over-bearing. It was just part of the conventional lifestyle of the American South. I actually enjoyed church as a youth but after a series of peak experiences that began when I was around ten, I naturally started questioning the dogmatic nature of the message I was hearing. I actually write about my first “spiritual experience” indirectly in entry number 56 in Book Two of Suicide Dictionary. When I was ten, I remember sitting in front of a garden of spring tulips on a windy day. I was just relaxing enjoying a crisp, clean afternoon when I began drifting into something that can be described like this: “The tulips are dancing…We are dancing…I am dancing…Dancing.” I didn’t know what had happened at the time. And when I asked my parents about it, they shrugged it off as childish babble from an imaginative young boy. I now know that that was my first experience of “nature mysticism”. It felt like I had become one with all of the “external world” and the only thing left was a Verb. The Verb. I had experienced Emerson’s “transparent eyeball”.
“Episodes” such as this continued periodically through my teenage years. And I quickly learned not to speak about them for fear of my family and friends thinking I was “possessed” or a little “weird”. When I was thirteen, I finally began secretly searching through the library for answers. I remember being scolded for bringing home a book about “World Religions” and various other works by my favorite poets. Most books, save the Bible, were firmly banned from acquiring my attention. Of course, this only fueled the fire. I began sneaking books into my room, waiting for everyone to go to sleep, and then reading by flashlight in my bed into the wee hours. I learned the story of Siddharta Gautama, I read a bit about Muhammad, Brahma and the history of religion. I even cut my teeth on Ginsberg and the Beats. All by flashlight. Those were exciting days. Although I never exactly found the answer to my question, I did find a way to make my world so much larger than it would have been otherwise. My horizons had expanded.
By the time I reached college I knew I wanted to write. But I also knew there would be hell to pay if I told my family my intentions. So I wound up majoring in biology and chemistry with plans to become a medical doctor. That was the “respectable” route to follow. Although I made good grades, I basically went through the motions during the day in regard to my “science education”. But at night I continued to engage my passion for literature and philosophy and basically gave myself a degree in the humanities. During this time, I had also begun a steady Christian contemplative practice of Bible reading and prayer that I “topped off” with Zen meditation. This was all in the closet of course. Being a science major at a small Baptist college, as far as religion went, meant I had two choices: conventional mythic Christianity or flat out atheism. I admit I tried to shove myself into both camps for a period of time. I wanted them together, seeing the need for both science and spirituality. But after a time, I simply gave up and went my own way. Science seemed to deny everything internal. Christianity, as presented here, was too much of a stretch for the rational mind and seemed to shun most things external. Where was the balance?
While in college, I worked a part-time job in the surgical department of a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. I mostly participated in “open heart” surgical procedures as a “heart holder”. This means I was basically a human vise. I held the heart in certain positions while the surgeon attached vein grafts. Although the work of doctors is noble beyond description, I eventually decided it was not the direction I wanted my life to go. I still had the overwhelming itch to write. So rather than head directly to medical school, I accepted a scholarship to study medical ethics at Oxford. This was a very decisive and beautiful time for me. I had access to a series of wonderful libraries and for the first time in my life, I felt the freedom to be a writer and an artist and really own it. For the most part, I’m sorry to say, I neglected my ethics studies. I spent most of my time reading and writing poetry, taking long walks in the streets of Oxford dreaming about the great men who had dallied along the same cobblestone paths I was treading. I spent many late nights in conversation at the Eagle and Child and The Purple Turtle. My time at Oxford left little doubt in my mind that I had to commit my life to poetry and the advancement of literature.
After returning to the States, much to my family’s chagrin, I made the announcement that I would not be attending medical school, and would instead be going back to university to study literature. I approached the president of Georgetown College, Bill Crouch, and told him my story. I told him of my spiritual background and my desire to convey it in a new style of writing. He was touched by my enthusiasm and gave me a full scholarship for a year’s study. I spent this year in a love affair with modern poetry and eastern religions.
Almost immediately after the second semester was over, my suitcases filled with Joyce, Pound, Olson, and Eliot, I moved to Japan to teach English which afforded me the opportunity to obtain a better feel for the religious culture that had become so much a part of my life. Living in the seat of Zen, in a very real sense, felt like home to me. Although my dedication to “western” art and literature continued to dominate my intellectual pursuits, my spiritual life was turning more and more to the “East”. By the time I left Japan, I considered myself a Zen Buddhist and was deeply dedicated to my practice of zazen.
As a brief aside, no tale of how Suicide Dictionary came to be would be complete without mentioning my mentor, Guy Davenport. Dr. Davenport was and is a world-renowned scholar, critic, writer, and artist. By the time I came to know him he had retired as a professor from the University of Kentucky and had received a MacArthur Genius Grant. Late one night during my second stint at Georgetown College, I was meandering through the library waiting for a book to catch my attention. I found one called The Jules Verne Steam Balloon. I checked it out and spent the weekend pouring over it. I showed up Monday morning to class and asked my Irish Lit professor if she had ever heard of an author named Guy Davenport. Her response: “He was one of my advisors while I was working on my Master’s. He’s known to be a recluse and is intellectually intimidating. But if you want his address, I have a friend at the University of Michigan who knows it.” A week later I wrote him a letter describing much of the story you’ve heard thus far. He responded with a short note and his phone number. I called and set up a meeting at his home. Goodness, I was nervous before our first conversation! But I’m happy to say, it turned out to be one of the most fruitful intersubjective experiences of my life. We talked for twelve straight hours. Or better stated, HE talked for twelve straight hours. He showed me letters he had received from Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, and Louis Zukofsky among many others. We looked at art slides and spent time critiquing his own artwork. In short, it was the beginning of the most inspiring friendship I have ever known. We exchanged letters and visits throughout the final four-and-a-half years of his life. Being in relationship with Dr. Davenport and tracing the tracks he left in all his wonderful books was like graduate school for me. Plus he always gave me the vote of confidence I needed at the time to push forward with my own work. I learned so much from him about style and what it meant to live the life of an artist. And although our spiritual differences were obviously profound, his influence can still be found on every page of Suicide Dictionary. I am so grateful to have known him.
Dr. Davenport died in January of 2005. The last time I saw him was in late November 2004. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer for a while by then, and could barely speak. I remember talking to him a bit about Shakespeare and his favorite play, Love’s Labours Lost. I fed him chocolate cake (which tasted “like ashes” to him). His final words to me were, “Good luck with the Big Work.”
So we’ve made it to early 2005. I was, once again, living in Kentucky and was nearing the completion of my first book titled Merryweather. I had been working on this book for close to three years. Much like Suicide Dictionary, I had created a fictional monastery, but this one existed in Pittsburgh in the late eighteenth century. Merryweather was the tale of 12 monks who crossed the American West approximately a decade before the Lewis and Clark expedition “officially” completed the task. It was written in much the same style as Suicide Dictionary, taking advantage of various prose and poetic forms. After close to a thousand pages and with my monks rounding into the home stretch of their journey, IT happened…
I won’t go into much detail at this point, but I had my first kensho experience. Needless to say, the way I saw everything changed. My reasons for writing changed. I literally spent the entire year “seeing things” again for the first time and writing about it. Initially, my work was one designed to create a type of post-post-modern literature that included, dare I say embraced, spirituality. But after this, my goals became so much deeper. I still intended to blend eastern and western thought. I still had the desire to create a dynamic spiritually inclined text. But this time, I knew I must consciously point beyond mere words on a page and the ideas they invoked. But how could I do this? I decided to start with the very source of language itself. The dictionary. I would redefine every word in the dictionary as I now “understood” them. And tell a story in the process.
So one evening, a cold winter night in Kentucky, I tossed everything I had ever written into the fire (and deleted everything from my computer)…a suicide if you will; and started on my dictionary, Suicide Dictionary. That’s how the name came about. Every mystical religious tradition has terminology that means something like “dying to the self” or “killing the ego”. Burning those pages represented, for me, a death of sorts. I was no longer writing for what was once called “me”. I felt a much greater sense of responsibility. Suicide Dictionary became an axle on the wheel of my bodhisattva vows.
Once again, an aside. This time for the other great mentor in my life. After finishing Book One of Suicide Dictionary, I decided to send a copy to American philosopher, Ken Wilber, as a kind of thank you card expressing my gratitude for his influence on my life and work. I didn’t include an email address, phone number, or return address. Just a copy of my writing and a brief note. Somehow Ken’s personal assistant, Colin Bigelow, found my phone number on the internet and contacted me. He invited me to Denver to visit with Ken and the Integral Institute folks. It was an amazing week. Ken was very cordial and encouraged the continuation of Suicide Dictionary. I flew home, wrote fifty sonnets, and decided I was ready to publish a small portion of my work. That work was released to the world last month.
So what is the book about and could you describe a little about the form through which the narrative is delivered? It’s not a straightforward prose story by any means. You have described in your writing how each entry in the book falls into one of four categories and that each has a four-fold purpose. Could you explain a little about this?
Here’s the blurb I gave in a preface to the book (but don’t be fooled by this short description): “The setting for Suicide Dictionary is a monastery named Rainbow Abbey which is located on an island in the North Atlantic called Ambrojjio. This island was discovered in 1453 ce and donated, later in the same year, to the Catholic Church. Pope Nicholas V (the first humanist Pope) used the land to erect a secret monastery for an artist colony of monk-poets he employed to formulate what he called a “prophetic” or “inspired” document to be published in the year 2050. This artist colony (now called the Order of Quantum Catholics) has survived to the present day (2007) and still employs monk-poets who remain hard at work on this “prophetic” document which has now been titled Quantum Psalter.”
As I stated in my answer to the previous question, the book is a literature of perspectives written and presented in the form of a dictionary. I literally started with the first word or letter in my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and worked my way forward. I deliver the work as a series of dialogues (between current Quantum Catholics), direct prose statements, free-standing poems, and journal entries.
Each entry is, first off, a definition for the corresponding word. The “I-space” if you will. Each entry also houses a morsel of “integral philosophy” which I think of as the “We-space”. My intention is also to supply information that develops the main storyline in regard to Rainbow Abbey and Quantum Psalter, both linear and non-linear. This is the “It-space”. And finally, each “definition” is a trans-rational pointing exercise designed to be read, studied, and contemplated as a contemporary koan.
My understanding is that the narrative is very much a vehicle to carry a philosophic and spiritually or religiously inclusive message. For me, it seems that the message resonates deeply with what seems to be a modern dilemma in terms of the integration of multiple approaches and disciplines and spiritual concepts. All of these make the claim to have the answers to humanity’s age-old questions on the meaning and purpose of life. Michael Garfield touched upon this in an article that appears in your book when he said that ‘as a generation, we stand before a global buffet of stories – of myths – an unprecedented panoply of cultural richness’. It is a dilemma, isn’t it? Could you talk about this a little perhaps?
I think the first thing we have to do is step back and not paint everyone with such a broad brush. I would say, yes, there’s definitely a dilemma. But the dilemma is caught in a spectrum of interpretive structures and perspectives. Which means the word “dilemma” has hermeneutic layers unseen by most people. The trick is to attempt understanding how each “wave of consciousness” is viewing this problem and then supplying an adequate framework that not only empowers them to engage the healthiest form of their structure but also encourages their evolution to more advanced stages.
For example, for most people nested in a “mythical worldview” the dilemma is the fact that everyone, for the most part, outside of their chosen group is destined to burn in hell. The very nature of evolution causes more and more desperation because more information, more injunctions, more theories only mean more potential distractions from their dogmatic assertions. The rational mind becomes a threat. The modern and post-modern world, in general, becomes a threat. The secular grim reaper lurks at every corner.
And no wonder, because people operating from a “rational or modern worldview” spend their days debunking some of the aspects of the mythical by activating and promoting their new god of logic and scientific method. The dilemma here is no longer a question of sinners and saints. Life is no longer a trial period for the judgment of heaven or hell. The raison d’etre at this higher level of development is to loosen the grip and remain free from the clutches of religion providing space to find proof, authentic proof, for logically-based questions. The pathological dilemma at this stage, of course, is the removal of interiority completely. Most moderns simply cannot see how narrow their worldview is. Everything, including their minds and souls (if you will) is simply reduced to an “It”. The “I-space” ceases to exist as anything other than a meat machine.
And then there’s the “post-modern” worldview that relies heavily on the “We-space”. Which is also an interior experience and thus rejected by the moderns. However, the po-mos are able to out-flank their “predecessors” by pointing out that everyone, scientists included, are firmly embedded in a smorgasbord of contexts. An infinity of contexts. Although this is obviously a valuable insight, holding this view alone while excluding the “I” of religion and the “It” of science naturally has its own set of pathological tendencies.
Which brings us to the “integral” or post-post-modern or “second tier” worldview. People operating from this level of consciousness are able to objectify and therefore operate on all previously-held structures or waves. They literally transcend and include the archaic, tribal, warrior, traditional, modern and post-modern worldviews. A profound result of using this interpretive software is that the dilemma of our “global buffet” of information no longer seems so intimidating. Suddenly there’s a place for nearly everything! The need to shrink from abundance becomes unthinkable. There’s room for the valuable subjective insights of religion. There’s room for the logic and rationality of scientists gleaning insights into our objective world. And there’s also room for the insights of postmodernism in regard to the value of intersubjectivity. All three of these knowledge spheres are true but partial. Once again, the “I-space”, the “It-space”, and the “We-space”; the subjective, the objective, and the intersubjective; the beautiful, the true, and the good. Thankfully differentiated. All partially true. But from my perspective, undeniably co-arising.
Here’s sonnet 47 from Book One of Suicide Dictionary (which basically repeats what I’ve written above):
Vacationing Shiva to Eden is driven
To wither the Apples and poison the Pears;
For now he’s assuming his Group is the given,
Exposing the Fear that mythology wears.
Although this is common with Gods at this level,
Shiva progressed and to Mecca was flown;
Transcending the Kaaba he out-grew the devil,
All Muslims were Human with Rights of their own.
A Relative Storm then swirled into action,
By limiting Apples the Pears could persist;
These Angels united in one massive faction,
Returning to Eden no truth could exist.
All three of these world-views are partial but true,
I’m embracing all three…
but transforming them too.
You’ve tried to provide an answer to all of this with your book and you’ve thrown an awful lot into the melting pot in distilling universal truths for the modern age. I think on many levels there is some truth in what Michael Garfield has pointed out as being a major theme of your work, in that religious symbolism; which is one of the doors through which we can go to experience or gain insight and unification with Truth, is actually fossilized and embedded within a cultural matrix to which we have no clear and conscious connection other than the historically or culturally, and socially-specific. Is there a role in the modern age, do you think, for the great religions of the world anymore? I am thinking particularly of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
To answer the first part of this question (which really wasn’t a question), I’m sure Michael Garfield understands that all “Truth” is embedded within a cultural matrix. But there are also other parts of the essay that easily show Michael has moved beyond an obsessively post-modern worldview. He is not attempting to absolutize the true but partial notion of a “cultural matrix” which can easily send one to the seas of an unhealthy relativity and the well-known performative contradiction: “There is no such thing as truth.” In Garfield’s essay (at the visionary music blog at michaelgarfield.zaadz.com) he writes that Suicide Dictionary is “blindingly aware of its own cultural embeddedness and laughing at it compassionately.” Which means he saw the monks at Rainbow Abbey were doing far more than attempting to deconstruct everything based on the inevitable fact of interpretation. The Quantum Catholics he speaks of are saying, “Sure there’s a cultural matrix. But so what? Does that mean we can allow this discovery to completely dissociate from the immediate experience of the “I” as well as the exterior or objective world?” At Rainbow Abbey, there are just more seats at the table.
I also want to take a quick second to address your statement, “…religious symbolism [is] one of the doors through which we can go to experience or gain insight and unification with Truth.” I agree that religious symbolism can be, and is, necessary. But equally important, I think, is religious EXPERIENCE. Signs and symbols, of course, are highly valuable and help us engage the “We-space” (i.e., communicate). But let’s not forget (or deny) the first person “I” of immediate awareness, which can be authentically explored by using meditative and contemplative injunctions from all our great religious traditions.
Now to the question, “Is there a role for these great religious traditions anymore?”
First off, the word “anymore” is used in a way that mildly suggests that religion is “just getting in the way” in the contemporary world. It seems to me that when you use the word “religion” here, you mean traditional religion. And I’ll answer that question shortly. But before I do I think we must understand that there is also archaic religion, tribal religion, modern religion, post-modern religion, and now integral religion. So when one asks if there is a role for religion to play, they must be more specific and tell which level of religion they are referring to. If you’re interested in this developmental description of religion, my good friend, Dustin DiPerna recently finished a book called Infinite Ladder, describing all the different stages of religious interpretation as they have appeared (and do appear) in Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam (www.infiniteladder.com).
From my perspective, traditional religion is performing an absolutely vital role in the contemporary world. Around 50% of the world’s population is still nested in a more mythical or conventional framework. Which means 50% of the world’s population still needs traditional forms of religion. That, in and of itself, is reason enough to respect and appreciate what some may view as a “simplistic” or “dogmatic” approach to religion. What some (most?) moderns and post-moderns need to realize is there are healthy forms of mythical religious expression. Sure, modern law should step in and keep pathological forms of traditional religion in check. But it should also help provide as healthy a space as possible for traditional consciousness to maneuver and hopefully evolve.
Another important point is that “higher, deeper forms of consciousness” would not be possible without first evolving “through” some sort of traditional framework. Everyone is born at square one (for convenience sake let’s say “archaic”) and has the potential to evolve to “higher” stages. To learn more about what these particular stages entail, go to http://www.stevemcintosh.com. My guess is that most people reading this will be able to identify the periods in their lives where they were operating at different stages of consciousness or what Ken Wilber calls altitudes. And since research has and is showing that it is impossible to skip stages, in order for the evolution of consciousness to continue, there needs to be some sort of functional form of traditional structure to be transcended and included. Which means that one of the values of traditional religion today is the fact they are supplying a HUGE platform for the evolution of consciousness. Try to remove it…and the whole pyramid (or spiral) will crash.
Here’s a small excerpt cut from a prose entry I wrote for Book 3, Semiotic Butterflies (my current work):
—-Actually, their [traditional religion’s] work is far from being complete, Issak Kidwell responds. Many of our brothers and sisters are still hampered by third world conditions and are unconsciously begging for a more comprehensive belief system to be established which could possibly be supported by donations of industrial gold. And besides that, Issak Kidwell adds, it should go without saying that this downloading of a more conventional software, whether it be an unhealthy concentration on one’s country or religion, has provided and is providing a form of spiritual sustenance and emotional framework for a plethora of souls, including children, in developed nations as well.
How do we resolve this contemporary Western penchant for a potpourri approach to spirituality with the clear and concise wisdom teachings of those religions and schools of thought that have been passed down through the ages, which are very specific in many ways? There is very much a sense in your book that you embrace all of these traditions and weigh them equally alongside the more rational and scientific approach.
I weigh them (science and religion) equally because they’re lighting up different dimensions or aspects of the Kosmos. All mystical traditions (most of which are attached to a “major” religion) have developed wonderful ways of exploring our interior dimensions. The “rational scientific approach” has developed wonderful ways of exploring the exterior dimensions. At Rainbow Abbey, both can sit at the same table because science cannot exist without the interior experiences of scientists. And mysticism or meditative self-inquiry cannot exist without the “material” that makes up the precious human body. All exterior dimensions have a correlating interiorness. And all interiors have a correlating exteriorness. Quarks to atoms to molecules to cells and all the way up to human bodies and brains.
And, yes, there’s a Western penchant (mostly from a post-modern structure) for a potpourri approach to “spirituality” (I put that word in quotes because there are at least half a dozen proper definitions). Maybe this approach works for some people. But from my own experience, it has been valuable to intellectually know about the history and process of all the great mystical traditions while choosing one to authentically practice and explore more deeply. Like Ken Wilber has said, “Chase two rabbits, catch neither.”
How does this pertain to Suicide Dictionary? Well, by having the Quantum Catholics embrace all religious traditions, they simultaneously embrace none. Two sides of the same coin. And this is where I would have Taft Merryweather (my protagonist of sorts) step in, grab me by the nose, and exclaim: “Mr. Lonely, what coin?!!”
Here’s another sonnet from Book One of Suicide Dictionary:
I laugh at this body, Impermanence near,
It’s more like a Bubble than Statue in might;
Still I’m in awe that my figure is Here,
I cherish it now as a Basis for Light.
Engaging two eyes, three Jewels may appear,
If Buddha and Sangha and Dharma you trust;
Or maybe I cry showing God is a Tier,
Which triggers all Buddhas to freely combust.
The stroke down my cheek is the glaze from a snail,
It glistens from laughter and sadness alive;
But Fire is the Ground and it burns without fail,
Before and then after my carcass has died.
Wholesome are deeds in respect to the norm,
Form is my Empty…
and Empty my Form.
We have touched upon some pretty heavy-weight subjects here, but actually Suicide Dictionary is in many respects very playful and full of the sort of Monty Python-esque absurdities that actually stop you in your tracks for a minute and provide that sort of space between thoughts where you are not quite clear what on earth is going on anymore! For instance, the monks that drive the story are called the ‘Order of Quantum Catholics’. It’s a great name that I wish I had thought of myself, but in its humour the book does in fact, throw up, via this effortless conjoining of seemingly disparate elements all sorts of resonances. There is as you have stated in your writing a union of modern western intellectual and eastern philosophic thought and for me this is clearly indicated by some of the rather uniquely collaged elements within the book; the name ‘Quantum Catholics’ being merely one of them. Historically, at least that small portion of history that belongs to the modern era, there has been a war of ideas between the right and left hemispheres of the brain in which the high ground of reality-defining has been fought over. What are your thoughts on this and how have you tried to bring peace between the warring camps in your book? Was there ever a need for a war in the first place? Aren’t both camps not merely trying to uncover the mysteries of existence?
I’ll answer the first part of your question with an excerpt from Book 2:
—-Religion attempts to be scientific, Abbot Ezra says to Taft Merryweather.
—-And science attempts to be philosophic, Taft Merryweather responds.
—-And philosophy attempts to be religious, Simon Warner says to Abbot Ezra.
—-All three are guilty of category errors, Abbot Ezra says. They strive to place their lens over the improper Eye.
—-Science, Dale Rutherford says, sees the world through the Eye of Flesh which is empirical and monological.
—-Philosophy, Abe Hendrik says, sees the world through the Eye of Reason which is rational and dialogical.
—-Religion, Martin Fugat says, sees the world through the Eye of Contemplation which is mystical and translogical.
—-So science, Silas Paul says, should stay within the boundaries of empirical fact.
—-And philosophy, Issak Kidwell says, should stay within the boundaries of philosophical and psychological insight.
—-Which leaves religion, Gordon Flannery says, to stay within the boundaries of spiritual wisdom.
Unfortunately, the modern “war” you speak of was definitely necessary. It was and is a very important part of our evolution of consciousness. At one point in history, the Good, the True and the Beautiful or morals, science, and art were undifferentiated and hanging simultaneously under the umbrella of traditional religion. Which means religion, by itself, controlled all forms of knowledge.
What the modern age was able to do was differentiate these three knowledge spheres and then for the most part lay claim to the True, which I equate with the objective world. They fought for the space science needed to operate and perform the necessary injunctions. Traditional religion was no longer allowed to make claims about the nature of the exterior universe without proof. Which is obviously a step forward.
The sad part about all this is that even today, we see many brilliant men and women, our “educated elite”, attempting to push and then hold all knowledge under the umbrella of science or the True. What about the Good and the Beautiful? Don’t they deserve the proper injunctions? This reductionism is very similar to the mistake traditional religion made. From my perspective, it’s just a different form of dogma.
Are these two camps you speak of trying to uncover the same mysteries of existence? For me, if I have to put this into language, God has two faces. The manifest and the unmanifest. The manifest world, in turn, has Three Eyes. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful. So if you’re speaking of the unmanifest world, then I’d probably answer yes (even if they’re doing so unconsciously). But if you’re speaking of the manifest world, then I’d say, for the most part, no.
So how does this all tie with your stated aim of creating a contemporary Upanishads? The Upanishads have been called “…the highest philosophy ever conceived by the human mind.” Would you agree with this? Is there a conscious connection between the formal structure of Suicide Dictionary as you have described it and the Upanishads?
I wouldn’t get too hung up on my connections with the Upanishads.
It could be said just as easily that I’m creating the beginnings of a contemporary Bible, Qur’an, or Tao Te Ching. Like Michael suggested, my aim is to create an adequate myth for the coming integral age while at the same time consciously pointing to something greater where the myth, the myth-maker, and myth-interpreter “disappear into Bright White Light”.
In honor of the origin of the Upanishads, here’s an excerpt from Book 2:
—-My tongue and my lips could have made pink strips for the landing of the wettest rain.
—-And my hands, although small, could have warped steel beams into the dew that perks up on a morning basilica.
—-But wrinkles in my skin had begun to emerge into a mid-life altar-call.
—-And thoughts of duration had begun to un-fold as a nuisance in my attic and crawl-space of time.
—-So I, a Quantum Catholic, settled like a manufactured gnome in the garden of my choice.
—-And after dipping sour tongs into the instincts of local carnivores, I constructively wallowed in an outward monotony–
—-Which for me was creative.
—-Like I lived in the veins of a sun-flower.
—-For five deceptive years, being tethered to this hermitage was identity.
—-And now that it’s gone, even the birds in flight are an un-steady carapace for the beautiful.
—-I stepped from the deck and saw Light in the river.
—-But the river stayed murky.
—-Like the cream in the color of an English tea.
—-Then I wandered to the bank and saw fish in the river.
—-But the fish stayed the color of a Japanese tea.
—-So I dropped to the grass and saw myself in the river.
—-But my image disappeared.
—-Like the taste of the water in an Indian tea.
—-Being planted in the Abbey was like candy to my leaves.
—-It turned my mind into the wings of a whiskey-soaked butterfly.
—-But living like a tree is a butter-scotch reality.
—-A cinnamon solution.
—-For a pepper-mint dream.
We have touched upon and picked up strands of integral theory here and I guess that it is worth spending some time looking at this. Theoretical psychologist and philosopher Ken Wilber who has written a number of books on Integral Theory and Spirituality and who is the founder of the Integral Institute has said, in reference to an integral spirituality that “…it would be based on what seem to be universal human capacities to interface with the Divine. It would be inclusive and comprehensive…” Wilber goes on to suggest that those essential elements within the various religious or spiritual doctrines, which are common factors, are the elements upon which an integral spirituality can be founded. He suggests that as they are common factors that, perhaps we are hard-wired for them, That they are almost imprinted within us and that they find expression through our cultural, social or religious contexts, which is why they ultimately take on so many different flavours. But Wilber doesn’t restrict this inclusiveness in pursuing a relationship with the Divine to religion or spirituality, does he?
I’ll let Ken speak for himself. Here’s a link to a great description of Integral Spirituality: One Mind Village linked here…http://www.onemindvillage.com/Integral/KenWilber.html
Here’s an excerpt from Book Two that pertains to his question:
Communal breakfast at the dining hall.
—-See Muhammad, slay Muhammad! Taft Merryweather spontaneously shouts into Silas Paul’s ear pouring milk over his cereal.
The Quantums at the table snicker in amusement.
—-Is that Muslim Zen? Silas Paul asks facetiously.
—-What’s Zen? Taft Merryweather replies. Every copy of the Qur’an is ashes.
—-I understand that, Silas Paul says with gusto. You’re pointing to the fact that imitation is slavery.
—-Fact? Taft Merryweather asks bewildered. Who are you?
Taft Merryweather grabs his copy of the Koran and deposits it into Silas Paul’s lap.
—-All modes of life need independence to grow, Silas Paul says. A living truth can never be fixed into a formula, creed, or catechism.
—-See Yeshua, murder Yeshua! Taft Merryweather shouts.
—-That’s the beauty of your updating trans-Benedictine monastic law, Silas Paul says to Taft. It becomes available to us only as we give ourselves to it.
Taft Merryweather snatches his Coran from Silas Paul’s lap.
—-Freedom is neither compulsive nor conforming, Silas Paul says. Living creatively goes beyond formality.
Silas Paul pushes Taft’s bundle of literature causing it to slam onto the floor.
—-See the Buddha, kill the Buddha! Taft Merryweather shouts.
I think it is also interesting to note in relation to Wilber’s ideas about an inclusive spirituality that, certainly as far as the Upanishads are concerned, that a Muslim sufi Dara Shikho actually attempted a formulation of an inclusive spirituality between Islam and Hinduism when he translated some of the Upanishads into Persian. He was searching for elements of monotheism to forge a common mystical bond I believe. Is there a sense then that perhaps what Wilber sets forth is not actually that new a concept? Is this early attempt at an integral spirituality something that you were aware of in any way?
In short, I doubt that Dara Shikho was integral. He probably had access to advanced states but not the integral structure. He may have tapped into the post-modern structure MAYBE (which would make him HIGHLY advanced for his period in history) but I don’t know enough about his work to make an accurate judgment. Just because one is “blending” religions does not make one integral spiritually speaking.
It strikes me that perhaps, in spite of the enthusiasm being expressed at the moment about the emergence of integral theory and its artistic offspring, that in time integral theory itself might, in being the product of a particular era, be seen as embedded within a culturally and historically specific moment and thus not relevant perhaps to future generations. For instance, the work of the American Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko, who for me painted some of the most sublime and spiritually evocative painting of the last century and more, is seen now as being very much a part of the modernist agenda of the 1950’s. In spite of its overthrow of accepted canons of its day, it no longer speaks to us with that unique voice which made it so powerful at the time. It has in a sense become weighed down by its own moment in history. Is not the whole of integral theory one day in danger of being seen like Rothko as embedded deeply in a specific point in time? Can Integral Theory or an Integral Arts, transcend that historical embeddedness, do you think? This is after all where contemporary art historical interpretations are leading with the idea that all great work is actually deeply embedded within its social and cultural context.
One day integral will be ‘old news’ and just another rung on the ladder (or structure to evolve THROUGH before getting to higher, deeper interpretive structures). In no way is integral the final word. I’m BEGGING for someone to pull this integral rug out from under me and show me something more “complete”.
Much of your book is written in the present tense, which, in eschewing literary convention, has the effect of placing the reader squarely on the precipice of the eternal now. It seems to me that this should in fact, be a pretty scary place to be without the normal anchors of attachment that keep us from falling into the unknown. In building your collage of moments devoid of a conventional sequencing of time there is in some sense a movement from point A to point B that helps to locate the reader in almost-familiar territory, yet without giving up a claim to staying in the moment. Could you talk a little about what your reasoning was behind the way that you constructed the time-frame for the book? Is there not a sense in which drawing on the past and projecting into the future provides not only a more comfortable literary convention for the reader but also helps to organize information as gathered and use it to make sense of what is to come?
I’m not completely disregarding the rational mind and its “needs.” I realize the value of rationality and supply more than enough for the rational mind to make sense of the storyline. But I also don’t want the reader to get hung up on “where the story’s going.” I want the reader to be present with my work NOW. How will it end? Where did it begin? RIGHT NOW!
For those readers who don’t know, Suicide Dictionary is actually based on the Webster’s Dictionary. Each entry in your book taking as its starting point the entries in Webster’s. Suicide Dictionary covers only the first 100 entries of Webster’s Dictionary, however; divided into two chapters each of 50 entries. What about the rest of the dictionary? How do you see this progressing in the future? Will there be more volumes to this work and how many, and how long will it take to complete do you think?
If possible, I’d like to finish the “A” section (or at least a large portion) of the dictionary myself. Which means there should be a few more volumes. Of course, there are the challenges of “everyday life”. I lived on less than $500 dollars a month while writing Volume One.
If anyone reading this knows of grants or ways I can find financial support, please don’t hesitate to contact me through my website http://www.suicidedictionary.com.
I created Suicide Dictionary as a platform for the exploration of all facets of post-post-modern or integral art. I am currently involved in an art project with artist Todd Guess. He is creating a series of illuminations based on the sonnets in Book One. Posters and canvases are already available at http://www.SDIExperience.com. Talented musician, Michael Garfield is also currently writing the Liturgy of the Quantum Heart on a Chapman Stick. Eventually, we would like to exhibit all this work together. And, of course, I would like to open the project to other writers with a similar vision.
Thanks, Paul! It has been truly inspiring to talk with you and I am sure that it is much appreciated by the many readers that in due course, I am sure are going to be rushing out to buy your book which, for me at least seems destined to become a classic.
Finally for those readers that are interested in your work, could you give some details on publication date and how they can get a copy and do you have a website address that they could visit to find out more?
It was released November 30 of 2007. To purchase it, please visit my website, http://www.suicidedictionary.com, and click the proper link.
Bounden thanks for the support.
A Brief Introduction to the Upanishads
The Upanishads, in all their shades of complexity and the permeable nature of their interpretation, ultimately have one simple message that the fundamental nature of the Godhead – ‘Brahman’ – is the same as our fundamental nature or ‘Atman’. The Brahma Sutra which provides a commentary on the Upanishads makes it clear that studying the Upanishads and discovering their full meaning will lead to enlightenment or realization of God. What we find within is the same as what we find without in a sense – the two are the same.
Upanishad means the inner or mystic teaching. In the forest hermitages, the great thinkers would contemplate those concerns and problems that had a bearing on the spiritual advancement of humankind. They would pass their discoveries on to their most advanced students – the secret doctrines thus passing from one generation to another. One way of interpreting the word Upanishad is as ‘brahma-knowledge’. Thus the Upanishads can be seen as the catalyst by which ignorance is loosened or destroyed. Upanishad can be looked at in terms of its elements also to get a clear understanding of the term: upa means ‘near’, ni means ‘down’ and s(h)ad means ‘to sit’. So Upanishad is the act of sitting near to the teacher to receive the secret teaching that will enable you to destroy ignorance. The Upanishads give us both philosophical argument and spiritual vision.
Since the publication of the first volume of Suicide Dictionary, artist Todd Guess, also associated with the Integral agenda has begun to work with Paul on an illuminated version of his book. Like many great spiritual works of the past – the earliest known of which date back as far as AD 400, Suicide Dictionary is being held up as a tome that is worthy of this painstaking work. Due to the time and cost of illumination, this process has historically and generally been the preserve of only those texts considered of great social or spiritual importance (the Lindisfarne Gospels for instance). The SDIE (Suicide Dictionary: Illumination Experience) is possibly best described in Paul’s words:
As you may have heard by now, avant-garde artist Todd Guess and I recently embarked on a project called Suicide Dictionary: Illumination Experience. Todd and I are using the process of illuminating these sonnets as an engine for discovering, developing, and demonstrating, by way of integral life practice, new and explicitly spiritual art forms, as well as an invitation for the world community to become involved in a deep inquiry about the nature of post-post-modern art. Post-modern art, for the most part, has created a large vacuum that is now begging to be filled. Most of those calling themselves post-post-modern seem to be merely identifying the ironic nature of the post-moderns without supplying viable alternatives. The artwork that will be birthed from this project is intended to represent the beginnings of Art for the Integral Age; an art that can begin to plug the aforementioned vacuum by offering the method and substance for authentic vertical transformation.
Todd and I plan to finish one sonnet per month until the series is complete. An interesting style note: Each illumination in the series will include content from all preceding illuminations. Try to imagine where this could go by the time we reach sonnet #50. Exciting huh?
Todd and I would like to offer you a rare opportunity to catch an early peek at what we are seeing as a bright new future for art. A website has been launched and holds the beginnings of our vision, including posters and limited edition canvases. Just as Suicide Dictionary is being called “a new genre of literature”, Todd and I feel we are breaking new ground on the visual art front. The energy for an Integral Renaissance is tangible.
As mystics without monasteries, we truly appreciate your support. The proceeds…(from the sales of the works)… will be used to fund the continued development of this project as well as other endeavors on the frothy edge of artistic evolution (for instance: a handful of musicians have already begun translating the sonnets into music!!)
The first and so far only painting in the series is shown here. The following description for this piece is taken from the SDIE website where you can also find a good description of the overall project goals and aspirations:
A prayer and call for the world to open a more passionate interreligious discourse, Sonnet A points to the reunion of feminine and masculine modes of Love as an essential starting ground. We see not two angels here, but a perfect singularity of opposites, ascending and descending on wings that unfold along spectrums of distinctions.
This project is of course in an even earlier stage of growth than that of the Suicide Dictionary poetic project itself. What is clear here, however, is that Todd Guess has embraced a spiritually inclusive agenda that has a deep symbolic resonance with not only illuminated works of the past but also with much religious stained glass work that can be seen in cathedrals and churches across the whole of Europe. The difference here, of course, is that you are not going to find a church or a Bible, any more than you are gong to find a mosque or a Quran with images of semi-clad, religious symbol smothered figures in the throes of apparent sexual communion. Look to India and elsewhere for this imagery. But also look to the West. What we have in this primary work of Todd’s is Conan the Barbarian as a Muslim Bodhisattva. There is a powerful harking back to the Western fantasy/populist art of the 1970’s and Boris Vallejo’ stunning depictions of warrior princesses, barbarians, demons and semi-clad nymphs riding majestic unicorns. A fantasy time that is actually deeply embedded in that part of the Western psyche that harks back to a pagan medievalism, replete with its own spiritual and social icons.
It will be interesting to see just where this project leads. If you would like to see the work of some others associated with the emergence of this Integral art, you could perhaps take a look at the following websites which will give you a much more complete picture of the movement. I would particularly draw your attention to the work of Michael Garfield who is working with Paul on a musical interpretation of Suicide Dictionary using the little known Chapman Stick. Details will, I am sure, be posted on the websites below as they become available.
Finally, a piece from Volume Two of Suicide Dictionary that was previously published on Ken Wilber’s blog:
Paul Lonely again:
The first book of volume two is titled ‘Semiotic Butterflies’. It highlights the ‘differences’ between ‘the Butterfly’ (every-present Ground) and ‘the butterflies’ (manifest world, including thoughts and feelings…ie I can observe my thoughts therefore, I am not my thoughts etc). This book also gives my interpretation of the four quadrants using a series of 50 poems/conversations titled with the corresponding label Ken Wilber gave to the level of development. If you look at the way Ken designed/labeled the four quadrants, there are approximately 12 levels per quadrant…which equals 48 poems. My opening poem describes where the cross-hairs intersect; a point I titled the ’embryonic butterfly’ (a symbol for the beginnings of the manifest world). The book will close with Taft describing the experience of ‘the Butterfly’ and ‘the butterflies’ as being NOT TWO (the 50th poem)…concluding Book 3.
With his folded legs distinctly placed in the soft-worn grooves of an underlying cushion, Taft Merryweather envisioned the outlines of butterflies (spiritual, cultural, and scientific) while activating the ever-present energy of Enlightened Heart. At the outset the magic of these butterflies was the size of a closed fist, a contracted potential that hibernated on the petals of an endless flower still somewhat confusedly trapped in the confines of what he perceived as his precious human body and mind. The concrete surface of these all-pervading insects had no particular face, no particular gender, and no particular color other than a continuous glittering of rainbow lights back-shadowed by a pinkish haze caused by the natural superimposition of the butterflies over Taft’s beating heart. For forty-nine exhilarating days and nights, Taft Merryweather contemplated the existence (and non-existence) of these butterflies.
—-Each moment he felt the insects were more alive, Abbot Ezra says.
—-Though he himself was happily dying.
—-According to the wisdom traditions, Taft Merryweather says, the entire process of evolution or un-folding could never occur without a prior process of involution or in-folding. Not only can the higher not be explained in terms of the lower, and not only does the higher not actually emerge out of the lower, but the reverse of both of those is true. The lower dimensions or levels are actually sediments or deposits of the higher dimensions, and only find their meaning because of the higher dimensions of which they are a stepped-down or diluted version. Before evolution or the unfolding of Spirit can occur, involution or the infolding of Spirit must occur; the higher successively steps down into the lower. Thus, the higher levels appear to emerge out of the lower levels during evolution–for example, life appears to emerge out of matter–because, and only because, they were first deposited there by involution. One cannot get the higher out of the lower unless the higher were already there in potential waiting to emerge.
Abe Hendrik questions Taft about the butterflies.
—-That Butterfly didn’t have to implant, Taft Merryweather says to the other Quantums. It’s like a pre-existing ultimate mushroom.
—-It seems that way, Abbot Ezra says. Outside of time with no roots, no seeds, and no flowers.
—-But this butterfly, the embryonic butterfly, Taft Merryweather says, was able to implant in the confines of a physical womb.
Welcome to the manifest realm.
—-And thus began the practice of a festive unfolding.
—-The Butterfly and Merryweather were novices together, Abe Hendrik says.
—-Their chores their thoughts their religions…
and even the soft-ness of their bodies
were exactly the same.
—-According to the butterflies, Martin Fugat says:
How any other way could it be?
—-The latter is more ancient than he remembers,
while the former is age itself.
—-We, as the Butterfly, know this.
—-Around the corner is always around the bend.
—-Never quite making it is the story.
—-But all the world in every moment
has so much to choose from. And every new world
is a choice and a moment
consisting of the Butterfly.
—-Which for Taft was a sparkling montage of glittering replicas.
—-Replicas encapsulated in the upper and lower reaches
of what for most had become a temporary series
of unaware nascent rituals.
—-So how does the Butterfly feel about butterflies?
—-Unable to be reclusive but completely alone.
Dale Rutherford, Martin Fugat and Gordon Flannery fluttering prematurely through the doors of the Quantum Zendo.
—-In its most stable condition called the ground state, Martin Fugat says, an atom contains a minimum amount of energy.
—-However, Dale Rutherford says, when an atom is exposed to an outside source of energy, it may absorb some of it momentarily before birthing it again into the world as a form of light. An atom containing more than the ground-state energy is said to be in an excited state.
Dale Rutherford contemplates the conception of a rainbow.
—-Such excitation can be produced, Gordon Flannery says, by high temperatures or by other sources such as electric sparks, arcs, electron bombardment, electromagnetic radiation, or even the energy from chemical reactions. Ordinarily an atom remains in an excited state only a fraction of a second, then returns to its normal energy state by emitting the excess energy as light.
Dale Rutherford begins to contemplate the impossible death of a rainbow.
—-When light so produced, Dale Rutherford says, is dispersed by a prism or diffraction grating, the spectrum formed is observed to be discontinuous, composed of discrete lines, of definite wavelength.
Silas Paul and Taft Merryweather discussing Quantum Convent, the Virgin Mary, Kwan Yin, Shakti and the legendary products of Adam and Eve.
—-God distends the belly of every woman, Silas Paul says.
—-Therefore, Taft Merryweather responds, in a higher sense, birth is not necessary.
Many blessings and much metta,