Who are you, Lord my God, and who am I?

D. T Suzuki and kitten

One of the stories about Francis of Assisi is how a brother watched the saint in prayer, and heard him pray the words, ‘Who are you, Lord my God, and who am I?’ These two prayer questions are another way of approaching the idea of knowing who one is, and from that gaining a sense of knowing something about God (looked at in previous posts). I’m coming at it from another angle as these questions seem fundamental to finding meaning in life.

Jacob Needleman, born in 1934, and, wonderfully still with us, is a religious philosopher and writer on spirituality. I used an online lecture given by him for posts at the end of October and early November 2017. In his book ‘What is God?’ I like his way of writing about God as the presence of a higher vibration within ourselves which activates the impulse to think about the question of God. It’s not important whether we deny or affirm the existence of what the conventional world calls God, but what really does matter is that we become deeply and authentically concerned with questions of ultimate reality and ultimate value. The danger is in turning away from this vibration to seek what is Good and know the Truth, or covering it up or ignoring it. Life without such searching for meaning is the road to nowhere – leaving us either becoming cynical, or with an absurd overestimation of ourselves and our mental powers. It does seem that this is maybe where many political leaders take us, where without a spiritual centre – either individually or collectively we become walled off from conscience and truth. This collectively means that bumped up ideologies and associated technologies can destroy us and our earth.

Jacob Needleman describes how aged 22 and searching for Truth he went to meet the Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki. Armed with ‘interesting’ ‘philosophical’ questions Needleman found that coming into the room to meet Suzuki, his mind went completely blank – his nervousness vanished becoming ‘nothing more than a leaf in the wind’, and for a few moments he:

…was simply a naked mind – neither anxious nor confident … I now see that I, that is, my mental attention – had for a fleeting moment, and to a certain extent, withdrawn from my thoughts and fears and had descended into the whole of my body.

The moment Needleman began to speak this attention rushed up to his head, and he found himself uttering vague remarks and becoming self-conscious. He had prepared questions to show Suzuki that he [Needleman] was a serious thinker, and how well he understood what is important. The main question he asked was ‘What is the self?’ Anticipating an answer Needleman was also busily thinking of different philosophers and their thinking, and how to carry the conversation on:

Suzuki smiled: ‘Who is asking the question?’

‘I am asking it!’ I stammered like a fool, even with a shade of annoyance.

‘Show me this I, ‘he said

I felt insulted: ‘What do you mean?’

But he said nothing more. He simply sat there, silent, courteous, serious. As though there were nothing strange about this conversation. And I could think of nothing more to say, nothing at all. Minutes passed agonizingly. Silence suffocated me. Eventually the Japanese woman brought in a tray of tea … I could think of nothing else but my disappointment.