Subtractive vs Additive

For all the government griping about the humanities not being relevant or productive enough, one thing our students do learn (hopefully) is how to tackle a problem by asking the right questions.

Anthony de Mello: 1931 - 1987

Rather than taking an ‘additive’ approach – simply accumulating massive amounts of new information through reading – students ideally break a problem down into fundamental questions, and then work from there.

This basic analytical approach to intellectual understanding has a parallel in some forms of modern spirituality – sometimes called ‘subtractive’ spirituality. Rather than accumulating beliefs and ideas about the world, often on what some would regard as dodgy authority, or reading book after book from the mind-body-spirit section, the subtractive approach aims to strip all that away.

Sometimes this involves questioning; at other times more a gentle internal watchfulness or awareness that shows up everyday thinking for what it is – the same old rambling internal dialogue, the same old patterns of thought and emotion, tendencies, fears, and needs.

The Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello, quite a few of whose ideas were¬†roundly condemned by the Catholic Church, focused on the idea of ‘awareness’. Here he is talking about ‘real’ love, as opposed to the needy, attached, self-regarding sort most of us get locked into:

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This subtractive approach – awareness in daily life, often coupled with a meditation practice of some sort – is one of the things about Asian religious traditions that has most attracted westerners since the late nineteenth century: no wild claims at variance with our hallowed science, no list of beliefs to sign up to, no church establishment to hector you.

One of the problems it poses, though, is what might be left when all this subtraction has taken place. If what I know as ‘me’ turns out to be mostly this bundle of thoughts, needs, emotions, etc, will I necessarily prefer what I find when all that is steadily put to one side? Will I recognise it as ‘me’ at all?

Subtractive spirituality is not just demanding; perhaps it threatens to devalue much about what makes humans ‘human’ – passion, highs and lows, complexity, confusion, and all the rest.

Embarrassingly, it always makes me think of Doctor Who when David Tennant was playing the part. So many of the things that made him so enthusiastic about humans – passionate love, curiosity, bravery, exuberance, attachment to one another’s interests – seem sidelined in subtractive spirituality.

I don’t think they actually are sidelined, but as Cynthia Bourgeault has put it, repression is one of the greatest occupational hazards of any sort of spiritual life.

But even if we are able to tell the difference between liberation from certain ways of being, and mere repression of them, it may be – as the Zen Buddhist writer Brad Warner likes to point out – that ‘liberation’ sounds great when it’s negative stuff we’re talking about, but when it comes to the things that I fondly regard as ‘me’ I’m not sure that I want to be liberated…



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  • Yoshi Inoue
    August 8, 2012 - 6:51 am | Permalink

    As a conscious (rational) being existing in the constant flow of time, I desire ‘progress’ in everything I am and do. I like to think that every moment spent counts towards the betterment of myself. I acknowledge that this is a natural characteristic intrinsic to human mind and I try not criticise myself (too much) for doing it. In this line of thinking, ‘subtractive spirituality’, as well as potentially threatening to devalue much about what makes humans ‘human’, may fundamentally be dangerous if not unnecessary. I know, for many people it helps to use a mental imagery of either constructing or deconstructing the Self towards their desired state of being. But for me, this very idea is the source of my insatiable spiritual appetite and therefore dissatisfaction. My present project is to observe myself each moment, here and now, without any expectation to be ‘more’ or ‘less’ than the previous moment. In Mahayana Buddhism, Kannon Bodhisattva (Avalokiteshvara) compassionately smiles at every being. I would like to have the courage and wisdom to do the same for myself.

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