Monday of Lent – Week 3

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There must be a little screw in the brain which controls our self-awareness. Is it what we call the mind? It is the source both of our greatest human dignity, our potential for higher consciousness and transcendence but also for our worst misery, our self-encapsulation. Self-awareness shows us how we are different. But it can also subtly deceive us into believing that we are ultimately separate.

Some people have very little self-awareness. As a result, they may be living in a rather vegetative state. Or they may be too externally busy and frantically goal-oriented to have space to be aware. A young woman student told me once that meditation had surprised her most and changed her most permanently by showing her that she had an inner life. She formed the words ‘inner life’ very carefully. The first time we sit to meditate we will find out if we are vegetables or madmen. Anyway, the journey of self-knowledge, more important than the ability to work miracles, has begun. The screw of self-awareness is turning.

For some people, very few I think, there may be, in their first meditations, a sudden illumination. Because they didn’t know even what to hope for, quite unexpectedly, they see it and the kingdom displays itself to them like the clouds sitting on top of Mount Fuji calmly clearing. The effect of this may be to confirm why they had approached meditation at all. Even when the clouds settle back and the view is lost they have an awareness that has forever changed them. Self-knowledge never leaves us unchanged. We never completely forget it.

But whatever happens, there is now the daily work of the second level of silence. Like a musician, a parent, a gardener, a poet, we have found a work we must learn to love because it is an expression of who we most truly are. It is almost as if the work loves us. Anyway we will find love in the work.

As soon as we see that meditation is simple but not easy, we discover how noisy and unstable the mind is. The failure, as it feels, to say the mantra teaches us humility (equals self-awareness). The discipline of continuously laying aside our thoughts, like any serious learning, will teach us discipline which is the narrow path to interior freedom. Over time the level of distractions will reduce and, before that, we will give them less importance even when they do absorb and hijack us. They become like background noise, incoherent loud conversation from the adjoining room.

However, silence of the mind does not come only by letting go of thoughts, words and the images from which they derive. It comes through the faithful act of attention, repeated like an act of love, returning the mind to a single point. That point is not a thought word or image. As soon as it forms into one of these we have become complicated again. Dropping the thought-word-image, that is like a crystallisation of the mind, restores simplicity. Silence of mind deepens each time we do this. Self-awareness further clarifies. Self-knowledge changes us more. And the single-pointedness now appears in our speech, activity and relationships. It is beginning to be known not only as a mental phenomenon but as a spiritual portal. The smaller the point, the greater the immensity it opens to.

Third Sunday of Lent

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The gospel for this third (mid-way) Sunday  of Lent is Luke 13:1-9. It gives us a glimpse of the middle-eastern Jesus. Christians of a weak disposition should skip this because his teaching here is a hard saying. And non-Christians will have to read it carefully or they will find its either-or language intolerant. With such passages I always feel (but of course can’t prove) that it was those reporting the teaching or a fault in translation that were responsible for this harshness. I’m sure Jesus was not always easy to listen to and that his words could be cutting but the impression of rejection, exclusion and cruel punishment seems to me foreign to his personality though they were common in his time and culture.

He says ‘if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did’, referring to various groups who had been killed by the Romans or died in natural disasters. If we understand the meaning of repentance we can see what he is saying. There is death and disaster when the heart remains closed to the truth and hardened against others. The human person cannot survive and will self-destruct when we fail to turn round, to admit we are human, fallible and imperfect. When the public persona of perfection or attractiveness becomes our actual self-awareness we have lost our soul. So in this Jesus is simply putting a point he makes elsewhere in a graphic way. He is a great teacher and attracts our attention by his style.

And he also taught by parables, simple, elliptical sayings with a measure of wisdom adaptable to the diverse minds of his listeners. This one is about a fig tree that would not bear fruit and is condemned for merely exhausting the soil and taking up a space where a good tree could be planted. The owner tells the gardener to cut it down but the gardener successfully pleads for one more year to see if it can be saved. After all, one imagines, he had put a lot of work into it already. In the tradition Jesus is often described as (and was once mistaken for) a gardener. So here we could identify Jesus with the gardener winning time for the life-forms he loved. The landowner could be seen as karma, the unforgiving, coldly cosmic law, of cause and effect. It is, however, not the final judgement as it can be overruled and dissolved by the higher power of forgiveness.

As usual we don’t know the end of the story – did the gardener save the tree by making it fruitful? We aren’t told what happens next because it is we who give the ending to the story, provided we can understand its wisdom and act on it. Actually then the story is quite comforting. We have more time (three more weeks of Lent). Seeing the consequences of not repenting, not being fruitful, not growing as we should, is disturbing, even terrifying. But a power greater than fate, greater than what we feel we deserve, is working for us, on our side. Imagine what the gardener would be saying to the fig tree as he put more fertiliser around it and trimmed it lovingly.

So after all, maybe today’s gospel isn’t as R-rated as I had thought at first.

Saturday of Lent – Week 2

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John the Solitary (the same one) said the next level of silence is that of the whole body. This kind of silence is experienced firstly through physical stillness. The initial instruction about meditation tells us to sit down, back upright, comfortable and alert – and to sit still.

In some traditions the initial stages of meditation can be excruciatingly painful as you are required to endure a physically demanding cross-legged posture. Maybe, in some cultures, that helps but most find it unnecessarily distracting. Better to combine comfort and alertness from the beginning. That will allow you to come to a physical stillness more easily and with less distraction. The self-posturing ego likes to play games. At first you may have a rush of self-consciousness, either feeling rather smart about looking like a meditator or feeling embarrassed and silly. They are just more thoughts to let go of.

Before many microseconds have passed, however, you will feel like scratching or start twitching, or – a favourite escape from stillness – clear your throat. This announces to yourself and others that you are still on earth and still the same old you. Mental distraction manifests in physical twitching or sound-making. But physical stillness shows the mind that it too can and should become still. Stillness makes us more bodily aware and more at home in our bodies. Whether you are a fanatical gym-person or a couch-potato your meditation will have a beneficial incarnational effect. The relationship between body and mind will become more friendly.

John Main said that the self-restraint involved in physical stillness might be our first step in transcending desire. Want to scratch your left ear? Nice relief. But in a few seconds it’s your right ear demanding attention. Feel like clearing your throat? Do you really need to? Working up to a lovely big sneeze? Encourage it or let it go? In such small decisions the path of enlightenment and the cosmic mystery itself may stand revealed.

Stillness (silence of the whole body) is as important when you meditate alone or with others. Communal meditation brings the useful dimension of altruism into play. With others round you, the more physically silent you are the more you help others in their work of silence and the more the silence itself becomes communal. It is shared and therefore becomes a powerful energy in developing community. Making noise during meditation is individualistic, suggesting a lower level of awareness. The experience of silence in the group meditating will in turn strengthen you and your discipline when you meditate on your own.

I once spoke about this physical silence to a large group and during the meditation a poor woman almost exploded after struggling to suppress a cough shocking me and everyone else. Fortunately she survived and subsequently I have linked this important element of meditation to the universal virtue of discretion.

Friday of Lent – Week 2

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John the Solitary – the famous one – said that there are levels of silence. Our own daily practice of meditation will gradually reveal them. It doesn’t help to imagine or anticipate them but the small sketch that he gives can be useful and help us to persevere whenever we feel discouraged or that we have got stuck. It’s always good to be reminded that there is more to come.

The first kind of silence is that of the tongue. St James addresses this when he urges his early fellow-Christians to guard their speech. The tongue is a like a rudder, he says, very small but with a great influence on the direction we are going. It is obvious enough that we should control our speech when we feel like saying something violent, merely hurtful or spiteful whether it is direct or concealed in humour. It is hard then because we would like to get our angry feelings off our chest. But words spoken in anger and intended to hurt (because the other person deserves it) falls into the same trap as all violence. It never achieves what it promises and it always makes matter worse.

There is however another kind of restraint of speech. Most of our utterances are mindless, they don’t mean what they say, often their main meaning is to fill in the embarrassment of silence and are usually quite trivial. I don’t mean we should always be speaking about sublime realities; but we should always mean to communicate something helpful, meaningful or actual. Empty chatter is the verbal equivalent of promiscuity. Controlling the tongue, knowing when to start talking and when to stop is like being chaste.

When we sit to meditate the first and obvious step is to cease speaking, even not moving our lips or tongue as we say the mantra. With children we sometimes say the mantra aloud a few times with decreasing volume but they soon find they can go straight into reciting it interiorly and silently. This feels a great relief because we often don’t realise how undisciplined and superficial our manner of speaking can be, how often we slither into gossip or. Resting the tongue frees the mind to start moving heartwards.

But first we have to deal with what is disrupting the other level where silence has something more to teach us.

Thursday of Lent – Week 2

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I thought I was just getting crotchety as I noticed how loud the music in restaurants was becoming. When I ask the waiter to turn it down they sometimes give me a look to check I am from this planet. But then I find that many others, young and old, also notice and feel the same. Public spaces are increasingly designed to block personal communication and to saturate all conversation in media-generated content.

For many people in an over stimulated and mentally noisy world silence is alien and frightening, the sign of something wrong, a spectre of dread. The spiral accelerates. The noisier we are the noisier we need to be in order to skirt the great plateau of silence that seems uninhabitable and uncrossable. Increasingly, silence disturbs us.

There are different kinds of silence and different levels. The negative kind is the refusal to communicate. This is created when anger or hostility throws up barriers between us and others dismantling trust and the natural human curiosity about others that is the basis of relationship. I won’t talk to you because you frighten me by the anger or fear that you stir in me. There is another kind of negative silence generated by chronic isolation, increasingly common today, which makes you seem like a phantom to me, something from another dimension, of no interest because of no relevance. So, I will turn my headphone volume up and remain in the music or the video that poses no threat because I have complete control over it and it blocks out the otherness of the world.

True silence is powerful. It can survive noise, distraction and isolation because it is the work of attention, in fact of love, bearing the fruit of human rather than digital connectivity. The human smile flashed and exchanged in silence crosses astronomical distances of isolation and alienation, distrust and fear in microseconds. The proof that we can co-exist in a friendly silence and overcome its initial nervousness or embarrassment opens the heart to a unique kind of intimacy free of all desire and fear.

There is nothing so much like God as silence, said Meister Eckhart.

The practices of Lent and the general mood we should be cultivating during this season of spiritual training predispose us to regain the meaning and enjoyment of silence. At first, it may involve being immersed in media less. A digital fast. But it is essentially about developing the quality of attention we bring to every moment, the clarity to see and relate to what is in front of us. If you meditate seriously this is inevitable. Meditation raises awareness because it strengthens the wavelength, the network, of silence.

 

Wednesday of Lent – Week 2

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See you tomorrow. Lets get this settled by next quarter. We need to make a long-term model for sustainability. Let’s plan the next stage. (Daily chat)

The present form of this world is passing away… The world and all its desires is fading. Be on the alert because you do not know the day nor the hour. (New Testament)

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relationships with his kind. (The Communist Manifesto. Karl Marx)

St Benedict presents his monks with three vows: stability and conversion which are polar opposites. One is about staying fixed and the other about continuous change. The third, however, juggles them: obedience. This means keeping them in the air, even stability. Obedience means a continuous, highly attuned sensitivity and responsiveness to the action of the Spirit in all the circumstances and relationships of life.

The unexpected can happen anytime and even if it doesn’t there is no avoiding the law of entropy. The energy in any system runs out eventually. We can deny this law of constant change (accelerating as you read this) and making lots of plans is one good way of denial. Or we can give up trying to create anything because everything melts down. What’s the point? Or we can live in the present moment, giving due recognition to past and future and accept the risk of living.

We live in turbulent, chronically insecure times. Other periods of history have faced even worse crises but we are at a particular disadvantage because we have such a low capacity to make meaning. In a culture of continuous external stimuli, goals and targets and life-plans, the inner life, which is necessary for meaning, is at a low ebb. Meaning is connection and connection begins between our inner and outer lives.

This is why meditation, although it doesn’t solve problems, transforms the way we perceive and deal with them. We see this in the sense of detachment under pressure or of calm when anger or despair would normally overwhelm us.

When meditation has become part of your life the principle of stability is respected through the regular practice – come what may. And so is the principle of conversion, constant openness to change. You are no longer experiencing life ripping things away from you. You are letting them go.

Tuesday of Lent – Week 2

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There’s nothing more intimidating or hopeful than a blank page.

Maybe this is what we both fear and are attracted to in meditation. The words ‘blank’ and ‘empty’, like the word ‘poor’ are misleadingly negative because they fail to capture the all-important quality of potential. Is emptiness a lack or absence or the spaciousness in which a new plenitude can emerge once we enter and embrace it? Does blank mean nothingness, the faded image left behind on the screen after you have deleted everything? Or does it mean the opportunity for a new and richer content?

Because we are a culture of consumption and over-consumption, addictively using up more than we need, these apparently over-subtle ideas of potential and opportunity fail to engage our imagination. We are better satisfied by the full page or, preferably, multi-page document, packed with bullet-points, high-sounding jargon, illustrations, words like ‘compelling’, ‘sustainable’, ‘exciting’ and ‘innovative’. We know they mean very little but they reassure us that at least we have filled up the void, covered the virgin snow with many footprints.

Meditation intrigues professional people who are caught up in systems of work that are increasingly characterised by such excessive patterns of communication. Their stress-level often leads to their feeling imprisoned in a maze of activity, clashing flight-paths of meetings, reviews, reports, travel and little time for real reflection or actually implementing what has been “decided”. They struggle at first to find time for meditation but some do discover the quantum truth that the time given to meditation increases the quantity of time in one’s daily life. This is absurd to the stressed-out mind but a sweet truth, liberating to those who have tasted it.

Our two types of Lenten practice: what we give up and what we do extra can provide the much needed escape route from compulsiveness to freedom. But it does demand a bit of will-power. Just as exercise will involve a bit of sweat and a some initial muscular aches and pains.

I was recently talking to the young son of a non-religious family. He goes to a faith school and has been attracted to the rituals and even to Lenten discipline. In imitation of his schoolmates he decided to give up chocolate. At teatime, when I was visiting, his mother offered him a chocolate-spread sandwich which understandably he could not refuse. I had no wish to make him feel guilty about this but I felt it was a lost opportunity to help him develop an essential capacity and life-skill – self-control and abstention.

We all find excuses. Not to meditate. To write a longer document to conceal how unclear we really are about what to do. To give up giving up. To postpone the extra thing we wanted to do. The only way to turn it round – and to our advantage – is to ‘repent’: which means, avoid guilt and start again from the beginning.