Tuesday Lent Week Five

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Where is our memory stored? The materialist’s answer is in the hippocampus of the brain for long-term memories and the neocortex of the brain for what I had for dinner yesterday. A more subtle answer that takes the spiritual dimension for real (not just as an accident of the brain) would say that all memory is stored in the deeper level of consciousness. As our Buddhist dialogue partner in the recent inter-contemplative dialogues, Alan Wallace, said we don’t think that the memory of a computer is stored in the keyboard. Why should we think the brain makes us conscious?

An old aunt of mine suffered Alzheimers for ten years and could not communicate at all. Her daughters decided they would tell her that her husband, their father, had died although they knew she would be unaware and unresponsive. She continued to jabber meaninglessly as they told her, but then, tears rolled down her cheeks. That may not prove anything scientific about memory; but it suggests something about consciousness surviving the atrophy of the brain just as it has been shown to survive the clinical death of patients under medical care.

To see someone whom we have lived with and loved for a lifetime lose their memory and drift away from us is dying while alive. We pass through deaths at many levels of intensity in a lifetime, but this must be one of the worst. And yet, in this too, there is a substratum of consciousness that connects us, even when all the signals we exchange to show that we recognise and care for one another have flickered out.

The persistence of deep memory – and love is a kind of memory continuously remembered and renewed – does not negate death. In a way it makes death all the more final and terrible. Yet it transcends death and shows life as the great constant. Life is inextinguishable. Consciousness itself is life and memory shows love to be stronger than death.

Personal relationships teach us this. So do great spiritual traditions which are a transmission in a stream of consciousness of a living memory that connects us to our source while it carries us forward on our individual journey. For all of us today our individual journeys in life are connected by the threat and fear of the coronavirus. For some of us it has already meant the death of loved ones. For all it triggers the awareness of our mortality and the uncertainties of change we cannot control.

In such dark times, however, a collective memory, suppressed by hyper-distraction, becomes conscious again: the memory of life experienced as a spiritual journey beginning and ending in mystery, full of inexplicable pain and joy but full of wonder. It is wonder in the end that frees us from fear. We are first exposed to our real predicament: of not having a spiritual path in times like this, lacking a source of meaning, not seeing the spark of life hidden in the darkness of our deaths. All these are symptoms of another virus rampant in our materialism and delusion. To remember this is to beat the fear of death and dying.

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Monday Lent Week Five

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What’s normal? Once I was talking with someone who had been greatly angered and felt deeply betrayed by a friend. The friend had, I thought, acted badly. Yet, it was easier for me to be ‘objective’ and think ‘well, maybe they didn’t want to hurt this person and maybe they didn’t really know what they were doing’. This is much easier to say when you’re not on the Cross yourself.

Jesus reached the highest objectivity, not the false one most of us claim to speak from. It is reached at the base of the greatest subjectivity – when he knew himself totally and was about to give up his spirit to his source, ceasing to be separate in any way, and abandoning any clinging to himself. He was on the Cross at that moment and said, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.’ Interestingly, he didn’t say ‘Father, I forgive them…’

When it is “I’’ doing the forgiving, there is too much personal attachment to the pain and the drama of forgiveness. In calling forth forgiveness for his enemies’ appalling and vicious ignorance, from the ground of being, he was connecting to the source itself. His last words teach us where he had reached and what we should aim for.

Anyway, back to this life. The person I was speaking to, who felt betrayed, was analysing and condemning the person who had hurt her. We all do it, trying to understand how this could have happened, explaining it in a way that blames but pretends to be objective. We use psychological language for this today most of the time. Maybe there is some truth in the psychological assessment we make of others. But it may not yet be a truth we have earned the right to use. This becomes obvious when we say something like, ‘it’s just not normal. There’s something wrong… abnormal about them.’ Jesus didn’t say of his final predicament, ‘it’s just not normal.’ In fact, it was only too normal: that we blame others and crucify them in order to protect ourselves from the truth. There’s nothing more normal in human relationships and institutions than scapegoating.

It’s hard even for the most devoted Christian to say exactly what the Cross does for the world and why it matters. In fact, outside the radiance of the resurrection, it’s impossible to do so. But, one helpful particle of the total truth of the mystery of his suffering and death is that it exposes the falsehood, the self-deception, the terror of the truth that hurts us, which scapegoating others is one way of running away from.

Suffering, and we are all experiencing it in this crisis, should be avoided or reduced, if we can. But if we can’t, let’s learn from it. Let’s hope that after this passes and we begin the recovery, we will have a better understanding of what ‘normal’ really means.  Normal use of time, normal weather, normal relationships. How we use this time can help us find the centredness and balance that the Cross also symbolises. Then we will be less prone to blame and more ready to act well. Just by being who we are (like Jesus did) we will be agents of change for the normal that is real.

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Fifth Sunday of Lent

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So much of our training in how to approach life is about achievement, so little about realisation, so little about actually just living. It was helpful for me to learn yesterday  that one hard working bee in its busy bee life makes no more than one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. Of course, it has many companions (up to 60,000) so, together, they may make enough to cover a piece of bread. But as they seem to enjoy their work, presumably they have different ways of assessing the meaning of existence and they must be less obsessed with quantity and individuality.

Today’s gospel is about the raising of Lazarus, a friend whom Jesus loved, brother of the sisters Martha and Mary whom he also loved. When Jesus arrived at their home, four days after his friend had died, Martha, a busy bee, came out to meet him. She did the same in the story in Luke where she becomes distracted by her many tasks and shows the classic symptoms of stress. Jesus reminds her to balance her over-achieving personality with the qualities of her contemplative sister, who is more into simply being. In today’s extra-ordinary and yet movingly human story, both sisters seem relieved that their friend has come to console them in their grief. When he sees them ‘Jesus began to weep’ and people say, ‘how he loved him’.

He then calls Lazarus back to this life. The dead man emerges from the tomb still wrapped in his funereal cloths. Jesus says, ‘unbind him and let him go’. Like other experiences that we recognise as authentic and yet cannot explain, we either dismiss it as a fairy-tale or we fall silent before what it is saying, in dense symbolic realism, about the person of Jesus.

As in his other extraordinary deeds, Jesus shows no interest in using his achievement to impress or recruit people. It seems to have no quantifiable meaning, nothing you can cash and bank. It is what it is. It changes a life and the lives of those people who share the individual’s life. For Lazarus it was a reprieve because he would die again eventually. So, it is not rising from the dead, as Jesus was to do. For him, the cycle of death-and-rebirth, which is the repetitive pattern of our everyday busy bee lives, was broken and transcended, giving us hope that we are not condemned to repeat the failures-and-successes of life endlessly.

Was this great act an achievement? Is Resurrection an achievement? Although the story of Lazarus made him famous and led to his arrest and execution, it is not described as something to add to Jesus’ defence. It was a sign rather than an achievement, a revelation rather than a proof.

This is another way of measuring the sweet honey of life, which is not always so sweet. In our slow-down and shut-down, social isolation and quarantine, can we make use of the time to do a life-itinerary in these terms?  Forget the achievements we get credit for and the failures we are debited for. Look instead at what events, relationships, outcomes, sweet or sour, revealed meaning and illuminated our true nature.

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Saturday Lent Week Four

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A good friend may give you consolation and a comforting word when you feel desperate, but a true friend will never give false hope.  Politicians who want to get re-elected, parents who just want to be liked, employers who want to avoid confrontation may decide to deceive those who look to them for leadership by throwing them scraps of illusion. It’s like throwing something you don’t want to a cat who looks excited but after it has sniffed it turns up its nose and looks at you with disgust.

Simone Weil never minced words and so many find her insight too concentrated a form. She once said, ‘all consolation is deception’. I think she meant false consolation and false hope all of which come from the ‘father of lies’ not the ground of being.

‘The virus is fake news; we’ll be back to normal by Easter. Business will boom again very soon.’
‘Of course, meditation doesn’t need discipline. Do it when you feel like it.
‘It was all their fault, obviously. Blame them.’
‘You don’t need to suffer. Live as if you’ll never die’.

In one form or another, from legislators, pulpits or lifestyle gurus we swallow lies all the time. After a while, we need bigger lies. When false hopes aren’t realised, we need more outrageous ones to make us believe them. But as the stakes get higher the stronger becomes the addiction and the denial of reality. I’m not saying we should be grateful for the virus or for suffering in general but we should acknowledge that it can teach us to see reality more clearly and change patterns of self-deception that allow others unscrupulously to deceive us.

The Desert Fathers understood acedia as one of the major blocks to human development. It means discouragement leading to negativity and cynicism, the rejection of anything that doesn’t give us what we want. It denies that we have to pass through tunnels before coming out into the light. It distorts our perception of truth and tells lies we want to hear because we have heard them so many times before. They have only the virtue of being familiar,  having been replayed from our internal archives perhaps for decades. Acedia is not our fault.

If people feel this while in isolation during the great shutdown, they don’t have to blame themselves. It’s the same with boredom. You can’t help being bored. But we can do something about these unhappy states of mind. We can recognise them and try another remedy from those we have used before. Stillness rather than activity. Silence rather than raising the volume, Simplicity rather than looking for something new. The collective terms for this alternative approach to living is contemplation. The contemplative path may look like a narrow one compared with what we were doing before. But once tried, we find it ‘leads to life’.

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Friday Lent Week Four

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The global virus is teaching us all many things. Each person is receiving this teaching individually through the context of their own history and personality. And of course, we are learning hard and necessary lessons collectively. As the financial impact of the crisis causes deep concern, we are forced to ask unwelcome questions about fundamental values – are we going to continue insanely believing that GDP has to increase continuously? Will we learn to live within our limits? Can we discover what ‘enough’ means? Will we teach the next generation that being content with enough is the condition of the ‘happiness’ that we have been seeking in the wrong places and in the worst of ways.

Firstly, though, the virus is teaching us realism. We cannot control the spread of the virus by going on warm days to crowded beaches or parks. What we are seeing on the screens is real in our personal lives. With a strong dose of realism, we become ready to learn patience.

Patience is a precious virtue because it is a basic element of learning anything at all. Maybe after the crisis when schools and colleges open again, we will remember what patience means. We will not approach education as something to be heated up quickly in a microwave and delivered as a qualification. We will find it repulsive that education, even at the elementary level for young children, produces stress, anxiety and mental illness because of its competitiveness and obsession with quantified evaluation. Will we remember that the raising of children requires time spent with them because they need to be soaked in personal attention not put in front of digital babysitters. Maybe we will learn that it takes time to learn anything: that our millennial impatience to become expert at something in an overpaid fast track does not lead to good work.

Maybe we will remember that meditation was not invented and packaged to help us cope with stress; or to solve problems merely so as to continue lifestyles that cause those problems. We meditate, as John Main said, because we are made to meditate. Meditation is about opening our eyes to reality in its colourful diversity and wondrous simplicity. Meditation teaches us patience and we need patience to enjoy.

WE also need it to know how to suffer. Those who have become patients at home or in hospital, having caught the virus, learn how patience teaches, as the root of the word itself shows, that patience is the quality of suffering. Thinking that patience is just about waiting for something to come or go, only makes us finger-tappingly impatient. Patience teaches us how to accept and grow through suffering. How to endure, be resilient, be peaceful, caring for others even in our own distress.

In a hedonistic world, pursuing happiness in the wrong places, we create suffering without learning how to suffer. The inescapable secret of life is to know how to suffer. So, let’s remember this is the second half of Lent. We are preparing to contemplate the Passion of Christ.  Passion, in this sense, is the deepest patience, the bridge between suffering and joy.

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Thursday Lent Week Four

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Our Coronavirus crisis will last longer than Lent. But it adds an urgent, personal dimension to the main themes of this spiritual season. We looked at these after Lent began but perhaps now, they seem more existential, less merely spiritual. Or, putting it another way, we are discovering that the spiritual is not as abstract as we often assume and that life itself is a spiritual journey that brings together every aspect and kind of human experience. When we forget this, we forget a core element of our humanity. We risk becoming not only spiritually undernourished but less than human.

I was shocked recently to receive a letter to the Virus from a twenty-year-old. I won’t quote from it because it could be upsetting to those who have lost friends to the virus or are deeply concerned for their loved ones and themselves. It was a letter of thanks, provocatively and intelligently written but, as one might expect from an intense young person, lacking as yet a full empathy for others who suffer. The letter painfully saw the crisis as a wake-up call, and the indictment of an unsustainable lifestyle.

As I said the other day, this is not a time merely for blaming and finger-pointing, even at ourselves. But there is a teaching hidden in this crisis and if we can find it, we will recognise the opportunity for change it offers. The terrible suffering and death-toll by the end will not be justified but will be part of this hard-to-swallow meaning. For anyone alive at this time, whatever their generation, whether they were infected or not, the world will never be the same. The human family will be weaker, and recovery will difficult. In such times the dark forces of politics and finance may seek to take advantage and it will never be more important to have a critical mass of people in whom the contemplative mind has awakened. Not heroes or saints but human beings who have recovered the spiritual dimension of reality, so often missing, ridiculed, neglected, rejected or trivialised in our present culture.

When we put spirituality into another category, or reduce it materialistically to neurons and myths, we begin the process of dehumanising humanity. Peace is sought by force, wealth is stockpiled by the few, political structures are hijacked, and religion becomes merely another personal identity or an aggressive ideology.

Even if it wasn’t expressed perfectly, the young person who wrote the letter understood well that we are not just facing a human crisis of suffering that requires compassion and action, but also an opportunity to live better. Opportunities can be more challenging than failures. John Main once asked me as I began this path if I was prepared for all it would bring. I thought he meant what I would be giving up. But he corrected me: ‘I mean the joy.’ Etty Hillesum wrote, as she was helping the Jews being rounded up by the Nazis for shipment to Auschwitz, “Today I feel total despair. I will have to deal with it’.

We are now in the days of the spring equinox, the most powerful force of resurrection in nature. It is the right time for us to deal with joy.

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Wednesday Lent Week Four

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In our community worldwide we are working together to offer a ‘contemplative path through the crisis’. As you will have seen from our website or other mailings you have received from the community, we will be proposing a healthy variety of resources and events from which you can select whatever you find helpful to you personally or to your family, or to a group that you may be meditating with online.

If you belong to a regular meditation group and are missing it because it’s suspended, think about meeting together online at the same regular time. It’s not hard to set up and you can get simple advice if you’re technologically challenged.  There’s a large list of online groups already meeting you can select from as well.

This Path has already begun with an online series of ‘inter-contemplative dialogues’ between Alan Wallace, an old friend, and a well-known Buddhist teacher and myself with Eva Natanya, a Catholic Buddhist scholar and myself. I will be sitting in the library at Bonnevaux with some of our community here. He and Eva will be sitting in a Carmelite monastery in Colorado. And you will be wherever you are. We will all be in the same moment, paying attention together. Each session will conclude with a meditation session. We will be together then in the one place that unites us all through the dimensions of time and space. These conversations will be posted online after their live transmission. We will be celebrating a contemplative mass on Sunday.

All the updates for this path will be posted on the WCCM website HERE which will be your one-stop point of call.

Many of the teachers in the World Community will be involved in making and contributing to this Contemplative Path. And I invite you to contribute your ideas and suggestions of what you feel would be useful and nourishing.

Quite regularly, but not overloading you with choice, we will be updating resources and events that you might find helpful in order to follow a contemplative path through this difficult, anxious and, for many, lonely time. We have all heard that the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ means both danger and opportunity. I hope this Contemplative Path will help make the opportunity clearer and easier to grasp.

The essential purpose of all this is to strengthen your daily practice of the muscle of attention – which is pure prayer. Petitionary and intercessory prayer are authentic forms and we need these too. Just as we benefit, too, from worshipping together. But it is pure prayer, the prayer of the heart – that is not ‘mine’ alone but my entry into the one, unifying prayer of the Spirit – that is most potent and transformative. Change your heart and you have already begun to change the world.

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Tuesday Lent Week Four

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Attention is a like a muscle. If you don’t use it – or just imagine you are exercising while in fact you are not – it will atrophy. People who have an accident and are laid up in bed for an extended time say how quickly their muscles weaken. When they are able to get up at last, they find they can’t do the most ordinary things without great difficulty. The road back to mobility and health may be a long one and will certainly require regular exercise.

In our (at least until Corona) overloaded and distracted culture we can be so distracted that we don’t even know we are distracted. This state may last until we try to pay attention to something new and unwelcome such as a global crisis. It flies off the news sites into our families and daily lives as an inescapable disruption. The global invades the personal. The disaster movie we watched for entertainment becomes a chilling reality in urban lockdown, deserted streets and customers fighting for hand sanitisers. Who wants to pay attention to something as unpleasant as that?

Becoming obsessed with something – whether pleasant or distasteful – is not the same as paying attention.  To be merely addicted or fixated is an extreme form of compulsive distraction. So, we may be glued to news updates during the day, most of which contain nothing new. Better to ration our intake of news. Stay in touch, keep informed but don’t binge as we do with most of the distractions we use to distract us from distraction.

We exercise a physical muscle by alternating contraction and release. Tighten, let go, tighten, let go. Gradually it becomes stronger and we can do more things with it. Similarly, with the muscle of attention, we find we are becoming more attentive in more and more aspects of our lives – to the people we are with, to our immediate environment, to the simple miracles of life – birdsong, cloud formations, the greening of the trees. These are not distractions, but they give us the variety of content we need to keep our minds healthily flexible, receptive and focused.

Attention that can’t remain on an object for long enough for us to appreciate it for itself – not just for what it gives me – slackens into distraction. It flits from sensation to sensation or endless browsing. Attention can focus and enjoy for the sake of delight or relationship; it can move across a spectrum of consciousness calmly. We move from thing to thing without panic or chaos. The variety is healthy and nutritious.

So, during these days when life has changed for us all, meditation is a great, simple, available way to rebuild our power of attention. Not that we sit and meditate 24 hours a day. But we build in the set times and find we can live in-between these times with more peace and appreciation of the beauty around us – and within us.  Attention without a thought or image is pure prayer. But exercising it like this, at meditation times, means we can think, read, look, listen, touch and smell, the rest of the time, in a truly prayerful way.

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Monday Lent Week Four

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Meditators come to know that ‘experience is the teacher’. As they stop relying too much on external sources of authority and trust their own heart, they come to know what experience itself means. Not just what happens but what happens because of what happens. I mean, not just what happens during the meditation but what happens in our self and in life as a whole because of what happens in meditation, even if we don’t see it happening all the time.

Meditation is a source of wisdom because it teaches us this truth so simply. It helps us read the signs and patterns of life and to read the book of nature itself. In a relatively short time people around the world have been forced to stay at home, not rush around, fly, drive., shop, buy the latest model and go home and throw away the old, waste resources and time. A bit judgemental but I don’t exclude myself either.

Sometimes what we read in the book of nature is childishly obvious. Since these restrictions have been imposed their impact is apparent in the pollution readings in N. Italy gathered by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel Satellite. Emissions of nitrogen dioxide (vehicle exhaust) have dropped considerably. Pollution in China, especially in Wuhan and Hubei Province has also dramatically plunged.

This is what is happening but what is happening because of what is happening?

After the first meditation this morning I had as usual twenty minutes before the second. Usually I read in this time but as the morning was so fresh and beautiful, I walked around and found myself reading the book of nature. It wasn’t difficult. I didn’t have to measure nitrogen emissions or theologise. The birdsong was enough, the purity of the air and the lucidity of the silence. One sound I had heard but not identified before, became clear as a bird swooped down towards and emitted an odd raspy note. The frogs are beginning their cacophony. And because of the rain the lake is wonderfully full, and the fish look plump. Jean Christophe cut the grass and the smell of it is promising us the warm days to come.

With the Coronavirus is nature punishing us for how we have treated her? That’s one way of putting it. That’s what is happening karmically. But what is happening more is that we can be awakening to the infinite beauty of nature and the animal kingdom. Who doesn’t fall in love with the beautiful? And who can do harm to what they love while they love?

So, I walked in the fresh morning air, scents and sounds, thinking too of the dangers around us and the loneliness and fear that so many are suffering. I thought of my own sins. But more, I felt the amazing grace that restores our sight when we have become blind.

Beauty will save the world.

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Fourth Sunday of Lent

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Perhaps the question ‘why do catholic priests wear pink vestments this Sunday of Lent?’ is not the most pressing concern for the world just now. But it offers a glimpse behind the anxiety and inner and outer turbulence that our human family is suffering. Today is ‘Laetare (Rejoice) Sunday’ and the traditional liturgical colour for joy is pink.

What is there to be happy about? Not so much, but joy is different. Happiness (treasure it while you have it) depends on external circumstances or forms of relationship. While they last, we easily slip into a gratitude that assumes that the time of happiness will be permanent. And what, after all, is permanent? Joy, however, is not dependent on external circumstances and passing forms. It flows continuously from a source, a pure spring, from being itself. Nothing can block it except our own dark tendency to bottle the spring water, to possess, to pollute the sheer innocent reality of it with the illusions of our own making and greed.

Nothing is so painful at first as the transition from lost happiness to sheer joy.

For some decades now we have been aware that the unprecedented material happiness, identified with affluence, came at an unreasonable and unsustainable price. Our personal humanity, civility and social justice, sanity and our global home itself were being polluted and abused. But what could we do about it? The people who sounded the alarm were dismissed as cranks or exaggerators. The moaners and groaners also became a class, an industry. Politicians were among the people who held power. But we came to see that politics was increasingly a public mask of power. Trust and respect for politics and law, necessary for any form of civilisation, plummeted. We saw elected chaos and government by barabarians.

The joy of life was grdaually siphoned off and bottled in worsening degrees of unfairness and surreal selfishness: the richest one percent today own half of the world’s wealth – even now, as we are socially distancing and quarantined and the most vulnerable are suffering worst. Some of the one percent are generous and good people but even the worst of them were slowly realising it was a little too unreal to last. Anger may build against them – as it did in the passive aggression of populism. But demonising them is unfair and unreal too.

In today’s gospel Jesus cures a man born blind. His disciples asked him who were to blame for his misfortune, and he declined to point the finger of blame. He said the healing itself was the meaning – it revealed the divine fullness of life, the joy of being, pushing through human limitations and handicaps. Jesus cured the man by spitting on the ground and making a paste with the earth, applying it to the man’s eyes and telling him to wash in the spring-fed Pool of Siloam. Later the man said, ‘all I know is, once I was blind and now, I can see.’

Words used in 1772 by John Newton, the reformed slave trader in his hymn Amazing Grace. ‘And grace will bring us home’, the hymn also says.’

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