Tuesday Lent Week Five

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Paradox is the portal to truth.

This may easily sound glib. Paradox can be fudged into something merely confusing where we don’t really suffer through the awkward contradictions of life, the bitter disappointments, betrayals of hopes, hurricanes of egoism, jungles of illusion and those swamps of misunderstandings that separate us from others for decades. We skirt around them rather than enduring the passion of them. Passion is undergoing.

Paradox – as the Tao and the Gospel testify, together with every sacred text that the human spirit has given birth to – is more than just not getting what we want or having a setback. It is ultimately not less than everything, not less than the Cross.

In a few days’ time, the purification of mind and heart that Lent has worked in us – to whatever degree – will be tested in the way we re-tell the story of the last days and hours of the life of Jesus. These occupy a disproportionate amount of space in his biography because they squeeze and distil, from the driest of stones, the meaning of his words and of his very nature. His story is who he is : the eye of the needle.

On Netflix – which is taking the place of novels in many people’s world – there is a menu selection of films or series that you have watched before and that you might like to ‘watch again’. In a world of relentless novelty, it is rather comforting that the world’s greatest marketing minds recognize the deep human need for familiarity and repetition.

As the perceptive Oscar Wilde said “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” The portal of paradox is rarely recognised at the first encounter and, if it is, it is often quickly denied. It requires many second visits before the full demand of reality can be faced.

Repetition burns away the dross of distraction. In meditation, as in any other form of faithful love, we learn to put our whole self into it. Then we have to take our whole self out of it. Even the idea that it is ‘my work’ or that it will bring me benefits must be given up. Having invested everything and then renounced everything, what is left is our true self, an authentic work, a new creation.This is what makes for a good story and one we can never forget because we come to love it as a child loves.

Monday Lent Week Five

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According to the Te-Tao Ching, an ancient Chinese wisdom text, right living depends on wisdom; and wisdom consists in a paradox as radical as that we find in the Beatitudes and the meaning of the story of the life and death of Jesus.

The Te Tao Ching, like Jesus, uses homely language not a hifalutin intellectual tone.

Thirty spokes unite in one hub
It is precisely where there is nothing that we find the usefulness of the wheel..
We chisel out doors and windows
It is precisely in these empty spaces that we find the usefulness of the room

The word ‘precisely’ in this translation engages our attention. We respect and demand precision, the right word, the accurate financial report, the correct assessment of a situation. Businesses and governments spend fortunes trying to achieve the appearance of precision. It is the new ‘virtuous’ and a universal value in an age where everything must be probably useful.

Used in this wisdom context, in a powerful but mundane metaphor, however, precision is not the same as scientific proof. Because the scientific method is our very highest value, it is easy to dismiss words like those above as mere folk-wisdom. We may read it on the train to work or in bed at night but we don’t feel challenged to apply it to the actual ways we live or run our institutions.

Our materialist value-system revolves around verifiable usefulness. What’s the point if something doesn’t produce obvious benefits? Naturally, wisdom is about making life better but not necessarily obvious. Lao Tzu – and the gospel story we will be plunged into next week – make a very disruptive point. The most useful may be the least obvious.

Meditation is a wisdom path. It is a narrow one – in the way Jesus meant when he said that the way to life is narrow. But its narrowness produces immense expansion in the way that two converging lines, meeting in a single point, ricochet outwards into an infinitely expanding trajectory. A point is infinitely small; it has a position but no magnitude.

It is like the emptiness of a window or the hub of a wheel, like death itself.

We owe an immeasurable debt to the transmitters of wisdom in every field who illustrate this in ways we can understand, even for a fleeting moment before we forget again. Such teachers of wisdom are not like loquacious consultants paid by the word or the length of a report. They say everything in almost nothing.

At which point in my failed attempt at Lenten minimalism I should stop.

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Jer 31:31-34; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12: 20-33

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Life is one damn thing after another. Religious people often deal with that by building walls and ramparts against change and thereby produce a religion full of damnation and condemnation. Religion is meant to be an enlightened and fearless way of managing change on life’s inexorable journey to God.

Today’s readings begin in the Axial Age – that evolutionary period of human consciousness that threw up the Buddha, the Upanishads, Lao Tse, Plato – and the Hebrew prophets. It was a time of deep, irreversible change in how we perceive ourselves. Jeremiah saw that his people’s understanding of God and themselves – the ‘covenant’ as they called it – had moved from a tribal deity with submissive worshippers who derived their superior sense of identity from it. Instead the ‘new covenant’ would consist not of an external Law but of one ‘written in their hearts’.

The upshot of this revolutionary change in religious consciousness was a new perception of equality uniting the whole people. Those who experienced God in this way forever look differently at each other. Teaching about God ceases to be from the top down. Now, ‘they will all know me, the least no less than the greatest.’ Such a perception of equality drove Pope Francis to call clericalism one of the three great corrosive temptations of the church. It also drove Mary McAleese last week to challenge him sharply to put this into practice in an incorrigibly patriarchal church institution and to respect the equality of women and men at all levels of its life.

In the second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, the beam of this revolutionary shift in consciousness is passed through the lens that is Christ. Or, more accurately, passed through the humility of Christ who learned (and who doesn’t?) to obey through suffering. Only leaders who are not afraid to show their wounds can bring redemption to those who follow them. If Jeremiah illuminates the equality of the new covenant, Hebrews reveals the transformative fraternity that Jesus opens for humanity through his way of living the human journey.
In the next reading Jesus speaks in that mysterious tone of voice we hear in John’s gospel. We meet the Word of God made flesh in his human tears and fears. The one damn thing after another has brought him to an ultimate, tearful and fear-filled moment in which he perceives the inevitable logic of his teaching:  it, and he, will be rejected by the power structures it exposes. He will fail; and we can only choose to follow him through that black hole or remain in a religion that has sold out to power. Oddly and disturbingly, this is what liberty really looks like.
Prophetic equality, mystical fraternity and liberty of spirit. These are the elements of the revolution we are all caught up in now, like it or not. A revolution that has, so far, still hardly begun.

Saturday Lent Week Four

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I once visited a man in hospital who had taken a knife against his wife and child when she told him she was leaving him. In a deranged state he then turned the knife on himself. When I saw him he was calmer but in immense inner suffering and totally without perception about the reasons that had led him to his sad and sorry state.

He told me that he was totally surprised and unprepared for what his wife had told him. He insisted that for all their marriage they had been as much in love as at the beginning of their relationship. And, he claimed, they had never once had any kind disagreement but always been in tune and devoted to each other.

Perception can be a terrible thing when it is false and when anything that challenges it and the world-view it supports is at all costs denied. Sometimes the denial remains complicit in a group or marriage for long stretches of time. When it becomes unsustainable something – or someone like this poor man’s wife – snaps. Then the accumulated forces of self-delusion smash the mind and flood into all our feelings like poison. One of the greatest descriptions of this in literature is in Jane Austen’s Emma. As a novel it is a comedy: that means it ends happily with everyone getting married to the right person. But, as in many comedies, the dark side of experience and its great sufferings have to be faced first.

In the course of a few moments, at the end of the story, Emma realises what a foolish, arrogant and totally unperceptive young woman she has been. She was bewildered amidst the confusion of all that had rushed on her within the last few hours. Every moment had brought a fresh surprise; and every surprise must be matter of humiliation to her. How to understand it all! How to understand the deceptions she had been thus practising on herself, and living under! The blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart! .. she sat silently meditating, in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes… sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress. She touched — she admitted — she acknowledged the whole truth.’(Chapter 47)
It is impossible not to feel compassion for someone when the veil of illusion they have been hiding behind is removed. It is a violent surprise and the violence is often, as in the man I mentioned, turned, one way or another, against oneself. Friends are never more essential than at such times of shame and insight into one’s misperceptions.

The negative surprise and misery of dis-illusionment is the mirror image of what happens when reality bursts upon us and we surprised by joy and filled with delight. This too can be painful but in a way of growth, like realizing your life has been turned upside down and inside out by love.

The sand in an hourglass appears (another misperception) to run out more quickly at the end of the hour. Our forty days are running out. But whatever we have been disillusioned about prepares us for Easter and the biggest surprise of all.

Friday Lent Week Four

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Ultimately the cleansing of the doors of perception leads to purity of heart and the consummation of all conscious perception in the vision of God.

Every degree of perception – they cannot be numbered – is a door into another. If we reach a certain level of awareness – for example in peace and clarity of mind or imageless awareness – we may be tempted to think that we have reached the end of the journey. God, however, into whom the journey is being made, is infinitely simple. To arrive always means to set out again.

In our way of meditation, this explains the teaching about saying the mantra continuously and accepting that ‘we do not choose when to stop saying it’. However this does not mean, as some fear when they first hear it, that we are condemned to life-sentence of monotonous and mechanical repetition. Quite the reverse, faithful practice clears the way. The mantra itself is like an ice-breaker opening the way into deeper and more subtle levels of perception.

As it does this, the mantra is recited more gently and attentively, with the degree of subtlety appropriate to the level we have been led to. John Main described this work of the mantra to climbing up a mountain side. The more we climb the more the mantra sounds more faintly in the valley below us; but we continue to say or listen to it as soon as we fall into earlier levels of distraction or turbulence.

At times this may lead us into complete silence which means the letting-go of self-consciousness and the observing self. We are in a sense now beyond experience, because experience in the ordinary sense is always how we remember or describe something that is no longer fully present. Many people who remember a good experience long to recover it and endlessly regret its loss. Often what they remember and call the experience looks very different from what actually happened.

This is living in the past. But the essence of contemplative consciousness is absorbing and integrating the past, and then moving ever further into a deeper entry of the present moment. Real cleansing of our progressive levels of consciousness, which is what growth means, brings about progress by touching and throwing open the deep core of our being, in the cave, the abyss, of our heart.

All that is good about our humanity is there awaiting liberation and fulfilment. At this level of being we undergo a transformation that cannot be observed because it is simultaneously within and outside us. Often we become aware of the inner change by perceiving the new power of forgiveness, truthfulness and compassion in our daily life. These fruits of the spirit point to an interior change that we cannot watch happen. Without trying, though, we become aware of it in the silence of a pure heart (without effort or control on our part).

We then see God but without an objectifying vision, with liberty of spirit. This is prayer and it is the answer to all forms of prayer.

Thursday Lent Week Four

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Meditators can be the most egocentric of people, especially if the cleansing of their doors of perception (see yesterday’s reading) gets stuck at the starting gate. The perception of our egotism, however uncomfortable, is liberating, but only if it extends beyond itself. If the contemplative remains fixed in her self-perception she betrays the goal of her journey which is other-centred perception. In training children we call this ‘thinking of others’ and it is related to basic social graces. But its deeper sense is the clear, direct perception of others, their needs and their goodness, that happens when we become subtle enough to pass through the walls of the cavern of our ego.

Blake spoke of the cleansing of our doors of perception. We could also think of it as a training, the ascesis that is life itself. Every act of perception is a lesson and a step to deeper consciousness. Just as we gratefully perceive things more clearly after physical exercise, creative work or meditation, so we come to love the training for the kind of work it performs in us.

The training in this kind of perception takes many forms. Like every universal process it is never exactly the same for everyone. No one is exempt from this because it is the very meaning of human development. But we are each different in temperament and past experience, in the kinds and degrees of woundedness and in the combination of strengths and weaknesses that define both our limitations and our potential.

The training never stops until our last breath and, perhaps, not even then. It involves constant correction of the course we are on. Extremes take us off course – even though they may help us understand better where we are not going. At one extreme, for example is ADD, jumpy, short-lived, inconstant attention: when we struggle even to listen to the person who is speaking to us or to the page we are reading. At another extreme is OCD, fixated, mechanically repetitive, compulsive: when the needle of attention gets stuck on the vinyl and keeps replaying.

Any extreme eventually leads to discouragement or despair. But we can be reassured that even mistakes and neuroses have their positive side, when we perceive them for what they are. This itself is progress and we should feel a ray of the sunlight of consciousness enter our darkened minds just in this perception of our dysfunction. In biblical language, admitting your responsibility for the mess you helped create is a good thing, the beginning of repentance, which is simply putting things back in order.

Cleansing our perception is like sharpening a blunt knife or walking a narrow path. Seeing it is not enough. We have also, always, to take the next step. Which is why we say the mantra continuously.

Wednesday Lent Week Four

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William Blake said that if we could only cleanse the doors of perception we would see everything as it truly is: infinite. ‘For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.’

It is always tempting to think that solutions lie outside us. Others who fail to collaborate can then be blamed for the problem. Slowly through life we learn that we cannot change the world or other people until we first change ourselves. It is very annoying that this is a universal law but there’s no getting around it.

One attempt to evade the need for personal transformation is to think that we can cleanse the doors of perception by taking something outside ourselves and putting it inside. Humanity has had a relationship with alcohol for ten million years and then mastered the arts of producing it about ten thousand years ago. Our drug-addiction epidemic today merely confirms how easy we find it to escape painful perceptions of reality by changing them by external means. Every alcoholic and addict witnesses to the ultimate failure of this attempt.

If we want to see things as they really are we have to cleanse the powers of perception that permit us to know ourselves as we truly are. There are many of these powers, as there are many dimensions of consciousness in the physical, mental and spiritual realms. Proprioception, or kinesthesia, is the medical term for one of these powers, which is perhaps the perception we most take for granted. It is the sense by which we can perceive the position and movement of our body. For example, even with our eyes closed we know where our left and right hands are and what they are doing. We also know by this sense whether we are feeling balanced. Athletes make good subjects for the scientific study of this form of perception.

We practice it – and cleanse it – each time we meditate, when we take a few moments to be aware of our body and its posture. Are we sitting upright, still, with neck balanced and hands in position – ‘comfortable and relaxed’? This intuitive checklist becomes second nature with regular practice and grounds meditation in the wonder of perception itself. That we can be aware of ourselves in this most simple and immediate way reminds us that we are sentient beings not just stressed, anxious, discontented or complaining individuals. A few moments’ attention to our posture shows a way out of the cavern in which Blake says we have incarcerated ourselves.

Paradoxical as it may sound, this most basic power of self-awareness, perception concerning our physical reality, initiates the journey into other-centredness. It is, if you like, basic mindfulness and however it is practiced it brings its own kinds of benefits. But, if we are not to get stuck at self-awareness and if we are to enjoy the fruits of self-knowledge, we need to take the next step. This is why we meditate and why some of us support it with the perception-cleansing work of Lent.