Tuesday Lent Week Five: John 8:21-30

 

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he who sent me is with me, and has not left me to myself

I was on a crowded platform recently, waiting for the tube train. Usually I would read or listen to the mantra. Then I watched intrigued as a woman immortalised herself repeatedly on a selfie. It was quite a performance, as she was determined to get just the right smile and tilt of the head and just the right background. She would pose, smile winningly at herself, then check the result on her screen and try again. She was blissfully absorbed in this operation and wholly unaware that she was standing in the middle of a moving crowd on a narrow platform. When my train arrived she was still aiming for the perfect shot.

As a result of intensive scholarly research on Wikipedia I discovered that the first known selfie was a daguerreotype taken in 1839 and now on the photographer’s tombstone. Lacking a smartphone, he would remove the lens cap, run into shot and stay still for a minute or two, before running back to cover the lens again. A more contemplative selfie. Artists have always liked to paint themselves and mirrors have been around since 6000 BC. We love to see ourselves even when we don’t like what we see.

Like anything relatively harmless in itself, it can become an obsession and shape a whole way of life. To control it, we need to practice other-centredness. To make this a habit alerts us to see when self-fixation is desensitising us to others nearby. It rescues us from entrapment in the self-consuming loop of narcissism. When we embrace the work of other-centredness we glimpse the ultimate dimension enfolding all dimensions, which Jesus called the ‘Father’, his default other-centredness throughout his life. It is the secret of distinguishing between reality and illusion and ‘seeing God’. As I was raised in a city, I have to try hard, when I am out in the country, to read the book of nature. Bonnevaux is teaching me and so have many people who loved this book all their lives.

The English poet Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote some of the most beautiful poems about the natural world. He also used the word ‘self’ as a verb. To destroy beauty (one poem is about cutting down a group of aspen trees) is to ‘unselve’ the world. He saw God selving himself in the countless beauties of the world where ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places’. This recalls the Tao Te Ching’s ‘10,000 things rising and falling’, which we can also interpret as endless distraction. What turns distraction into the vision of God selving the world is othercentredness: not what we see but how we see.

Now, with our doors of perception just a bit cleaner after Lent and the polishing of the mantra, what is more intriguing than to see things as the Mind of Christ – playing even on a crowded platform – sees them.

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Monday Lent Week Five: John 8: 12-20

 

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I know where I came from and where I am going.

Many people today live in long-distance relationships. Because of work or other complicating factors they text, skype or call sometimes several times a day. Long absences can weaken and undermine relationships, or they can strengthen and mature them. Every relationship has an optimum distance. This focal length in which we ‘see’ each other is not a fixed measure. It adjusts to conditions. It is indeed tough for people who love, to be apart. They miss each other; but sometimes it’s a ‘good miss’, as someone I was close to once told me.

Ways of being in relationship have been radically affected by technology, globalisation and the internet. Love itself hasn’t been changed; but love grows through forms and habits especially in the early stages and in childhood. A child may be thrilled to skype with its frequently absent parent when he calls from an airport far away to say goodnight, but it’s not the same as being there every night.

During these reflections I have been returning to the different dimensions of reality. I keep harping on about the contemplative dimension because I feel that this one, which is weakened and frequently ignored in our fast-paced and fragmented global culture, is essential for dealing with the dehumanising aspects of life ‘on the grid’ today. Being online, available, instantly accountable, with little time to reflect and ponder, has its dangers as well as its positive aspects. It can, for example, become addictive. Meditators, like anyone else, find it hard to turn off their phones although they may better understand the need to do so periodically. People frequently say they want ‘to get away from it all for a while’. But when the opportunity comes they find an excuse not to. If we forget how to live in the contemplative dimension – still, silent, simple and now – we risk losing everything we have gained through technology and social progress.

The most distant of all relationships is with God, if we live exclusively in the three dimensions of time and space. We skype with him at church and squeeze in other appointments in our busy schedule. This makes God feel always distant and as real as a child’s imaginary friend. To the non-believer this proves God to be a human creation, a crutch, a drug, another source of false consolation, rather than Being, consciousness itself.

The power opening new dimensions of reality is love. (Meditation is the work of love.) For a couple separated by time zones and geography, love proves that they are always present with each other.

This is now bringing us closer to the purpose of Lent – which is to understand Easter better. And to see why meditation opens new dimensions of reality.

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Fifth Sunday of Lent: John 8 1-11

 

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he looked up and said, ‘If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.

In the small Sultanate of Brunei recently the national leader felt the impulse to introduce stronger religious laws for the well being of his people. These included amputation for thieves and stoning to death for homosexuals. I wonder how he would have responded if he had caught the eye of Jesus as he looked up from writing in the dust while the woman caught in adultery was awaiting her fate. Her judges were punishing her by the book. Jesus un-wrote all books when he knelt and wrote his silent words in the dust.

Religion has moral and intellectual dimensions, which bring the benefits of ethical principles and healing symbols for the misfortunes of life. They also help align personal faith and social mental health. But there is a hidden, additional dimension to religion  – the mystical – which is ignored at our peril. Without the influence of the contemplative experience, religious belief and behaviour slip into slow decline, becoming either insufferably superficial or moralistic. Or simply monstrous.

When you are convinced God is on your side you start speaking on behalf of God; and then, if others listen to you, before long you come to believe you are God. The paradox of true religious experience is that, when you have faced the infinite difference and distance between God and yourself, you discover that God is closer to you than you are to your self. You are then pulled into a process of transformative union on the other side of ‘identity’. Union differentiates. The distance of this intimacy beyond difference evokes the truth of what Meister Eckhart said: ‘there is no distance between God and me’.

This is less abstract than it may sound. The integrity of religion has to be protected and promoted because religion cannot be eliminated. Like politics it must be continuously purified by truth if it is to avoid corruption. Like music it should be played well. But I am not thinking immediately of the benefits this would bring to the Sultan of Brunei. I am thinking more of all the victims of retarded religion, the women caught in adultery, the homosexuals and robbers, the scapegoats of false religion and those sitting alone in prison cells whose lives have been blighted by the cruel piety of the self-righteous.

The woman caught in adultery strikes a universal chord of sympathy. Like the Golden Rule (treating others as you would like to be treated) it has an irreducible, incontestable simplicity as moral as it is mystical. Yet, so easily, we disconnect from its meaning: which is why we must practice the contemplative dimension and, for this, need both Lent and meditation.

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Saturday Lent Week Four: John 7:40-52

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So the people could not agree about him

At Bonnevaux there are three springs. In each one, a continuous flow of pure water bubbles up from the invisible world below, of water tables or underground streams. When I stand beside them, seeing the gentle disturbance breaking the surface from the hidden source, I sense a long history. Springs have always attracted human beings not only as a source of the water on which life depends but as sacred places, life-enhancing symbols of the meaning, the connectedness, of life. ‘Believe in miracles, cures and healing wells’, Seamus Heaney wrote in his poem ‘Cure at Troy” and repeated in an address to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

World mythologies contain many stories of the quest for the ‘fountain of life’. In dreams, water is said to symbolise consciousness itself. Jesus wanted us to discover the stream of living water that flows from our heart. Every person’s heart is a spring through which the life of consciousness flows from a common source of being. It enters this tangible dimension of reality where at this moment I write and you read. Hearts, however, close when the negative states of mind with which we all contend, until the end of time, distract and overwhelm us. It may take some years to notice that your heart has been closing. But when you do see it, it explains a lot of what has gone wrong. It exposes the habits of character and patterns of behaviour that have gradually entrapped us and with which we falsely identify ourselves.

When the heart closes, we separate from our source and from the flowing nature of reality. We take rigid, fixed positions. Opposition follows and before long, conflict and varied forms of violence. Closed and separated in the pride of being right and condemning those who disagree as wrong, we can never agree. We then lose touch with the mysterious pathways between the dimensions of reality. These connections are not tangible or conceptual in the way we are used to, and so are easily dismissed as imaginary. The price we pay is to become stranded, inflexible,. Without the spring of new life our ideas become stale and our arguments monotonous. We fail to agree about anything or with anyone except ourselves. Finally, we cannot even agree with ourselves.

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Friday Lent Week Four: John 7:1-30

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but I know him because I have come from him and it was he who sent me.

In the long movement towards self-awareness, human beings have come to recognise different levels of consciousness. It seems that dogs dream but they don’t seem to be interested in the difference between the waking and dreaming state. We have grown in awareness of different kinds of knowledge and operations of mind. Whether all this evolution of consciousness has made us better than the dogs and gods we worship, or what it means, is another question.
 
Perhaps we need to take two steps forward and one step back. I mean, as we grow in self-awareness, we need to remember directly the difference between levels of consciousness. For us and our relationships it is important to distinguish between dream and reality. In a media-saturated culture where we easily become addicted to our devices and deprive ourselves of even ordinary degrees of peace – let alone the peace of God that passes understanding – it is crucial that we remember the existence of a level of pure consciousness. This is why we go the desert every day to do the work of silence. ‘Abandoning’, as John Cassian said in the 5th century, ‘all the riches of thought and imagination’, we find the royal road to poverty of spirit – detachment and the capacity to enjoy and understand without possessiveness and the illusions that carries. The meaning of Lent and daily meditation.
 
Socrates told of a scholar who approached an Egyptian king with a wonderful new product called writing. He claimed it would expand people’s memories: ‘my discovery provides recipe for memory and wisdom’, he claimed. The king was too smart to sign up immediately for a subscription to this wonderful new medium. He concluded that the invention would have the opposite effect because ‘people will cease to exercise memory’. Instead of drawing directly from within themselves they will come to depend on the ‘means of external marks.’ He sounds like a modern person complaining that with Google and electronic calculators we have lost the habit of memory, mental work and the art of learning.
 
It’s hard to be completely convinced of this extreme position, especially as Socrates’ words had to be written down by his student to reach us today. But the differences between direct and indirect knowledge have never been more important to address. However wonderful a TV nature documentary it is not the same as real trekking. Discussing meditation or doing research into its benefits is not the same as meditating. Coming to an experience of God through ideas, symbols or ritual has immense value. We are weaker without this language. But to know that ‘I know God because I have come from God and it was God who sent me’ is a form of knowledge that cannot be digitalised in a binary system or even the most beautiful writing.

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Thursday Lent Week Four: John 5:31-47

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As for human approval, this means nothing to me.

I have been tempted, no doubt like many in recent times, to stop following the news. First there is the endless accounts of failures: of leadership, building consensus, respecting the common good, caring for the vulnerable, protecting the dysfunctional and corrupt. There is also the sense that what we hear as ‘news’ is a considerably distorted and incomplete version of events and of what the main players really think. I concluded that, however frustrating and disappointing the present state of affairs in national and global society, we have a responsibility, as a member of the family, to maintain a certain level of knowledge and involvement in it all even if it seems like a bad soap opera at times.

Maybe in a hermitage deep in the woods, off the grid, we could be excused from following the news but that would be because at the deepest level of human fellowship we would be present to all and, in a mysterious way, even influential. Ramana Maharshi, who was for most of his life in an unbroken state of samadhi, of contemplation, never left his ashram. He followed the same personal routine every day. Many came to see him and sit with him in his loving silence. Once a visitor asked why he didn’t travel and bring his peace to the far corners of the world. Ramana smiled and replied ‘how do you know that I don’t?’

But for ordinary mortals like ourselves we need to balance, in the fluctuations of time, both contemplative work and active work. If we have no time for contemplative work – for being rather than doing – we run the risk of becoming increasingly busy and noisy and less and less really useful. We run a lot but cover little ground. We work intensely but produce less good work.

So much of modern busyness and confusion revolves around the un-integrated ego. Personality issues and gossip occupy more and more of the news concerning those who have responsibility on our behalf to run institutions and keep the world safe. Excessive anxiety about human approval – what people think about us – disrupts the detachment we need to make good judgments and serve on their behalf. This is dramatically true in the case of leaders but applies mystically to all of us because we form a single social body in which each individual is connected to every one else.

To be detached from human approval has a positive but also a very negative sense. Negatively, it means we do what we like, lie, cheat, extort and destroy and don’t care what anyone says because we can either simply deny it endlessly or eliminate the opposition. This is the fate of lonely leaders who have lost their solitude, winning the world at the cost of their true self.

But the positive sense means that we are detached, not disconnected. We are not absorbed in the heaving crowd of humanity, we stand outside it. But we live consciously in the community of humanity. The more detached we are, the more compassionately we are at the heart of society.

This is the wisdom the story of the last days of Jesus conveys – a story we are preparing to re-tell and listen to afresh as Lent draws to a close. It is a unique story. But, even if it doesn’t meet with much human approval, the wisdom is universal. As Lao Tse says, the wise ‘knows without having to stir, accomplishes without having to act.’

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Wednesday Lent Week Four: John 5:17-30

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my aim is to do not my own will, but the will of him who sent me

Other-centredness: a more difficult idea than self-centredeness. We are all more familiar with the self-centred state of mind, although usually readier to accuse others of it than to see it in ourselves. Its opposite is at the core of all wisdom teaching and the basic dynamic of meditation itself.

The truth – that we are most fully alive and most truly ourselves when we are oriented towards others rather than our own interests – is hard to practice. Yet, little by little and with many relapses, as the re-orientation of our minds, feelings and motivation moves us in this new direction, we discover a new form of happiness. A new level of meaning in life emerges. Meditation, properly understood, embraces this change of mind wholeheartedly as we learn to take the attention off ourselves.

At first, and for some time, it seems we are battling against a powerful head-wind. Attention reverts frequently to the thoughts, plans and memories that we are trying to lay aside by saying the mantra. The mind, like a puppy that is being house-trained, keeps on making the same mistake. It requires, not force or punishment but a great patience that reflects the love we feel for it. Current concerns, with old familiar anxieties, keep coming back demanding our attention. It seems very plausible that we could use our time most profitably by solving our problems or re-analysing them. Soon we see, however, that unless we learn the art of directing our attention, every thought or plan, including even those that concern the well-being of others, is quickly hijacked by self-centredness. The mantra gently but consistently retrains our mind with a higher level of other-centred attention which brings true benefits to ourselves and to all aspects of our work.

It is good work because it brings out the best in us and produces benefits for others. What we do in our training sessions of meditation thus bears fruit across the whole range of our conscious choice and activity; but it also transforms our unconscious habits of mind and feeling.

So a new horizon comes into view. We see the innate moral order of reality, the essential goodness of the universe which is itself the ultimate good work. This is reflected in our instinct for consistency – in faithfulness, justice, truth and kindness – in everything concerning us, in body, mind and speech. Even as we recognise the consequences of our words and actions and see our responsibilities as they really are, we sense that it is not only our own will that we are following. There is a will in the universe that is other-centredness itself, established in the nature of reality. Lao Tse called it the Way. Jesus knew it as the Father.

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