Category Archives: Art of Depth

Every Breaking Wave: U2. Stability and Commitment in the Face of Change

Part of the maturing of our humanity over time is a growth in psychological and spiritual stability. The writer James Bishop, in his commentary on the Rule of Benedict (A Way in the Wilderness), says stability is all about ‘always aiming to do the right thing without constantly changing our direction’ (105). Committing to the ‘right thing’ is about not ‘chasing every breaking wave’, that is, not ‘constantly changing direction.’

Often our commitments are a heart choice. This, I think, is the choice that Bono is singing about: the heart choice of committing to another person. An early conviction of the heart can, over time, be clouded by fear and doubt. Circumstances of life change, the way we approach life changes. Feelings change. People change. It is only natural that a heart choice is buffeted and challenged by these winds of change.

But what is this heart? Of recent times it has become a symbol for love and feeling. Put these together and it seems that love is only a feeling. In the story of Judaism and Christianity the heart is that mysterious ‘place’ of being deep within us where our divinely inspirited uniqueness resides. In Christianity this heart can also be the place of our deepest longing for love. Ultimately this longing is for God because only this God is the True Love that will fulfill us. That ‘God is Love’, true and unconditional, is the great Christian testimony. Everyone else, including those whom we are in relationship with, is at best a manifestation and humble expression of this True Love.

Being in touch with this heart-place of our deepest identity and longing is of great assistance when it comes to both choosing and keeping heart commitments.

Some questions to ask ourselves while discerning a commitment to another person therefore could be: ‘can I be myself with this person?’ And ‘can I give full expression to my longing for God with this person?’ Heartfelt affirmations to these questions are among the indications that the person concerned is a good fit for us.

Being in touch with this heart is what stabilises us in the commitments we make. Being out of touch with this heart has the potential to destabilise us and our commitments. The question that we keep coming back to while we live this commitment over a lifetime is ‘where is my heart in this commitment?’

Contemplative prayer is about the practice of giving attention to this heart, about staying in touch with this heart. This practice grounds us in the heart of who we are and, ultimately, in the divine. Over time there is developed in us a stability that has its roots less and less in our changeable psychology and circumstance and more and more in the Being of God. This Being is our rock. This Being is our source. This Being is our very life force. From this Being we can commit with divine stability. Christian Meditation is one such contemplative practice.

If what we mean by heart is only feeling, and we believe love to be simply a feeling, then it can follow that when our feelings of love change so does the very nature of our heart commitment. But who we most deeply are and who God is are both beyond feeling. Love is not a feeling. We can have feelings in response to the presence of Love. Just because a feeling has changed is no indication that True Love has‘gone’.

And so we come to the struggle that U2 in this song are embracing:

Heart commitments can be a gamble because at any one time we may not have a good enough sense of where our heart is.

Fear and anxiety can cover the heart preventing our experience of this deep place. Stability in commitment is about staying the course until fear fades and our hearts are recovered.

Like the sea, our inner experience can change quickly. We need to be respectful of this. What is stormy at the surface can be still and calm at the depths. A decision based on the surface of inner experience can leave us shipwrecked.

For the Christian the captain is Jesus Christ. His human and divine consciousness lives at our depths, in our hearts. His ‘voice’, those movements of divine life within can be listened to if we can become still and quiet enough. These movements can guide us to, and sustain us in, our lifetime heart commitments.

To drown, to be so overwhelmed by feelings of fear and doubt, to question everything, even to leave after doing your heartfelt best may be a failure, but it is no sin in the sense that it is not a condemnation of our hearts.

‘You know where my heart is, the same place that yours has been’. Often the experience of instability within a commitment is the journey back to the heart. The heart can be the experience of the original choice for that person, that commitment. Back in touch with this heart we can be ‘swept off our feet’ by the divine life within our heart commitments. Intimacy here is about being in God and bringing God to each other.


Thing of Beauty: Hothouse Flowers. Seeing With the Eyes of God

Seeing life as beautiful, the ordinary of things as things of beauty, is a wonderful fruit of the spiritual life. To live a human life something like this is to be living from the spiritual core of a human life. To be human is to be spiritual. We cannot help this, even if we don’t give the world ‘spiritual’ to these experiences as many do.

Seeing life as a thing of beauty is the result of a shift of consciousness. We come into a space of being where self-consciousness is forgotten – if even for a moment – and we become centred on someone or something outside of ourselves. We discover, through experience, the way in which God sees all the time. Divinity has ‘self-emptied’, or forgotten its own life in the ongoing act of loving that is Creation. That’s what love does. Christianity says God is love, so God is like this all the time – simply seeing the beauty of all.

Thomas Merton, 20th century spiritual writer and mystic, tells us the story of an experience like this:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream….

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)

This song is coming from the same place as Merton’s experience, that place of the gift of divine sight – a ‘super-ordinary’ way of seeing that is open to all.

It is ‘truth sight’, seeing things as they are in all their imperfect splendour, their ‘broken holiness’ and knowing deeply, intuitively, that all is beautiful, glorious.

It is living life with love-sight, far enough away (in that moment) from the noise of our inner lives and seeing life with the eyes of the heart.

It does not exclude the problems of the world as if we are seeing somehow naively, or choosing to ignore the pain and suffering that continue to happen within and around us. This way of seeing embraces all this and experiences beauty even while accepting the deep paradox of beauty and suffering existing together. And so seeing beauty can become a two-edged sword: it can possess us, and then compel us into compassion. Beauty mysteriously present to suffering can draw us into living a life that serves the transformation of suffering into a plain-sight seeing that is life fully alive in glory.

“A thing of beauty is not a thing to ignore”. Once in touch with our contemplative hearts – the ‘no-place’ of our deep communion with God – we are seeing, in our own human ways, with divine eyes. We have forgotten ego and the illusion of separateness. Life is within the consciousness of Christ. This is Christian enlightenment.

A Christian contemplative prayer practice, whatever it may be, is about the realisation of this Christ consciousness within life. Globally there is a recovery underway in contemplative seeing and living. Christian contemplative practice is but one aspect of this recovery. The recovery is being documented in songs like this one from Hothouse Flowers.


Deeper Well: Emmylou Harris. The Beyond in Life and for Life.

The philosopher Charles Taylor speaks about a “three cornered battle raging in our culture” today. For Taylor, each of these corners is occupied by secular humanists, neo-Neitzcheans, and “those who acknowledge some [transcendent] good beyond life”.

Secular humanists seek the fulfilment of human potential while excluding any notion of transcendence. A true experience of life, they say, contains no impulse to move towards any reality beyond life itself. There is only life. There is no God.

The neo-Neitzscheans emphasise Nietzsche’s idea of ‘the will to power’. To grow involves struggle, a struggle of the will to preserve itself, survive and thrive. It is a struggle happening only within the reality of a person’s earthly existence. There is no afterlife waiting. This material life is all we have. We are all a will using power to grow, to become.

The third group embraces the reality and experience of transcendence, seeing it, ultimately, as a source of goodness. It can be as specific as a belief in God, or be more generalised like a mysterious sense of something ‘other’.

Secular humanists hold the view that we do not need this transcendence to fulfil human potential. Neo-Neitzscheans hold the view that we are our own transcendence. Christian spirituality says that the Divine Life itself is the source of this transcendence. It is a divine dynamic intimate with creation, working for the good and fulfilment of all (whether implicit or explicit, known or unknown), doing so in ways that life by itself cannot do.

This song from Emmylou Harris, for me, is a song about a human journey affected by this divine transcendent dynamic within life. Through it all she sings of looking for water from some mysterious “deeper well”. There is a thirst for this well’s water in the experience of life. Nothing else satisfies. At first the search is full of the will to power – “I went…I fell…I looked…I saw…I found”. It’s a search that “rocked”, “rolled”, “rattled”, and raged – a search that attempted to find in the experiences of life its own dynamic of transcendence, that is, its own way to move beyond life and into something more deeply satisfying.

This attempt ends in the “terrible sight” of a life hitting rock bottom. No material experience, in itself, is this deeper well. For many of us there is a thirst for life that cannot be quelled simply by living life. The eternal of life needs, in some way, to be given attention.

Finally, at the bottom, there is a “reaching out for a holier grail” – something in life that is part of life yet more than life. This reaching out is often the fruit of a fruitless search. Hitting rock bottom can be the discovery that we are finally in the deeper well. After the search exhausts us enough we can be ready enough to accept something of this divinely transcendent dynamic within us. Grace waits in our struggle and search, respecting our freedom, until, through struggle, we become free enough to glimpse and experience what we most deeply hunger for.

Buddy Miller’s guitar work is raw and powerful, giving thrust (and at times desperation) to the search. Emmylou’s vocal is delivered with determination and edgy grace. Her band, Spyboy, when it was together, was a wonder to behold. Grab a copy of their 1998 live album Spyboy to hear more.

Christian spirituality names this deeper well as that mysterious place within us where the Divine Life dwells. The water itself is this Divine Life, a living spring, the wells source. This Divine Life is the source and the fulfilment of all earthly transcendence. Our thirst for this living water is a natural human and spiritual response to the presence of this living water – the heart’s deepest desire. Our thirst, our dissatisfaction, is often our companion on the way to the well within us.

A practice like Christian meditation maintains our attention at the deeper well. Regular practice has us drinking this living, divine water. As we experience this water rising up from the centre of us and all creation, we learn just where else this water is for us in life.

…but no one who drinks the water that I shall give will ever be thirsty again: the water that I shall give will become a spring of water within welling up for eternal life. (John 4:14).

The contemplative drinks of this water in and through their life and prayer practice. The contemplative comes to understand deeply that life is life, God is God, and that God is the water of life. We can all be contemplatives; we can all sing “I drank the water from a deeper well”.


Watching Me Fall: The Cure. Ego Falling From Its Centre

Is it possible to watch ourselves? If so, who is doing the watching? Zen Buddhism speaks of the prajna-eye and the gahakaraka within us. The prajna-eye is a kind of deep and spiritual intuition, which could be loosely translated as ‘wisdom’. This wisdom has the capacity to ‘see into’ things within and around us, to see into the truth of them as they simply and really are. The gahakaraka, on the other hand, is ego as our external and material senses (touch, sight, hearing, etc) as well as our rational intellect – the inner and outer senses of surface consciousness.

In a Christian sense, perhaps prajna could be something like the divine wisdom which lives in and with our deep Self. When our psyche is quiet enough and attentive to this deep Self, it is then that we can experience this prajna-eye as it observes life in deep intuition. However, if we give our attention more to gahakaraka and not the prajna-eye, it is then that the experience of prajna fades from consciousness (because our attention is now on the senses of surface consciousness rather than the deep intuition within the Self). A purpose of life is growing in a healthy balance between prajna and gahakaraka. Too much of ego is an over reliance simply on these inner and outer senses as the foundation for identity, perception and living. A healthy human life has Self as our centre, with gahakaraka as friend of and vessel for the Self. Gahakaraka becomes a friend who knows when to be silent and when to speak. Doubtless to say, if this is the description of a healthy mind, then we are all in some state of mindful disorder.

I experience this song from The Cure as a description of the Self wisely and intuitively observing ego in a state of ongoing disillusionment and collapse (“I’ve [Self with prajna-eye] been watching me [gahakaraka] fall for it seems like years”). This can happen to the best of us. Life stresses, anxieties, unrealistic expectations both from us and others, a wounded ego (we all have one of these), and the deep melancholy of a life disconnected from its true centre – all of this and more can cause the ego to “fall”, to “disappear”, implode under the weight. Our architecture of consciousness cannot long support the weight of an ego struggling to maintain the weight of anxiety, unrealistic expectation, and woundedness. At these times the Self (our true centre) waits patiently observing with prajna-eye the falling away of ego. As this falling away happens Self can then come alive in our consciousness as the true centre and ground of all our consciousness.

Yet ego can resist stubbornly its own falling. There is a deep fear in ego that if it yields the centre of consciousness it dies. Ego’s falling can then become a blood struggle for its own survival, or at least that can be our experience. What is happening is the forced de-centring of ego. It is dying – dying to its own egocentricity, falling under its own weight into a more realistic place and role. This can be painful and feel like the whole of our world is breaking down.

At this time ego can crave attention because the more attention it has then the more it can be experienced as the centre of psyche and thus be preserved in its egocentric state. In short, it can become narcissistic – completely concerned with its own survival and continued self-centred expression.

In this song it seems that the attention ego craves is coming to it through the passion and pleasure of sex. Sex as an expression of the deep Self is all about other-centredness, communion, and love. Here the sex seems merely a physical grasping at pleasure, an egoic attempt to have attention lost in the moment, to have ego sufficiently distracted from its own ongoing breakdown.

In this clip of the band performing I see ego’s struggle being expressed. The music sounds to me like the audio depiction of some kind of internal holy struggle between a prideful egocentricity and a wise, humble prajna-eyed Self. The Self cannot ‘do’ anything. Self is simply being in love as the ego rages on fighting its own egocentric demise, a forced (due to circumstance) transcendence from ego to Self as true centre.

A practice like Christian meditation is simply the gracefully controlled, long-term falling of the ego from the centre. It takes a lifetime. Egoic implosion, of course, can also be part of the journey. For the meditator attention to the mantra as it sounds in the heart is attention given more and more to the deep Self. Over time we come to see life more and more through the prajna-eye. For the Christian, this prajna-eye is the eye, or the consciousness, of Christ. This consciousness is the gentle yoke, the light burden of a human life let go into the divine life. We need not carry the heavy weight of egocentricity. We were never made for that yoke. When the letting go and the falling come it can be experienced as sweet relief. Sometimes, though, letting go into Christ consciousness does involve the pain, fear – even terror – of the ego. Ego can be stubborn.

All will be well. We fall into Love. There really is nothing to fear.

Andrew

The Zen Buddhist terms used above, along with their descriptions, together with their suggested connections to Christian Spirituality, can be found in the book Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist by D.T. Suzuki (1957, 2002).


Afterlife: Arcade Fire. What Comes Next is Now

For me this incredible song by Arcade Fire is somewhat ambiguous. At one level it’s about a dying relationship, asking questions such as what happens after a relationship ends and “can we work it out?” On another level it seems to be asking questions about human existence in general, questions like “where do we go?” and “when love is gone, where does it go?”

 


The ambiguity around the word afterlife makes me wonder if this song is entirely secular. Things secular emphasise the earthly and material aspects of life while setting aside the immortal and immaterial. Does this song do this? Not entirely, I think.

 
A spiritually balanced view of the world would see the mortality of earthly existence as holding within it immortality. This is a view which Christian theology would name as pan-en-theistic, that is the divine within all creation. For me, this song has something of this in it, as if the writers are asking (perhaps unconsciously) can our relationships, as part of creation, have within them divinity and the experience of divinity?

 
If, for a moment, we accept the possibility of the immortal within the mortal (or material), what could this possibility mean? If it is true, for what reason would divinity be so ‘intimately with’ the “breath”, “dirt”, and “fire” of this earthly life?

 
Christian spirituality names this immortal in the material as uncreated love (or Love). This was, broadly speaking, the message of Jesus. Christian spirituality affirms that this Love already saturates our relationships and wants to be expressed in and through our relationships. This divine Love is the context, the home, within which all other relational experiences reside. In this residency our relationships become energetically alive with the gift of divine life for the world.

 
So why would divinity bother with the mortal, with us? In short, to enable us to experience what we are ultimately made for, both now and after this material part of life: divine Love. We are made for what made us. The experience of Love is an experience we can all have now, whether we believe this Love to be divine or not (such is its unconditional nature). Both the giving and receiving of this Love is part of the experience. This giving and receiving is best done without reference to ourselves (as is the nature of God). As we grow in love we forget our own consciousness and live instead so that others may be loved.

 
The practice of Christian meditation, for many, is a vital part of their self-forgetting and growing in Love. Bringing our attention always back to the mantra is a very practical way of, inwardly, growing in the forgetting of our own consciousness. The mantra takes attention ‘down into Love’ where the heart of our being has a home. In this way loving from our being is also loving from Love, something we do relationally and (over time), as our meditation practice deepens, less fearfully and with less egocentricity.

 
“Oh when love is gone where does it go?” For me, this question (posed by Arcade Fire) is laced with divine possibility. If love is only material, created somehow by us as we relate to each other, then there is no afterlife for love. Love dies with our relating. Is this, however, our experience? Deep in us, beyond rationality, could we possibly somehow sense that love is actually Love and that this Love lives on in all things? And could it be, then, that human relationship is a divine invitation into the divine nature of love and relating, as Christianity maintains? How many of us have sensed a mysterious ‘other presence’ in our relating with each other? Dare we call this other presence a God who is Love?

 

Andrew


Art of Almost: Wilco. Falling Short Is Falling In

As human beings, we make an art form out of falling short. Our practical living is often an almost. We are made to enter fully into a life of other centred loving, and yet, who can say they have ever consistently done this? We fall short in the art of love.

There is restlessness within us for the meaning and purpose which a truly loving life can give us. This restlessness can be in tension with a myriad of inner and outer diversions which can draw us away from our greatest happiness: a uniquely passionate life growing in the expression of Love. This greatest happiness is what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, or the Reign of Love. He died being faithful to its vision and his living of it.

I watch Wilco perform this song and questions begin to stir in me: Why do I fall short? Why do we all make an art of it? I hear the dissonance and the frantic energy of the music – the sound of my own frustration and fear. I feel the ache of sadness in the vocals. It all takes a hold of me and I remember my own art of almost, the everyday ways I gloss over the sacredness of human contact. I walk through life fearing the ways others will cost my ego a death to its own preoccupations and self-concern.

The fear is ego’s fear. The death to egoism it fears, however, can make way for the ego’s rising. This rising takes the form of ego’s graceful growth into the ways of Love.

This ego-fear of the loss of self-centred autonomy and control struggles with the deeper and emerging realisation that any commitment to the expression of love does involve an ongoing death to our own egocentric ways. The mystery of it all is that we are happiest when ego is forgotten and perception is at love’s other-centred service. A forgotten ego is a risen ego.

Yet in this struggle between egoism and Love we turn from love too often. It is all there for us this life of Love, ready and waiting for us to become one with it without the loss of who we most deeply are. We hear the “faint ole’” of this love in our hearts and lives, and yet still work against the grain of it. This is part of the human journey. But is this all there is? Turning from Love will be what ultimately defines us? We are nothing but dust and to this dust we shall return – right?

Perhaps the art of almost has a richer palate, a broader spectrum of reality and possibility. Maybe falling short is only part of the story. There is something else: a falling in. As the song says “I could open up my heart and fall in.” Fall into what? Fall into the life of Love already waiting for us.

Deep within the simple and silent mystery of the core of us, deep in the spirit, we don’t need to fall in because we already are in – fully. This is a natural part of being human; the only way Love could have made us. Our being is being in Being. Our basic problem is that the rest of our humanity, our psychic and relational lives, is not faithful to, nor expressive enough of our being in Love. We have forgotten it and often work against it. Our woundedness covers it. Egocentricity distracts us from it. This is the human condition according to Christian spirituality.

The Christian season of Lent is about growth in seeing, acknowledging and accepting the reality of this ‘almost’ condition in our lives. And it is also about something else: the facilitation of a ‘falling’ into the Love life within and among us.

A question for Lent and beyond is: What can we do, practically in the living of life, that will enable the healing and transformation necessary for us to fall just a little more into the life of Love that we are already a part of?

If you have given up something for Lent, say chocolate, in what way is this helping your consciousness to be more grounded in the Love at your core? If you are fasting from, say television, then how is this helping you to become aware of the life of Love within you and all?

Perhaps this time of the year is a good time to commit to the experience of some kind of contemplative practice? A couple of possibilities from the world of contemporary Christian spiritual practice are Centering Prayer and Christian Meditation. Both these forms of contemplatively focused prayer facilitate a growing attention to, and living out of this core of Love. They do it through the practice of re-focusing attention away from the ego and into the Love at our core.

Falling into the Love Reality within us is a human art form – an art form of increments – which is highlighted during Lent and encouraged all our lives. As we grow in this art form our almost is revealed as the potential and the place of our falling in. We begin to experience our falling short in life as an important part of the experience of our falling into Love. Only grace can move us beyond our almosts, making them part of how Love reveals itself in the world through us. For this to happen we need to humbly accept our reality as creatures. Ego-centricity fades in the humble realisation of our creaturely and limited context. Divine Love then uses this realisation, grounded in humility, as the foundation for a life of loving we did not think possible. This is what grace alive within us does.

In time our ‘almosts’ lessen in severity and consequence while our ‘falling into’ deepens with growing trust and faith. In grace our almost and our falling become one as we experience a compassion not our own. This compassion moves in and among us with greater insistence. This compassion is the life of God inviting loving action.


Awake My Soul: Mumford and Sons. The Ordinary Love Of Soul (Soul Part One)

What is soul? When people speak of the soul of someone or something what are they talking about? Perhaps they are speaking of an inner dynamism, the unique way in which energy is named and used. Perhaps soul is an umbrella term that we use to give shape and context to the ways we see and experience our ‘inner landscape’: what we feel, the way we feel, the names and meaning we give to feelings; our thinking, our perceptions, and the way these things can shape emotions and the practical living of our lives; our sensations of body and the way they can influence our inner energies. All this could be seen as soul. The interplay of body and soul shows us that it can be dangerous to separate body and soul. Body and soul are one – bodysoul.

It follows then that the way we live affects soul, and the ‘state’ of our soul – its relative health – can affect the quality of our lives. If an activity or a commitment is described as ‘soulless ‘, the chances are that it is doing harm. Depression can often be an indicator that we have been doing too much of something that is not nourishing our soul. Depressive indicators such as tiredness and lethargy, together with the accompanying emotional and mental states, can be the way that bodysoul attempts to ‘get us to see’ what is going on.

Nourishing the soul keeps the soul ‘awake’ and expressing energy. Our bodies then become expressers of our unique energetic life and creativity. To not nourish the soul is to risk a slow and inner implosion of energy (melancholia and depression by another name).

The awakening of soul need not be a complicated affair. Mumford and Sons sing of a good remedy: “Where you invest your love, you invest your life”. The expression of love is the expression of soul. Find, then, everyday things that can be ways to invest love in life. Feed the birds; go for a walk; write; make your loved one a cup of coffee every morning. They may be things unique to you that do not have the same effect on another.

These activities are with you already. They are the simple everyday things that we love to do. All we need do is grow in being present to them and sense the gentle inner movements of energy for life that are already happening within us – and value them. To see this everyday stuff as not important is to miss a point. So much of life comes down to doing what we value and love. In this way the divinity with us, the Divine Love within, can be expressed through us in a myriad of ways, very simply and humbly, every day.

Some people may get noticed as they do what they love and may receive the attention of many as they do this. The only real importance of this is that through this noticing they can become an example, a noticed expression of the living of a life of love. They can inspire others. Egoism would tell us that gaining this attention of others is somehow vital to our continued life and well being. It is not. What is important is to simply express in life whatever we value and love. The vast majority of us do this away from the limelight and it is no less valuable because of this. To believe otherwise is to entertain egoism.

Grace – divine energy in action – is always with us to help us grow in nourishing soul and body. Doing what we love can then become a divine-human partnership in the gentle transformation of humanity for divinity. It is true – we are made ‘to meet our maker’. We can do this every day by growing in attention to the things we love to do as we do them.


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