Recently a group of meditators gathered for a day at the Blue Labyrinth Bush Retreat in The Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, Australia. The day included meditation and a labyrinth walk. The day was organised as an offering by the younger meditators of the Australian Christian Meditation Community in Sydney. Also included were a couple of sessions exploring the theme ‘meditation creates community’. Below is part one of the notes that I prepared for those sessions.
The seeds of community lay in our commitments. When people are committed to something together, perhaps to a common cause or a relationship, community could happen.
Community cannot happen if we are by ourselves in our commitments.
The husband and wife who spend little or no time together; or people house sharing, eating separately, and with a TV in each bedroom; or people working for social justice by themselves.
Community requires a certain amount of time spent together and being present to each other.
So we can say that community can begin to stir when we make the decision to be conscious of and present to each other in our commitments, seeking mutuality and support from one another.
Co-workers who start taking lunch together; or the friendship group that meets for drinks; or the social justice group.
As this turning to each other starts to happen, something else happens: our personalities and temperaments begin to interact. Likes and dislikes begin to emerge. Talking with one person is easier than talking with another person. Given enough time together, some of the judgements, the hurts, the longings, the joys, the annoyances (and more) that live in us will stir and surface.
Within us there is who we truly are and there is what stops us from expressing who we truly are. What stops this expression started as a defence and a protection of who we are in the midst of an overwhelming and primal experience of the world. For most of us, defence and protection has (to some extent) taken over and assumed the role of who we are.
Whatever the case, as we turn to each other, and relating begins to happen, it is then that our egos become involved.
When egos rub there is a choice: we can practice staying present to this experience or we can opt out. Community starts to happen when we remain present to the tension of egos rubbing. We may go through periods of disassociating from the others we are committed to. We may repress the inner tension that is happening as we relate, or we may project it onto others calling them what we dislike or hate in ourselves. In community, we stay present to the patterns and ploys of the ego.
Maybe at this point we might ask ourselves: what is happening, why do I do this? With these questions honesty begins and self-knowledge can grow. For there to be community, there needs to be honesty.
So if community stirs when we are conscious of and present to each other, it begins to be nurtured when we commit to honesty, with ourselves and (when appropriate) with each other.
Many have discovered that, for them, it is too hard to do this without the divine life. This life provides context. And divinity heals us for each other in ways that we cannot do ourselves.
A common prayer life grows in the midst of this. We prayer together so that we might be able to love: ourselves, each other, the world, and God.
It is important that community prayer does not replace individual prayer. Both become a part of each other.
So if community stirs when we are conscious of and present to each other, and it begins to be nurtured when we commit to honesty, for many of us community matures as we pray, both together and alone.
The Chartres Labyrinth at The Blue Labyrinth Bush Retreat
A few years ago I discovered the Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo. One of my favourite Endo novels is called Silence. Recently Martin Scorsese adapted the novel into a movie of the same name. The story is set in 17th century Japan. Christianity had gained a minority following and, consequently, was soon seen as a threat. Because of this, Christians were persecuted and killed. The choice was given: renounce Christianity (apostatize) or die.
Silence is about the human struggle to remain faithful to a God that seems silent in the midst of suffering, a suffering that is happening precisely because of a decision to remain faithful to this silent God.
In the movie, Sebastiao Rodriques, a Portuguese Jesuit priest and missionary in Japan, struggles to make sense of what is happening to him and around him. His faith in an all-powerful God is shaken as this God does nothing to stop what is happening. The only ‘answer’ Rodriques gets is silence. What is the point of being faithful to this mute, powerless God? Surely to apostatize would be the better course?
The book and movie wrestle with the assumption that silence means an absence of the divine life. We can have an expectation of how God should act in a given situation, and this expectation can weigh heavily, especially in the midst of suffering. If our expectations of God are unmet, when all we get is silence dressed up as absence, faith can be lost. It can also turn dogmatic.
The challenge is to not turn from this silence, no matter how we may be experiencing it. If we do turn away, we may discover in time that the turning away was all a part of a turning back to what silence actually is.
When I closed my eyes it was twilight. Around the shed, the birds had been back in the trees announcing the end of day. But now as my eyes opened it was dark. All was still. All. Inside and outside. The mantra had settled the mind and darkness had settled the birds. Silence. And in the silence there was a presence. More than that: the silence itself seemed to be a presence, an always present presence; a presence not of my making. I sat, not wanting to break the stillness with movement. In silence, in presence, in stillness, I sat.
In the movie, Rodriques too begins to sense a divine presence in silence. He discovers a God in the silence who is suffering with all who suffer. God speaks as silent presence, and God is fully present all the time no matter what. In this presence God loves. Love is this presence. In the reality of human suffering, Divine Love suffers with us and makes of suffering a way into the depth and meaning of life. Suffering is not taken away – it can become gift.
Sometimes the events of life can shake us from our expectations of God and our ideas of silence. It’s as if what is happening is breaking down what we have held dear, what has up to that point provided meaning. It can all be taken from us, leaving us lost and bereft. Suffering can wrench us free from ideas of life and divinity formerly held close. If our humanity is to deepen, if we are to discover more a God in communion with us through everyone and everything, then ideas of life and divinity must change. Only later do we look back and see that we are somehow freer, less fearful, more humble and simple than we were before.
As this happens the way we live with silence changes. We grow into silence. Silence becomes the way we can be with the God who is transfiguring our humanity for communion with Love.
The invitation then is for us to be present ourselves to this divine presence in us. As this happens, as we give regular attention to it, our deep union with the divine life is realised consciously – we become more and more aware of it. A communion of Spirit and spirit (already given) in time becomes a communion of divinity with the whole of our humanity. Our psyche becomes an inner landscape so transfigured by silence that the divine presence becomes uniquely conscious in us.
Meditation is simply a way to give regular attention to this divine presence in us. It is the putting aside of all ideas about life and God – even the ideas that suffering may have helped us come to. Ideas about union are not union. We become silent so that we may be simply conscious-in-communion with divinity rather than self-conscious with ideas, thoughts, and imaginings.
Perhaps all this may seem like a folly or a panacea, an escape from actually doing anything at all. However, what happens as we attend to this silent presence of Love in us is that we are drawn into a particular kind of action: loving action. In whatever circumstance we find ourselves in Divine Love is always inviting us into loving, kind action here and now. As we meditate we come to know, in our own experience, what this love is – the flavour of it. The invitation to loving action then becomes harder to resist and we end up expressing the love we are becoming.
As time goes on here at the shed I find that I am adapting to the rhythms of nature around me. This has affected the way I move through the day. It’s wonderful to feel a part of the life around me, to be with the trees as they move, the birds as they fly, the possums as they screech at night (so far they haven’t kept me awake).
The shed, because of its position, and its large front window and sliding door, gets a lot of sun (or passive solar). Consequently, I have also become more conscious of the sunlight and the way it moves within the shed’s modest living and working space.
The best time to start work is around 8:30am. At this time the light is starting to come in behind me (as I sit at the desk). I have got into the habit of keeping half of the front curtain drawn at this time so that the sun doesn’t fade the sofa bed. As the morning goes on the light moves from the sofa bed towards the desk; as this happens I can fully open the curtains. The space within becomes illuminated.
Around 11 I can feel the sun starting to warm my shoulders. Half an hour later it’s onto the desk and not too far from the computer screen. Now it’s time to stop for the morning, time for meditation then lunch.
In the early afternoon the birds of the morning return to the back yard trees. If I’m still enough, Wattle Birds will join me for lunch, searching for pollen on a nearby bush. Finches sweep up and back in the air eating insects they see in the sunlight.
Around 1 or so I’ll go for a walk, perhaps to a nearby beach or the river, or the ocean head.
By 2pm the sun has moved enough from the desk and it’s time to begin again. The morning’s brightness has given away to an afternoon’s glow. At this time of year the afternoon’s temperature is pleasant. It becomes easier to get lost in the work (except when the birds start to use a nearby birdbath).
In attending to life now, being in time, the divine presence in life can come alive in us. This is what contemplative practice does.
Life is meant to be contemplative. To experience the gift of divinity within as we attend to creation is a fruit of contemplative practice. We are better able to sense and let go into the God-life as it is in all of creation. Without a regular practice that draws attention into the heart we can forget to attend with the heart in life. In this forgetting we lose out, not only to experiencing divine love now, but also to the experience of being who we truly are. To be here now is to live in the unity that is Being and being – God and us – together.
To be contemplative in life also requires a certain degree of integrated thinking. For too long now life in the West has been dominated by ‘left brained’ thought. The human brain has two hemispheres linked by the corpus callosum.
The left hemisphere deals with the world in abstract ways. It has a narrow focus so as to serve day-to-day activity and function. Left on its own it will calculate and manipulate the world without a sense of its own limitation. It will become ridged in its ideas, ideologically fixed.
The right hemisphere deals more in metaphors. It is the explorer rather than the dissector. It sees the bigger picture of interconnection and relationships. It is about what is unique to the particular, not the particular’s generalisation. It is that part of reasoning that knows the limits of reason. It is the backdrop and frame of balanced function. It provides meaning and context to the day-to-day.
We need both hemispheres operating together if we are to function in a holistic way. Both are needed for healthy reasoning and a healthy emotional life. Consciousness in harmony is about both working together. As the neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist says in The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning
What we call our consciousness moves back and forth between them [the hemispheres] seamlessly, drawing on each as required, and often very rapidly.
Living life contemplatively is about living life with both hemispheres engaged together in attending to life. Healthy attention sees the particular (that bird in the tree) in its context (the web of connection that is the birds and the trees – and everything else). Seeing here is a ‘heart seeing’, a seeing that includes what our eyes see and what our intuition senses.
This kind of whole attending opens us to the possibility of sensing the divine in life. It opens us to revering life as a precious event of fullness and mystery. We become more naturally able to revere each other, even when we seem very different from each other.
Meditation, as a practice of attention for life, helps to integrate the hemispheres so that the experience of life may become contemplative. Life then becomes more and more about not expecting anything, but simply about being here now. That is enough.
Phil Keaggy, ‘Be In Time’
Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009).
Iain McGilchrist, The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning (2012). This is an ebook available via Kindle. It is a good summary of the key themes of The Master and His Emissary.
After a couple of weeks in Sydney and Bathurst (my hometown), I have spent the last week in Canberra catching up with some friends. It is winter here in Australia and Canberra has been cold, getting down to -3C overnight. Some of the days though have a bright and crisp air to them. It’s been lovely to walk in the Australian winter light while frost crunches underfoot.
Someone asked me the other day ‘where are you living now?’ This got me thinking. I said ‘I don’t know.’ I’m as settled as I ever have been within myself and yet all ‘my stuff’ is still packed in boxes and stored away. I am free to roam around with a suite case (albeit it a heavy one).
So, where do I roam next?
For the next three months I’ll be on the South Coast of New South Wales (on the eastern coast of Australia) living in a shed and doing some writing. At this point I’m looking forward to it, to having a space to focus (assuming that I don’t distract myself too much).
Within myself I sense that this time is also about something else: a time to deepen in indifference.
Indifference? What does that mean? Does it mean not caring about anything or anyone; giving up on the world to live in some kind of ‘holy isolation’? No. Far from it. This meaning of indifference, for me, has the smell of fear about it – a justification for turning from others and the ‘randomness’ of life.
There is another, truer, meaning. It is a meaning that I first came across many years ago when I read the book God of Surprises by Gerard W. Hughes. In this book Hughes told the story of a black Labrador named Beuno. Beuno was easily distracted and very curious. He would wander off and come back with all sorts of things. It seemed that he would happily follow his desires for anything and everything: until he was presented with a bone. At that point all other desires fell away. All he wanted was that bone. Beuno would sit and wait, slobbering, with eyes only for that bone. At that moment he was indifferent to all else. He had a single focus: that bone.
Hughes was a Jesuit. Being so, he also used the Spiritual Exercises to help unpack a healthy spiritual and human approach to indifference:
….we must be so poised (detached/indifferent/balanced) that we do not cling to any created thing as though it were our ultimate good, but remain open to the possibility that love may demand of us poverty rather than riches, sickness rather than health, dishonour rather than honour, a short life rather than a long one, because God alone is our security, refuge and strength. We can be so detached from any created thing only if we have a stronger attachment; therefore our one dominating desire and fundamental choice must be to live in love in his presence.” (Principle and Foundation, The Spiritual Exercises, as translated/summarised by Gerard W. Hughes in God of Surprises, 63)
Indifference is about living in the ‘wavelength’ of Love. It is about living enough in this wavelength and committing to it so that we still choose from there no matter what else may be happening in life.
Indifference is about knowing what is most important in life, from moment to moment. There is a mindful non-attachment towards what could get in the way, in each moment, of a loving response. And there is poise: a balanced readiness to respond in each moment to love’s invitation to be involved in the living of life as love.
All this, of course, is the ideal. What matters is that we walk on, persevering into compassion as indifference is cultivated in us. Life has its own way of showing us what is important.
We are, however, made for attachment. What is important is what we attach to. The Spiritual Exercises, as quoted above, give us an answer as to what to do with attachment: our “stronger attachment” can be to God – to divine, uncreated Love. This is what Beuno shows us. His attachment to ‘that bone’ was stronger than anything else. Our attachment to God, that life of freeing love, can be the strongest thing in our lives – an attachment that shapes the way we live life and relationship. No matter what kind of life we are living we become more loving because love is the most important thing. For us, God is the bone.
As we meditate we grow in our attachment to God, to Divine Love. Attention generates attachment and so we attend to the mantra as it draws the whole of us into the silent life of God; until the mantra is forgotten and attachment to God is full. All else is put aside: images, ideas, thoughts, emotions. Not repressed, just not attended to as we meditate. We are left to soak in the Mystery that Love is. As we soak, we are changed.
As we meditate we practice non-attachment to that which is not the Mystery of Love. We turn from what ego would prefer: stronger attachments to that person, that lifestyle, that idea, that thing.
‘Love is dangerous’ says ego, ‘love will change your life in ways you cannot control.’ Well, yes it will. That’s life. Divine Love, as we attend to it, shows us to ourselves, helps us uncover the deepest longings of our hearts, and guides us in life to the ways that this longing can be fulfilled. This is what attachment to God does. Possibilities increase and life becomes an adventure in love.
After calling London home for the last two years I now find myself back in Australia. My time at Meditatio London House has come to an end.
The last two years have been, for me, an exploration and a deepening in the experience of meditation and community.
Through the years I have experienced community, both formal and informal. I have been a part of seminary and novitiate communities, as well as Christian communities intentionally set up to explore what being human together in Christ might mean. I have grown in the maturity of friendship and discovered that friendship is also community.
In other formal, live-in communities that I have been a part of, meditation was not part of the communal prayer life. As a result my meditation practice, while contained within the communal life, was not really a part of it. It was something that I did as an extra.
Meditatio House was and is different. Because the practice of meditation is placed at the heart of the communal life of prayer, divinity active in the meditator at the time of this prayer is also active in the life of the community as we meditate together. In this we experience our being together and discover that our being, in its very nature, is being-in-relationship. This being-in-relationship, the being that we give attention to at the time of meditation, is the same being expressed for each other during the everyday practicalities of life together.
Meditation done together is a powerful way of forgetting ourselves so that we can leave room for each other in our hearts and in our daily routine. We discover through the experience of meditation and community together that the invitation to leave self behind is just as active in the practice of community as it is in the practice of meditation. Meditation is a part of community; community is a part of meditation. The practice of both together is about losing egoism so that we might mature in the inner and outer life of love. Commitment to this together practice is the most important thing. Success is secondary.
Community was important to John Main. He highlighted for us the reality that community is a fruit of meditation. For John Main meditation without a maturing in community was not yet being practiced at depth; meditation was not yet sharing in the human reality of being-in-relationship.
Meditation creates community. Our true nature revealed in stillness is being in relationship. Stillness together shows that we are members of one body, and that body is Christ. (Monastery Without Walls, 29).
True community happens in the process of drawing each other into the light of true being. (Word Into Silence, 73).
A monastery [or contemplative community] is a centre of prayer only to the degree that it is a community of love. (Community of Love, 96)
There were plenty of times during my stay at Meditatio House when I got caught up in putting too much emphasis on my and others performance as community members. I would forget that community, at its heart, is about growing in the grace of acceptance: of ourselves and others and of God’s offer of Godself (Love) to us. In acceptance there is space for healing and transformation.
I discovered that in a community of love any failure at loving makes our growth in love possible. How? When we fail to love, our fear of being ultimately unlovable can stir. If the people around us can show us the compassion and forgiveness that God has for us (even just a little), this deep lie of our own unlovableness can be exposed (become conscious) to us. In this exposure we have the chance to see and accept this unlovableness as the lie it is. With others around us behaving counter to this lie, we have the opportunity to grow in the experience of love. In time the love already within us and for us can move into our awareness and be consciously experienced. In this experience we are then freed to express love for others. This dynamic of love in human relationship is oftentimes imperceptible. All that is needed, however, is for one or two of us to be open just enough to the reality of this love, a love that is always with us.
Meditation creates community out of the energy of paradox. In the light of the experience of meditation we see ourselves and others as united and no longer as alienated. We are then free to act on the basis of what we really see. (Laurence Freeman, John Main: The Expanding Vision, 126)
Just as there is, at the surface, a paradox in saying a mantra that leads to silence, so there is a paradox in living and meditating with others who are disturbing to us. These paradoxical experiences, in time, lead to the peace of an integrated psyche. This is because integration seems to require an inner and relational tension. In meditation this tension is attention on the mantra. In community this tension is attention on the other and what is happening within me for this person to be experienced as disturbing.
This tension becomes the catalyst for change and growth – if we can stay present to it. This tension, when experienced in the present moment, becomes a part of the process of healing. It becomes a doorway into integration. Consequently it is not a tension that saps energy. It becomes the creative tension of the Holy Spirit – a tension moving within us as we meditate and live together.
Another part of my experience at Meditatio House was the opportunity to be in an environment that openly encouraged gifts and gave space for practice. During the course of the last ten years or so the desire in me to be a writer has grown. This continued at Meditatio House. The house gave me the change to practice writing. The life of the house also provided the opportunity to get back into playing guitar. I was also able to practice teaching meditation. These three things: writing, guitar, and teaching are what I am invited to continue doing after life at Meditatio House. And like the talents gifted to everyone, they are gifts for everyone. Our giftedness comes alive in the Spirit when it is done for others.
My thanks and deep appreciation to Laurence, Henriette, and to all the others I lived with while at Meditatio House. We were gift to each other in ways obvious and mysterious, seen plainly and to be seen in time.
As some of you may already know, Meditatio House has moved. We have moved from Hamilton Road, Ealing (West London) to Cloudesley Square, Islington (Central London) – Zone 3 to Zone 1 for people familiar with the London Tube zones.
Suburban life is now somewhat more cosmopolitan. Down the road is the well-known Chapel Market (one of London’s famous street markets), and all the cafés and trend that is Upper Street, Islington. Angel Tube Station is not far away.
The first room set up at Cloudesley Square was the meditation room. It is somewhat smaller than the one at Ealing. It was important that this room be up and running as soon as possible. The prayer life of the community and our meditation together is central. The meditation room is the heart of the house. As we unpacked the rest of the house meditating together in the meditation room helped to maintain a sense of stability.
We all need some kind of stability. As our world becomes increasingly mobile and fast changing, for many of us we can no longer rely on our physical circumstance to provide enough stability. I think of my own life here as an example of this: here I am on the other side of the world from Australia (the country of my birth). And in Australia I don’t really have a ‘place’ of my own. I have a hometown, but not a physical home.
For many, stability of environment helps them with the human experience of growth and change. A lack of external stability can make the inner experience of growth and change difficult.
It is said that the internal of the spiritual life is about pitching tents rather than building houses. Growing in the divine life within us means growth and change becomes not only necessary, but expected and eventually welcomed. It is this growth and change that helps to integrate our self-consciousness with its forgotten roots: God and the mystery of our deepest self. To build a house is to settle down within us at one ‘place’ on this journey back into Love. At some point we may decide that we have had enough of change and just want to stay in the one spot, the one place of growth that we have come to.
Pitching a tent is about settling with the knowledge that, at some point, we will be on the move again. Eventually, the God of love and change will entice us to move on, deeper into forgetting ourselves and being re-membered into love. The extent to which we are responsive to this enticement is the extent to which we have embraced inner tent living.
This reality of inner growth and change can make external stability more important. A marriage, a family, a community, a monastery – all of these have been attempts to make the external stable and supple enough to be a support for growth and change. But what can we do if the external is in flux, no longer providing enough support? Alternatively, what can we do if the external has become too rigid, too fixed in its patterns and ways and no longer at the service of growth?
If we somehow lose touch with the divine life in and around us (the initiator of growth) and our attention is too much on our self-consciousness (without a contemplative balance), the danger is that we will become too fixed, rigid, within ourselves as we over-identify with self-consciousness. As this happens, in time, our living environments can begin to reflect this inner fixedness and become, instead, a distraction away from change and growth. A too stiff personality becomes the foundation of living rather than our being in God.
Alternatively, if our external environment is too unstable the danger is that we can become (again) too fixed, hard within ourselves in response to this instability.
Meditation can help. Practicing it is a commitment to tent living. And when a couple, a family, a community practices meditation together it ensures that the external – the physical and relational circumstances of our lives – are to some degree a reflection of our tent living, supple enough to embrace growth and change.
The moving of the Meditatio House community to Cloudesley Square is a reflection of the change that can happen due to the uncertainty of life. It is also an acceptance of the invitation to have the external of life supple enough to nurture our growth together into the Divine Life.
The commitment to meditation, and to meditating together, gives us a stable practice amid internal and external change.
The paradox is that meditation, as a contemplative practice, not only encourages in us growth and change, it also deepens us in the experience of an ultimate stability in God. As we pitch and re-pitch our tents, we carry the home that is the cell of our heart everywhere we go. Home is where the heart is. The heart is the home of divinity and our true selves. Everywhere we go our heart goes too.