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.
The Gospel story of the raising of Lazarus was written, like all the Gospels were, through the prism of the human experience of Jesus risen from the dead. After Jesus’ death those who were close to him during his earthly life experienced him as alive to them in a powerful and deeply intimate way. Free from the limits of physicality, Jesus exploded into their hearts – that place of pure experience at the centre of us where we and divinity are one, communing in spirit. The Gospels were written after this experience and during it.
What the story of Lazarus tells us is that death has no hold on life; that life is of such a force and nature that nothing can contain it. Life is of the spirit and life embodies (enlivens) all physicality. Death is a material reality, not ultimate Reality.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven.” The Lazarus that is David Bowie is now no longer limited by the physical. The scars of a human life and the drama of ‘below’ that were his have now been transcended. In this transcending, this going beyond, Bowie bursts into the fullness of life, a life that is in everything and everyone.
In the Gospel story eternal life courses into the dead Lazarus revealing to us that we will emerge into eternal life after death. This eternal life can be experienced here and now as it heals and transforms our human lives.
“I’ve got nothing left to lose…Dropped my cell phone down below.” As Bowie sings these words he floats between worlds. It seems that only his bed clothes are preventing him from floating away. Perhaps his experience of death is shedding him of what is ultimately unimportant: such things as opinions and judgements, our fears and anxieties, notions of success and failure, pride and competition, and all those things in our personalities that would stop us from living in the fullness of life already given to us. The cell phone is dropped – attachment to temporal intrigues and involvements is gone.
He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They replied, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. Thus the people who had come to mourn said, “Look how much he loved him!” But some of them said, “This is the man who caused the blind man to see! Couldn’t he have done something to keep Lazarus from dying?” Jesus, intensely moved again, came to the tomb. (Now it was a cave, and a stone was placed across it.) Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the deceased, replied, “Lord, by this time the body will have a bad smell, because he has been buried four days.” Jesus responded, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you that you have listened to me. I knew that you always listen to me, but I said this for the sake of the crowd standing around here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he shouted in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The one who had died came out, his feet and hands tied up with strips of cloth, and a cloth wrapped around his face. Jesus said to them, “Unwrap him and let him go.” (John 11:34-44)
Jesus was close to Lazarus, he loved him. We can see this as Jesus weeps and is “intensely moved”. In raising Lazarus Jesus shows us that our relationships also transcend death. The depth of closeness with someone experienced on earth can continue after their death. And not only this: the closeness can deepen. Those tensions of character and personality that may have come between us and our loved ones are no more. Our ego has nothing to rub against. All that is left is the truth of who our loved ones are. At our depths and in Truth this truth is free to commune with the truth of who we are. There is no fear in Truth.
During meditation we practice attention off the ego. As we deepen in this practice we encounter and live into the truth of who we are and the truth of life.
The gift of this song and video from David Bowie could be seen as a participation in the spiritual reality of communion at the heart of relationship. Bowie lives on not only in his music, but in the relationship that his music fosters between us and him and especially in the relationship he has with those who were closest to him. Just like those Bluebirds he is free, free to be in the freedom given to us all; free from fear and free to be.
The cupboard in this video is the tomb of the Lazarus story. But who is it that comes out of the cupboard at the beginning of this video; that reaches out from under the bed enabling Bowie to float; hiding under the desk, touching and empowering him in his final moments? His muse; an angel; an embodiment of the Divine; a variation on the Grim Reaper? And what is Bowie writing? Is creativity bursting from him in his final moments?
Later, as Bowie dances and sings in front of his ‘tomb cupboard’ we can see the bandages of Lazarus in the white lines on Bowie’s black clothing. The final scene seems to have Bowie doing a ‘Lazarus in reverse’. While the Gospel Lazarus comes back to earthly life from death, Bowie seems to reverse into death from earthly life. His entry into the ‘tomb cupboard’ is a reverse replay of a ‘tomb cupboard’ exiting. He exits and enters the tomb at the same time. Death and life, at least on this earthly plane, are a part of each other. And if we can embrace death, be unafraid of it, we discover in our hearts that death is the way to into life, both temporal and eternal. Christians call this ‘dying and rising in Christ’.
Here on the blog things have been a bit quiet of late. Attention has been elsewhere. The house community has been active with other things: the annual Bere Island WCCM Holy Week Retreat, and moving house. And for me personally, there has been the ongoing experience of grief with the death and passing of my mother.
For me, the Bere Island retreat was many things. Speaking generally I experienced an intensification of my inner reactivity towards others. Inward reactions that would have been more or less held in check until I could (hopefully) re-experience and process them later just poured out. It was a shock, I think, for others to see it and (in their own way) to experience it. It was a different side of the psychological me – the dark side of my moon. Andrew, unfiltered – the gap between feeling and response substantially narrowed. Response became reaction.
My sharp experience of community during the week, and the emerging experience of grief being done far away from family and friends, all this made the experience of Holy Week very difficult. Private emotions paraded themselves. Performance anxiety tightened its grip. Perfectionism swirled and coloured sight. Fear of rejection became (once again) a conscious companion. All the buttons were being pushed. My attention was claimed by, and caught in, the emotions, the wounds and the insecurities of my psyche.
Thankfully and wonderfully meditation was there to provide a balance to all this. During meditation attention was focused and re-focused on that essential goodness that is God and Self in communion deep within all of us.
An important part of the experience of the contemplative nature of spirituality is learning to hold together these two aspects of the human condition: our woundedness and our essential goodness. Something deep in us says we are not good, that we don’t deserve to be good. And yet, the more we practice attending to the depths of us, the more our already given goodness is lavished upon us.
As attention on the mantra is deepened, clarified, and focused (thanks to a regular practice) the paradox that is woundedness and essential goodness experienced together becomes, over time, resolved. Deep in goodness awaits the healing and the mercy of Christ. Perhaps we will spend a lot of our time, both during meditation and during life in general (over many years), pulling away from this goodness, this healing, this mercy. Divine love never gives up. If we can keep meditating, the chance of us giving up on ourselves lessens significantly.
It is so important that the mantra take root in the heart. As this happens real and substantive psychological healing takes place. Memories and feelings formally locked up and suppressed can be experienced, healed, and integrated. Energy that was used to suppress, repress, and protect is released for living. Jesus, the Divine Physician at the heart of us, loves us mysteriously and wonderfully into life.
Bere Island 2016
This healing journey to the truth of us often requires the support of others, of course. A counsellor, a therapist, a spiritual guide, an experienced and wise meditating mentor – all of these can help. The Desert Mothers and Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries were these for many of their fellow monastics. What is important for the healing meditator is that the person they are receiving help from value meditation as a healing way. And it would be wonderful if this valuing was based on their own personal experience of meditation.
During Holy Week I experienced the both/and of the exposure of my reactivity and psychological wounds, along with the stability of attention in the goodness of being. Both happened alongside each other. The paradox of my inner life as both whole and as fractured was experienced. This was hard going. An established meditation practice can anchor us in our wholeness when the psyche becomes too tumultuous.
And remember: the mantra can be employed at any time. We don’t have to wait for our regular meditation time. The mantra sounding in the heart at any time as our psyche twists and turns can release divine healing and comfort in us for us.
Perhaps it would be best to end with some words from John Main: the one who, for many, ‘went on ahead’ into the experience of Christian meditation:
Now we must be very careful that we are not just intoxicated by the ideas of meditation, by the theory. The theory, once we begin to encounter it in practice, in our own heart, will fill us with wonder, but encounter it personally we must. That is why our daily practice is of supreme importance. What we have to learn to do is to take our potentiality absolutely seriously, to understand that the Spirit of Him who created the universe dwells in our hearts and, in silence, is loving to all, and we have to enter our own hearts to discover that Spirit within our own spirit. (The Door to Silence)