Tag Archives: Religious experience

The Shed: Poised for Adventure

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.

 

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The Bus to Canberra


Small Things: Ben Howard. Madness and Plain Sight

Sometimes we can’t see what is in plain sight. The small concerns of life, the little worries; the daily round of cares: all can gather round us claiming attention. Soon our emotional lives are caught up in this disturbance and distraction. Whether it’s thought or emotion, all is energy. We are always energy in form and in motion.

When these words, images, and emotions make a home in our minds, the meanings they carry begin to affect how we see things and how we relate to people. ‘Has the world gone mad…Is it all so very bad…Or is it me?’

There seems to be no reprieve from a way of seeing that becomes our way of seeing. We soak in it. We identify with it. It seems we can’t change it. It has become just the way we are and the way it is.

It becomes more and more difficult to ‘keep the peace’, to be at peace. Any promise or demand of peace, be it within us or around us, is trivial. The reality of peace slips away, forgotten and unattainable.

In these times we cannot see the love that lives in plain sight. In times of kaleidoscope and whirl, of these small things gathering and fusing, we cannot see it. The experience can be one of love absent – a hole inside that cannot be filled. Love is veiled, hidden behind the small things.

Being so out of touch with the Reality of Love and so identified with thought and emotion – this is a kind of madness.

There is a way out of this madness. We can practice a refocusing, a retraining of attention away from the kaleidoscopic of internal existence that Ben Howard is singing about here. It is a refocusing, a retraining. And it is so much more than this. It is also a way of loving transformation: the transformation of the mind from disintegrating to integrating. On the inner journey towards this integration there is peace.

The contemplative way is a way of this transformation. The transformation is done by this Love, the divine love life within us. We co-operate with this love life as it transforms us.

If we are to co-operate, the way into contemplation must be practical, it must be a practice. Meditation is one such practical and contemplative way. A mantra based meditative practice asks of us something very simple. It invites us to choose a word to give our attention to. The practice of giving and re-giving our inner attention to this word, over time, allows Love to work at loosening our attachments, our identification, with the ‘small things’ of thought and emotion.

The word maranatha is one such word we can use. Recite it, internally, gently and faithfully, as four syllables: ma-ra-na-tha. Have a straight back and a still body as you meditate. When you find attention no longer on the word, gently re-give it, again and again, until the time of meditation is finished: see if you can do 20 minutes.

You keep him [sic] in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock. (Isaiah26:12)

This is the long-term fruit of a regular meditation practice: our mind is stayed on the God who is Love. Our mind settles into the deep stability of the divine life. Awareness stays there. The kaleidoscope ceases to turn in the mad way of before. Our minds may still be at times buffeted and blown, however, during these times we can actually experience a new reality of ‘I am not my thoughts; I am not my emotions’.

Attention becomes grounded in the deep life of being and being is grounded in God.

The regularity of our practice grows as it slowly dawns on us just how transformative, how important to sane living a practice like meditation is. The choice is ours.

A contemplative practice unveils the God who is always there – in plain sight. It is our inattentiveness that often causes us to experience God as absent.

I have been telling you these things in veiled language. The hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in veiled language but tell you about the Father in plain words. (John16:25).

The ‘hour’ of contemplation and the contemplative life, are about the absence of veils. It is plain living, simple living, true living. As the veils fall, as the small things subside, the presence of God becomes vivid, the language clearer. As our minds transform, so do our lives.


Meditatio House: Everyone is Holding a Mirror

I can be hard on myself. Too hard. This hardness comes from many years of expected too much from myself. Over time there has been some improvement in this state of mind, improvement that happens as my psyche inches into grace.

There is a wonderful song by Luka Bloom called Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself. This song has been with me for many years. It’s one which I tend to play when I do feel low. If I am feeling low and somewhat overwhelmed by what is going on around and within me, well that’s when this tendency to be hard on myself can rise, or indeed is already active.

One reason for this tendency is the sustained rejection which I have experienced in life. This happened mainly in my adolescent years. The logic of my hardness goes something like: ‘be good enough and no one will reject you.’ Call it the product of rejection anxiety. Call it perfectionism. Call it ego’s lie. It has been quite a challenge to live by this axiom. Parts of my life have had to fall apart under the strain of hyper-expectation and anxiety for me to learn the art of gentleness (an ongoing journey).

Recently the tendency to be hard on myself became quite energetic. This is understandable. I am living on the other side of the world, living with people who are new to me, and in a place and lifestyle which I am still getting used to.

The problem with high expectations is that these expectations can easily turn into judgement and condemnation. When this happened recently, rather than experience this harsh judgement of myself from myself, I projected it outward and onto the others around me. They were the ones doing it, not me. I was unaware that I was doing this. I was just so caught up in the dynamic. A meeting with a wise member of the wider meditation community helped me to name and re-member what was going on. The projection seemed to come full circle when this community elder looked at me and wisely said ‘I’m not judging you!’.

Before the meeting I was questioning (to myself) my fellow community member’s motivations for being a part of the Meditatio House community and judging their personality traits (or at least my perception of them). Ego was having a field day. Humility and the deeper self fell out of awareness. Compassion dried up. Spiritual pride began to rise: ‘I’m better than them, I’m more spiritually mature.’

The people around me were like movie screens onto which I was unconsciously projecting certain traits and feelings held within my own personality that I did not want to see. If I was to see them within myself, well there was the risk of self-judgement and self-rejection. This risk seems heightened when we are caught in the dynamics of ego (as I was).

So what were these traits, feelings? They are a part of the shadow of personality; those hidden aspects which we do not want to know about or live out of, and consequently have difficulty facing. And yet they do exist in the darker places within us.

Arrogance..jealousy..the anxious need to control..shame..perfectionist Prejudice..hatred..anger..harshness..possessiveness..puerile..miser

These seem to be some of the traits and feelings that have been coming up recently for me as I sit with these projections. The energy in motion (emotion) empowering my projections resonates with these names.

This ongoing process of naming and integrating ‘negative’ or ‘dark’ feeling and traits is the fruit of a stable enough grounding in love. The practice of Christian meditation grounds our attention in this love. The glow of the divine love-life soon warms and permeates more and more of our inner life. A soft and enduring light and warmth is experienced as emanating even from those crannies of psyche which we have long turned from in abject shame. Over time there is the graced acceptance of our own lovableness – crannies and all. God never gives up on us. Our psyches come to be built on rock.

We become less dependent on the fractured expressions of love that come to us from ourselves and others. And yet over time our own expressions of love grow gently in this divine fullness within us, and we come to appreciate anew the human expressions of love that happen around us.

The wonderful thing is that once we realise and accept that we are projecting and can come to a place of naming what is feeding these projections, the energy around the projections subsides and the feelings diminish. As these parts of our shadow come out into the light of awareness they are slowly integrated into the overall personality. This is the gift that community can be – if we can stick it out.

Once we come to see that we are projecting it’s like the people around us are holding up to us a mirror. Someone we first judge as arrogant is seen as holding up to us a reflection of our own hidden arrogance; someone whom we may judge as petulant is holding up a mirror reflecting an intolerance of our own temperamental selves.

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As this process unfolds we grow in a forgetfulness of ourselves. We go beyond, transcend, those parts of us that get in the way of love and living. Energy is released from the need to repress the dark within us. Darkness becomes light. Attention grows in a freedom for everyday loving. The mantra’s roots grow even deeper into the heart. Grace enlivens us.


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”.


Meditatio House: The Siren Call of Spiritual Delight.

Just before evening meditation begins at Meditatio House, we listen to a reading from one of the many masters of Christian spirituality. Currently we are making our way through a book called Prayer by Swami Abhishiktananda (see the recommended links to find out more about Abhishiktananda). During one reading recently these words struck me:

So long as in our prayer we continue to think and feel, to treat God “in relation to ourselves”, it is certain that we have not yet entered the innermost “mansion” of the Interior Castle – according to the imagery of St Teresa of Avila. Those whose aim is God never stop short at anything whatever that is thought or felt, no matter how exalted or uplifting it may seem to be.

Teresa of Avila writes about two kinds of union in her book The Interior Castle. One union she describes as a betrothal, a kind of engagement to God. This betrothal is the kind of union that can also become a separation.The union at this point is young and somewhat changeable. During this time, however, there can be experienced what Teresa describes as a joy “greater than all the joys of earth, and greater than all its delights, and all its satisfactions..”. These are profound experiences which are the fruit of this young union, much like the experience of falling in love.

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My life had been a story of isolation and rejection. I had isolated myself to protect myself. I had been rejected by my peers as too different. Into my twenties I began to experience certain consolations of the soul, as if God was attempting to fill a void within me. As time went on, and as my contemplative practice began to slowly shape itself, there would come experiences of great joy, of being filled by a Divine love that has its being in everything and everyone. 

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If the Divine has gifted us with this experience of joy (an experience which can be the fruit of any contemplative practice), then this is when we need to be wary. Such is the nature of the experience that it can become something which we long for more than the Divine life itself. This joy, this satisfaction, is not God. It is a gift of God’s presence and action within us. It’s as if the experience becomes a kind of siren call of delight which the ego can use to keep us in this state of temporary and changeable union, in a state of attachment to our emotional life.

If we are to accept the above words of Abhishiktananda as an authentic statement of the mystical way, if we are to “never stop short at anything whatever that is thought or felt, no matter how exalted or uplifting it may seem to be”, then it is a part of the contemplative journey into God (a thoroughly human journey) to leave these experiences behind. They are not to be desired, even if they keep happening. The mystical, the contemplative way, is about arriving at another kind of union, one that is not changeable and subject to the whims of an insecure ego.

The Divine seeks from us a union that Teresa names as a marriage. This is simply a matured, stable, and largely conscious communion (common-union) with the Divine life. It is the union of which  Abhishiktananda speaks, the union which can be found at the centre of the soul, Teresa’s innermost mansion.

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There was a reason the words of Abhishiktananda had struck me so strongly: I had fallen for the siren call again – a very human thing to do. Who doesn’t want to feel that they are loved? The desire to have these experiences of joy sat just below the mantra as it sounded. It was splitting my attention between it and the mantra. Whilst ever this split was happening I was not fully engaging the meditators journey into an ever more stable communion with God. Through Abhishiktananda‘s words I was  being asked, once again, to leave behind the siren’s call. I went back and re-read Abhishiktananda. More words made an impact:

Yet it [the soul] is for ever incapable of reaching him [God], so long as it is not ready to leave itself behind and to be immersed and lost in the abyss of God himself. Then only it understands that silence is the highest and truest praise…The soul itself is then simply silence…

Silence. I had forgotten the true landmark of God. Not thought, not word, not image, not emotion. Silence. It’s abyss. The absence of everything so as to be filled with nothing, the no-thing of God. It was time to re-choose my way into silence once again. Time to re-focus on the mantra.

Boughton Aluph to Kings Wood8

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Teresa asserts that any desires for “consolations or favours” from God are no more once this “innermost mansion” (or room) of the soul is reached. This is because once attention is in this innermost mansion there is the most direct experience of the Divine that any human can have – one that is devoid of the desires to have the experience because the experience is happening. Teresa continues:

He [the Divine] and the soul alone have fruition of each other in the deepest silence. There is no reason now for the understanding to stir, or to seek out anything, for the Lord who created the soul is now pleased to calm it ….

All that is left is a silent “happy companionship”, a companionship being experienced without reason, that is, without the mind attempting understanding. All is silent. This experience awaits the practitioner of an established contemplative practice. It is an experience that is itself a Divine gift. It is not about ‘clocking up’ enough meditation time for this to happen, although there does need to be a certain preparedness. This preparedness happens when it happens. All we do is keep faithfully returning to our mantra, our prayer word, our breath – whatever is used in the great pilgrimage to the centre of the soul, that still point within where the Divine waits in silence.

Andrew

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


No Thing

One day there will be no day

No thing

To call me back

Because it and I exist.

Only being with you.

No thing to distract

No thing to occupy

No thing to get on with

There will be nothing.

No reality to resign myself to.

There will be Love

With no thing to compare it to

To hold it in

To hem it around.

No thing left and nothing will indeed be well.


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