Since I last posted the world has seemingly gone quite mad. Just last week we woke to the astonishing and surreal news that Donald Trump, billionaire reality TV star, was now the president-elect of the United States. What seemed to be impossible has become real. According to many pundits and commentators, the academics and journalists, it is part of a rising tide of nationalism and populist politics born out of inequality, uncertainty and loss. There will be thousands upon thousands of words written about this time in history but for all of us living through it it asks for a response. Riot and revolution are one response. Activism and the funnelling of energy are another. Numb staring at the unfolding news counts as a response as well.
Perhaps a valid response is simply to stop and wait and see, at least for a time.
Perhaps a valid response is to unknow, a least for a time.
I don’t know.
Out the back of our place is a patch of clover. I left it there when I whipper snipped the overgrown weeds. It now stands as a little forest of weedy flowers that is full of life. As the sunlight bathes it and the breeze caresses it it moves with tiny creatures - butterflies, bees, flies, dragonflies, tiny flying mites. On the surface the little forest seems like it is out of place but as I sink into its world it instead becomes the most real and important thing in life. What stands out is how much is going on in this tiny patch of overgrown greenery.
There is nothing special about it, nothing spectacularly beautiful, nothing that stands out as an eye-catching feature. What does stand out is how the whole thing moves with the movement of life. Verdant, vitae,vital.
I still don’t know.
What I do know is the power and courage of the human spirit to strive for the better path, the whole path. In the midst of chaos, pain, disillusionment and suffering it is extraordinary how the human being puts one foot in front of the other carving out a path in the face of fear and overwhelming odds. Refugees I have work with have taught me this most powerfully as have dear friends who have struggled with personal difficulties of enormous magnitude. _______________________________
Is silence a response?
Not the silence that seems to give permission to all manner of wrong but the silence that holds what is unfolding. As the weedy forest gives rise to life and energy and movement so the silence gives rise to the next right action, the next movement of the Spirit.
At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world: Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening ...
you wait, you give your life's length to listening.
From “Teaching a Stone to Talk” by Annie Dillard.
Last week I attended a discussion and Q&A by a pre-eminent scientist and a theologian on the issue of climate change. One of the best things about the evening was that everyone there, of which there were around 100, seemed to accept that the science was settled and that it was critical that we act quickly to stop reaching irreversible tipping points. Permafrost melting, ice shelfs disappearing, the acidification of the oceans, extreme weather events, sea level rises - these are just some of the things happening right now.
One of the strangest and most disturbing things about our current Australian federal election is that climate change is just not in the debates in any meaningful way. There are many reasons why this has ended up being the case. Over ten years worth of climate change policy being a political football and a bat to beat your opponent with hasn’t helped. Nor has the way meaningful discussion in the media has been hijacked by either well funded skeptics or ideologically driven pundits. I suspect too that in wealthy Australia, the land of sweeping plains, relative peace and world isolation, we are disconnected from those places and people where the effects of climate change are much more real and dire. I live on the southern east coast of Australia. It is utterly beautiful. A paradise of sea, river, forest and bush. It is also peaceful and resource rich. It is all too easy to feel safely cocooned in this earthly paradise. However, the interdependence of life means that my cocoon is an illusion. We are all connected to each other. We all depend on each other as does the whole created order.
Our western culture is trapped in the prison of individualism and consumer addiction. Our hearts are atrophied and our minds captive to fears about not being enough and never having enough. With the cacophony of desires, terrors, self-conscious feed back loops, entertainment and distraction we are deaf and then dumb. We find it almost impossible to truly see and hear the other because we can cannot even hear ourselves think deeply and truly. As many other writers have said, we need to rediscover the art of listening. I would suggest that listening is not just a luxury for those who have the time and patience. It is a matter of survival.
True listening comes from silence. The letters that make up silent and listen are the same. This is coincidental but it does help us remember that the two are closely related. To hear properly we must first be silent. Not just in our speech but in our inner attitude and being. We need to let go of the inner chatter of our heads that weighs and analyses everything and attend to what is being said. It is also how we can most fruitfully engage with the natural world. Walking through a forest simply attending to the shapes and colours, the movement of the breeze, the sound of the ocean and birds nearby is to walk knowing that you are on holy ground and all things are connected and as one. In any healthy relationship between two human beings listening is vital. Listening that gets the ego out of the way and makes space for the other is the way to strengthen and build capacity for those times when the connection is challenged - and it will be. Paradoxically it is by getting out of the way that we stay together.
That we are one and dependent on each other seems sadly lacking in our political debates. In Britain, America and Australia we are having important elections. Great Britain has just voted to leave the EU. America is voting for not just the next president but candidates in both houses. In Australia we have the federal election next weekend. I have been tracking these events and what I mostly hear is a lot of noise and shouting at each other. I hear a lot of nationalism, fear-mongering, protectionism. I hear lies, bribery and xenophobia. I hear a lot of sound and fury - and then commentary on the sound and fury.
I long to hear genuine dialogue. I long to sense genuine respect. I long for the art of listening to be part of all debates and engagement. Yet I know that listening must begin with me. My own sound and fury must be given up so I can attend to the echoes of God’s love in the world and in other people. I must become silent in that way that goes to the place of unknowing, beyond my old tired ways of reacting and responding, so I can discern the next right and loving action. This is a daily, moment by moment practice.
I think the earth is waiting for our silence and our listening.
The conclusion is always the same:
love is the most powerful
and still the most unknown
energy of the world.
~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Writing a million words
living in the head
where are my toes?
We are creatures of flesh and blood, with pulsing bodies that feel and move, desire and hurt. There is no life other than this one we experience with this body, our extraordinary bodies. I personally am not interested in a spirituality that does not embrace and operate in the body. There is no such a thing as spirituality without the body.
The body is our greatest gift despite how it may let us down and not be as we want or even need. Our body is our teacher and expresses our intentions and will. There is no more important place we inhabit than our body. There is no shangri-la, no ethereal realm of enlightenment and light. There is no where but here and now.
And so, the greatest spiritual truth is that ‘it’ is all in the practice - embodied, here and now practice. ‘It’ is life and all we want life to be. “It” is our desire for communion with God and others. “It” is the goal and the end of our striving. It is all in the practice.
I can read a million words about prayer and other spiritual practices. I can read a thousand books about the wonder and beauty of music and art. I can have hundreds of glossy magazines about beautiful homes and beautiful nature. I can read a hundred books about good nutrition, exercise and healthy living. I can yearn for justice, goodness and wholeness and can read and write and ponder and think but unless I do I will know nothing but more words and clever ways to put them all together.
It is all in the practice.
The author of the Cloud of Unknowing said that the only way to know God was to love God. It is all in the practice.
Jesus said, the wise person is the one who comes, listens and obeys (Luke 6.47) - that is, who does. It is all in the practice.
Practice is something we will and to which we commit on an ongoing basis. As we practice we learn. As we practice we expand. As we practice we are doing that which we will and intend. There is no perfection or end.
It is all in the practice.
The person who goes to a voice coach but does not use their voice has missed the heart of music. That it is an embodied expression, a flesh and blood resonance within and without. The person who goes to a spiritual director but does not pray, in whatever ways their God calls them, has become like an empty vessel that sees and hears nothing.
It is all in the practice.
The poet writes ultimately not so there is poem. The poem comes into being because the poet can do nothing but practice their craft. The poem comes from the embodied practice of the one who does. The poetry is in the act of writing. The poem is just the traces of the practice. I am no poet but I can almost guarantee that the greatest joy a poet may feel will not come from reading their poem days or years later but from the creative act itself.
It is all in the practice.
The practice is the beginning, the middle and the end.
When it comes to prayer - and the whole of life can be a prayer - this is all doubly so. Prayer is ultimately about our communion with God, our communication with Divine Love, our community with all that God creates and re-creates. True prayer is not the mindless repetition of words and rituals or a shopping list of needs and wants. True prayer is ‘absolute, unmixed attention’. Prayer is attentive presence and loving beholding of that which God loves - and that is all. Prayer is surrender of the self-focussed mind and re-centring in the present moment. Prayer is openness and trust and single minded focus on the beloved. In this type of prayer there is no goal, no outcome, no end. There is just the moment.
It is all in the practice.
This is the only, sustainable, authentic way to deal with the variations, vicissitudes and disappointments of public worship. So many of us get caught up in what we do or don’t like when it comes to worship and different expressions of church. The way to worship in honesty, in Spirit and in Truth, is to let go, surrender all self and other critical projections and be one with the moment, with the words, with the sounds. And if, God forbid, but likely won’t, there is something too awful to align with, then pick just one word that calls and attend to that over and over again. There is no perfect worship. There is only this moment and time, these people and this place.
It is all in the practice.
Anthony of Sourohz, monk and bishop of the Orthodox church, writes that prayer is essentially standing face to face with God, consciously striving to remain collected and absolutely still and attentive in Gods’ presence, which means standing with an undivided mind, an undivided heart and and an undivided will *. He goes on to say this is not easy. It is not but he and countless others believe it is possible. With committed, ongoing practice. With focus and will and humility and the grace of God. It is possible when we let go of outcomes and expectation and simply be in and do the practice. Apparently this is how St John Climacus trained dozens of monks in prayer - a time limit, then merciless attention, and that is all.
It is all in the practice.
And the ‘it’ is in the end, beyond all understanding yet is as real as your heartbeat and as beautiful as your dearest beloved.
1.the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it.
Peace & love
* Living Prayer by Metropolitan Anthony, A Libra Book 1966 p57 and p60
in fullness we dwell
in emptiness we resonate
in space we stand
in and with and from and to
we live and move and have our being
Jean-Luc Picard stood on the bridge of the space ship Enterprise and looked out at the vast blackness of space. Vast in its emptiness yet full of wonders and potential. "What next?’ he said.
‘I know’ said first office Riker, ‘there’s a lot of useful room out there and it feels a bit boring and colourless. Let’s fill it up. Let’s decorate it and bring in some nice objects to look at. Let’s make some noise. Let’s make the view from this window really interesting. Morale is low. Let’s be entertained and forget the mission for a while. Filling up space will be a nice change”.
I know - its a silly story isn’t it? Filling up the vastness of space just to be entertained and distracted. The problem is that is more or less what we humans do each day of our lives. We fill up space. We fill up the silence that is a given.
How do we fill up space?
Let me count the ways:
We fill it up with stuff: We fill it with mostly completely useless, needless stuff of a thousand varieties and types. We fill it with the packaging we wrap all the stuff in to transport it from one part of the world to another. The stuff crowds our shelves, our houses, our garages, our storage faculties, our cars, our world. When we throw the stuff out and buy more stuff it clogs our waterways, pollutes our beaches and is buried in our earth. Even our thermosphere and exosphere are full of junk stuff.
We fill it up with noise: There is no such thing as material silence. The universe itself hums in B flat. Nature sings and our own breath sounds in our ears. Yet on top of that we layer more noise. Every cafe has speakers and music, train stations blare radio programs, televisions blare and blast our senses, churches pulse with chatter and clamour and big screens and little screens in our houses beep and sing at us.
We fill it up with stories: We have a story to tell about everything. We have interpretation after interpretation about the world, ourselves and others. Everything we touch, everything we see, everything we experience is already an interpretation because we filter and process everything. The self-conscious mind wraps itself around reality and weaves a narrative about that reality. Mostly what is woven is all about us because we are a supremely self focussed, self absorbed creature. We do it for survival and when we don’t need to worry about that we do it anyway.
We fill it with ourselves: We project into the world ourselves. At a psychological level we unconsciously endow other people with aspects of ourselves we don’t particularly like. We also endow them with our positive characteristics. We see only that which we are. We are looking at the world through a mirror created by our own constructs and the mirror reflects back to me me. At a basic physical level all that we see, hear, taste, touch, smell and feel has been created from the data fed to us by my sensory organs. All we ever know of the world around are the images produced in the mind.
We fill up space through a process of conscious thought and choice. We fill it up through unconscious and uncontrollable physical and mental processes. We fill it up with what we physically create. The final part of this process is that we identify with what we or others have created, narrated and projected. We believe the stories we weave about ourselves and end up trapped in the maze. The fuller our space gets the less room there is for our unfolding selves, others and the rest of God’s creation. Our ‘stuff’ crowds out other people, possibility, creativity, emerging truth and counter-argument.
Is there possibly another way?
I think there is and it has been explored by countless people through the ages from many backgrounds and perspectives. It is the way of dying, of decreasing, of surrendering, so there is room for the creative Love at the centre of all to emerge and bless. This is the Christian way of love revealed through Jesus the Christ. It is kenosis, self-emptying, that makes room for the other.
The concept primarily comes from Philippians 2.7 where Paul states that Jesus did not cling to equality with God but emptied himself taking the form of a servant and became obedient, even to death on a cross. Theologians over the centuries have speculated that if, as Jesus said in John’s gospel, when others see him they have seen God, then God too must have this quality of kenotic, self-emptying. Creation, initial and ongoing, happens because God makes room for All to emerge and become. It is an act of love.
When you sit with Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity you get a sense of what this kenotic love is like. Each of the three figures sit around a table with heads bowed in restful pose but what is predominate in the picture is the space between them. It is as if they hold space for something else to emerge or for someone else to join them. This depiction of the Triune God is not of a hierarchical superpower but a relationship of love. Love between three - co-equal, co-eternal, co-existing. The genius of the icon is that the viewer feels part of the picture.
How we surrender and make space for the other, for creativity, for emerging truth and possibility is relatively simple that but takes ongoing practice. It is a daily, moment by moment decision to let go of what we grasp - the narratives and stories, the preconceptions and assumptions, the attachments and energies, the passions and desires. It is a daily decreasing of the ‘self’, the self focussed, self-conscious part of us that takes up so much room in our being. In letting go we create space.
Of course, if a person manages to surrender and let go and finds that spaciousness within and without, they quickly find they are again holding tightly. It is a continually process of becoming aware of that with which we identify, of the stories we are telling about ourselves and the world, of the ways in which we crowd out our deeper selves and our God and then taking a step back to centre once more into silence and spaciousness.
The repetition of sacred words and phrases can help this process. The practise of stillness - also called meditation and still prayer - and the practise of simple awareness of reality in all its mystery and beauty are also key parts of un-grasping and dwelling in spacious love. The literal decluttering of objects and noise plays a part. The recognition that we are the loved child of God is central.
And when we think we have finally understood and grasped the truth we let go of that as well…..
And maybe, just maybe, we will find that more and more we are no longer entrapped by our 'stuff' - mental or physical - but simply contained in love and acting in love.
Peace & love
Silence: “It is an overarching sense of both containment and potential, of vitality ever emerging and not yet grasped” (Maggie Ross, Silence: A Users Guide 2014)
Although this is a blog devoted to exploring balance, silence and contemplative living there is actually no such thing as material silence, as in the complete absence of sound. Even at the quietest retreat there will be the sounds of your own breath, the blood in your veins, the wind in the trees and the living, breathing world around.
The universe itself sings. Astronomers say they have heard the sound of a black hole singing and apparently for more than two billion years it has been singing B flat - a B flat 57 octaves lower than middle C.
That is an unimaginably low note but it is still a sound. A slow pulsing sound, perhaps like the pulse of incredibly slow breathing. Even in the darkest space, the place of black nothingness there is sound and there is energy. Astronomers also speculate that this sound is not just an interesting form of black hole acoustics but a key to the formation of stars and galaxies.
So if we still our tongue, calm our spirits, relax our bodies and turn off all distracting noise, there is still sound. Searching for an experience of material silence is futile and misses the point, for the point of silence is not to have some type of spiritual experience but is a way of being in the world and a way to open to the world.
So silence is not about external silence. It is about a practice that opens up our being to Being. It is about connecting to the deep reality of existence, esse, through the quietening down of distracting noise and the quietening down of our self-conscious mind.
There is so much noise in the world. I was in Sydney on the weekend and enjoyed myself immensely wandering around that busy, noisy, full and exciting city. Yet the self-conscious chatter in my mind was just as noisy and full. No wonder so many people were plugged in to their devices and in a state of perpetual distraction. It is exhausting coping with the cacophony of inner and outer noise. Yet, if we can quieten down the inner noise, through attentive beholding or watchful awareness, something wonderful can happen. We see the city- the people, the buildings, the pigeons, sculptures and food outlets - differently. Not with a different story and a changed narrative but with new eyes and ears, that are simply open and present. We see with eyes and hear with ears beyond narrative. The esse of what is around us hums in the depths of silence and we may find ourselves in loving wonder, even for just a fleeting moment. We may also find ourselves with more love and patience to spare, even for just a fleeting moment.
There is no magic to this. There is no special formula. There is simply the practice of silence itself. In fact it is all in the practice. The same practice day after day, year after year. The practice is straightforward - letting go, attention, awareness, beholding. When you find yourself distracted by yet more thoughts and stories, more noise and clamour, then come back to centre and refocus.
It is like a spiral turning or a figure eight in motion. It is the same principle as in meditation but as Maggie Ross points out, meditation is just a beginning - “an entry-level, beginning step in an all-encompassing commitment”. (Ross, M. Silence: A Users Guide. 2014 p32)
With Peace & Love
The heavens declare the glory of God:
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
One day tells it to another:
and night to night communicates knowledge.
There is no speech or language:
nor are their voices heard;
Yet their sound has gone out through all the world:
and their words to the end of the earth. (Psalm 19.1-4)
A major source for these reflections is the work of Maggie Ross, (particularly her latest book "Silence: A Users Guide",2014) whom I acknowledge gratefully.
One of the weirdest things for me is when I have made a major decision about something - getting a new/second hand car being one main example - and I then see the same model car, including colour, everywhere. Well not in my back yard but around and about on the streets and parking centres. I think to myself that lots of people must have the same good taste as me and that my taste is pretty common.
Apparently there is a phrase for this - “frequency illusion”. In the internet world of memes it is also called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. The phenomenon is caused by the way our minds work. When we are struck by a new word, thing or idea our selective attention is triggered. We then unconsciously keep an eye out for it and notice it more and more. Another process also kicks in, “confirmation bias”, that seems to assure us that the thing as gained overnight importance and omnipresence.
Putting it simply this phenomenon is a result of our focus. Just as the phrase, ‘we are what we eat’ describes the way our bodies, our being, is formed by the substances we ingest so our perception is formed through our focus. Literally our focus changes our perception and the phenomenon happens unconsciously. (A related concept is intention, which I intend to look at next week).
So when we embark on the practise, work and study of silence we begin to see signs and wonders of it everywhere. Psalms we have long prayed with now speak of silence. As we listen to music we have returned to again and again we hear the non-sound between the notes, the non-sound that joins it all together. As we still the internal chatter and commentary we find our lover, the forest, the birds and the sea all reveal something beyond description.
Our focus also leads us. It is like a thread that weaves in and out of our experiences. Study, or the learning of something, is most satisfying when we have the time to follow the thread. A stand out example of this for me was my recent discovery, or rediscovery of psalm 65.
Here is the thread: During my daily study I came across the phrase ‘competens silentium’ ,which lead me to a series of articles on monastic silence, which lead me to an obscure masters thesis on the development of medieval Dominican theology, which revealed that psalm 65 verse 1 has had an interesting translation history, which lead to the revelation that the numbering in the Hebrew Tanakh bible is different to the Latin vulgate, the King James Version and every other version except one (but don’t quote me - I could just be very lost), which eventually lead to a comparison with the literal Hebrew text and the usual English translations and lo and behold….. what we usually read as something like “You are to be praised, O God, in Zion” is actually, “For you silence is praise, O God, in Zion” (*).
A whole word, a whole concept has completely dropped out. A whole word, a whole world and way of living is gone as if it was never there. Interestingly, the Message Bible has it back in. No doubt there is a whole story as to why our translations are bereft of this idea. However, I am at least silenced by this verse in its original Hebrew. Dumb struck that our translations seem to have missed something so special. Awed that in following the threads thrown by focus and intent we stumble across beauty and deep truth.
“For you God, silence is praise.
Silence is praise.
Peace & Love
"One of the reasons why communal worship or private prayer seem to be so dead or so conventional is that the act of of worship, which takes place in the heart communing with God, is too often missing. Every expression, either verbal or in action, may help, but they are only expressions of what is essential, namely, a deep silence of communion" (Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer Darton, Longman & Todd 1975 p vii)
(For those who may be interested, the original Hebrew verse, the one with silence in there, was a key part of Meister Eckharts developing theology).
I said the prayers at the ANZAC Day dawn service in my local town this morning and the occasion was deeply moving. Whatever one thinks about this public holiday with all its nationalistic overtones and how it can be co-opted for the glorification of war, it was still a remembrance with meaning and sombre feeling. One phrase stood out for me - ‘securing our freedom’. It is such an interesting phrase. Almost an oxymoron. How can freedom be secured by an act of securing? Yet it is about doing something, often something difficult, that protects something or someone we hold dear. Freedom is something to be cherished and I am grateful for all those people before me who have sacrificed so much to secure it.
There are layers and layers to freedom. There is physical freedom, political freedom, social freedom, freedom of thought, the freedom of conscience and the freedom of expression to name just a few. Then there is the freedom that we humans can gift each other each moment.
You see, I think we bind each other in the narratives we create about the world and the person to whom we are relating. We hold stories in our head about the people around us. He or she is this or that. He or she must think this or be effected by that. We weave threads of assumptions, interpretations and criticisms around our friends and family, around our neighbours, around our colleagues and leaders. Sometimes our weaving is so tight, so secure, that the person disappears under all the colour and texture we lay around and on them.
It is of course impossible to ever know or see someone clearly in all their wonder and beauty. In the end reality is interpretation. Everything is filtered through our limited human capacities to truly see and hear. Of all the possible sounds and colour in the universe we see and hear only a small spectrum. Beyond our basic animal abilities we can only measure that which for which we have invented the instruments. Each human being is a glorious mystery whose facets and depths are beyond our limited understanding and sight. However, at the very least, we can stop the noise of the stories we tell ourselves about each other. In the practise of silence the threads can unravel and we can behold the mystery of each other.
Maggie Ross (whom, if you have been reading any of my other blogs, is a key source for my musings) says that the work of silence restores our true humanity for it restores our subjectivity and the subjectivity of those to whom we relate. Through silence we let go of the noise, the self-conscious critical, analytical narrative that turns the world and others into an object. As we dwell more fully in silence we begin to open up the channels between our heart, our deep mind as Ross calls it, and our self-conscious mind. With heart and mind working in harmony, more fully as one, our perspective is changed. The other becomes not an object to codify, to box, to safely assume we have understood, but a holy other to behold and hold in loving wonder.
As we engage with the work of silence more and more, quietening down our interesting but no doubt faulty stories about each other, we find that freedom is much more than the freedom to think or say or do something. Freedom is won when we let go, when we sacrifice that which we hold dear - all the layers of story and meaning we tell ourselves and have been told - and simply meet the other, listening to their deep truth, listening to their beauty, their wonder.
“He calmed the storm to a silence:
and the waves of the sea were stilled
Then they were glad because they were quiet:
and he brought them to the heaven they longed for”
Peace & Love
“The term work (of silence) may be slightly misleading for the only effort involved is to choose to be still, to allow the noise to fall away, to be receptive and to ungrasp so that we may be grasped by illumination”
(Ross, M. Silence: A Users Guide. 2014 p23)
“To be truly silent before God is one of the loveliest things in the world”
Who would have thought that a simple thing like silence is so very precious, so very beautiful. It is of course more than lovely. Some of the greatest writers on prayer and devotion and life itself say it is essential.
To be truly silent is a skill that is possible for anyone to learn and practice.
It is free.
It is simple.
It does not need gurus or teachers or degrees or athletic ability.
All it takes is surrender, the ability to let go and ungrasp.
As a monk once told me, “let all melt way before God’s love like snow melts away before the sun”. To be truly silent opens us to the warmth of Divine Love’s presence and in that place we discover our true home.
To be untruly silent is to be in struggle. Untrue silence is a mechanical silence, a forced silence. It arises from a violent suppression of our inner turmoil. Untrue silence is denial and oppression of our humanity. Untrue silence tells us there is a right way to pray, a right way to sit, a right way to feel, a right way to think or not think. We twist and turn ourselves into a misshapen shape that cannot hear and thence cannot respond. It is not silence at all but yet more noise that creates more noise.
However, if we can surrender and let go we encounter deep peace and the ground of our being. The noise, the thoughts and worries of our mind, the external sounds of life around us, will still be there. Silence is not necessarily the absence of noise. Silence is the place beyond the noise where everything is held in the depths of a loving gaze. Thoughts may come and thoughts may go. Sounds may come and sounds may go. Silence is the realm in which they all dance. When we let go and surrender, as in not identify with any of the thoughts and sounds, we find we are one with silence. Silence that is both empty and full.
Silence is lovely. The practice of silence is simple. It is also challenging.
Maggie Ross says it is a challenge for four reasons. What follows is my take on her four points. (Please check out her book, Silence: A Users Guide. Darton, Longman & Todd 2014. I am expanding on part of page 32)
It is so simple we dismiss it….
We live in a culture that believes that if something is worthwhile it should take effort and striving. The more complex and difficult something is the more we think it worth our energy. We are enthralled by people of skill and ability who have put in hours and years of effort and striving. In comparison silence is effortless. The only effort needed is the willingness to let go.
It requires perseverance….
Like any knowledge or understanding the loveliness of silence is only discovered in the practice. Perhaps more than any other epistemology silence is truly all in the practice. Like any commitment to any practice what will stall that commitment is the distraction of other things, other paths, other voices. When we sit to be still and begin our set time of silent prayer other demands (mostly from ourselves) will arise that want our attention. When we sit to be still and begin our set time of silent prayer the chatter in our heads will distract us from our focus. To abide in the land of silence we must persevere through boredom, fear, convoluted thoughts, doubts and outside distractions. Yet the only skill needed to traverse this noise scape is surrender, yet more letting go. Abba Moses word to the brother monk can be a word for us as well. The old man said, "Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything." Persevering through those set times will help us discover we dwell in the fecundity of silence every moment.
We find it hard to accept that there is more to our mind than our brain….
Our whole being is our mind. The brain stores and processes bits and pieces of it but our mind is expansive and creative. Our mind is more than our self-consciousness, more than our thoughts, more than our identities, more than our memories and hopes for the future, more than the electrical firing of neurones and the flow of hormones. Beyond all of this is what Ross calls the deep mind. This term is her attempt to find a neutral word to describe the place that encompasses the ‘unconscious’, the ‘nous, and the ‘heart’. The deep-mind can be influenced by the self-conscious mind through intention and focus. Silence is the simple practice that opens up the flow between the two and thereby opens us to the depths of creativity, of continual beholding and of changed perception.
The language we find to describe it is always inadequate.
I think nothing truer was ever said. It has not escaped my notice that I am writing a blog and making a lot of noise about silence. It is also not escaped my notice that there are many more writers, prayers and contemplatives that could say it better than I. Yet everything we all say and in what ways is only ever an approximation of something that shifts and changes. That is both the beauty and the terror of silence. The only certainty is the expansiveness of silence itself and the creative Love that springs forth from its depths.
Silence is not just a reality that is reached through meditative practice. It is a land that is always within and without us. It is the same way we are. Existing. Being. It is the nothing from which we come and the note with which we resonate.
With love & peace
Let the soul banish all that disturbs; and let the body that envelops it be still, and all the fretting of the body, and all that surrounds it; let earth and sea and air be still; and heaven itself. And then feel the Spirit streaming, pouring, rushing into you from all sides, while you are quiet in this Peace.
~ Plotinus, AD 205
Hashem - the Name
Like Gold hidden
deep in the earth
so dwells Emptiness
deep in our souls
yet the Presence
is there - Hashem
waiting to be found
cost, the labour
The world is a noisy place. I woke early this morning to find some space and time to be alone and in quiet. Instead of silence my next door neighbour was up early cleaning the garage and playing canned music. The birds, which are numerous and diverse in my neighbourhood, were making their early morning song which were not the dulcet sounds of honeyeaters but the screech of parrots. Perhaps the honeyeaters were in there but I couldn’t here them for the hundreds of Polly’s. And then there was the noise in my head - “I wish the music would stop”, “why are the birds so loud?”, “I have so much to do” - and then listing off all the things to do. There is no real thinking in this space of internal and external noise, only reaction and survival.
Real thinking, (I think!), is a marriage of emptiness and fullness. To hear ourselves, our deep creative selves think, we must quieten down our self-conscious minds, our emotions and relax our bodies. I used to believe that this was just a practice for times of designated meditation. I now understand that this is the practice for each moment. The Gold is worth digging for in every moment and the only effort needed is to let go. Let go of grasping, struggle, assumptions, expectations, internal and external noise.
Letting go does not mean the noise disappears. It is all still there - the music, the birds, the monkey mind, the frustrations and desires. Letting go means not identifying with any of it and instead discovering the empty place wherein fullness arises and wholeness begins.
“I went fishing this morning. Caught nothing. Was about to give up. Heard a voice tell me to keep trying. So I did. Then I realised the voice was the voice of my beloved friend standing on the shore. I let go and jumped into the water and swam to my friend. I stood there and listened and died".
As I was preparing to write this piece I scene came to my mind of Jesus on a surfboard. This was surprising - to say the least. I am not in the habit of imagining Jesus in such a strange setting or any settings for that matter. However, this picture paints many words that could be written about balance. Stay with me a moment as I try to describe the picture.
There is Jesus standing on the surfboard, one foot in front of the other, arms and hands outstretched. There is the wave behind him, curling in that beautiful way they do with the white cap and blue water. As the wave moves forward Jesus moves with the wave. He bends and crouches, stands and shifts his balance, moves his arms and hands, even his fingers and head. He shifts his weight changing direction and speed. He changes feet position and where his eyes are gazing. He is intent, focused, alive and at one with the wave. He of course rides the wave beautifully and skilfully into shore, timing his dismount perfectly. Can you feel those movements in your own body? I can - a little.
Of course Jesus never rode a surfboard. This is a metaphor 😊
The ocean and waves are life.
The surfboard is this moment.
Jesus is the guy who shows us how it’s done
and the core skill is balance.
To navigate life, move forward and not continually get dunked, fall off and hurt ourselves or anyone else, we need the ability to stay balanced. It is a skill that needs to be applied to every area of our lives. I am obviously writing from a spiritual or religious perspective but balance is important in every area of life. From politics to ecology to dance to relationships to bodily health to riding a bike and kicking a football and everything else I can think of balance is key. Even the breath we take is a bodily mechanism reliant on the movement of air across a balance point. The body, the beautiful, miraculous gift we all have, is always seeking balance. The medical word is homeostasis which is not a static reality but a dynamic flow of the various systems of the body communicating with each other, fine-tuning and adjusting in every moment so that optimal health is maintained.
A good way to describe our culture, our western way of life, is that it is critically unbalanced. Frighteningly this imbalance is threatening not just our own health but the health of earths ecology and the prospect of lasting peace between nations and peoples. Our way of life is so unbalanced that we do not even see how far we have allowed ourselves to tip dangerously out of alignment.
Just think of all the ways we put unnecessary pressure on our bodies, on our daily lives or on our relationships and how we and others are put off balance. There are our habits and addictions - workaholism being one of the craziest yet - that consume our attention and energies; rampart, excessive consumerism and gross materialism; the objectification of the human body and the pornification of mainstream culture; the incessant cacophony of canned noise in every public space; the packaging and marketing of ‘experience’ and religious faith; the ex-carnated surreal world of digitally mediated engagement. We are tossed and thrown about by extreme waves and influences and it seems to me at least that we struggle to maintain our equilibrium.
Maggie Ross in her book Silence: A Users Handbook says that “life hangs in the balance…..the choice for silence or noise, for carefulness or carelessness, is ours in every moment” (Darton, Longman & Todd 2014. p11). Ross’ work focuses on what she calls the work of silence and how it counterbalances the cacophony of our self-conscious mind and the world we inhabit. Her point about choice is applicable to the choices we can make each moment and the value we may place on balance and equilibrium. We do have a choice. However, making that choice and then putting into practise the habits and actions that will foster balance is not easy.
Wanting things easy is actually a form of imbalance because the midpoint of effective living is a careful mix of effort and rest. That is if by ‘effective living’ we mean a life that is joy filled, abundant and radiant, a blessing for others and self. Despite the challenge it seems to me that choosing balance is the only option.
The how of this is really the heart of the matter.
Come with me back to Jesus on the surfboard…..
If you don’t have any particularly religious persuasion please bear with me as I mention some aspects of Jesus life that point to a life lived in balance. There are other key religious figures I could point to but Jesus is the one I have studied the most and the one who speaks most clearly to me. If you take even a brief look at the four gospels you find a portrayal of Jesus the man as someone who walked an effective line between solitude and public engagement, silence and speech, reflection and action, feeling and thought, mind and heart. The theological words we use to describe this balance are of necessity paradoxical - he is both divine and human, God-with-us, incarnated. Even the central symbol of Christianity, the cross, is a pointer to balance. The vertical line joins heaven and earth. The horizontal line spreads this line outwards and beyond the centre. In the life of Jesus we see someone who was completely centred in God and completely able to give up himself in love in each moment.
It is in each moment that we have the choice to come back to centre, the ground of our being. In each moment we can choose to be present, ‘in our bodies’, listening attentively to what is, not what we want, assume or imagine is real. We can quieten down our racing minds and with gentleness gaze at the other - the other person or any other part of creation. We can pull back from that which takes us out of life and wait for the movement of the spirit that leads us towards a better choice. We can wait. We can let go. We can ungrasp.
How extraordinary would it be if we could step up on the surfboard, the present moment, plant our feet and stretch out our arms. If we trusted Divine Love to uphold us. If we let go long enough to feel, with our body and soul, the energy and movement of that love that is always present and always moving us towards a path unknown and surprising. How beautiful it would be if we could adjust and change our actions in response to what comes to us through careful attention and listening. Most of us will never be able to ride surfboards but we can all come back to centre and practise balance.