Thinking with Herakleitos
For years I had not really understood what Herakleitos meant when he said that “I explored myself…and I could not find the boundaries [limits, peras] of the psyche…”. Of course not: the open soul has no boundaries, no limits. It opens up into the unbounded, the unlimited, and shares then in its unlimitedness. The open soul is not the psyche of standard modern psychology, nor the “I” or ego of everyday life. It is, rather, a conscious participation in the mystery of the Whole, of the unbounded It-reality beyond all speech and name. When psyche opens, it is no-thing; perhaps one can say, “not itself, but selfless.” To put the experience paradoxically: when the soul opens, it is no longer a soul, at least as long as the awareness of the experience lasts. Simple consciousness.
Of course there would be a danger of hypostasizing the open psyche into “God” or “being,” or the Whole, but to do that may be a mere playing with words, and it in effect would concretize the experienced unbounded opening back into an imagined entity or being. In the opening of the soul, there is neither “I” nor “You,” but simply consciousness: awareness without names, things, activities. Unadorned, simple awareness. Perhaps this is what William James called “pure consciousness.”
It may be fitting, as has been done, to call Herakleitos and others—from Plato to William James, Bergson, Whitehead, Voegelin—who experience consciousness in this way “mystic philosophers,” as has been done (for example, by Whitehead and Voegelin). Or one could speak of the opening of the soul that forms the experiential basis of philosophy as a mode of self-transcendence, as a simple, noetic awareness of that which is. It is noetic or knowing in the sense of an unthinking but intensely aware gazing of the mind (nous, intellect). As consciousness (psyche) opens up, noetic and logical processes of the mind differentiate. To think is to name things and beings, and to reason (use logos) about them; noein [noetic awareness] is simpler, more primary or basic, without words, and is, perhaps, ever present beneath every act of thinking, but usually not recognized as such. But this point remains for the time being an hypothesis to be experimentally tested. It may be that in the act we call “thinking” [legein, usinglogos], consciousness is not open as such, but limiting itself in the act of thinking. If this is true, then one can understand why a human being seeking to explore reality—what is—must move back and forth between sheer openness and the self-limiting act of thinking. Perhaps this back-and-forth process is described in Plato or Aristotle (I will give thought to this possibility, which seems familiar to me, most likely from the Phaedrus or the Symposium of Plato.) And if this is a reasonable guess of what one experiences in thinking and knowing [noein], then one might playfully change Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) into “I think, therefore I am self-limited,” or more paradoxically, “I think, therefore I am not.”
One is most truly oneself when one is not self-enclosed, or a closed soul at all, but awake in the act of non-self-limited consciousness. If this is a reasonable formulation of the truth of experience, then one can recognize the common basis in philosophy, Buddhism (as in Zen) and the mystics of various traditions. I, for one, have long been drawn to all three of these human modes of experience (philosophy, Zen, mysticism), because I have sensed in them a similarity not in formulations or mythical developments, but in the engendering experience: open consciousness.
Some Thoughts Before Our Penance Service
Rather than include an examination of conscience next week during the liturgy, I prefer to give you time to prepare during the week. To that end, let’s consider together a few questions to help us see ourselves in light of God’s mercy and peace. In your preparation, you may consult the 10 Commandments, the two great commandments of Jesus, the corporal works of mercy, and the spiritual works of mercy. For our present purpose, we proceed in a different way. “Come, let us reason together.”
Do you accept your life, your very self, as a gift of God? Are you thankful for who you are, for your family and friends? Are you thankful for what you are able to accomplish in your daily tasks? Are you aware that all that you are and have has come from God—and is returning to God? Are you truly aware that you did not create yourself, nor can you recreate yourself, nor perfect yourself?
Do you seek to enter into God’s peace on a regular basis? How do you do it? What do you do to let go of your worries and concerns and enter into “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding?” Do you regularly seek to “let go and let God?” What are your characteristic ways of avoiding “being still and knowing that I am God?” What are your characteristic escapes from turning your heart and mind to the presence of God? Are you at peace when you are alone and quiet, or do you seek to drown out quiet with noise—such as television, music, entertainment, games, or talking? Do you always have to keep your hands and feet busy, or can you sit quietly with the LORD?
How do you treat those closest to you in life? Are you respectful of their differences from you, or do you seek to make them like you? Can you accept when they have different opinions and beliefs than you have? Do you seek more to serve them, or to be served by your family members and friends?
Whom in your life do you like the least? How do you treat that person? Are you able to show respect, if and when your paths cross? If the other person is a “jerk,” can you let them be a jerk in their own way? (Do we not all have our ways of being jerks at times?)
How often, and in what ways, do you go out of your way to help someone in genuine need? Do you share some time, talents, treasures with the needy? Is there someone in your life who needs time and kindness from you? Do you make an effort to give that person some time, listening, being with them? Do you know that everyone has burdens?
Do you regularly forgive those who have wronged you? Or do you carry grudges? Are you smoldering inside, stinky as a cesspool, or are you more like sweet, clean water? Do you ever ask God to help you forgive and release the neck of one who has done you some wrong?
Are there any ways in which you lie, steal, cheat, defraud, or seek to deceive others? Are you honest and transparent, or do you pretend to be what you are not? If you have stolen from others, have you returned the money, and all that you stole? If you lied, have you come clean? If you have lived by deception, have you truly turned from your evil ways, or do you still live a false life? Do you seek to cause trouble for those who have challenged your wrongful ways? Or do you honor those who did not let you get away with an immature, deceitful, or wicked “lifestyle”? How clean or how corrupt is your soul?
Time is a precious gift. How do you waste time?
Are you mindful of the many ways of centering on yourself? What do you do about it?
“He who seeks to save his life will lose it, but the one who loses his life for my sake will keep it unto life eternal.” “To the upright I will show the saving power of God.” “Come to me, you who labor and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart. And you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, my burden is light.” “Whatsoever you did not do for the least of my brethren, you did not do for Me.”
APPENDIX 1: A letter to one learning to meditate
Dear friend in Christ,
You have asked me if you need to think about God or Christ when you meditate. Second, you have asked if meditation can be called “Christian” at all if one does not at least invoke God or Christ. In your questions to me, you mentioned being exposed to some teachings by the Benedictine monk, John Main, who apparently taught that in Christian meditation, one should use a mantra, and that mantra ought to be “Maranatha,” “Lord, come.”
What I write I do not claim to be definite or official Catholic teaching. I am giving my advice on meditation to the best of my present ability.
First, recall that I have often said that silent meditation may not be for everyone, or at least not immediately, without real preparation. From my experience in Catholic parishes overseas and in a number of states, I have found genuine interest in contemplative prayer, but disinterest on behalf of most parishioners. I would not encourage those who do not feel drawn to this form of prayer to attempt it, as I have written elsewhere.
Second, I should tentatively like to suggest three different styles of silent prayer, knowing that all do not suit everyone. I briefly outline these styles.
(1). The first type is a form of mental prayer that uses words to communicate with the God of Christian faith, or at least God as one understands Him to be. Many Christians use this form of prayer. It is “silent” in the sense that words are not uttered out loud, but it is not silent interiorly, as one occupies one’s mind with internally “talking with God,” or perhaps talking and listening in turn. For some persons inclined to meditation, this form of prayer may serve as “training wheels” for either of the next two types. But some persons are content to continue using mental prayer, without attempting to meditate without thinking words.
(2). In the second type of meditation, the person desires to employ the symbols of his or her faith. He may begin, for example, by “calling on the name of the LORD,” or “placing himself in God’s presence,” or reciting a favorite prayer interiorly. The one meditating desires to exercise faith in the Christian sense, and to remain within the bounds of Christian faith as approved by the Church, or by Scripture, and so on. If one were to employ a mantra, or a simple words or phrase to keep the mind centered in meditation, one would desire to use a distinctly Christian symbol, such as “Jesus,” or “Lord,” or even John Main’s, “Maranatha,” meaning “Come, Lord.” This person desires to stay safely within the Christian or Catholic fold, even in meditation. He or she is not likely to sit and meditate on “Om!”
(3). The third kind of silent meditation appears to be rare among Christians, if it is actually practiced—and it may in fact not be officially approved by the Catholic Church. The one meditating does not feel impelled to begin by calling on God, and may in fact seek to suspend explicitly Christian faith and symbols in order to be as “open” or “naked” to the truth of divine reality as possible. This person may be equally at home discussing meditation with Zen Buddhists as with Christians. The emptier of thought, and the more the person enters into unknowing, the more content this person would be. It may be best to call this simply “meditation,” or “contemplation,” but I would hesitate to describe it as “Christian meditation,” even if performed by a Christian; for the person’s intention is to let go of all beliefs in order to enter into unknowing.
To answer your question: No, one does not need to “think about God or Christ” in meditation or in prayer, although one surely does in the first form of mental prayer just noted. The second form may call on God, but seeks to suspend all thought, as noted. The third form explicitly avoids calling on God, and desires to move into silence and darkness without any preconditions or beliefs. (Whether or not this can truly be done, I do not know; but one may find the attempt worthwhile, as a form of purification of the intellect and spirit).
Because I had not previously given much thought to the third way sketched out, I wish to add a few words. Perhaps it is similar to Kiekegaard’s famous “teleological suspension of the ethical,” as dialectically worked out in his well-known book, Fear and Trembling. The “knight of faith,” embodied in Abraham, suspends his obedience to the divine command not to murder—and explicitly not to murder one’s own son, and in the case of Abraham, not to destroy the son of the promise, Isaac. Abraham suspends the ethical command for the sake of a greater, absolute obedience to God, who had said to him, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and sacrifice him to me on the mountain I will show you.” Perhaps one can call this third form of silent prayer a “teleological suspension of the theological.” The one entering into this form of silent meditation suspends all beliefs about God, Christ, and so on, for the sake of a more profound and truer understanding to emerge. Whether or not this can in truth be done, I do not know, but I am raising the possibility of it, inspired by your questioning.
Here is a warning. It would be a mistake to think that one seeking to meditate in this third form begins by rejecting God. The meditator is not trying to imitate Nietzsche in his atheistic rebellion against God. One would rather be gently letting go of doctrinal formulations and symbols to enter into the sheer truth of reality.
I do not recommend that folks experiment with this non-theistic form of meditation, lest it cause confusion or spiritual damage. I may explore it enough in thought to understand what is being proposed. Presently I am not convinced that one can suspend what one most truly believes.
Yours in Christ Jesus.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Excellent brief introductions to contemplative prayer exist, and you may be able to ﬁnd one suitable for you. The classic Christian text on contemplative prayer is the work of a 14th century English clergyman titled The Cloud of Unknowing. The Cloud, as it is called in short, is readily available in various editions; often it is published with a later, more concise work by the same anonymous author known as The Book of Privy [Secret] Counsel. The Cloud warns at the outset that it is not for most persons, and that those not called to contemplative prayer should not put their hands on the book. Why is this? Is not contemplative prayer for everyone?
As a Christian, each of us is duty bound to be diligent in prayer. In order to help you fulﬁll your obligation and desire to pray, you have been taught some ancient prayers perhaps for as long as you can remember.The best examples of prayers taught and often used by the Catholic faithful are the Our Father (“the Lord’s Prayer”); the Hail Mary and the Rosary; the Angelus; the Memorare (by St. Bernard); the “peace prayer” attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (“Lord, make me a channel of your peace”); and so on. Each of these is not only a good prayer, but the work of one or more spiritual masters over time; as a master’s work, it may serve as a model prayer. What is a spiritual master? A man or woman, who is attentive to, and moved by, the Holy Spirit, to seek God “with all one’s heart, all one’s soul, all one’s strength,” and who has done so faithfully and prudently over a long period of time. To pray these prayers often and attentively is good and beneﬁcial, and it may serve to lead you into the God’s Kingdom—that is, into his Presence here and now.
The most complete and divinely grounding prayer for Catholics is the Eucharist. Active participation in the Mass is not only our duty as Catholics, but a joy, as the Eucharistic Prayer and the whole Liturgy of the Mass serves to ground us in God through both drawing on and deepening our faith in Christ, our love for God, and charity or love for our neighbor. Note that the whole Eucharistic Prayer (which seems needlessly long to some) is pulled together immediately before communion when the faithful unite their hearts, minds, and voices in praying together the Our Father. Then follows reception of holy Communion, a ﬁnal brief prayer, and the dismissal, or sending of Christ’s disciples out into the world. In principle there is nothing lacking in the Eucharist for the faithful Catholic, for you, or for me.
And yet, even when our Mass has ended, and we are dismissed in the peace of Christ with a priestly blessing, some of us seek to enter more fully into the life of God. A few may turn to the study of philosophy and theology in order to understand more fully what we believe by faith; such scholarly work, however, pertains to very few. Most faithful Catholics spend their waking hours in loving service of family, neighbor, and in doing duties required to sustain their lives. Some—perhaps all too few—will spend time daily praying, reading Scripture, or reading good books for spiritual nourishment. And still—a few want more. There are those who have tasted the sweetness of the LORD, who have sensed his peace in ﬂeeting moments, who are unfeignedly thankful for all the blessings they and their loved ones have received from the LORD God, and now they want more of God. They do not want more stuff, but they long to love and to know the LORD more truly, more tenderly, more intimately, more completely. If you desire to “enter into the joy of the LORD,” and are willing to give up yourself in the process in order to gain Christ, then you may have the disposition and calling for contemplative prayer. Accompanying this desire is often a discontent with one’s own prayer life, a sense that when trying to pray, one is in effect “eating sand,” or not ﬁnding the desired nourishment, and not obtaining a living contact with God. If you are satisﬁed with your present prayer life, and if you are not attracted to savor the goodness of the LORD more deeply, then contemplative prayer is probably not for you—at least, not at this time in your life.
What is contemplative prayer?
What we are here calling “contemplative prayer” has long gone by various names, in various spiritual traditions. It is not uniquely Christian, but shows up in the major spiritual traditions of the world: in the Tao (the Way) of Lao-Tse in China; in the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita in India; in the Dhammapada and other Buddhist texts; in Zen Buddhism in Japan; in Judaism; in Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christianity; in mystical branches of Islam, such as in Suﬁsm; and no doubt in Native American spirituality as well. Sometimes it is called “mystical prayer,” or “mental prayer,” or even just “mysticism.” Borrowing from the Zen tradition, increasingly in our American culture it is known as Zazen, or “sitting meditation.” The great St. Theresa of Avila—extremely gifted in spiritual experiences—often called her contemplative prayer “the prayer of quiet,” or “the prayer of the heart”—simple phrases which seems especially apt. Another term which is suitable, and one we have often used, is “meditation,” or “wordless meditation,” or “silent prayer.” What matters is the activity of spiritual openness, and not the particular name used.
It is not for us here to concern ourselves with differences between Christian and non-Christian contemplative prayer (1), other than to note one thing: A man or woman in faith-union with Christ prays as a Christian. Whatever a Christian does, is done in, with, and through one’s union with Christ Jesus. That is why the earliest Christian texts, the letters of the Apostle Paul, often mention being “in Christ Jesus.” In the Apostle’s words, “Now I live, yet not `I,’ but Christ lives in me…” (Gal 2). Hence, we could justly say that when a Christian engages in genuine contemplative prayer, then he or she is practicing “Christian contemplative prayer.” I myself do not feel a need for that label, and prefer “prayer of quiet,” “prayer of the heart,” “mindfulness,” “sitting meditation,” and so on. In any case, you pray as you are, and as a Christian, your prayer is in and through Christ Jesus, just as a man is always a man, even in prayer; and a woman is a woman in prayer. And yet, our prayer is identical at the deepest and most enduring level, because we are human beings: creatures in whom the living God abides through faith, hope, charity. And above all, God Himself is the being of our unique human being; you would not be at all, if not caused by, and grounded in, being itself, which Christians call “God.” Because of this underlying ground of all beings, including all human beings, one need not be ashamed to gain insights into contemplation from fellow seekers in other traditions. In my case, formed as a Benedictine monk, I have long felt a strong afﬁnity not only to the way taught in the Cloud of Unknowing, and by other Christian mystics; I have long felt an afﬁnity with the radical call to renounce all selﬁshness in the way of the Buddha, and to sit in silence as taught in Zazen. If your conscience is not at peace with learning from masters from other traditions, then be assured: there is a superabundance of teaching on contemplative prayer within the various Christian traditions, and deﬁnitely in classical Catholic spirituality.
1) I am planning to write a short piece to relate distinctly Christian contemplative prayer to the rich meditative tradition of Buddhism.
But here is a problem, of which each should be aware: some would-be teachers of contemplative prayer may not be well grounded in Christ, in the Catholic faith, or in divine-human reason, and could unintentionally mislead a beginner. So we shall be sparing in drawing on teachers outside of our Catholic tradition in this brief introduction, and also sparing in references to more active priests, religious, and lay persons who may confuse contemplative prayer with an escape from doing one’s duties in the world; or from charity towards our neighbor; or they may confuse contemplative prayer with a springboard for social activism. Be assured of this: Any form of prayer that does not help you live more charitably and to be more grounded in right reason (or “common sense”) is not worth your time, and ought to be avoided.
Jesus himself gave us the simple test for every form of activity in which we engage, including forms of prayer, and for the quality of our life itself: “By their fruits you will know them.” And again, “a good tree produces good fruits.” If one’s prayer is good, good actions and right reasoning result. If one’s prayer is poor or self-centered, good results will not follow.
Contemplation is not primarily or solely one’s own achievement, although you yourself must make the effort wholeheartedly, zealously. It does not just “happen.” You must properly dispose yourself to genuine contemplative prayer.It is the LORD himself drawing one into a deeper union with Himself; it is the Spirit who inspires a thirst for contemplative prayer; it is the Spirit who is ever at work unseen in the prayer; and it is the grace of the Holy Spirit who achieves, with our free cooperation, good results. Contemplative prayer is a primary activity of the Spirit of Christ in a human being. It is Christ himself who says, “Seek and you will ﬁnd….” If you obey and seek, trust that you are following Christ. Unfortunately, many Christians may have stopped seeking—whether they know it or not. The LORD draws; we must respond. As previously noted, if you feel a kind of “divine discontent” with praying in words, as if you are simply chewing on sand or even fragments of glass, and not “getting anywhere,” it may well be that you are being moved to “launch out into the deep” (Luke 5), by turning to God in contemplative prayer. Unfortunately, no few are being pulled into this kind of prayer, but they do not know what is happening, and may give up. Perhaps it takes a brother or sister in Christ to say, “The LORD is waiting for you behind the veil.
How to begin
“You yourself must make the effort.” Do not say, “the priests pray, and the Sisters, so I do not need to.” Or again, “this kind of prayer is only for religious in the Church.” And do not think, “It does not matter what I do.” All that you do, all that you are, matters, and affects how you pray. Hear and respond to the voice of Jesus: “Come, enter into the joy of the LORD.”
Find a quiet place in your home or outside (weather permitting), or wherever you wish. It is good to have the same place to return to again and again whenever you choose to enter into the LORD’s presence. It is beneﬁcial to practice this kind of prayer at the same time every day, and in the same place. Most spiritual traditions would have one sit on a hard chair, a Zen bench, or even sit on a cushion on the ﬂoor. Most of us are a little aged to begin such practices, or we need some kind of back support. It is important that you sit in a quiet place, and that you sit upright, and be alert. Slouching is not good form, and may hinder the mind’s alertness to God’s unseen, unfelt presence. You need to be awake and alert. In the simple words of Jesus, “Watch and pray!” The best time to pray is either soon after rising in the morning, or in the evening, preferably before an evening meal. Two good sessions a day should be your goal.Sitting in silence means no TV, no radio, no music, no chatter in your room. “When you pray,” Jesus teaches us, “go into your inner room, shut the door, and pray to your Father in secret.” During the preparation and prayer, you neither eat, drink, nor talk. Nor do you wiggle, squirm, or scratch. First you must still your body and senses, so that you can work on stilling your mind. That is the challenge. You are quiet and still like a mountain lake; but awake and alert, as one awaiting one’s lover to return. You will that “God may be all in all.” Nothing more.
It is preferable and helpful, I believe, to begin your prayer session with a brief verbal prayer, and with some spiritual reading. I recommend a passage from the New Testament—say, some verses from one of the Gospels—or by slowly reading a chapter from the Cloud or from the Dhammapada or from the Gita (if such reading does not disturb your “faith”) and so on.First of all, even before reading, address a very brief prayer to the LORD, asking for His will, for understanding, for peace; the Our Father is a time-tested model. God knows well what you need before you ask, so keep your prayer in words very short and sweet. Trusting that the LORD is with you, read for perhaps 15 minutes or so. Read slowly, carefully, attending to every word. You are preparing your mind and heart to be still in God’s presence. Using an image, you are a farmer, preparing the soil of your soul to receive the life-giving rain of the Holy Spirit. Let God Himself speak to you in and through the sacred text. Listen for God’s silent voice as you read. Trust that “I AM with you.”
Then turn out the reading lamp, sit up straight, with your body erect, body and mind alert. Again, you may wish to utter a single sentence asking for divine assistance: “Come, Lord Jesus,” or “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and so on. A few words, no more. What is important is that you trust and understand that you are in God’s presence—not as you imagine God to be, but as God really is. The LORD is fully present to you; now present yourself to the LORD. And what and exactly who God is, you do not know, nor are you here to ﬁgure out God. That is not your business. You are here to “love and be silent,” like Cordelia in King Lear. For you are a lover of God, or you would not be seeking his Presence now. For to love God is to obey and to seek. You are a lover and a seeker, not a knower who has God ﬁgured out and sprawling under a pin in some insect collection, gathering dust in an unvisited attic of your brain. (If you have God in a box, let him out!).
Be alert, be aware, be attentive. Do not think words, use images, or pay attention to external stimuli (sights, sounds, smells, touching). Enter into the divine darkness “without other light or guide, than that which in your heart is burning” (2). Now you are being lead by Love to love. The rest does not matter, or is not your business.
The quieter you are, the more still, the more alert, and the less attentive to anything in particular, the better. No words, no thoughts, no sounds, no images. The less you know, the better. The less you are aware of anything “happening,” the better. For the quieter and more empty of self you are, the more you are entering into “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.” You are entering into “the Kingdom of God” here and now. Bring nothing in except your naked self, just as you are.
Now, let us sit still in silence, keep alert, and listen to the sheer silence of God.
2) St. John of the Cross, “En una noche oscura,” “The dark night of the soul.”
A few words to consider
Not here, not there, not you, not I, not even God Himself should be thought about when one sits in silence. The emptier you are, the better. Let divine Presence be present. “He ﬁlls the hungry with good things, but the rich (in themselves) He sends away empty.”
No feeling ought to be indulged or entertained. If anger arises, let it go. Is not God himself worth more than your anger or resentment? If fear arises, let it go. If desire arises, let it go down the stream. In meditation one seeks to be free from all thoughts and all desires, however good or noble. What you want is divine reality, not more of yourself.
Thoughts will arise to consciousness. Do not entertain them. They arise, do not indulge them, do not work them out. You let each and every thought that arises drift down the stream and away from your attention. Let all pass into the sea of forgetfulness. Your desire is for the divine mystery, as he is in himself, and not for more thoughts about God, or about yourself, or anything else. They are all as nothing compared to He who is.
Some persons prefer to use a single word, a “mantra,” to help steady and guide their attention without thinking. If thoughts arise, one may gently return to the mantra to dismiss active thoughts. If that helps, use it; if not, do not force yourself to use a mantra or a single word. Among Christian mystics, “Christ,” “Jesus,” “love,” “Father,” “Spirit” are often used. My own preference is for “You,” if a word is needed to quiet the mind.
Some prefer to concentrate on breath coming into the nostrils, passing out of the nostrils, as a training in attentiveness. It may help, as training wheels on a child’s bicycle. I have known some contemplatives for whom mindfulness of breath is a great aid to stilling the mind. And the goal is: to control and still the wayward mind. It is hard work.
You sit upright, breathe calmly, keep alert, and you let go of all that arises to consciousness. That is your task. The rest is not your business. You have given yourself to the all-good, to the merciful, to the one who knows what you need before you ask. Sit still, do not move, do not scratch. You be yourself and let God be God. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Do not think, “Look what I am doing! How quiet, how calm I am.” Such thoughts arise
from self. You have renounced yourself to enter into sacred peace, into the Kingdom of God. Letting go of self is the little price to enter the Kingdom. Your duty is to be a faithful servant: awake, alert, attentive, “awaiting your Master’s return.”
`He hit me, he stole from me, he lied to me, he deceived me.’ In those who harbor such thoughts, hatred will never cease. `He hit me, he stole from me, he lied to me, he deceived me.’ In those who do not harbor such thoughts, hatred will cease. (cf Dhammapada ch 1) (3)
3) The Dhammapada is the earliest text from the Buddhist tradition, and a spiritual gem.
Hatred and ill-will, lust, greed, and all illusions must be blown away, as chaff is blown away by the wind. One must renounce all thoughts of harming anyone, of lying, of deceiving, of pretending to be what one is not.Nor should one think about doing good deeds later. Just keep the body and mind as still as possible. Unless one renounces all of one’s possessions, and all of self-centered existence in its many forms, one cannot enter into the Kingdom of God, into the divine presence experienced as peace and extinction of self-will.
The emptier you are, the more fully you enter into sheer peace.
In quiet meditation, seek to be attached to nothing: not to time or space; not to sights or sounds; not to thoughts or feelings; not to hopes, dreams, or any imaginings. You alone present yourself to God alone. You seek to be “alone with the Alone,” and nothing more.
As you enter in, you hold nothing back, set no pre-conditions, make no arrangements. You give yourself fully. Whether you receive back your life or not, you simply entrust yourself to the One who is. As you enter into silent Presence, you are willing to die, if that be God’s will.
The ball is being thrown. A few may seek to catch the ball. Many will not even try. After the ball is thrown, and it has been caught, the pitcher will take the bench. Or he may throw the ball in another ﬁeld. That is not your concern. You must seek to catch the ball thrown to you.
Do not think about what others are doing or not doing, whether good or evil. Your duty is to present yourself alone, as you are, to the One who surpasses understanding.
“What about my good, religious thoughts? Are they not holy? Are they not true? Are
they not Catholic teaching?” Now is not the time for such thoughts, however good, however pious, however devout, however comforting. Now is the time for no-thing, for no-word, for no-self, for no images or thoughts of God. Deus nihil. God is no-thing. Your task is to sit still and keep alert: “Holy things for the holy.”
“But I, I….” Forget “I.” It is utterly irrelevant to one who seeks to go out, “his house being now all stilled.” Neither I, nor we, nor they. Only no-thing, no-being, in the stillness of the night. The emptier, the darker, the more silent, the better.
All that comes into time passes in time. How you arise, you do not know, nor do you need to know. As an existent being you are passing away. Give yourself now, just as you are, to that which simply is. That which is beyond passing time is what believers call “God.” God alone endures; the rest—self included—is passing.
When the candle of desire for pleasure, fame, wealth, power is blown out, then you are at rest in the unchanging, in that which endures. When one renounces illusions and partial understandings, then the radiance of silence begins to shine in. The process may be called “illumination” or “transﬁguration.” It is the achievement of divine presence.
Keep still beneath the unseen, unfelt hand of the divine Physician. The less you see, feel, or imagine, the greater the inner healing, the greater the unfelt inner change.
All words are approximate, including words about spiritual experience. Do not think that “seek God” or “wait for the LORD” imply that the divine Presence is now absent. It means: attend, stretch into the Presence, await fuller union.
When writing about meditation or contemplative prayer, there is a danger in using language of “God,” “Lord,” and so on, if one begins to imagine a being “out there,” or any being-thing at all. In meditation, simply attend and be alert. Give up your imaginings.
“Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.” Keep your body and mind still “at the still point of the turning world” (Eliot, Four Quartets)
God’s blessing this Lent and peace to all.
Handling "Thoughts" in Meditation
To one who mentioned the problem of “thinking” in meditation.
___, I have been thinking about your remarks about wanting “control,” and not giving up your thoughts when seeking to meditate.
I think that you need some time during each day when you give the important thoughts some time. What are these thoughts that are so precious, by the way? Plans for your business? Family concerns? Health issues? If worrying, that is a different matter—dismiss them as surely as you would dismiss a small child’s babble for more candy.
In quiet prayer, all thoughts ought to be dismissed as soon as they arise. The desire for control is a function of self (ego), and “renouncing yourself” is what the prayer is all about. If you are in a pool, swim. Or again, if you would rather play in the sand along the beach, just know what you are doing. Know that the ocean washes away all sand castles and other products of dreaming on the beach.
Time for me to enter the ocean—the unlimited sea of unknowing.
Addendum written after a period of “entering in."
Having had thoughts arise and sought to dismiss them while in unknowing, now I give them some time.
One does not see that out of which all arises. Feelings and thoughts may arise from “self” in some way, but whence arises the self? Whence arises consciousness? What is it that is present in the acts of being and of knowing? One seeks the ground, the out of which, not the particulars that flow in consciousness.
Entering into unknowing, one lets go of all opinions, all doxai, in its many forms: thoughts, beliefs, religious beliefs, views, feelings, all. All opinion is partial, imperfect, incomplete. In unknowing, one seeks “the peace which surpasses all understanding.” In our age of ideologies, one’s ideologies are what must be suspended to enter into unknowing. In an age of religious beliefs, all of one’s beliefs must be suspended to enter into unknowing—if one wants the reality, and not the mere words (“God,” “Christ,” “Allah” and so on).
It is paradoxical to “Seek God” by giving up “God,” but that is the nature of this inquiry, this spiritual exercise. If I wanted more opinions about God, I would read theology books or the dogmas of the Church. I do not want more doxai, but fewer, and to let go of what I have. For in unknowing, whatever one thinks he has, one does not have; and whatever one thinks one is, one is not.
Outside of seeking unknowing—as I am now writing—I wonder what is meant by “divine Presence,” by “the flow of Presence,” and so on. There is a flow that arises, and as the flow is experienced, it has doxic and emotional content. Perhaps only when the contents are not attended to in any way—in the act of unknowing—then the flow or stream can be experienced for what it is, or what it is not, or both, or neither.
The search is for the unbounded, the unlimited, the unoriginated, the uncaused, the unconditioned, the non-temporal, non-fleeting, non-transitory. One seeks to enter into the silence out of which words flow, the Life from which all living beings come forth. One seeks to enter not into knowing, or thinking, or feeling, but into “the peace [of God] that surpasses all understanding.” The problem with “peace of God” is that the phrase points back to a particular, to a hypostatized “God” of religious belief. That is a derailment for one seeking reality, not doxai or views about reality, or symbols detached from their engendering experiences. Symbols such as “God” may be part of the exegesis of genuine experience; but all too often, they become detached from the engendering experiences, and take on a doxic, toxic, disturbing, substitute life of their own. The question is: Do you want reality, and truth about reality, or mere beliefs? Do you want to know what is, or to think you know, grounding your opinions on opinions of others?
Having said this, I feel pulled to return toward unknowing, to enter back into the unbounded ocean, not into formulated phrases and mere opinions. All beliefs—religious, non-religious, ideological—leave one feeling less than satisfied, for opinions are too insubstantial to be genuinely nourishing. They are very thin milk, and surely not solid food for the life of the inquiring mind—or non-mind, or spirit, or consciousness unbounded by whatness, by symbols, opinions, information, knowledge, “squads of emotions,” and so on. To be conscious without being conscious of any particular—including “oneself”—is to enter into unknowing.
On the basis of the ancient sources about Jesus—the Gospels and the New Testament letters— nearly nothing is known about Jesus’ interior life. We know very little directly about what Jesus experienced from within, or how he prayed, or how he concentrated his mind, or controlled his desires, and so on. Like his exterior appearance, his interior life remains hidden in a cloud of unknowing. What we can know of Jesus’ spiritual life is what shows up in his words and deeds: his wisdom and penetrating intellect; his compassion and mercy to sinners; his strong sense of justice and speaking the truth fearlessly; his unassailable commitment to his mission; his fidelity unto death to the one he called “Abba,” Father; his characteristic obedience to the spirit—rather than to the letter—of the Jewish Law and Scriptures; Christ’s loyalty to his disciples; even his refreshing sense of humor. Jesus does not speak about his interior life, and not even about how he prayed.
The visions of the Resurrected Christ show us the Man utterly transformed by divine Presence. And according to the interpretations of those granted the Resurrection visions, he is now “LORD” for all eternity. In Eastertide we will again reflect on these experiences of the Resurrected, for they are crucial to Christian faith and practice. This Sunday’s Gospel, however, gives us a foretaste of things to come: the vision of Jesus “transfigured.” St. Matthew’s account tells us that Jesus was “transfigured” (literally, changed in appearance or form) before his chosen three apostles. St. Luke alone writes that Jesus’ “face was changed” as he was praying. One may ask: Was Jesus himself changed or transfigured in his appearance, or did the chosen three apostles see him in a new light? Or both? The case can be made for both, because the texts all assert that Jesus was changed in appearance (“transfigured”); and the three accounts give various details of the Apostles’ responses, culminating in awe, so that “Peter did not even know what he was saying.”
And we may wonder: What was there about Jesus of Nazareth that so many of his contemporaries were so attracted to him as to become his disciples? Did they sense not only his deep goodness and love, but the presence of the God of Israel whom they had been worshiping all of their lives? Apparently, Jesus lived so intensely in God’s presence that it showed up in his words, deeds, and even appearance. Divine Presence in Jesus surely showed up to the three apostles who saw him “transfigured” before them. If Jesus was profoundly aware of divine presence in him and with him ( reality emphasized in St. John’s Gospel), no doubt it showed up—at least to those “who had eyes to see.” Doubts, ill-will, hatred blind a person to the presence of God in Christ or anywhere. But some saw, and believed, and followed. By faith moved by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 16), they saw what was within Jesus.
The interior life of Jesus, although not described in the New Testament, can also be known to some degree through reflection, through imitation of his way of life, and especially through personal interior experience. The Gospels—and particularly St. Luke—tells us several times that “Jesus spent the night in prayer.” What was his prayer like? In addition to his prayer-word, “Abba,” we have accounts of his prayer in Gethsemane, “Abba, let this cup [of suffering] pass by; yet not my will, but your will, be done.” We see complete and utter surrender to God’s will, even as he faces brutal torture. We also know that Christ teaches us to pray and mean, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done…”.Jesus keeps inviting each disciple to keep surrendering to the Presence of God within: “unless you deny yourself, you cannot be my disciple.” To deny oneself means: Let yourself go into God’s Presence, holding nothing back. In this state of loving surrender, God’s “Kingdom” indeed comes, as the eternal I AM fills the heart and mind of the faithful disciple. Such a life shows up in saints, as in St. Francis of Assisi, St. Theresa of Avila, St. John-Paul. They have revealed to us the interior life of Christ in them: that interior life is “the Kingdom of God come in power,” as in the Transfiguration and Resurrection of Jesus. To study the saints’ writings and deeds, and to imitate them, is to allow Christ to live his Transfigured, Resurrected life is us. In the soul of a true and generous disciple, the interior life of Jesus lives afresh, and shines through.
Saturday After Ash Wednesday
Practiced meditation for 20 minutes, which is the amount of time chosen as I return to faithful practice. Sessions later will last perhaps 45 minutes. I will add an afternoon session, and 2-3 minute sessions throughout the day. One step at a time, do not speculate on the future, or even plan. Meditate now, for now. What needs to be done then will become clear in meditation. Meditation is grounding in ultimate reality through letting go of everything—of self in all of its forms. What needs to be done must arise from reality, not from self-generated speculation or whim.
The primary spiritual problem for my parishioners: how to enter into the stillness of meditation. As far as I know, only several even attempt it. Ours is a culture of activism, busyness, consuming, doing, watching, eating, gratification of senses. Christianity of the churches does not provide much assistance to those who seek to cross the stream of existence and enter into the quiet place. Christianity of the churches is too busy, too noisy, too concerned with “changing the world,” or with cultic rituals, or with “being born again,” and the like. In such things one does not enter into the eternal, but plays on the beaches. Entrance into non-existence is through letting go of existence in all of its forms.
The two main texts I know for assisting one to enter into stillness are the Dhammapadaof the Buddha, and the Cloud of Unknowing. There are many other texts to assist, such as the Gospels and the Bhagavad Gita. Not by study alone does one enter, nor by doing good deeds, but by the practice of dying to self that is required in meditation. Not this, not that, no feelings, no thoughts, no wishes, no dreams, no images, no movement. One seeks to renounce all that is not no-thing, that is not empty of self in all of its forms.One enters by letting go of the world, beliefs, desires.
Years ago through meditation I formulated my reflection on the divine: Deus nihil. Literally, God is nothing, but to avoid some misunderstanding, one could write, “God is no-thing.” But even the symbol “God” is misleading, because it is understood as a particular thing or being. And that is not what is intended. God that can be symbolized and imagined is not God. One must let go of images and symbols to enter into unknowing, as mystics East and West have long taught.
Just this past week I symbolized the quest in this way: Existo ut esse. Perhaps my Latin is weak, and needs refinement: Existo ut sim. But I intentionally want the non-personal form esse, rather than the personal form, sim. In English: I exist to be. Not, “I exist that I may be.” The particular self needs to be let go, renounced, to enter into life, into ultimate reality, into being itself. Whatever emerges in the process will be.
Contemporary culture, including Christianity in every form I know, is wrapped up in self, to some degree or another, in certain characteristic ways. The point of ritual and dogma is to allow the divine that simply is here and now to shine through. But this much I understand with no little concern: most get attached to particular words and forms, and do not enter into the formless, the speechless, the eternal. It is not profitable to play with liturgical forms and rituals, or with dogmas, or with social activities of various kinds. These things the world chases after.
Each exists in the middle, between sheer particularity and the non-particular. Everything that exists shares in being itself, but is not ultimate being. In meditation, one actively and quietly seeks to allow that which is to be present, without becoming attached to any word or form. If nothing remains from the divine furnace of extinction, so be it. Much dross must be burned away before the gold is purified. And when the gold is purified, one sees nothing.
Too many words have been written. Now is the time to enter into silence.