Monthly Archives: February 2021

Silence

I have loved silence as much as or more than I have loved music – and of course music is only what it is by virtue of the silence that comes with it, both the kind you can write down, that is threaded all through it, and the kind that underlies it, an open ground beneath the whole structure of sound.

Contrary to our common imagination, our solar system, and the space beyond our heliosphere, is bathed and criss-crossed with unheard, magnetic sounds, that can can even be converted to audio waves that we can hear with our human ears. ClassicFM has some samples, and NASA too has shared some from much further away in the depths of interstellar space. But under these too is silence: a silence bright with starlight and seamed with barely imaginable gravitational waves.

The fertile stillness that silence is seems very close to the dark transparency that sometimes one can touch in contemplation. It seems to me that in contemplation perhaps all we are doing is stripping away the accretions of thought and habit, draining the mind’s default mode that tries to fill our resting moments with its lowest common denominator daydreams. All that we are, all we have come from, rests in the ground of being itself, and it may be that we can touch the edge of that ground itself in silence, in the resting place between breaths, or the quiet of sitting still.

What’s It All About?

What is the point of contemplation? What does it even mean to call oneself a contemplative? Merriam Webster’s dictionary’s first definition is as follows: “1 a: concentration on spiritual things as a form of private devotion. b: a state of mystical awareness of God’s being”, which is about the best of the dictionary definitions that appear in an online search.

Sam Harris, who has a way of nailing spiritual realities outside of conventional religious language, writes:

I believe that [contemplative] states of mind have a lot to say about the nature of consciousness and the possibilities of human well-being. Leaving aside the metaphysics, mythology, and sectarian dogma, what contemplatives throughout history have discovered is that there is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves; there is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness. And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.

(Harris, Sam. Waking Up (p. 14). Transworld. Kindle Edition.)

William Blake wrote, in a book published in 1790, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” (The passage has inspired many works and attributions, notably the name of Jim Morrison’s band The Doors, and Aldous Huxley’s 1954 study of the spiritual implications of the use of psychedelics.)

In my experience, limited by my own personal abilities and failings, and lack of formal training, cleansing the doors of perception is precisely the core function of contemplation. As Huxley pointed out, the human brain (or more precisely, the mode of consciousness operative for most of our waking lives) can act as a reducing valve that restricts our minds to the mundane and acquisitive level where most of us spend most of our time. Huxley’s critics, including Thomas Mann and Martin Buber, pointed out that the effects of psychedelics are too subjective and transient to be considered equivalent to direct mystical experience, and I tend to agree with them. Interestingly, Harris’s early experience with MDMA (op. cit., p. 3) did help to point him in the direction of genuine contemplative practice and its fruits – as did my own experience, at about the same period of my life, with both LSD and, more strikingly, mescaline.

It was hard for me, in the early 1970s, to disentangle the idea of actual contemplative practice from the religions within which it had developed. Uncomfortable as I was, at least on paper, with the idea of becoming a Buddhist, with all the ritual and special language and texts that that seemed to entail, it was the nearest I could find to the spiritual and metaphysical yearnings with which I was filled, and which promised perhaps to provide an adult context for my childhood experiences while recovering from serious illness.

It was not until some years later that I met real live Christian contemplatives, at the SSM Priory at Willen, and became aware that there was still a living contemplative tradition within Christianity, and that texts like The Cloud of Unknowing, and Julian of Norwich’s Showings, were more than curiosities for scholars of the medieval church. Before I realised it, I found I was launched on a lifetime of contemplation in the context, mostly, of the Anglican church, and based on the practice of the Jesus Prayer

But suppose that contemplative practice were seen as an end in itself, rather than as a means to deepen one’s involvement in the life and dogma of a religious institution? Suppose the aim were in actual fact simply the cleansing of the doors of perception, quite apart from the scriptural and social context of a community based on the mythos of a culture far removed from our own in time and worldview?

Wikipedia defines religion as “a social-cultural system of designated behaviours and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements.”

Contemplation, understood as a settling-out, a clearing of experience and perception, is at root a kind of inner seeing, an experiential encounter with the ground of being that gives rise to, and sustains, all that is – which, of course, is what my own long-ago metaphysical intuitions were leading me towards.

The enforced solitude of these unusual times, when all our habits and assumptions have been overturned by the present pandemic, is proving oddly fruitful. I should not be surprised to learn that there are many, cut loose from religious roles and commitments by the suspension of normal corporate worship, and maybe as unconvinced as I am by their sometimes desperate online simulacra, who are coming to similar conclusions. Some may of course drift into a kind of virtual New Age, “cyberseeker” mentality; but many more may come to realise that there is a cleanness, a directness, about a contemplative practice which can stand in the light of its own truth, without the excuses or scaffolding of dogma.

Ground Swell

In almost all types of contemplative practice that depend upon a simple quietness, whether Centering Prayer, vipassana meditation, zazen according to the Sōtō Zen tradition, or whichever, there is a sense that comes to arise of an open field of attention, not unlike a crystalline expanse within, or coterminous with, the visual field (whether one’s eyes are open or closed). Keeping still, it is apparent that this clear space, the ground of one’s consciousness, is not other than the ground from which things appear – sense perceptions, thoughts, emotions, whatever – and pass. Somehow it cannot be different from the ground of becoming itself.

There is a line from the Heart Sutra, “Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness” that expresses the quality of this perception better than anything else I’ve read. And yet this realisation, if that’s the word, like the practice within which it occurs, is not a religious thing at all. Sam Harris writes,

I have long argued that confusion about the unity of religions is an artifact of language. Religion is a term like sports: Some sports are peaceful but spectacularly dangerous (“free solo” rock climbing); some are safer but synonymous with violence (mixed martial arts); and some entail little more risk of injury than standing in the shower (bowling). To speak of sports as a generic activity makes it impossible to discuss what athletes actually do or the physical attributes required to do it. What do all sports have in common apart from breathing? Not much. The term religion is hardly more useful.

The same could be said of spirituality. The esoteric doctrines found within every religious tradition are not all derived from the same insights. Nor are they equally empirical, logical, parsimonious, or wise. They don’t always point to the same underlying reality—and when they do, they don’t do it equally well. Nor are all these teachings equally suited for export beyond the cultures that first conceived them…

Of course, it is true that specific Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mystics have had experiences similar to those that motivate Buddhism and Advaita, but these contemplative insights are not exemplary of their faith. Rather, they are anomalies that Western mystics have always struggled to understand and to honor, often at considerable personal risk. Given their proper weight, these experiences produce heterodoxies for which Jews, Christians, and Muslims have been regularly exiled or killed.

Harris, Sam. Waking Up (pp. 19-20, 22). Transworld. Kindle Edition.

The pause in religious communities coming together for worship caused by the current pandemic is widely touted as making a permanent difference to church attendance, and to the conduct of public worship in future months and years (Zoom worship, blended online and in-person services, and so forth) but for me at least it has had a far more fundamental effect. I have come to realise, as I wrote recently on The Mercy Blog, that “In this period of quiet settling, separated from the religious atmosphere and bustle of corporate worship, I have begun to sense that the ‘social-cultural system’ of religion is something quite separate from the ‘experimental faith’ (cf. Quaker faith & practice 19.02) of contemplative practice, and crucially, the one does not depend upon the other.”

This blog is intended, at least in part, to chart that exploration.