Monthly Archives: April 2021

Names for things

I continue to be haunted by the question of language and tradition. There are untold depths within any religious tradition, and within each there is a contemplative core, often unrecognised by most followers of a religion, and all too often opposed by its hierarchy.

There are great practical similarities between practices like Centering Prayer, Sōtō Zen meditation, vipassana and others, but they are set within very different traditions. For those of us in the West in the 21st century it is often very difficult to read even modern texts in English whose conceptual bases are as different as 14th century English monasticism (Centering Prayer draws much of its inspiration from The Cloud of Unknowing), 13th century Japan, or the Pali of the 3rd century BCE. Christian mysticism as a whole is rooted in the Bible, mostly in the New Testament Greek of 1st century Palestine and the surrounding territories.

Within each tradition there are living communities of contemplative practice, and many who have felt the call to a life of prayer and contemplation have left their homes, and sometimes their countries in search of this continuity. At times they have learned another language or languages, and taken on an entire culture different to the one in which they were born. But is such an upheaval necessary, or even advisable?

If nothing else, the current pandemic has show to many of us that our inner lives are far more independent of a physical community of faith than we had thought, and for those of us who are part of a religious tradition involving a regular physical rite such as the Eucharist, even to some degree independent of the priestly administration of such a rite. But a spirituality stripped of all tradition and history can seem barren and artificial, just as assuming the mantle of a tradition rooted in another culture can seem alien and uncomfortable.

Certainty is of course a poor fit for the contemplative life, and it may be that there is still a long way to go before a comfortable home is found for contemplative practice in these days; in any case, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is still in the very recent past.

To change people’s consciousness, we have to find a way to reach their unconscious. That’s where our hearts and our real agendas lie, where our mother wounds, father wounds, and cultural wounds reside. The unconscious is where it all lies stored, and this determines a great deal of what we pay attention to and what we ignore. While it took modern therapy and psychology for us to recognize how true this was, through apocalyptic literature, the Scripture writers were already there. We can’t get to the unconscious logically, literally, or mechanically. We have to fall into it, I’m sorry to say, and usually by suffering, paradox and the effective use of symbols.

Richard Rohr, from In the Footsteps of St. Paul (audiobook)

Rohr might have mentioned that the unconscious cannot be hurried, either! This is why, awkward and counterintuitive though they so often are, and burdened with at times unsought resonances and prejudices from other cultures, there is still so much power in the linguistic formulations and texts of the past. Our minds have roots: we cut them, often, at our peril.

The wish and its call

Everyone would like to make sense of life, but for some people the need to explore life’s meaning cannot be ignored. This need may have been awakened in us by experiencing particular events, or it may have been felt for as long as we can remember. To know such a call is to feel its insistence. Having felt it, one can hide by running to distractions of one kind or another, but whenever there is a pause in the business of life, it is there awaiting our response. This call is the greatest blessing imaginable, and it sometimes feels like torture. Even though it makes so many demands, we would be bereft without it. When we are able to acknowledge the presence of the wish, then the wish sets all the priorities of life. The insistence of the wish drives us to understand the wish itself.

Morgan, Daishin. Buddha Recognizes Buddha, Throssel Hole Press. Kindle Edition.

These words of Daishin Morgan’s remind me once again that this wish, or call, is the centre of my own path – that it “sets all the priorities of life”. Sometimes this can be confusing, since this thing, call, wish, karma, call it what you will, seems to take no account of normal human priorities. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why those afflicted with such an impulse seem so often to take themselves off into monasteries, or into solitude. Daishin Morgan goes on,

It is the wish that draws us to meditation. We may have rational reasons for meditating and undertaking Buddhist practice, but I suggest that what calls us is something much more fundamental. It may be that we have no explanation – all we know is that there is something here of the greatest importance, and that we cannot let our lives go by without exploring it to the full. Buddhism does not contain it, and no path defines it. And yet we need guidance and some frame of reference to work within. Idealism may suggest we can manage without a commitment to any one path, but experience shows such idealism is easily subverted by one’s ego. Even though we can entangle ourselves in the technicalities and structures of a religion and so mistake the finger for the moon, sooner or later the wish makes itself felt, perhaps as a nagging doubt that impels us to stop fiddling around the edges and really commit ourselves to the wish. When that happens, the duality of the wish and its frame of reference dissolves.

The current pandemic has, as I hinted in one of my first posts here, refocused this question of entanglement in a novel way. In my last post, I suggested that the search for a language for our calling may well be an underlying cause for so many of us to seek out an established religious route for our path, and so it may. But there is also the question of discipline, for certainly discipline is required, in the first place to allow the call to set the priorities of our life (not an easy thing to allow), and then to keep at it in such a way as to give the practice time to do its work in us. This discipline is most reliably mediated by a community of those engaged in the practice too.

Classical Buddhism in all its schools speaks of taking refuge in the Three Refuges: The Buddha, the fully enlightened one; the Dharma, the nature of reality regarded as a universal truth taught by the Buddha; and the Sangha, the community of Buddhist monks and nuns, and sometimes Buddhist laity. There is a similar conception in Christian contemplative life, seen clearly in Benedictine and Carthusian spirituality, as well as in the Orthodox monastic traditions surrounding the Jesus Prayer, of community as a place of shelter as well as of commitment. The contemplative path is not always easy, and sometimes it is demanding, and a community can offer support and comfort – refuge, shelter -at times when it is most needed.

The pandemic has shattered many of our established forms of community, especially for laity, who do not usually live in community in the way that monastics do, and have traditionally depended on their local church or temple, or meditation group, for support. Much of this contact has, of necessity, moved online. I suspect that some practitioners may have adopted, more or less intentionally, an effectively eremitic approach. I described some of my own gropings towards this in the last real post on my old blog.

Where is this leading, in practice? I’m not sure. There is an immense amount of teaching and shared experience available online, as well as in books – Daishin Morgan’s own being good examples – and an online eremitic tradition has been simmering under  for some time, Paul and Karen Fredette’s Raven’s Bread Ministries being the most obvious site. Perhaps the odd blog post like this one may create ripples, too, and may help the growth of connections between individuals and communities. We shall see.

Looking for a language

All contemplative traditions seek, in one way or another, to look past the shifting pattern of thoughts and emotions which we take to to be ourselves, and to know directly that which is unthinkable, and is.

But thinking is what we always do, if only to find some way of pointing out the ineffable, of showing others the beginning of the way to this unconditioned treasure. But it is always difficult, and painfully easily misunderstood, as contemplatives have long found to their cost in their dealings with religious authorities.

I think the reason why most contemplatives are in fact allied with some religion or another may be that, not only do we ourselves find the way to our own contemplative practice within a religious tradition, but within that tradition we find a path that others have walked, a thread others have followed, and a language with which to talk, and more importantly to think, about contemplation and its purpose. In many traditions contemplative practice is seen and experienced as a form of prayer, which comes with its own questions, and its own ways to think and talk about them.

One of the difficulties with treading a secular contemplative path is that these frameworks of tradition and language fall away. This is of course a great freedom, but it is easier perhaps to see what it is a freedom from than it is to see what it may be a freedom to, because of the sheer difficulty we have in finding new words for that which is beyond words, and in looking for ways to understand what we have perceived directly.

Happily, in most cases, bereft of a traditional Buddhist, Christian, or whatever language for contemplative experience, with all its baggage of doctrine and metaphysics, some have turned to Western philosophy, or to neuroscience, for paradigms. Those who are trained in these fields, Susan Blackmore, for instance, or Sam Harris, have made contributions that I for one find useful to say the least. Others, like Stephen Batchelor, seem to work more nearly by pruning the language of an existing tradition to express a secular practice, repossessing well-tried (in Batchelor’s case Buddhist) words to chart a secular path.

I am very late to the game. My four decades, more or less, of broadly Christian contemplative practice have left me missing their rich tradition of expression, and the depth of thought and teaching that underpins that tradition in both the Eastern and Western church, and in the great body of writing that predates the Great Schism of 1054, and, come to that, in the Quaker way since the 17th century in England.

I am finding it hard, as readers of this blog may have noticed, to pick up an alternative framework in which to think and write about practice and experience. I don’t have an alternative expert language, like the philosophers and the students of consciousness, and yet there is a sense that my own stream, my own practice and its fruits, has not gone astray so much as found a deeper bed on its way to the sea. The question is, how to talk about it?