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?

1 thought on “Looking for a language

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s