Monthly Archives: June 2021


I have written elsewhere here (Opening the ground) of the beginnings of my awareness of what really is, lying under the old apple trees in the orchard of my childhood home, as an unassailable refuge, a still place beyond thought or striving, there always.

Tara Brach writes,

[W]hen we look within, there is no entity, no mind-substance, no self, no thing we can identify. There is just awareness—open empty awareness. We can’t locate any center, nor can we find an edge to our experience. Unless we anchor ourselves again in thoughts, or grasp after desired sensations or feelings, we have nowhere to stand, no firm ground. This can be disconcerting, scary, incredibly mysterious. While there may be a profusion of activity—sounds, sensations, images—there is no thing to hold on to, no self behind the curtain managing things. This seeing of no thing is what the Tibetan teachers call “the supreme seeing.”

But this emptiness, this “no-thingness,” is not empty of life. Rather, empty awareness is full with presence, alive with knowing. The very nature of awareness is cognizance, a continuous knowing of the stream of experience. In this moment that you are reading, sounds are heard, vibration is felt, form and color are seen. This knowing happens instantaneously, spontaneously. Like a sunlit sky, awareness is radiant in cognizance and boundless enough to contain all life…

With practice, recognizing our natural awareness takes less and less of an effort or sense of doing. Rather than climbing up a hill to get a view, we are learning the art of relaxing back and wakefully inhabiting the whole vista. We look back into awareness and then simply let go into what is seen. We become more at home in awareness than in any story of a self who is falling short or on our way somewhere else. We are at home because we have seen and experienced firsthand the vast and shining presence that is the very source of our being.

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance, Ebury Digital 2012 (pp. 315, 317)

When I was in my early 20s, in company with a very close and trusted friend, I undertook a short series of trips over a couple of weeks, using 250mg doses of synthetic mescaline. These were powerful, even profound experiences, entirely sober and devoid of what would popularly be thought of as “psychedelic” effects. We covered pages and pages of lined foolscap notepaper with closely written notes and curious geometric diagrams recording our experiences. I mention these just here because the one phrase that kept recurring, wherever we travelled, was “no thing”. Whatever avenue we explored, whatever sunken lane of the mind we entered, led to “no thing”. We wrote it, over and over again, in our notes, labelled the centres of our many diagrams with carefully drawn arrows, “no thing”. We were at a loss to explain the utter, luminous profundity of this expression either to ourselves or to each other. But it was the source and ending of all that is, and of mind itself, that much was plain.

Of course outside of a conceptual framework beyond the ability of either of us to construct back then – we could not square what we had experienced with any religious or philosophical system then familiar to us – we could take this no further, and it slipped away, displaced by plans and desires, and the imperatives of everyday life.

I recall this psychochemical experiment now because the remembered experience forms, for me, a kind of bridge between my childhood experience slowly recovering from meningitis in that sunlit Sussex orchard, and the kind of meditative recognition Tara Brach describes in the passages quoted here, from the final chapter of Radical Acceptance. The (often unremembered, consciously) energy of these and similar experiences, both within and without any formal contemplative framework, are what I have lived for, really, all these years. Most certainly, they are home, beyond any thing.

One of the points I keep coming back to, and which attracts me so strongly to secular Buddhism, above other paths, is the way that these central events have always seemed to strike me outside of formal religious or intellectual disciplines, however deeply rooted in practice they now are. Emilia Fogelklou (she writes of herself in the third person):

But then one bright spring day – it was the 29th of May 1902 – while she sat preparing for her class under the trees in the backyard of Föreningsgatan 6, quietly, invisibly, there occurred the central event of her whole life. Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ‘empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.

The first words which came to her – although they took a long time to come – were, ‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ The child who had cried out in anguish and been silenced had now come inside the gates of Light. She had been delivered by a love that is greater than any human love. Struck dumb, amazed, she went quietly to her class, wondering that no one noticed that something had happened to her.

Qfp 26.05Quaker faith & practice (5th edition) online, Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain

Sangha and solitude

In classical Buddhism the Three Refuges are the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The third of these is a Sanskrit word used in many Indian languages, including Pali (saṅgha) meaning “association”, “assembly”, “company” or “community”. In Buddhism the term is used more or less narrowly to imply the monastic community, or sometimes more widely to include all people who practice Buddhism correctly, whether lay or clerical. (Wikipedia)

Interestingly, Tara Brach chooses to redefine the three refuges as awareness, truth, and love: “The three facets of true refuge – awareness, truth, and love – come alive as we dedicate our presence to them. As we open to these three gateways, they reveal the one taste of freedom inherent to all paths of awakening.” She goes on to suggest that this implies “a yearning for more belonging” that we can “fully inhabit [as a] refuge of love”. (Reflection: The Three Refuges)

Winton Higgins has some harsh, even sarky, words for those who may decide that the concept of the sangha can be bypassed in our modern world:

After all, they may think, I have access to a plethora of how-to-meditate books and podcasts, and I can even download a meditation app. I can meditate by myself in my own bedroom, where I can also jump online and read or listen to any number of dharma talks. I can listen to dharma podcasts anywhere and any time, even while driving to work. If I want to talk to others about it, I can join an online chat room.

Okay, I understand that in other times and places people needed their sanghas because they had nowhere else to sit in peace and had no other access to the dharma. But it’s not like that any more. Besides, I’m a busy person and can’t afford to be tied down to a fixed weekly commitment (unless it’s for something really important like football training). And finally, frankly, I’m simply not a joiner. Sorry. Two refuges are enough for me.

Winton Higgins, Revamp, Tuwhiri 2021 (p.152)

He goes on to explain that in his view we are dependent beings who discover ourselves in community, in relationship, and that the sangha is best understood as “unmediated face-to-face communication with others who are actually present.” (p.153) Undoubtedly this is correct within Higgins’ own terms, but – leaving aside for a moment the effects of the present global pandemic on our face-to-face possibilities – solitude is an equally vital component of the contemplative life. The Buddha himself, after all, came to awakening in solitude. Stephen Batchelor:

There is more to solitude than just being alone. True solitude is a way of being that needs to be cultivated. You cannot switch it on or off at will. Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it. When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.

For those who have rejected religion in favor of secular humanism, the notion of solitude may imply self-indulgence, navel-gazing, or solipsism. Inevitably, some may be drawn to solitude as a way of escaping responsibility and avoiding relationships. But for many it provides the time and space to develop the inner calm and autonomy needed to engage effectively and creatively with the world. Moments of quiet contemplation, whether before a work of art or while observing your breath, allow you to rethink what your life is about and reflect on what matters most for you. Solitude is not a luxury for the leisured few. It is an inescapable dimension of being human. Whether we are devout believers or devout atheists, in solitude we confront and explore the same existential questions.

Stephen Batchelor, The Art of Solitude, Yale U.P. 2020, loc. 76

Higgins does, I am sure, understand this, for he writes, in his section on “Intensity as a modern virtue” (p.110 ff):

One of the thinkers that Peter Watson gathers into his fold is precisely Martin Heidegger, whom we met in chapter 4. He also identified care (Sorge) as the mainspring of an authentic human life, one intensely lived. Like the Buddha, Heidegger also introduced the tempering value of letting-go (Gelassenheit).

To live intensely must never translate into wilfulness – into our turning into meddling control freaks as we cultivate receptivity. Were we to fall into that trap, we’d be blocking the sensitive exploration of our experience. Thus Heidegger extols calm, composure, detachment, release – letting things be. This principle comes close to the Buddha’s upekkha (equanimity), one of the four vital ‘immeasurable’ emotional tones of the awakening mind.

(op. cit. (p. 112)

Solitude and Gelassenheit (a wonderful word that Heidegger presumably sourced from the 14th century contemplative Meister Eckhart) are to me indivisible. But what strikes me in this passage is the way Higgins connects this with Sorge (care, concern, even worry, for others) with the process of letting things be. There are echoes here of Tara Brach’s “awareness, truth and love”!

I have long felt that there is an immense freedom in solitude. The heart expands, somehow, in this unaccustomed space, and deliberate thought becomes more free and spacious too. Somehow I find myself able to think recklessly about, feel compassion for, even love, people against the mere thought of whom I’d have felt I had to defend myself had I not had this freedom.

Henri Nouwen wrote,

Solitude greeting solitude, that’s what community is all about. Community is not the place where we are no longer alone but the place where we respect, protect, and reverently greet one another’s aloneness. When we allow our aloneness to lead us into solitude, our solitude will enable us to rejoice in the solitude of others. Our solitude roots us in our own hearts. Instead of making us yearn for company that will offer us immediate satisfaction, solitude makes us claim our centre and empowers us to call others to claim theirs. Our various solitudes are like strong, straight pillars that hold up the roof of our communal house. Thus, solitude always strengthens community.

Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, HarperOne, 2009 (loc. 930)

My own love of solitude was well established long before our lives were redefined by the pandemic neologism “lockdown” – from childhood it has been both a refuge and a source of life to me. Earlier this year I wrote here,

Churches and religious groups seem mostly to be operating on the assumption that once the pandemic is under control, and something approaching normal life is restored, their worshippers will flood back, Catholics to Mass, Quakers to their meetings, everyone to their accustomed place. It may not happen, at least not in the way, or to the extent, that most people appear to expect. The sea change of the pandemic, and the enforced crash course in information and communications technology it has brought, have accelerated a process of secularisation that has been gathering momentum for a long time…

There is no obvious name for what is happening. It seems not to be “secular” in the way religious people might fear, but it isn’t “religious” either, in the way that secularists might assume. It is not eremitical exactly, certainly not in the traditional sense of hermits as ones living in geographical isolation.

Perhaps it is time that silence and practice are allowed to stand untitled: the ground still, and open.

There is much more to explore here, and generous-hearted guides like Winton Higgins and Stephen Batchelor will no doubt have more to teach us as we all come closer to understanding what life will be like on the other side of this present crisis, and we come to face more closely the other crises, social, political and environmental (Higgins is especially good, and deeply hopeful, on this in the final section of Revamp) that are no doubt coming down the pike. Meanwhile, our own practice is our North star. In sitting we can find all we need.

An open question

It is coming to seem to me that one of the essential qualities of any contemplative practice is just an open attention to what is, without any prejudice whatsoever. The central question (which can well be asked as, “What is this?”) must remain in perfect unknowing: there must be no sense that an answer is expected, still less that a particular kind of answer is expected, one that supports a conclusion already arrived at either by discursive thought or by the acceptance of dogma or authority.

Ask, “What is this?,” then open yourself completely to what you “hear” in the silence that follows… Pay total attention to the polyphony of the birds and wind outside, the occasional plane that flies overhead, the patter of rain on a window. Listen carefully, and notice how listening is not just an opening of the mind but an opening of the heart, a vital concern or care for the world, the source of what we call compassion or love.

Stephen Batchelor, The Art of Solitude

It is just so impossible to enter into this attention when you are worried about the implications – if you are a theist, and you fear a non-theist answer, or an atheist, and you fear a metaphysical conclusion. Answers and conclusions are chimeras anyway, but the practice must be free of them for all that, free from what we might call “heresy anxiety”. The song of Batchelor’s birds, or the hedge at the bottom of the garden where they sing, or the isness that they are in themselves – what is this?