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?

3 thoughts on “An open question

  1. Tim Pitt-Payne

    Thank you for this.
    I find this open attentiveness can sometimes be a part of Quaker worship. Easier to do when there’s birdsong outside, than when there’s the blare of a car radio driving past. Something I aspire to, is to treat everything that happens in Meeting as a form of ministry: even the unwanted interruptions that break the silence.
    There’s a lot of Quaker writing about our experience of the Divine as a source of guidance. I’ve written about this recently – see here But I wonder if this “turn towards guidance” risks shutting us out from the open attentiveness that you’re describing here.


    1. Mike Farley Post author

      Thank you, Tim. I think the short answer to your comment would be, “Yes!” But as that’s unhelpfully brief, I think probably the best attempt I can make is to say that I agree, from the point of view from which I was writing, that a “turn towards guidance” risks what would be, in the improvisational terms of your own post, at least partial blocking., like the man insisting on treating the offered bus stop as though it were a doctor’s surgery.

      In the contemplative context of my own post, what I am asking for, I suppose, is something much more like Heidegger’s use of Eckhart’s gelassenheit – a renunciation or abandonment of one’s own wilful intentions in favour of detachment, release, open waiting. (You might well say, “waiting on God” – not for God.) For me, the crux of the thing is the openness. It is openness too, in the context of Quaker discernment – but there the outcome is limited in almost the same way as my own example here, only it is limited not by dogmatic frameworks but by the question being asked by the meeting: what colour carpet? What kind of marriage?

      (Note to the general reader: none of this will make any sense unless you have read Tim’s (linked) post, just as what I’ve written here wouldn’t make any sense among his own post’s comments unless his readers had also read mine here!)



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