Monthly Archives: August 2021

Choiceless

[One] mindfulness meditation technique is termed choiceless awareness or bare awareness. In this technique, we begin by paying attention to the sensation of the breath (this settles the mind and body), but then the instruction is to let our attention rest on whatever is most prominent in our field of awareness. This is the meditation technique I’m going to cover because it best fits the theme of the book—awakening by engaging the whole of our experience fully, however it presents itself. In the quotation that begins this chapter, Indian spiritual teacher and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti uses the word “freedom” to describe this awakening. As a meditation practice, choiceless awareness is similar to the Zen meditation technique known as shikantaza, which roughly translates as just sitting. I love the idea of just sitting, although for me, just lying down will do—which takes me to my number one rule regarding meditation: be flexible.

Toni Bernhard, How to Wake Up, Wisdom Publications 2013, p. 104

Gradually I am coming to realise that the phrase “choiceless awareness” is not just yet another technical term for one technique among the many kinds of Buddhist (and related!) meditation, but a vital descriptor of what actually happens when we sit in stillness. Choicelessness is the open and unreserved receiving of whatever arrives – be it bodily sensation, sound, thought, desire, emotion or whatever – as simply an arising within consciousness. It is the grounding of our own awareness in the ground of being itself. There is nothing else, nowhere to go, no thing to find.

[Doing zazen] leads you closer and closer to your true nature, the primordial mind that is one with reality. Zazen is to just be this mind, which we already are, without adding anything to it. It is to accept all that arises as appearances within the mind.

Daishin Morgan, Sitting Buddha, Throssel Hole Press 2014, loc. 330

Further reflections of a marsh-wiggle

Five years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a post on an earlier blog which I feel may bear re-posting here. What is interesting is how, despite the potentially misleading quote from CS Lewis, it contains the seeds of my present path and its praxis, and of my still gradually crystallising realisations regarding solitude. Here it is:

I have struggled for much of my life with what might be described as my calling, my primary vocation, or whatever term might better be used to describe what I am supposed to do with my “one wild and precious life”, to plunder Mary Oliver again.

I have known since childhood the power of solitude, of lonely places; and I have always been most at home alone in the grey wind, without a destination or timetable, or sitting by myself in a sunlit garden, watching the tiny velvety red mites threading their paths on a warm stone bench. I used to think it was my duty to enter that world on some kind of a quest, looking to see what I might find, what treasure I might bring back to the known world.

Eve Baker writes, in Paths in Solitude:

The solitary is the bearer of the future, of that which is not yet born, of the mystery which lies beyond the circle of lamplight or the edge of the known world. There are some who make raids into this unknown world of mystery and who come back bearing artefacts. These are the creative artists, the poets who offer us their vision of the mystery…

But a raider is not at home: his raids are fitful incursions into a land not his own, and what he sees there he sees as raw material, uncut stones he may haul back into the world of action and reward, there to be cut into poems, music. The real treasures of the hidden world are scarcely visible to a raider, nor, like Eurydice, will they survive the journey back to the known world.

Eve Baker goes on:

But there are also those who make solitude their home, who travel further into the inner desert, from which they bring back few artefacts. These are the contemplatives, those who are drawn into the heart of the mystery. Contemplatives have no function and no ministry. They are in [that] world as a fish is in the sea, to use Catherine of Siena’s phrase, as part of the mystery. That they are necessary is proved by the fact that they exist in all religious traditions. Contemplatives are not as a rule called to activity, they are useless people and therefore little understood in a world that measures everything by utility and cash value. Unlike the poet they do not return bearing artefacts, but remain in the desert, pointing to the mystery, drawing others in.

Marsh-wiggles live, in CS Lewis’ Narnia, out in the salt marshes beyond the hills and the forest, and farther still from the cities bright with trade and pageantry. Their simple homes are set well apart from one another, out on the “great flat plain” of the marshlands. Puddleglum, the marsh-wiggle we meet in The Silver Chair, comes up with, when his back is against the wall, one of the most remarkable statements of faith in Lewis’ fiction:

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all of those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones… We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia… and that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull as you say.”

Perhaps contemplatives are only kidding themselves. Perhaps they are, to take Baker’s semi-irony literally, quite useless people. But our uselessness may yet be a good deal more useful in the dark and doubt of humanity’s pain than all the utilities of the marketable world.

It seems that life as a marsh-wiggle may be closer to my own calling than I would have guessed. To move deeper into the saltmarsh of the spirit, closer to the edge of the last sea, may mean the giving up, not of love and companionship perhaps, but of many of the comfortable certainties, and the familiar tools of the raider’s life. A wiggle’s wigwam is good enough, maybe.