Category Archives: faith

To awaken is to love

To awaken is to love, and in that love the tiresome need to put up and defend our views and opinions dissolves, and right there is an insight into things that nothing else compares with. We have to discover through personal experience how that insight, our faith and our intelligence all interrelate. For me, words and the effort to give expression to the truth continue to be of profound necessity in training. To awaken and not give expression to that awakening would be a contradiction. The struggle to find the words and the struggle to find the form our lives must take are the same struggle. I find it important to recognize that the way we represent training and enlightenment to ourselves and to others is influenced by our own existential needs. Those needs can give rise to many mistakes, yet if we engage them intimately, they impart a resonance of authenticity. How we represent the truth to ourselves and to others needs to be examined with sympathy, care and intellectual rigour. To me, this is part of what it means to cleanse the heart.

Daishin Morgan, Buddha Recognizes Buddha

I have often wondered how my instinct to put things into words might fit with the journey of awakening. I have not often had the opportunity directly to teach what I have found, nor am I a member of any institution within which publishing might be a normal and indispensable part of my life and work. So I have drifted, I suppose, into blogging. Small though my audience might be – oddly enough, it was much larger when I was blogging in a Christian context – at least I am making some effort perhaps “to give expression to the truth”.

As I have found myself increasingly at variance with institutional religion, Christian, Buddhist or whatever, and increasingly sceptical of its value either in the life of the spirit or in the life of society, so my naturally eremitical inclinations seem to have strengthened – dramatically so since the enforced isolation in which so many of us found ourselves during the earlier months of the recent pandemic. The opportunity for online fellowship and collegiality of one kind or another changes our expectations of community and communication almost daily.

Almost as an aside, I have to say how profoundly grateful I have been to Sam Harris’ Waking Up course, both as a tool for learning and exploration, and as a wholly open community of practice. I came to the course through reading Harris’ book Waking Up, having had no idea that such a thing existed, and discovered right from the introductory course that I had discovered exactly the non-religious, intellectually honest and ethically sound path I needed once I had laid down my Christian contemplative practice. Without some such place to hitch the wagon of my nascent practice of open awareness, I might have found it much more difficult to avoid losing the thread altogether, or else attaching myself to a some avowedly religious community merely in order to keep some structure in my spiritual life.

Harris’ approach, which can best be summed up in his own words (quoted here before), was exactly what I needed at that time:

Spirituality begins with a reverence for the ordinary that can lead us to insights and experiences that are anything but ordinary. And the conventional opposition between humility and hubris has no place here. Yes, the cosmos is vast and appears indifferent to our mortal schemes, but every present moment of consciousness is profound. In subjective terms, each of us is identical to the very principle that brings value to the universe. Experiencing this directly—not merely thinking about it—is the true beginning of spiritual life.

Sam Harris, Waking Up, p.206

The explorations I have chronicled here and in my other blogs will go on, of course – probably as long as I do – but at times it is hard to know quite what to write. Any attempt I make at direct description of spiritual experience is almost bound to descend into hyperbole or bathos, and to try and describe life in the light of awakening would probably end up more like poetry than anything else. Maybe the value of a blog like this then is merely to carry on trying to communicate a few insights from the path of practice itself: glimpses, perhaps, from some imagined railway.

Bridges

I continually find myself drawn back to surrender. At times, the desire to relinquish the grasp of the self and fall back into the stream of becoming is almost painful, a sharp longing miles from any greed or physical hunger. It is like the need for solitude, in some ways – and in any case a degree of solitude seems to be necessary even for the inclination to begin.

But surrender to what, or to whom? In theistic terms the answer might be straightforward, but otherwise? A lay neuroscientific way to put it might be to suggest something like the left brain’s analytical, critical faculties giving way, for once, to the intuitive, creative pondering of the right brain – but I’m not sure this tells us much more than the idea of surrendering to God, except without the emotional and metaphysical baggage!

We seem to need a bridge between the human experience of, longing for, surrender, and that surrendered to. For intellectually, conceptually, anything we might surrender to seems lost in a bright mist, invisible to the mind’s eye. it would be fatally easy to take a shortcut, to fall on the one hand into new age woo woo, or on the other into some traditional religious formulation such as the indwelling Christ or the pure land of Amida Buddha.

But, given that these attempts to frame a clearly spiritual experience are trying to get at something beyond mere cultural personification, they may in fact be attempts at bridging the gap, at carrying some kind of message to the courts of reason from out in the coastlands of the spirit.

In an interview, Taitetsu Unno once said,

The way I understand it, the historical Buddha, like you and me, had physical form, was born, and was destined to die. But the content of his being did not die and continues to live. And that is immeasurable life. And not only life. Because it brings us to awakening, it is also immeasurable light. We call it Amida.

Even Dewdrops Fall: An interview with Taitetsu Unno, Tricycle, Summer 1995

If we are happy to let “the content of… being” rest as the underlying, existential ground, rather than ascribing to it some individual essence or soul (which I doubt Taitetsu Unno would have meant in this context) then we do have something a bit more like a bridge, perhaps. The immeasurable, unknowable isness which precedes all things, illuminates and gives life to all beings, is given a name.

Satya Robyn:

As foolish beings, it is easier for us to form a relationship with unlimited light when we give this light a form, a story and a gender. Sometimes we connect with this light through an enlightened human being, as was the case with Jesus or with Shakyamuni Buddha. Sometimes we connect with it through a relationship with a more mystical figure, such as Amitabha Buddha or the bodhisattva Quan Shi Yin. A mystical Buddha has the ability to appear in whatever form is most valuable to the seeker.

Behind our human spiritual teachers and our mystical figures is the light, and the light itself is beyond gender…

Satya Robyn, Coming Home: refuge in Pureland Buddhism

In a way, practice itself, in whatever tradition – given that we who practise are frail, temporary, limited beings anyway – is no more than a bridge over the incoming tide, at the estuary of the spirit. Beyond is the limitless sea that bears us all.

[also published on Silent Assemblies]

That which plainly is

Perhaps the most important [thing] is that awakened awareness is not a state of mind; whereas mental states, no matter how exalted, come and go, awakened awareness exists prior to all passing states, as the ground of being in which all experiences arise and pass away. As I suggested earlier, it’s like space or air in this regard; without it, experiences would not occur…

Awakened awareness answers this question by providing a global, expansive, all-inclusive perspective in which the apparent center drops away and everything is welcomed for what it is, without being interpreted in terms of how it benefits or threatens the separate self. Not only that, but awakened awareness confers the realization that what’s looking out through these eyes and what’s being looked at, the apparent subject and the apparent object, are actually just expressions of the same limitless, uninterrupted, undivided field that’s inherently awake, luminous, and filled with love.

Stephen Bodian, Beyond Mindfulness, pp.28; 40-41

A statement like this risks raising hackles on the one hand on those who distrust metaphysics, and on the other on those who distrust language that tends towards the nontheist. There can be a sense of threat in a statement like this from Pema Chödrön:

The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God… Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold… Non-theism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves… Nontheism is finally realizing there is no babysitter you can count on.

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, p.53 (Kindle edition)

Practice inevitably involves walking out on some thin existential ice, and it is necessary to trust, somehow, that either the ice will bear your weight, or the practice itself will keep you from falling through. But trust is essential: panic can be disastrous, in much the same way that a bad trip can be the disastrous outcome of an experiment with psychedelics, only here there is no drug to wear off.

It is here that the concretising tendency of religion is such a comfort – especially when, maybe unexpectedly, confronted with grief or mortality. Here is Chödrön’s “hand to hold”: the cosmic babysitter when the monsters begin to close in.

But is metaphysics just religion intellectualised? There are metaphysical underpinnings in any religion, however deeply hidden they may be; and at least some religion may be metaphysics mythologised, made relatable.

But there is more to all this than a kind of psychological empiricism, or you would not be reading these words, any more than I would have written them, I suspect. As Stephen Bodian points out, the ground of being, “the limitless, formless, all-pervasive essence of what is” (ibid., p.102) is identical to the awareness within which experience itself arises. The unceasingness of that in utter experience is the end of faith, in both senses of the word “end”: that destination beyond which it is no longer necessary to believe, since one is at rest in that which plainly is.

[also posted on my other blog Silent Assemblies]

Hope against hope

I had been intending to write a follow-up to yesterday’s post, Hopeless?, when it occurred to me that I had written just such a post five years ago, on my old blog, covering the same subject, using some of the same sources, almost exactly, if you will make allowance for rather more overtly Christian language that I would probably use today. It is worth remembering, in this context, how closely parallel the Jesus Prayer and the Nembutsu are, as I suggested yesterday. Here it is:

——

In her luminous little book Mystical HopeCynthia Bourgeault writes of the difference between the mystical hope of her title and the standard, upbeat product that is tied to outcome: “I hope I get the job.” “I hope they have a good time on holiday.” “I hope Jill finds her cat.” “I hope the biopsy is clear…” If we are dependent on “regular hope”, she asks, where does that leave us when it turns out to be cancer, when our friends disappear on their holiday in the Andes?

Bourgeault goes on point out that there seems to be quite another kind of hope “that is a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at things. Beneath the ‘upbeat’ kind of hope that parts the sea and pulls rabbits out of hats, this other hope weaves its way as a quiet, even ironic counterpoint.” She goes on to quote the prophet Habakkuk, who at the end of a long passage of calamity and grief, suddenly breaks into song:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
   and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
   and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
   and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
   he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
   and makes me tread upon the heights. 

Habakkuk 3.17-19

Here is a hope that in no way depends upon outcomes; a hope that lifts us up in spite of the worst, that leads us, with Job, closer to God the more “hopeless” the circumstances. It can be found too in the writings of William Leddra, Corrie ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Irina Ratushinskaya… But how? Where could such a hope come from, that sings even in the mouth of the furnace?

Cynthia Bourgeault suggests three observations we might make about this seemingly indestructible hope, which she calls mystical hope:

  1. Mystical hope is not tied to a good outcome, to the future. It lives a life of its own, seemingly without reference to external circumstances and conditions.
  2. It has something to do with presence – not a future good outcome, but the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by something intimately at hand.
  3. It bears fruit within us at the psychological level in the sensations of strength, joy, and satisfaction: an “unbearable lightness of being.” But mysteriously, rather than deriving these gifts from outward expectations being met, it seems to produce them from within.

Bourgeault remarks that one more quality might be added to the characteristics of mystical hope: that it is in some sense atemporal – out of time. “For some reason or another,” she says, “the experience pulls us out of the linear stream of hours and days… and imbues the moment we are actually in with an unexpected vividness and fullness. It is as if we had been transported, for the duration, into a wider field of presence, a direct encounter with Being itself.”

Thomas Merton (whom Cynthia Bourgeault also quotes here) writes:

At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.

As Cynthia Bourgeault recognises, this awareness, whether sudden or gradual, of the “last, irreducible, secret center of the heart where God alone penetrates” (Mansur al-Hallaj) may come out of a clear blue sky as well as out of the storm. But perhaps I might be permitted to make a small observation from my own experience: it seems to be in times of absolute inner poverty, when almost all worldly satisfactions and securities have been withdrawn by pain and circumstance, when realistically there is no hope at all of the upbeat variety left, that these moments of clarity and presence most often manifest. Perhaps this is the sheer mercy of God coming to us when there is nothing else left to us, but there does seem to be one other factor involved here, and to me it seems to be crucial to understand this. Regular, faithful practice appears to be in some way essential. Now please hear me: I am not saying that practice will put us in control these moments of illumination – they are pure grace – nor that practice will somehow bring them about. But practice will open our hearts to their possibility; it will dim the incessant clamour of thought and grasping, to the point where we can glimpse the initial glimmer of that inner light, and stand still and watch.

Another point occurs to me. If we look at what I have just written about inner poverty, and the lack of satisfaction and security, and about pain and straitened circumstances, one has almost a recipe for classical asceticism, for hair shirts, hunger and scourging, for enforced celibacy and for the enclosed life. This is, it seems to me, to misunderstand the mercy of God. It may very well be that God grants to those who have nothing else to look forward to but pain and lack, these radiant glimpses of glory, but to attempt to force God’s hand by artificially producing the external conditions of divorce, disability or the concentration camp seems to me to be foolishness, to put it as charitably as I am able. But practice, the “white martyrdom” of faithful and unremitting prayer, is another matter entirely, one where the Jesus Prayer, “hallowed by two millennia of Christian practice… consistently singled out… as the most powerful prayer a Christian can pray” (Bourgeault, op cit.), seems perfectly fitted to our path, not only as a means of hesychasm, of stilling the heart, but simply as a prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.


——

I wrote the above text at a time when I was beginning to be seriously ill with a heart problem, and it seemed to me to be as clear an answer to my own questions as I could find. I would still stand by it today. Hope lies in the emptying of self, the abandonment of “regular hope” in the “objectless awareness” (Bourgeault) of contemplation. Perhaps Pema Chödrön (see her passage quoted in Hopeless?) has a point after all.

Hopeless?

In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön writes,

Turning your mind toward the dharma does not bring security or confirmation. Turning your mind toward the dharma does not bring any ground to stand on. In fact, when your mind turns toward the dharma, you fearlessly acknowledge impermanence and change and begin to get the knack of hopelessness…

It describes an experience of complete hopelessness, of completely giving up hope…

Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

This brings us close to what has become for me a key issue in practice and in experience. Chödrön goes on to point out that this sense of hopelessness, of “nowhere to turn” and no one to turn to, lies at the heart of non-theism. There is no cosmic babysitter, she explains: “In a non-theistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning.”

Now, there is a decided attraction in such a point of view. For all the relinquishment of the sense of “a solid, separate self” it is fatally easy, down this road, to see oneself as some kind of Raymond Chandler anti-hero, hat pulled low, collar turned to the rainy night, face starkly outlined by the light of a match held in cupped hands. “There’s no hope now, baby. And y’know, that’s okay…” The End.

The Buddhist opposite, I guess, is shinjin. Here the practitioner is giving up not hope, but self-reliance. She abandons her self to the tariki, the “other-power” of Amida Buddha inherent in the nembutsu, the core practice of Pureland Buddhism. As Jeff Wilson points out,

The nembutsu that we say, that others can hear, is only the tip of the shinjin iceberg; the nembutsu we recite is only the most visible sign of the working of Other Power within the shadowy ego-self. That inner working of shinjin may show through as nembutsu, but it can also show through in a hug, a gift, a kind word, laughter.

Nembutsu is a vital avenue for expressing our faith, but it need not be taken for the whole iceberg. There’s really no limit to the possibilities of expression of the trusting heart….

Humility and trust go hand in hand, forming the second part of the true trusting mind. Shinjin is another name for this development of humility-entrusting.

Jeff Wilson, Buddhism of the Heart: Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness

The issue of humility is one, of course, with which I had continually to struggle during my long years as a Christian contemplative. My practice was always the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” – a prayer repeated in very much the same manner as the nembutsu, formally for regular periods each day, and spontaneously from time to time for the rest of the day – and night, too, given the way it tends to pop up whenever one turns over in the night, or half-wakes to look at the clock.

The Nembutsu and the Jesus Prayer are both ways of abandonment: not of the abandonment of hope so much as the abandonment of self-will, of giving up not hope but self-reliance, of giving up oneself into the continuum of something not other but utterly interpenetrating. Jean Pierre de Caussade puts it solidly (in Christian terms of course) in his title Abandonment to Divine Providence or The Sacrament of the Present Moment. The fall out of self is the fall into now, into the ground of being, that isness that is always now and in which all beings rest.

The more I go on, the more fundamental this abandonment seems to be for me. However threadbare devotional practice can be, however compromised and compromising the religions we humans build around our moments of clarity and truth, there is no way past the frailty and limitation of the self, its littleness and its bombu imperfection. All its struggles for self-validation will sooner or later have to be given up in death anyway. To let it dissolve in light is no loss, but limitless grace.

Settling in

Ultimately, even the nembutsu arises not from ourselves, from our own ego, but is experienced as the call from the deepest level of reality, from the depths of our own being, in which the flow of emptiness/oneness is realized in each manifestation of form and appearance.

Mark & Taitetsu Unno, from the foreword to Jeff Wilson, Buddhism of the Heart, Wisdom Publications 2009

In the Shin view, awakening isn’t something we strive desperately for and obtain through our own efforts at study or meditation—it is something we settle into and receive.

Jeff Wilson, Buddhism of the Heart, Wisdom Publications 2009, p.4

Over the years of my Christian contemplative practice, and perhaps even more so now, I have felt keenly that contemplation is not so much something we do as something we enter, however intentional that entering may have to be. I have never felt that practice was – for me at any rate – a matter of self-improvement, or even attainment. (This may be why I have always been uncomfortable with contemplative metaphors such as the eponymous ladder of John Climacus, and some of the rather Baroque imagery associated with Vajrayana Buddhism.) The sense is not one of passivity (as some have felt applicable to the concept of infused contemplation) but of receptivity, openness to something of which we are already part, albeit unconsciously. Practice, then, could be conceived as a way of becoming conscious, waking up, to this.

“This” of course, is really no more than “things-as-they-are”, that which actually is (Eckhart’s istigkeit) regardless of the ego’s samsaric constructs through which we, half-asleep, tend to experience objects and events: “Rather than desperately trying to bring about our own buddhahood, we recognize that if we relax and don’t stick our foolish egos in the way of things, then the Dharma will naturally bring about our transformation… Amida is the means by which the Dharma, the truth of things-as-they-are, acts upon us to help us awaken to liberation… what we need to do is develop trust in the embracing ocean of the Dharma.” (Wilson, op. cit., p. 33)

Perhaps this is why I have always been drawn to practices like the Jesus Prayer and the Nembutsu, which are explicitly simple practices for simple (bombu) people. For all the words we use, for all the complexities we in our anxieties construct, it is that just simple. All we need to do is stop thrashing about, and settle in.

Resting in the ground

Practice often seems an arduous thing. We all too easily fall into a default attitude of stress, as though our practice seat were something like a gym or an examination hall, as though there were something to prove. And indeed there is a sense of discipline (which in fact is sometimes used as an alternative term for practice) required, but there is another side altogether to our regular sitting that is too often missed.

Awakening is not something to achieve, not a goal to reach or a structure to build. It is no more than a wiping of the mirror, a clearing of the breath of anxious grasping and hunger.

Our continuing life is a response to conditions, as well as being simply itself. Even grass and trees respond to conditions, even a rock and the whole earth are constantly responding. That response depends upon the conditions. Just so with our own minds. To rest in things as they are gives rise to a response, just as an in-breath gives rise to an out-breath. The key thing about awakening the mind that seeks the way is that this response will arise from a genuine acceptance of the conditions, and that includes one’s own limitations, such that the response is what conditions call for. This is very ordinary and it is the action of saving all beings before saving yourself, because the response is no longer driven by fears and desires. The energy to respond is life released from the inhibition of fear and desire.

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

At times nothing more is required than to rest in the ground of all that is, to be held in the gentle, unbreakable grasp of isness. Morgan continues (ibid.)

This kind of response is the action of a Buddha. In practice that is a person who gives without being concerned about achieving anything or being recognized, although they may appreciate these things if they come along. The ability to respond selflessly can never be the possession of any self. Giving oneself like this is faith. Faith, giving and the realization of one’s connectedness do not arise in a sequence. There is a simultaneity of all of these things that are just the nature of reality. There is no path to this reality, we can only precipitate ourselves into this that we already are.

This self-gift in faith is a place of rest deeper than any other. Faith like this is not belief in something, some proposition or other requiring assent: it is nothing more than allowing what is to be. Whether just sitting, or in the resilient grasp of the Nembutsu, it is no more than that.

Faith and watching

In an extract published in Tricycle Magazine, from his 1998 book Buddhism Without Beliefs, Stephen Batchelor writes:

THE FORCE OF THE TERM “agnosticism” has been lost. It has come to mean: not to hold an opinion about the questions of life and death; to say “I don’t know,” when you really mean “I don’t want to know.” When allied (and confused) with atheism, it has become part of the attitude that legitimizes an indulgent consumerism and the unreflective conformism dictated by mass media.

For T H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. Rather than a creed, though, he saw it as a method realized through “the rigorous application of a single principle.” He expressed this principle positively as “Follow your reason as far as it will take you,” and negatively as “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” This principle runs through the Western tradition: from Socrates, via the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to the axioms of modem science. Huxley called it “the agnostic faith.”

First and foremost the Buddha taught a method (“dharma practice“) rather than another “-ism.” The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe in or not. He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and bring into being a way of life. The Buddha followed his reason as far as it would take him and did not pretend that any conclusion was certain unless it was demonstrable. Dharma practice has become a creed (“Buddhism”) much in the same way scientific method has degraded into the creed of “Scientism.”

Just as contemporary agnosticism has tended to lose its confidence and lapse into skepticism, so Buddhism has tended to lose its critical edge and lapse into religiosity. What each has lost, however, the other may be able to help restore. In encountering contemporary culture, the dharma may recover its agnostic imperative, while secular agnosticism may recover its soul. An agnostic Buddhist would not regard the dharma as a source of “answers” to questions of where we came from, where we are going, what happens after death. He would seek such knowledge in the appropriate domains: astrophysics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, etc. An agnostic Buddhist is not a “believer” with claims to revealed information about supernatural or paranormal phenomena, and in this sense is not “religious.”

But in order to practice, whatever method one follows, one must have faith: faith that something is possible, whether one calls it enlightenment, encounter with God, minding the Light, or something else. From within the Sōtō Zen tradition, Daishin Morgan writes:

Zazen is not an absence of thought, feeling, perception and volition, it is awakening to their emptiness. The same is true of purpose and the path. Some of the best advice is never to believe that you were lost in the first place, and never hesitate to do that which you know to be needed.

To awaken is to love, and in that love the tiresome need to put up and defend our views and opinions dissolves, and right there is an insight into things that nothing else compares with. We have to discover through personal experience how that insight, our faith and our intelligence all interrelate. For me, words and the effort to give expression to the truth continue to be of profound necessity in training. To awaken and not give expression to that awakening would be a contradiction. The struggle to find the words and the struggle to find the form our lives must take are the same struggle.

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

Faith and language may be more closely related than we know. But in love, as Morgan points out, much of the difficulty does not so much resolve as dissolve. Quakerism is sometimes described as an “experimental faith”. Daishin Morgan’s words, “We have to discover through personal experience how… insight, our faith and our intelligence all interrelate” could almost be a restatement of that. It is the wholeness of love that contains all things.

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?