Archive for November, 2007

Being human

Friday, November 30th, 2007

I don’t think my mind is as good as it used to be. I find it difficult to take in what I am reading and I am very slow to see the implications and relate what I am reading to a wider context. This is disappointing because I so hoped to be able to write a book on what it means to be human. I keep doing the research, much more slowly now since my heart started playing up, but I am no nearer to putting it all together. I find it hard to grasp the wider picture. Part of the problem is a growing conviction that the answer is not something that can be put into words. It cannot be grasped intellectually but has to be experienced. I read an article evaluating the various theories of consciousness this morning. It was really beyond me and I struggled even to grasp the thread, never mind the distinctions within distinctions. The rational mind can be marvellously subtle when dealing with concepts and can weave the most elaborate tapestries with them. Nevertheless consciousness is simplicity itself, grasped in all its glorious immediacy without any intellection. I know what it is. I know many of its many states but I cannot explain it. No one can. Pascal was right when he said there were things only the heart can understand. 

Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point. 

Likewise what it means to be human is something I suspect can be grasped better by feeling and the emotions than intellectually.


Thursday, November 29th, 2007

I had never realised before how much time we spend on trivia. Elliot was right. We cannot bear too much reality. We flee from it and cultivate areas of interest which we invest with the utmost importance. ‘Oh, I couldn’t live without my….’ Or, ‘I must have my…’ I am no better than the next person. I do it just as much but I am also afflicted, if that is the right word, with the awareness that these preoccupations, in the greater scheme of things, count for nothing. They are pass-times – literally. 

This would not matter if Reality itself were not so elusive. At present it is a black hole, a yawning nothingness gaping open before me. At Mass the other day the priest spent long moments on a eulogy of a parishioner who had just died. He went on and on about how much he had done for the parish, how much he would be missed. I was wondering what this paragon had done when the priest went on to describe the hours the man had spent working on the drains in front. It was a moment of pure bathos and it was all I could do not to burst out laughing. Of course, drains are important, especially if they are not working properly. I suppose this should remind me that  am being too extreme. When it comes to human activity intention is all important. The intention of the doer can elevate the utterly trivial to the sublime. The reverse is also true. This is the incredible thing about being human. We have the power to turn the dross of humdrum activity into the pure gold of love. 


Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

In order to write some sort of guide for the perplexed one needs to have made the journey and achieved understanding. Knowledge is not a simple seeing, not just perception. It is far more complex than that. So often we see without seeing. Seeing involves registering that x is x, and putting it into context. But knowledge involves more than the simple awareness of what is there. It involves ‘how’ and above all ‘why’. It involves understanding the process – that there is a process in the first place and that the process is going somewhere.

There is also intuition. Long before understanding there is intuition – an unrealised, unarticulated awareness of, feeling for, the truth. Against all the evidence to the contrary the belief that conscious life does not end in death persists; in spite of the utter banality of so many lives, that life has meaning. You could say that we’re like tadpoles, busy navigating the weeds and the algae in the depths of the pond and oblivious that there is anything more – that there is an above-the-pond, a supra-pond world that tadpoles can never inhabit but frogs can – a world of depths and soaring heights and vast space where the sun warms and gives life. Or, like caterpillars gorging on the leaves of our daily preoccupations, blind to the terminating cocoon of the grave we are oblivious of the prospect of metamorphosis.  

We rarely stop to think and question. We have been conditioned to believe that because there are 100,000 answers there is no answer because they cannot all be right. Many do select the ‘right’ answer out of the 100,000 and put their faith and trust in it. And many are disappointed. They find that the answers were not really the answer after all. They discover inconsistencies and contradictions. They may shut their eyes to these for a while – for a long while sometimes. But the doubt remains and gnaws away at their sense of peace and security. Some stop asking questions at this stage. It is easier to get off the knife-edge of doubt and step down into the warm reassurances of the well-intentioned. Just believe and everything will be all right.

The problem is that there are no answers – at least no answers that can be put into words. There is an answer but because it cannot be put into words the most that can be done is to point the way. Each person has to find this answer for himself. And the strangest thing of all is that when we do finally realise the truth it turns out not to be something utterly strange, new and unheard of. When we find the answer we discover that in some curious way we have always known it. It has been part of us all along – or rather, we have been part of it. 

Who? and What?

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

Today the effort to concentrate went better. There were still the trains of imagery and mental conversations, but about twenty minutes in to the meditation these seemed to die down and I found I could just concentrate on the breathing. The images continued but they were less distracting, running beside the awareness of the body and breathing. The strange thing is that they seemed to have nothing to do with me – talking heads I did not recognise. Some ancient memories when I was a young boy surfaced too. All these, however, were much less vivid than usual and easy to ignore. I am still faced with the problem of the barrier, as I call it. It is when there is nothing going on in the mind apart from simple awareness of breathing and of the body. This is the moment when I want to pierce through the darkness and the limitations of mere bodily existence – and nothing happens. Boredom quickly sets in and the mind becomes easy prey to distractions. I know there is a beyond because I have experienced it, but it is not accessible at will. All this raises the questions, ‘Who is the I?’ and ‘What is the beyond?’

Afternoon – meditated again for about 30 minutes. It was easier and took less time on this occasion to arrive at simple concentration. There were less hypnagogic phenomena but habituation leading to a sort of numbed drowsiness. Simply holding the attention there without any diminution of concentration or awareness is very difficult. Telling oneself that this limit of awareness is the threshold of the transcendent is not enough. The thought lasts for a few moments until it too merges into dull and unremarkable familiarity. Is there a barrier that can be penetrated? I don’t know whether those terms can apply. I am inclined to think that the Church’s attitude to Pelagianism, full-blown or semi, is right. The encounter with the Transcendent is a gift. All one can do is prepare for it by removing barriers and obstacles.

And yet – everyday reality is shot through with a divine luminance. When we look for it and try to grasp it it is not there. But in the quiet moments, moments when the hands are busy and the mind relaxed, it surprises us with a tranquil joy.

The still point

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Mentioning Basho the other day sparked off some reflections in my mind. Basho is famous for his poetry – haiku – short 17 syllable poems which capture, as Seamus Heaney puts it,  ‘the still centre of the moment’. A rare art to be able to communicate in just a handful of words a moment, a scene and the emotion evoked. The small splash which breaks the silence of a pond, a crow on a branch, black on black in the deepening gloom, a temple bell in the still evening, shadows cast by the moon – fragments of time when something beyond time is caught and fixed forever in mind – the ‘still  point’.


I was reminded of one day when walking down to the town I heard someone hammering, the hard metallic ring of a chisel on stone. It is a very particular sound and it evoked memories, tactile memories of the heaviness of the hammer, the judder of the arm as it strikes, hot hands, the dust and distinctive smell of crushed stone. A whole series of moments in my past were suddenly recalled and linked together. A Proustian moment in which past and present co-existed. For that moment, the inevitability of the passage of time, the dying of the ‘now’ and its burial in the past ceased. And I wondered about the metaphysical significance  of memory and awareness. What does this linkage of things and events in awareness tell us about the nature of reality? And what about that subliminal sense of a transcendent presence?

T. S. Eliot wrestled with all this in ‘Burnt Norton’, and reading it again I become aware of how much in the poem describes the experience of meditation.

Descend lower, descend only

Into the world of perpetual solitude,

World not world, but that which is not world,

Internal darkness, deprivation

And destitution of all property,

Desiccation of the world of sense,

Evacuation of the world of fancy,

Inoperancy of the world of spirit;


There in the empty darkness, sometimes, the ceaseless cycle of thoughts, feelings and fantasies stills and one enters the still point. And the Presence…? Sometimes when I am out walking along the cliffs I feel afraid to go too near the edge. Not because I am afraid of heights. On the contrary. But because standing there on the edge looking down to the sea far below I feel drawn, a terrible attraction, to throw myself over, to feel the fall, the rush of air, the utter freedom of an irrevocable future. But timid fear keeps me back. And so it is with the Presence. 



Saturday, November 24th, 2007

Some structure is necessary. The morning meditation begins the day well and puts everything in perspective. Sometimes the meditation has gone well and the mood it generates pervades the morning. Sometimes it goes badly. On the worst days it becomes impossible and the mind is like a Mexican jumping bean, unable to be still for a moment. Moods are important. Worry and anxiety are destructive and make stillness almost impossible. These are surface moods concerned with practical and material things, like money, or a leaking roof, or the boy’s activities, or is anyone ever going to buy our house. Suffering and anguish are helpful because these are deep moods and open up existential depths. They put everything in perspective and material anxieties are seen for the relatively inconsequential things that they are. Moods are important in setting the tone. They underline the meaning and significance of the moment and, to a great extent, determine what and how situations will be approached. But since they are also ephemeral, constantly shifting and changing, not just from day to day, but from moment to moment, they make a consistent spiritual life very difficult.

In the ordinary world of work moods can more easily be dealt with. The task in hand assumes an overriding importance.  Children have to be fed, got to school, work has to be prepared, meetings attended etc. One is forced one to put self and feelings on one side and distance the mind from them. The occasional periods of meditation then become a welcome escape to an oasis of calm, peaceful tranquillity. Because these moments are breaks in a very different routine they lack a sense of progression. The routine sets the tone and the pace. The breaks in it are just momentary interludes, each one unique, a new beginning. It is when one tries to integrate the two by meditating regularly every day that the difficulty arises. Then the volatile moods and feelings generated by the routine world intrude into the interludes of meditation. Because during meditation there is no demanding task in hand to occupy the attention the moods and feelings take on a commanding dominance. Faithful adherence to the techniques of meditation – saying the mantra, counting the breaths, etc., can cope with them during meditation and distance them to a certain extent. But once the period of meditation is over mindfulness becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.

In the framework of the monastic enclosure and the Rule, dealing with the roller coaster ride of moods and feelings is not quite such a problem. The routine of Divine Office, work and lectio divina, by its very monotony and the very restricted variety of situations it provides, can have the opposite effect and generate a numbing and all-pervading mood of accidie, a problem that greatly exercised the ancient monks. I suspect that the root of this was a preoccupation with self. Much of Christian spirituality is bedevilled by an obsession with attaining an idealised self, pure and unblemished, an ethereal being with no trace of carnality. 

My problem is neither of these. As I am retired I can order my day pretty much as I please. Family life makes demands, especially during the holidays, but these are not problems. My problem is myself. How do I maintain mindfulness throughout the day?

 A thought struck me – that the key is doing good. It is not enough spending hours in payer and meditation. Solitude and the eremitical life, however much they may appeal to some, are not the natural state of man. It is relationships which make us. Love is creative and life giving, literally. It is in the outpouring of love to others that we become most fully what we are meant to be. ‘God became man so that man might become God,’ Athanasius said. God is self-emptying love. There is so much contained in the ideas love, kenosis, sunyata, and developing it is not something that can be done just through philosophical analysis. It has to be lived. 


Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Meditation is not easy. As Yves Raguin puts it, ‘The way of immanence is always a dark way.’ After a few minutes of saying the Jesus Prayer I simply count breaths. I count up to nine and then start again. This helps keep me alert because the natural impulse is to go on counting and it requires a little mindfulness to remember to start again after nine. It is difficult to remain focused for more than a minute to a minute and a half. This is slowly improving. Simple, bare attention is not a natural state unless the will is totally focused. The mental chatter, ideas, images, feelings etc. goes on ceaselessly. Habituation quickly sets in and attention to counting, breathing and awareness of the body is soon distracted.

The trouble is that bare attention is not dramatic. There is no excitement, no colour, beauty, or wonder. Attention craves novelty. Once it has exhausted everything within its field it relaxes and becomes prey to the next idea, image, or feeling that emerges. And yet bare attention is the key. The one thing which separates us from reality is the mind. We live in this mental world of our constructing. Physically we are present to our environment and to the others who may be in it with us. Mentally though, as often as not, we are present only to our mental world, caught up in ideas, imaginary conversations, fantasies, day dreams. Every teacher and public speaker is aware of the difficulty of commanding the attention of others. They may be physically present but, as often as not, they are not always present to the speaker. How often we walk without noticing our surroundings. lost in thought. It follows that if it is our mental world which separates us from our environment and from others it also separates us from God, from awareness of the transcendent and even from awareness of ourselves. We fail to become aware, as Tillich puts it, that ‘the finite world points beyond itself.’

 Bare attention may be boring after a little while but it is here where we are immediately in touch with reality and with God. We have become so habituated to the mode of our mental world that we are unable to appreciate the richness of reality. It is because of this attention to now, to the context of this moment, that the practitioners of Zen are so intensely conscious of nature and of the existential significance of the tiniest details – as Basho noted all those years ago. 

Depths and depths

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

 The thing about meditation, one of the reasons why it is not so boring sometimes, is that it is all about disconnecting all relationships. Even though one is alone, the mind still dwells on personal relationships – those that matter. It worries at them, speculates, invents scenarios. When this is stopped by focusing, it feels bored. Nothing important is going on – importance is conveyed by the emotive content of the relationship foremost in the mind. Once attention is relaxed, because nothing important is going on, the unconscious takes over and either generates a new series of internal dialogues, or hypnogogic episodes. Some of these are really strange. They seem to come from nowhere – certainly not invented by the imagination. They have a quality of otherness, strangeness, about them.

It struck me that anatta is awareness with all relationships put aside. It is relationships which make the self. Each relationship evokes a different self. Once all relationships are put aside there remains only the observer, awareness of sensations, waiting for thoughts to emerge. It wonders where they come from. Relationship to thoughts. Stop thinking. Focus. Just awareness. There are depths and depths. Anticipation. To go into the still depths.


Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

It is not books I need now but experience, the experience of meditation and insight – leading, hopefully, to … I don’t know. Understanding , certainly. Fulfilment hopefully. Anyone can read and amass information. But this knowledge is conceptual and second hand. At best concepts are deductions based on interpretations of direct experience. At worst they are constructs based on anything from imagination to wishful thinking. It is easy to be tempted by these last. They can be warm and comfortable, pandering to the need for reassurance and security. The way of meditation is very lonely and very austere. The other evening I was listening to Gregorian chant while working at the computer. It always transports me back to my days as a monk. I was overcome with a nostalgia, more,  with a longing for the spirituality of the monastery. The Office of Compline is particularly soothing and comforting. In the dark old church the monks gather round the sanctuary lit by the warm light of candles. The beautiful old melodies of the plainchant invoke the protection of God, the Virgin and the saints. None of the terrors of darkness or of the night may penetrate here. Here there is the presence of Christ in a community and fellowship and love. As an individual I am supported and upheld by my membership of the community, by my baptism – making me a child of God – by the presence of Christ. All that is required of me is fidelity to my vows. 

In contrast the way of meditation is very lonely and austere. There are no warm flickering candles, only the all-enveloping darkness. There is no community, but the solitary counter of breaths. There is no reassurance, no God, no Christ only the agonising urge to know. There is also faith – belief that reality is not just this compendium of sensations – and a commitment to persevere. And that is all. Doubt surrounds on every side. Sensations of discomfort, or sleepiness intrude. Waking dreams and hypnagogic fantasies weave their mental tapestries. Hope flickers and gutters dimly in the all-enveloping darkness.


Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

To extend the roller-coaster analogy, I was thinking about death this morning in the shower and it struck me that life is like being on a train with no windows and an unknown destination. No one can remember getting on the train. Nor does anyone know where it is going, or why. All we know are the carriages we live in, so we occupy our time as best we can. Every now and then the train stops and someone is made to get off. This is a very unhappy time for that person and his friends. The friends feel abandoned and the person steps into the unknown. The friends will never see him, again, nor, as far as he knows, he them. Each person dreads the time when it will be his turn to get off. Life on the train may not be perfect, sometimes it is hellish, but it is all we know. So why are we made to get off? Why can we not stay on the train and enjoy life with our fiends forever? The analogy cannot be pushed too far, but it does help us to realise that life is not just our present experience. There is far more to life, depths, heights and broad expanses that we cannot even begin to imagine. Why insist on remaining within the narrow confines of the train when there is a beautiful world out there? How different everything would be if we all knew why we were on the train, if the train had windows and we could see the passing countryside and if we knew our destination.

But we don’t know our destination. We can no more imagine what that destination might be like than the child in the womb can imagine what it will be like to walk with his lover through beautiful countryside on a glorious summer day. Perhaps we should regard death as a metamorphosis, a second birth into a new stage of life, but we don’t. Among Christians there is a belief that death was not originally an inherent part of the human process and only became so as a result of the Fall.

 Consequently death has always been regarded as a shocking, often tragic, closure. There are a number of points that need to be cleared up. 

Is there any evidence that the ‘train’ is not all there is? There is no hard evidence, I suspect this is because it would be impossible to make such evidence available, just as it would be impossible to convey to a child in the womb information about life after birth. Even though there is some information available to the child in the form of external sounds it does not have the ability to evaluate these and distinguish them from internal sounds. Likewise with adults it is not at all uncommon for people to have glimpses of the transcendent. Statistical evidence suggests that perhaps more than 50% of people have such experiences. Those who have these experiences have no doubts that they are genuine. They have seen beyond the horizon of our physical limitations. However, these experiences are subjective and not available to objective scrutiny. Nevertheless, if mystical experience were seen as offering a real possibility of finding answers to the mysteries of our existence more people would be encouraged to pursue it. Unfortunately the Church has always been wary of mystical experience. Kolokowski* gives two main reasons for this.

THEOLOGICAL – In all monotheistic creeds the gap between God and his creatures has always been crucial.  The path to God is through humility, repentance, and recognition of sinfulness and impotence.  The distance can be bridged by love but never cancelled.  Therefore to speak, as Eckhart did, of being transformed totally in God without any distinction being left smacks of blasphemy and hubris. This is a good example of ideology imposing its criteria on experience and denying the validity of those experiences which do not fit.

INSTITUTIONAL – The charismatic concept of the Church implies that it is the irreplaceable mediator between God and his people.  This is expressed particularly through the sacraments.  Yet the mystic does not need human intermediaries.  His communication with God is direct and, therefore, he may imagine that he is free to dispense with ministers. The mystic sees and feels God in any stone, or any drop of water, and thus does not need a special piece of consecrated bread to gain access to Him.  Ecclesiastical suspicion of mysticism is quite understandable; anybody could claim to be anointed by God.  This is why the Church defines criteria by which the genuine can be distinguished from the false.

 The need of the institution to protect its power inhibits the exploration of our own nature and our connections with the Transcendent, hence the need to be protected from the misguided, or malicious, ‘anybodys’ and their false claims. Because mysticism is such an unknown area it is open to exploitation by charlatans. If there were a system within the Church similar to that which exists in Zen whereby the master validates the pupils experience we might make genuine progress.

 There has been too much emphasis on transcendence and not enough on immanence. We each need to discover for ourselves the  Spirit Paul talks about in Romans Chapter 8

Why death? If we are destined for an existence which transcends the physical limitations of the body then, why death? Why not a metamorphosis? I suspect there is much more to death than we are prepared to admit. We have a deeply ingrained longing for eternal life and for eternal youth. You only have to read the multitude of myths ranging from the Garden of Eden story to Tir na nOg. These advance the idea that an earthly paradise is possible. A paradise in terms of an idyllic life in beautiful surroundings is all that we can grasp. We cannot imagine any other kind of afterlife, except, perhaps, sitting on a cloud in a long white nightgown playing a harp.  We are living bodies. Our feelings and emotions determine what is meaningful and significant, not our abstract thoughts. Ideas and concepts may be beautiful. They may construct sublime mathematical or philosophical structures but nothing as meaningful as the feeling of loving and being loved. Death spells the end to all this. The decomposition of the body means the destruction of the amygdala and those parts of the brain where emotions and feelings are generated, it means the destruction of the senses which give pleasure. If a mind survives it will be a mind without sensations and feelings, truly an insubstantial wraith. This is why so much emphasis is placed on the resurr
ection of the body. Human life is bodily life.

The idea of the resurrection of the body has all sorts of problems associated with it. Not least of these is that of location. Where will all these billions and billions of bodies be? Will they require social and physical structures to cater to their physical needs? If the answer to these questions, as Paul seems to imply in I Corinthians, is that they will be spiritual bodies (a contradiction in terms?) and as such will have no physical needs, then what is the purpose of bodies. I suspect that the resurrection of the body is a metaphor for an utterly new kind of existence.

We cling to the idea of a bodily resurrection because we cannot imagine a form of existence that does not require a body. How shall we see, hear, feel and interact with others if we do not have a body? Therefore, we shall have to have a new body; different, yes; spiritual, yes, but a body nonetheless. From within the train we cannot resolve these paradoxes. All we have is faith – blind and dark, but that is all we have. That, and the glimpses of transcendence.

*[L. Kolokowski; Religion, Fontana, London 1993 p. 103-4]