What am I doing here?

What is this project, sitting in silence for so many minutes every day? Is this a religious practice, or a psychological therapy of some kind? And what’s it for? Where is it supposed to get me, or anyone else who does this kind of thing? What’s the goal?

In Sōtō Zen there is a name for just sitting in silence: shikantaza. Brad Warner describes it like this:

When we do nothing but practice sitting still for a certain amount of time each day, it becomes clear that past and future are an illusion. There is no past. There is no future. There is only this moment. This one tiny moment. That’s all there is.

And in this moment what can you attain? You have what you have right now. Maybe in the future you’ll get something. But that’s not now.

Attainment always happens in the future or in the past. It’s always a matter of comparing the state at one moment to the state at another moment. But it makes no sense to compare one moment to any other moment. Every moment is complete unto itself. It contains what it contains and lacks what it lacks. Or perhaps it lacks nothing because each moment is the entire universe.

Brad Warner, The Other Side of Nothing: The Zen Ethics of Time, Space and Being

This is not a religious attitude, I think. It contains no belief that we are required to subscribe to, no creed or sanctified text, no “social-cultural system of designated behaviours and practices” (Wikipedia). It doesn’t have a goal, either, not even the goal of some kind of mental or spiritual state of peace, or bliss.

What is more, especially practiced that way that I have fallen into over recent years, not being part of a church, or sangha, or Quaker meeting, even, it is quite useless. It is merely sitting still.

Ken McLeod, in an article quoted by Brad Warner on his YouTube channel, (Tricycle magazine, January 2017) writes,

Obviously there are personal choices to be made… But I think it is reckless and presumptuous to tell others how they should live their lives. Chuang Tzu describes a crooked, twisted tree that grows near a road. It is so crooked that no woodworker would ever think of cutting it down. It is just there. It may be that one day, a traveler stops beneath it to find shelter from the rain or shade from the sun. Or maybe it just stands there, because that’s what trees do.

That tree, of course, is rooted quietly in the unnameable no thing, the ground of being and the source of all that is, that’s all. But it isn’t thinking metaphysical thoughts, or instructing anyone about anything. It “just stands there, because that’s what trees do.”

Without Time

I have written elsewhere of the days when, as a young boy slowly recovering from a long illness, I lay for hours on a tattered quilt under the trees in the old orchard at the back of our house, Just being as one with the endless blue vault of the sky, with the little black ants walking carefully along the edge of the quilt, the big bumblebees in the apple trees, the distant drone of an aircraft passing high overhead…

Andō quotes from Stonehouse’s Poems for Zen Monks:

Below high cliffs
I live in a quiet place
beyond the reach of time
my mind and the world are one
the crescent moon in the window
the dying fire in the stove
I pity the sleeping man
his butterfly dream so real.

The memory of that remembered place on the Sussex coast is not a thing I return to, and yet the condition is where I find increasingly myself again during practice, or at least it is a gift that comes during particularly graced times of practice. Like the medieval Chinese hermit poet Stonehouse, this stillness is intensely real and present. The last two lines of Stonehouse’s poem refer to Chuang-Tzu’s dream of being a butterfly; as he points out, this is not a dream. Nor, in my case, is it a memory.

I am grateful, extraordinarily grateful, that I spent that long year’s convalescence at home just when I should have been starting school. Just as I had no reason or context for those timeless times on the old quilt in the orchard, I have none for where I come to find myself now. Practice is not even a way there. I think it is no more than a clearing of the way to where I already am.

[also published on An Open Ground]


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 An Open Gound]

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 An Open Ground]

Prayer or Contemplation?

“Mysticism”. It’s an odd word. You think of “mystic” as a noun, and you might get a lot of odd mental images – fakirs and gurus, new age crystal-power proponents in billowing robe-like dresses, and maybe, if you happen to know about them, perhaps Christian ascetics on pillars in the desert. You will find people talking about the Religious Society of Friends as a mystical tradition, but rarely and obliquely in our official literature. Are we mystical, and if so, why don’t we talk about it much?

Openings: Standing Up for Quaker Mysticism – Sam Barnett-Cormack

Contemplative practice is sometimes seen as a useless activity, at best a somewhat solipsistic exercise in self-improvement, at worst a game for charlatans. Sam Harris, a man whom those familiar with him only by reputation might not associate with the contemplative life, writes:

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.208

and in her recent title in the Quaker Quicks series, In Search of Stillness, Joanna Godfrey Wood says simply, “Until you have looked within, you cannot look outward to help others or move forward in action for yourself, for the community or for the world.”

But there is more to it than this. The contemplative life is is more than a preparation for works of secular action, more than an exploration of the inner world, however profound a path that may be.

As I suggested yesterday, I don’t believe it is by chance that in the Christian tradition contemplative practice is so often referred to as contemplative prayer. We humans are not alone: as John Donne saw,

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main…

John Donne, No Man Is an Island

What any of us does affects us all, in ways we may never come to understand. But understanding is not the point – that which people call God is not to be understood either – how can we comprehend the very ground of our being, the isness that engenders and contains all existence? It is easy to dismiss prayer as a primitive superstition, a pleading for magical intervention from some tyrannical ruler made in the image of a ghastly human father. But what if it is nothing of the sort? What if it is more like a conscious and intentional participation in what makes us what we are, in what makes us to be, at all?

Prayer, contemplative prayer, in any case is not something we do exactly. It is much more like something that comes upon us. Theophan the Recluse wrote:

Divine action is not something material: it is invisible, inaudible, unexpected, unimaginable, and inexplicable by any analogy taken from this world. Its advent and its working within us are a mystery… Little by little, divine action grants to man increased attention and contrition of the heart in prayer…

The spirit of prayer comes upon man and drives him into the depths of the heart, as if he were taken by the hand and forcibly led from one room to another. The soul is taken captive by an invading force, and is willingly kept within, as long as this overwhelming power of prayer still holds sway over it.

Theophan the Recluse, quoted in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, ed. Timothy Ware & Chariton of Valamo

We find ourselves walking through the world unarmed, vulnerable. Being present to all that we encounter as ourselves as prayer, rather than acting consciously to say prayers, we are present as aerials, signs, receiving stations for that which is both beyond and within us; that which we might call love.

Faith in change, trust in uncertainty

Simon Cross (Weekday Meditation 4/2/2022) quotes Thich Nhat Hanh:

If ten years pass without the growth of our belief, one day we will wake up and discover that we can no longer believe in what we did. The notion of ten years ago is no longer sound or adequate, and we are plunged into the darkness of disbelief.

Our faith must be alive. It cannot just be a set of rigid beliefs or notions. Our faith must evolve every day and bring us joy, peace, freedom and love.

The contemplative life is, beyond others, subject to change and growth. Without openness to change, faith ossifies into dogma, trust into a defensive rigidity.

Yet trust is necessary. Shorn of trust, our practice can become a precipice; and grief, loss, or any severe and unexpected pain become the sudden gust that takes us off our feet on the slick grass at the cliff’s edge. The sestet of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet reads:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

No worst, there is none… Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins gets it right. The sonnet holds no human hope, yet it sits within his wider body of work: Hopkins was a man whose faith shaped everything he did, and wrote.

In the Christian tradition, contemplation is very often known as contemplative prayer. This is not, I think, an accident of terminology. Contemplation, as the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh saw so well, rests on the foundation of faith. (It is no accident that the works for which he is most known among Buddhist scholars are his translations into English and Vietnamese of the Heart Sutra, nor that he counted among his friends both Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King.)

Contemplative prayer, whether a practice like Centering Prayer, developed from the method outlined in The Cloud of Unknowing, or the Jesus Prayer, drawn originally from the contemplative practice of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, rests within the encounter with God, with the ground of being, in stillness. The faith of the contemplative is, like that of the Quaker, an experimental faith. Charles F Carter wrote:

True faith is not assurance, but the readiness to go forward experimentally, without assurance. It is a sensitivity to things not yet known. Quakerism should not claim to be a religion of certainty, but a religion of uncertainty; it is this which gives us our special affinity to the world of science. For what we apprehend of truth is limited and partial, and experience may set it all in a new light; if we too easily satisfy our urge for security by claiming that we have found certainty, we shall no longer be sensitive to new experiences of truth. For who seeks that which he believes that he has found? Who explores a territory which he claims already to know?

Quaker faith & practice 26.39

Change is a fundamental quality of life. It was the change within unicellular organisms long ago that set in motion the processes that led to the evolution of humanity, and we ourselves are born from change, to change throughout our lives. Without change, life would not be: the engine of the universe is change, on the tiniest scale to the unimaginably immense. It is how all things are made, and how they coinhere. It is this gift of change that rests in the hand of God, in the ground of being: if we trust this perception, if we trust that truth behind the opening words of John’s Gospel, there is nothing to fear. Only begin.

Keeping on

Maintaining any contemplative practice is an odd activity by any “normal” standards. It doesn’t work with goals or results, it has no measure of achievement, nor any scale of proficiency. We are all, always, beginners – we never get anywhere. And yet the effects of regular practice on the practitioner could hardly be more profound…

Read the rest of this post at An Open Ground

Beyond fences

Many of our institutions are struggling to seem relevant these days, that includes the church in its various forms. There are many reasons for this.

One reason is that for a long time religious institutions, such as the church, have tried to maintain a monopoly on access to the spiritual. ‘Come here’ they say, ‘do this’ or ‘read that’ and you can access the divine; the spiritual realm. Institutions as gatekeepers.

One of the great shifts in recent years has been the growing realisation that spirituality is not confined by a set of walls or dogmas, increasing proportions of society have come to see that they can perceive or experience the spiritual beyond the confines that the institutions have appeared to present. Beyond the fences that they were told were unclimbable. This loss of monopoly has added to the difficulties experienced by other institutions, making some of the religious institutions that rely upon it appear as if they have no relevance beyond that of cultural belonging. Gatekeepers are pointless if fences are illusions.

Simon J Cross – Weekday meditation 2/7/2021

For far too long I have tended to believe in the gatekeepers and their narratives of the borderlines. For far too long I felt, albeit unconsciously, that access to the spiritual, or at least to meaningful spiritual practice, depended upon making the right choice of gateway; at least on finding the gateway that was right for me, a gate for whose lock I had the key

Sufficient introspection would have told me I was wrong, but there never seemed to be a gap for sufficient introspection. Being part of a religious institution put constraints on that kind of introspection, kept me thinking in the well-worn tracks of the (in my case Christian) doctrine and praxis I knew so well, effectively limiting my conclusions to those that would fit within the fences they defined.

The past 18 months or so, with churches and the places where people meet so often closed, or reduced to meeting online, have proved those fences to be illusory. The barriers between the selves I have seemed to be have proved illusory also: there is no longer any unavoidable incompatibility between thought and experience, between hope and grace.

In an article on the Secular Buddhist Network Robert M Ellis writes, “I do not describe myself as a Buddhist, because that process of practical examination of what works is far more important to me than loyalty to any tradition. Instead, I describe myself as a ‘Middle Way practitioner’ – where the Middle Way is understood as a universal principle that can be found both in Buddhism and in many other places.”

I am not sure that I would even describe myself as a middle way practitioner (with or without capitals), or a Quaker – still less a Buddhist – these days. (I rather like the way Sam Harris, in Waking Up, avoids handing his key to that gatekeeper.) There must be many of us Einzelgänger und Einzelgängerinnen out here now, beyond the fences, and I’m coming to suspect that we don’t need to form communities, adopt labels, and things like that. We will find each other if we need each other, and just as the current pandemic that has given so many of us space to breathe is a fact of our time, so too is the technology that enables the publication of things like this at the click of a button.

It seems to me that the dark and anxious times in which we live can so easily draw us into taking sides, feeling we must “join the fight” against this or that injustice, or “struggle” against forces beyond our control or understanding which threaten the very existence of humanity. These military metaphors contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety and guilt, where nothing we can do is ever enough, and any rest or stillness is a betrayal of our comrades-in-arms. But grace is not mediated by aggression, and peace may not be found by way of war.

It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting my self out of the way of that channel of wordless gift. The hiddenness to which I am increasingly drawn is a way of getting out of the way – of standing still enough perhaps to act as a kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of stillness.

[An earlier version of this post was published elsewhere earlier this year.]

Is that all?

It seems that we are all too prone to underestimate the treasures of the mind and spirit that are available quite freely and openly to anyone at all. Mindfulness, and associated contemplative practices can be seen as merely techniques for “stress-reduction”, and hence increased workplace effectiveness; Friends’ meeting for worship can be reduced to a means merely to recharge the batteries for activism. But there really is more than this.

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, Transworld Digital, p.206

We sit by the pool where the nine hazels drop their nuts, and we skim stones. The salmon of wisdom nibbles our toes, and we giggle and take a selfie. May our hearts open, instead, to the wonders at our feet.

[Note: for the hazels and the salmon, see the story of Fionn MacCumhaill]

Listening for the Light in the silence

The Quaker way of making decisions, through a listening process often described as looking for the will of God for the group, gives a basis for a shared understanding of what kind of God might be involved. That isn’t automatically anything which is named ‘God’ or would be recognised as the God of another tradition. The Nontheist Friends Network use Quaker business method for their decision making and they are clear that they see the ‘will of God’ as metaphorical language to explain a complex, but not supernatural, phenomenon. There are still things we can say about the Spirit which guides a Quaker meeting for worship for business, though. It can be sensed in a room. It can have a direction and make distinctions: yes this, not that. It is worth trusting.

Rhiannon Grant, Telling the Truth About God: Quaker Approaches to Theology, Quaker Quicks, p.14

During meeting for worship, and even more in our own practice of prayer or contemplation, we can enter a condition analogous to that known in Sōtō Zen as Shikantaza, derived from a Chinese term in Caodong Buddhism, usually translated into English as “Silent Illumination”, or “Serene Reflection”. Merv Fowler, however (in a now out of print book) translates it as “open awareness”, which seems to me a much better, less other-worldly translation. It is this condition which, in my understanding, allows us to listen for the Light in the silence. Meister Eckhart, to put it in a Christian contemplative context, calls it gelassenheit. It is from this place of open awareness that true ministry comes, and in the Quaker decision-making process, is – at least ideally – the source of our discernment.

This practice of quiet listening, together and individually, is what lies at the heart of Quakerism, and is the source of our faith and the root of our practice. We lose sight of it at our peril: without it, an aggressive, politically polarised activism based on “send[ing] our passions on God’s errands” (William Penn) misses the real source of our strength, and loses track of the sure wisdom that rests in silence.