Notes on Sabbatical April – June 2009: Mike Harrison Contemplative Prayer Disclaimer! The following are rough notes made during a sabbatical which focused on contemplative prayer, and reflect both the (often idiosyncratic) reading undertaken during that time and the fairly unsystematic arising of issues and questions around contemplation that arose personally in the course of the sabbatical. They are written up primarily as notes for future reference and shared here not as a robust academic treatise but as piecemeal reflections and meandering thoughts…… What is contemplation? By waiting and by calm you shall be saved,
In quiet and in trust your strength lies. Isaiah 30.15
Be still and know that I am God. Psalm 46.10
For God alone my soul in silence waits. Psalm 62.1,6
Contemplation, might be defined initially as prayer involving the setting aside of words, images, thoughts and reasoning in order to pay attention to the loving presence of God, and it is practiced in a variety of ways across Christian traditions. However underlying all approaches are two basic disciplines; the discipline of stillness and the discipline of watchfulness or awareness. Such disciplines are about nurturing a quietness receptive to God’s presence and movement, John of the Cross teaching “never pause to love and delight in your understanding and experience of God, but love and delight in what you cannot understand or experience of him. Such is the way….of seeking him in faith” (Spiritual Canticle 1.12). Elsewhere John states that “our greatest need is to be silent before this great God…for the only language he hears is the silent language of love”, (Letter Seven in The Collected Works of St.John of the Cross, p.689), while Meister Eckhart states that “the noblest attainment in this life is to be silent and let God work and speak within”, (Meister Eckhart, Sermon I, in Sermons and Treatises, vol. I, trans. M.Walshe). Merton writes of this way of prayer;
Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy. And yet in a certain sense, we most truly begin to hear God when we have ceased to listen. What is the explanation of this paradox? Perhaps only that there is a higher kind of listening, which is not an attentiveness to some special wavelength, a receptivity to a certain kind of message, but a general emptiness that waits to realize the fullness of the message of God within its own apparent void…He waits on the Word of God in silence, and when he is “answered” it is not so much by a word that bursts into his silence. It is by his silence itself suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to him as a word of great power, full of the voice of God, (Contemplative Prayer, p.90).
Thomas Keating elaborates on the etymology and history of the word ‘contemplation’ as well as amplifying something of the experience;
The Greek Fathers, especially Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, borrowed from the Neoplatonists the term theoria. This originally meant the intellectual vision of truth, which the Greek philosophers regarded as the supreme activity of the person of wisdom. To this technical term the Fathers added the meaning of the Hebrew da’ath, that is, the kind of experiential knowledge that comes through love. It was with this expanded understanding of the term that theoria was translated into the Latin contemplatio and handed down to us in the Christian tradition. This tradition was summed up by Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century when he described contemplation as the knowledge of God that is impregnated with love. For Gregory, contemplation is the fruit of reflection on the word of God in scripture and at the same time a gift of God. It is a resting in God. In this resting or stillness the mind and heart are not actively seeking him but are beginning to experience, to taste, what they have been seeking. This places them in a state of tranquility and profound interior peace. This state is not the suspension of all action, but the mingling of a few simple acts of will to sustain one’s attention to God with the loving experience of God’s presence”. (Open Mind, Open Heart, p.19).
There is something about a ‘resting’ in God which is particularly challenging in an age when productivity, goals, growth and achievment are all key motivators. Eckhart was fond of saying that there is no ‘why’ in God, by which he meant that God acts without goals and ambitions, ‘gaining’ nothing by creating which was not for some purpose other than creating. So too, if we would enter what Eckhart calls the “Ground of the Soul”, that most inward and secret depth in us where we meet God then, Eckhart argues, we find its detached openness and receptivity, its freedom from goals or aims, to be one of its most Godlike characteristics, and yet if we endeavour to approach this Ground by setting ourselves this ‘goal’ we find it elusive. As Smith puts it,
we cannot enter it by resolving to enter it. We enter it by not trying to enter it, by not thinking about it or aiming at it, by being simply relaxed, free, spontaneous, untroubled, open to the present moment and whatever it contains, (Smith, The Way of Paradox, p.50)
This is not to say that there are not conditions more conducive than others to approaching this Ground, which indeed there are, including sitting attentively in contemplation. But we should pay heed to Eckhart’s warning and register that the way to the divine is the way of the divine, so that while our desire for union burns brightly, we should not allow this desire to transmutate into ambitions for acquisition, governed by self-constructed and ill-informed goals.
Contemplation and Scripture An old man said, “The prophets wrote books, then came our Fathers who put them into practice. Those who came after them learnt them by heart. Then came the present generation, who have written them out and put them into their window seats without using them, (The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, Benedicta Ward p.31).
It would be convenient if one was able to cite scriptural warrant for the practice of contemplation, ideally involving Jesus practicing this manner of praying and commanding us to do likewise. Unfortunately there is no such unambiguous warrant, although there are plenty of scriptural passages which could be interpreted as supporting contemplative practice. Indeed a case can be made for the contemplative way as an appropriate response to dominical and apostolic scriptural imperatives, such as “Be ye not anxious” (about life, food, drink, clothing, the future and life-span in Mt 6.25-34), and “Do not be afraid” (e.g. Mt 10.26, 28.10). How are we to let go of our fear and anxiety? Precisely by letting them go. How do we learn to let them go? One way is by learning the skill and habit of letting go which contemplative prayer cultivates. From a Christian perspective, this is not just a general relinquishment but a patterning of letting go informed by Christ’s mode of being among us. Phil 2.3-7 demands that “the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”, going on to describe the self-emptying of Christ. The contemplative approach of “emptying” and waiting in stillness and anticipation for the grace of God’s Spirit to conform us to Christ can be understood as a way of ‘clearing the ground’ (including detaching from habitual mental and emotional preoccupations), freeing us for the mind of Christ. To be freed for the mind of Christ includes a contemplative gaze into the heart of reality which finds (and is found by) a personal God who is love (1 John 4.8). The passage 1Cor 2.10-16 can be read as conforming us to the mind of Christ by ‘making room’ for the Spirit of God within us, through whom God and the gifts of God can be discerned, understood in a manner unavailable the humanly wise, for whom such gifts are folly. In relation to this Basil Pennington writes
Classically, we speak of seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, piety, fortitude, counsel and fear of the Lord. The Holy Spirit is given to us as our spirit at baptism, but most Christians leave these gifts, these faculties, on the shelf as it were. What we are doing in meditation or in contemplation is leaving our human, natural level – reason, imagination, memory and so on – behind, and opening the space for the Spirit to begin to operate through the gifts. This action of the Spirit brings us into the immediate experience of God in an intimate loving relationship, (The Gethsemani Encounter, p. 218).
The passage Eph 3.16-19 stresses the importance of comprehending the love of Christ, discovered in our hearts through faith and in which we are to be rooted and grounded, that we might be filled with all the fullness of God. Contemplation can be understood here as the way of opening ourselves to this incomprehensible comprehension. (It is an ‘opening’ of ourselves to the possibility because, as Merton points out “true contemplation is not a psychological trick but a theological grace. It can come to us only as a gift, and not as the result of our own clever use of spiritual techniques”, (Contemplative Prayer, p.92)). More broadly the New Testament speaks of an identity “in him”, in Christ, and one with Christ that suggests there is an enveloping and interior presence which should be attended to, nurtured and lived out of, (see for example Eph 3.14-19, 2 Cor 4.6, Paul’s regular use of ‘in Christ’ and the Johannine theme of ‘indwelling’). While the Gospel speaks in different ways of the transformation we are invited to undergo in conforming to Christ, the practice of contemplative prayer can be understood as part of the preparation for this transformation, offering our mind and heart to be changed not through our own volition but in grace’s good time.
None of this should lead us to drive a wedge between scripture as a means and contemplation as the goal however; as Wiseman notes when discussing early monastic contemplatives the Bible (especially lectio divina) was vitally nourishing,
..because in praying it, whether by heart or by prayerfully meditating on the written text, they were convinced that they were truly meeting their Lord and Saviour. Holy Scripture was not there for some ulterior purpose, a mere means to some loftier end, but was itself life-giving. This is what these men and women were aiming for, this was a privileged moment of their ongoing contemplatio” (The Gethsenani Encounter, p.55).
This can be seen in a number of stories from the Desert Fathers where the monks are ‘transported’ in their recital or remembrance of Holy Writ, forgetting hunger and even time itself. It is noteworthy in this respect how a particularly purple passage of Merton’s on his own method of meditation written to his friend Abdul Ch. Aziz is frequently quoted without reference to its wider context. The passage is as follows;
Now you ask about my method of meditation. Strictly speaking, I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centred entirely on attention to the presence of God and to His will and His love. That is to say it is centred on faith by which alone we can know the presence of God. One might say this gives my meditation the character described by the prophet as “being before God as if you saw Him”. Yet it does not mean imagining anything or conceiving a precise image of God, for in my mind that would be a kind of idolatry. On the contrary, it is a matter of adoring him as invisible and infinitely beyond our comprehension, and realizing Him as all. My prayer tends very much to what you call fana (annihilation, kenosis). There is in my heart this great thirst to recognize totally the nothingness of all that is not God. My prayer is then a kind of praised rising up out of the centre of Nothing and Silence. If I am still present to “myself” this I recognize as an obstacle. If He wills He can then make the Nothingness into a total clarity. If He does not will, then the Nothingness actually seems itself to be an object and remains an obstacle. Such is my ordinary way of prayer and meditation. It is not “thinking about” anything, but a direct seeking of the Face of the Invisible. Which cannot be found unless we become lost in Him who is Invisible, (The Gethsenani Encounter, p.61).
An amazing articulation, and therefore all-the-more important to stress the foregoing paragraphs Merton writes which lay out the daily round, the deep engagement with scripture for many hours and in particular the lectio divina in which this contemplative approach is grounded. The moments of lectio divina distinguish lectio, meditation, oratio and contemplatio, and while distinct, they are not to be isolated from one another.
It is worth underlining at this stage the distinction between Christian meditation, ruminating and reflecting on the things of God, frequently through scripture, and contemplation. Fr. Stanton neatly points out that “meditation is a detachment from things of the world in order to attend to the things of God. Contemplation is a detachment from the things of God in order to attend to God himself”, (in Robert Llewelyn, Prayer and Contemplation, p.32). While distinct, the two bleed into one another and are mutually enriching. For example we might consider that meditation which reflects on the Christian life in terms of conforming to Christ. St. Paul for example sees the whole of our lives as the arena for this conformation. So we are to be ‘ambassadors of Christ’ engaged in the work of reconciliation as Christ was (2 Cor 5.11ff), we are to be generous, imitating Christ who became poor for our sake that we might become rich (2 Cor 8.9), like Christ we are to offer our lives as a sacrifice to the Father (Eph 5.1) and we are not to consider our own interests above those of others as Christ did not (Rom 15.2-3). Rowan Williams points out that such passages often go on to ground such appeals in ‘glory’ as the goal or fruit (cf 1 Cor 10.31, 2 Cor 4.15, 8.19) – so for example the mutual forbearance of believers and their acceptance of each other in Rom 15 (e.g. vv7) issues in God being glorified, “not simply through the voice of the community’s praise, though that is a significant part of the meaning of Rom 15.6, but also surely through the manifestation of the character of God that is involved”, (On Christian Theology, p.254). Hospitality, generosity and forgiveness involve participation in the divine activity and are Christian imperatives, but they are also imperatives because they give glory to God – reflecting back to God what God is. As such giving glory to God is nearly the same as rejoicing in God, being glad not simply that God has a loving regard for us but also that God is God.
Meditating on such texts takes us more deeply into the conforming to Christ in which Christians are to be involved because it is about the manifestation of the character of God. Furthermore,
..this manifestation is not restricted to successful performance; the comprehensiveness of the structuring vision emerges in the way in which failure, recognized and accepted as such, entails a ‘dispossession’ that itself mirrors the divine gift as narrated in the history of Jesus”, (R.Williams, ‘Interiority and Epiphany’ in On Christian Theology p.254).
Something of this dispossession can be seen in Paul’s writing in 2 Cor 11-12, where there is not only the acknowledgement that “when I am weak, then I am strong”, but also a self-confessed weakness in Paul’s appeals to authority, experience and in his confused argumentation. Williams argues that this suggests the importance of an attitude of ‘penitential irony’ on the part of believers, truth being revealed often in the very apprehension of our misapprehensions;
…our spiritual conformation to the life of the Trinitarian God involves, among a good many other things, a skepticism, both relentless and unanxious, about all claims to successful performance in our life and discourse, (ibid, p.258).
On these reflections one can see how contemplative prayer has a significant contribution to make, not only in terms of being part of that giving up of control and possession (such as we see Paul argues in the Father giving up the Son to the Cross or Christ giving up life, security and wealth for our sakes) which manifests God’s character but also in strengthening that penitential irony by (for example) continually illuminating the self-serving motives which inform our ‘faithful’ actions and drive for successful performance. Thus the contemplation enriches our meditation, and our meditation, with its stress on dis-possession and relinquishment, encourages contemplation.
To dwell for a moment on the implied interiority which some of the scriptural passages mentioned above allude to, how is this interiority to be understood? In a striking reflection on the interiority which Matthew’s Gospel highlights in the Sermon on the Mount, Rowan Williams points out that while the Sermon suggests an inner realm of integrity and truth not to be constructed or construed simply in terms of external actions, neither can such interiority be deployed in the way some modern varieties of interiority are deployed. This is because the inner life cannot be spoken, the only one seeing being the Father in secret, so that interior truth
…is not an esoteric truth – which is what it the appeal to interiority has so regularly become – but an inaccessible truth. In short, the appeal to the inner world is another strategy of disempowerment for the Christian moral agent”, (ibid., p.260).
Hence Williams comments, the injunction against judging (Mt 7.1-5) and furthermore, the critique of “hypocrites”, who are not “necessarily people who don’t mean what they do, or who are trying to conceal inner unfaithfulness; they are simply (as the Greek word implies), ‘actors’”, (ibid, p.260), those expecting to be judged on external performance. While we are warned against focusing on successful performance, our attention needs to be given to an interiority which cannot be possessed, which is visible and judgable by God alone. The paradox of contemplative prayer is that it seeks to cultivate sensitivity to this interiority and to live from it and yet can only confess the unknowable character of such interiority. It might be argued that ‘external’ actions may illuminate the quality of that interiority but this line of thought needs care as it can seduce us into the hypocrisy of ‘successful performance’ just mentioned. However one might ask the slightly different question of whether the contemplative’s character or actions speak of God whose nature is self-dispossession for the sake of the life of the other? Of the divine relinquishment of ‘interest’ and claim as embodied in the life and death of Jesus? Williams points out the challenge is to move completely out of the performance-oriented world, be it external achievements or the inner sphere (which in any case belongs to God’s judgment and is unavailable);
What is available is action: judged not according to how it serves to secure a position before God and others, but according to its fidelity to the character of God, its ‘epiphanic’ depth”. (ibid., p.264).
In short, how far the contemplative way enables our manifesting the glory of God is the real question.
Exploring the nature of ‘interiority’ in Paul, Martin Laird writes that contemplative practice facilitates the falling away of all that obscures the “hidden self” which Paul alludes to in Eph 3.16;
..this voice of the liberated hidden self, the “sacred within”, joins the Psalmist’s, “Oh Lord, you search me and you know me…It was you who created my inmost self….I thank you for the wonder of my being”, (Ps 138(9): 1,13,14), (M.Laird, Into the Silent Land, p.8).
This hidden self is for Laird hidden with Christ in God (Ps 139.13, Jer 1.5, Col 3.3), and it relates to the Johannine indwelling and Pauline statements about Christ-living-in-me. Not that there is a ‘thing’ within us for Paul according to Laird;
When Paul looks within and sees Christ, I do not suggest he sees Christ as an object of awareness. Paul speaks of something more direct and immediate, which pertains to the ground of awareness and not to the objects of awareness. The awareness itself is somehow about the presence of Christ in Paul …This has to do with the ground of awareness, not what he’s aware of, but the ground of the aware-ing itself. Only when the mind is held in silence does this open field of awareness emerge as the unifying ground of all unities and communities, the ground of all that is, all life, all intelligence”, (ibid., p.11).
This Christ-self is your Christ-self, and indeed our enemy’s Christ-self (2 Cor 10.7). This is not an individuastic flight of the alone to the Alone, an ancient illustration of the corporate dimension of this path being provided by a wheel, where the hub is God and we are the spokes and as we journey towards the centre the closer we come to one another and God. The journey to God is also a journey towards others. In baptism this is realized for Paul as “you are one in Christ Jesus”, (Gal 3.28) but this ontological actuality needs awakening to and living out of, as the way of our being conforms to what we are in Christ. Colossians 3.1-4 with its allusions to baptism in our death and rising with Christ stresses not only is our life hidden with Christ in God but that “Christ is our life” and this, as Laird suggests, is arguably a statement about our deepest self;
there is a foundational core of what we might as well call identity that remains hidden from scrutiny’s grip and somehow utterly caught up in God, “in whom we live and move and have our being”, in whom our very self is immersed, (ibid., p.14).
An image which conveys the differentiating union which is involved here is that of the sponge in the ocean;
the sponge looks without and sees ocean; it looks within and sees ocean. The sponge is immersed in what at the same time flows through it. The sponge would not be a sponge if this were not the case…Union with God respects all distinctions between creation and Creator and is characterized by awareness of the presence and the transparency of perceived boundaries”, (ibid., p.17).
And to those opposed to such language of union we might recall in passing Simone Weil’s remark that those who criticize expressions of oneness with God simply do not realize that the language of the marriage chamber is not the language of the marketplace.
Transformation of Consciousness or Engagment with love? At an informal gathering of representatives of three ‘schools’ of contemplation in the U.S.A. (Centering Prayer, Christian Zen and Christian meditation) in 2003 a summary agreed statement on the Gospel and contemplation put it in these terms;
The Gospel is the core of Christian living. It has within it a contemplative dimension. This dimension is God’s invitation to every human being, through Jesus Christ, to share God’s very nature. It begins as a way of listening with ears, eyes and heart. It grows as a desire to know God and to enter into God’s love. This is made possible by a dying to self or emptying to self that becomes a radical emptying to God and experience of God’s love. Through a pattern of abiding in God that we call contemplative prayer, a change of consciousness takes place. This dynamic sharing of God’s nature forms each person and opens them to the mind and very life of Christ, challenging them to be instruments of God’s love and energy in the world. This contemplative consciousness bonds each person in a union with God and with all other persons. It enables them to find God present in all things”, (Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, p.156).
This statement again links the Gospel’s teaching, contemplative prayer and a Christ-like way of being, but it goes further in suggesting contemplation is primarily about transformation of consciousness, a statement that gives pause for thought.
Bede Griffiths, in his last book A New Vision of Reality, stressed that in the Christian mystical experience “the human person is not lost in the divine but enjoys perfect oneness in love”. He writes further of Hinduism and Buddhism that
Again and again the tendency is to lose the person in the Ultimate. In both Hinduism and Buddhism this tendency is always at work, so that ultimately there is no individual left and everything dissolves in the pure oneness of being, (A New Vision of Reality, p.253).
Of course this begs the question of what exactly is meant by “person”. Griffiths does not provide a precise definition, but in flagging up the distinction between Hindu and Muslim notions of God and the Trinitarian Godhead which alone is itself love, a communion of love, Griffiths does say,
There is a distinction within the Godhead itself, a distinction beyond our comprehension which we crudely express in terms of person and relation. These are human terms pointing to the reality. The reality is that God is love, that there is something which corresponds to personal communion in love in the Godhead, and we are called to share in that communion of love, (Bede Griffiths,Essential Writings, p.120).
For Griffiths the heart of Christian mysticism is a mystery of love while both Buddhism and Hinduism we find the heart being on a transformation of consciousness. (See W.Johnston’s Arise My Love, p.139-140). It should be noted however that Buddhist writers such as Norman Fischer criticize the use of meditation practice to alter one’s state of mind;
Meditation practice would be exactly as it says: to turn toward whatever state of mind was present, using that as a way into our life. A greatly misunderstood take on meditation practice is that it is a technique to alter the mind. Of course the mind alters moment after moment. The question is, do we turn deeply toward our heart as our path, or do we try to introduce something from outside? ….The only way to reduce your stress is to move in to it, be honest with it, work with it, breathe into it, use it as the doorway to open out into your whole life…, (The Gethsenani Encounter, p.210).
From a Christian perspective our becoming might be stated as realizing the image and likeness of Christ, that way of being which is so transparent to the Father as to lead the early Christians to conclude that no substantial difference could be discerned between Jesus Christ and the Father, they were identifiable. Such a becoming includes an emerging subjectivity that is receptive to the Father’s love and enters into that receiving and giving of love which is found at the heart of the Trinitarian relations – such loving relations not simply being a corollary of transformed consciousness but the way of transformation.
For Griffiths the Christian way is about an engagement with love and entering into the divine communion of love and loving relationships are one way of understanding the Christian telos. While this will involve a transformation of subjectivity and way of being it is not finally reducible to a transformation of consciousness. For Griffiths such a telos relates to the Christian advaita which retains distinctive personal otherness within a loving communion and which is rooted in a profound union expressed by Christ’s prayer “that they may be one, as thou, Father, in me and I in thee, that they may be one in us”. Some helpful excavation of the etymology of the notion of ‘person’ comes from a Franciscan writer, Ilia Delio, who points out that
The word “person” is related to the Latin “per-sonare” which means “to sound through”. To be a human person is based not on what we are or what we do but who we are in relation to God, self, others and world. It means to be in relationship with another by which the other sounds through one’s life. Francis became a person because his response to grace meant God could sound through his life and through the lives of others he met along the way, (Delio, ibid., p.22). Such a view grounds our particularity in time because we are in relationship with others in quite specific ways historically, it acknowledges that our personhood depends on others and our engagement with them and their engagement with us and it allows for the root of our personhood as being in God, our transparency to God deepening our personhood. Relationships are key and the transformation envisaged will inevitably include but not be centred on a transformation of consciousness.
Coda: The above does not offer an exhaustive definition of personhood but then our personhood is not finally subject to definition but is a mystery, not an essence or a “what” but a “who”. Furthermore, who a person is, is ultimately elusive and of infinite depth just as the personhood of the Trinity in whose image we are made is finally mysterious. We acknowledge there are lively ongoing philosophical disputes concerning what constitutes a ‘person’ and that the approach here leans towards the recent perspective which suggests that person transcends essence. We would also reject views of ‘persons’ as those with some collection of qualities of characteristics such as individualized wills, intentions and thoughts – surely a somewhat Cartesian description insufficiently acknowledging relationality’s defining contribution to personhood? Griffiths’ emphasis on the Christian way as an engagement with Love, (a love whose character we see in the narrative of Jesus Christ), is especially important to stress when some writings on Christian contemplative prayer seem to pursue a union which is indifferent to the person or narrative of Christ, – a unifying with God entirely apart from the drama of the Christian story. Consequent dangers are that on the one hand we discard contemplative prayer as “un-Christian”, while on the other hand we might embrace a contemplative path shorn of Christ. As such we need to ensure clarity on the Christocentric ‘backdrop’ to Christian contemplative prayer and have some sense of the character of this God of our contemplative desire, a character which we seek to glorify and allow to ‘sound through’ us.
The Depths within Already in much of the foregoing discussion questions such as what we understand by ‘the self’ and how we might conceive the human being to be made in the image of God are beginning to require attention.. John O’Donohue wrote poetically that
…we always seems to forget that the soul has two faces. One face is turned towards our lives; it animates and illuminates every moment of our presence. The other face is always turned towards the divine presence. Here the soul receives the Divine Smile or the Kiss of God, as Meister Eckhart might put it, (Divine Beauty, p.72).
This is a helpful picture to bear in mind as it simultaneously allows for the presence of the divine to us which we need to attune ourselves to (e.g. in contemplation) but also regards the same ‘soul’ receptive to this presence as also being engaged in the world, there being an ongoing formation of the ‘soul’ by that dual influence (and of course God is present in and through others in the world). Thomas Merton captures memorably the way in which we are turned towards the divine presence or perhaps better, how the divine presence is enduringly and unassailably committed to us at le point vierge or “virgin point” within;
At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin or 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 of 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 absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak his name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, 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. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p.142).
Such a point vierge is exactly what is meant by the “deep heart” in the neptic (nepsis meaning sobriety, vigilance, spiritual insight) theology of the Orthodox Church, St Mark the Monk for example speaking of “the innermost, secret and uncontaminated chamber of the heart…the innermost and untroubled treasury of the heart, where the winds of evil spirits do not blow”, (quoted by K.Ware in his ’How do we enter the Heart’ in Paths to the Heart, p.4). Such a secret presence of God is in everyone according to Merton (cf Gen 1.26-27, Acts 17.27-28, John 1.9) and given that Jesus Christ is described as “the true light which illumines everyone who comes into the world” (John 1.9, Ware’s translation), the light of Jesus Christ can be understood to shine in the heart of every human person. Mark the Monk on the other hand argued that it was specifically through baptism that Christ and the Holy Spirit come to dwell in “the innermost, secret and uncontaminated chamber of the heart” (Ware, ibid., p.9), an inalienable presence however careless and wayward our subsequent lives. Ware suggests these approaches might be reconciled by understanding there to be a universal indwelling of the Divine which “is confirmed and deepened through sacramental Baptism in the Church” (ibid., p.10-11). It will be noticed that what Merton refers to as the “centre of our being” and O’Donohue calls ‘the soul’ comes close to what in Orthodox thought is called ‘the heart’, the physical, psychic and spiritual centre of the human being capable not only of reasoning but of a higher faculty of intuitive insight and mystical vision, the point of convergence not only of body, soul and spirit but also the means whereby the human person is initiated into the Divine realm and enters into communion with God. So for example the Macarian Homilies (where a particularly full description of the heart is to be found) states that;
…within the heart is an unfathomable depth. There are reception rooms and bedchambers in it, doors and porches, and many offices and passages. In it is the workshop of righteousness and wickedness. In it is death, in it is life…The heart is Christ’s palace…There Christ the King comes to take his rest, with the angels and the spirits of the saints, and he dwells there, walking within it and placing His kingdom there, (Ware, ibid., p.14).
So the heart is a battleground between good and evil, yet beyond the battleground is the point vierge, the innermost dwelling of Christ the King.
One more related spiritual geography worthy of mention is that of Julian of Norwich. Julian distinguishes an outward sensibility (containing everything from physical sensation to abstract thinking) from an inward substance, a life within us hidden for the most part from everyday consciousness where we are everlastingly held in loving contemplative union with God from the moment of our creation – a place we will always be one with God in peace and love. So she writes;
I saw truly that the inward part is master and ruler of the outward, and neither receives orders nor pays heed to the will of the outward, but its whole intention and will is endlessly committed to being one-ed into our Lord Jesus, (Ch. 19).
This is a place of purity, the outward and changeable will being dependent on “a divine will (in the soul’s inward substance) that never consents to sin, nor ever will”, (Ch 53). This hidden life is one where we are utterly surrendered to and held in loving communion with God, and the contemplative life can be understood here as a practice “seeking the harmony between our outward, experiential selves and the blessed inward depth where we are already one with God” (Into the Blessed Heart of God, Br Gregory, p.8).
Whichever metaphor we adopt, be it the two faces of the soul, the point vierge, the heart, the ‘hidden self’ of Laird, the ‘inward substance’ of Julian or others, contemplative prayer in its different forms is a means of enabling us to gravitate to such ‘places’, where God is to be encountered by grace. So for example writing from the Orthodox perspective Ware states
The Jesus Prayer – understood…as a means of entry into silent communion with God – is at the same time, precisely a means of entry into the deep heart…the meeting-point between God and the human person, the place of Divine indwelling and of loving union between Creator and creature. (p.19).
Unearthing the ‘self’? There is a need to be clear about what the Christian language of interiority does and does not say, lest we adopt uncritically the notion fairly common in some contemplative literature which sees there being a ‘true’ self which is already completely whole and healthy but which needs unearthing. Against such a view the philosopher W.A. Davis writes robustly,
No depth exists in subject until it is created. No a priori identity awaits us … Inwardness is a process of becoming, a work, the labour of the negative. The self is not a substance one unearths by peeling away layers until one gets to the core, but an integrity one struggles to bring into existence, (Inwardness and Existence, p.105).
Rowan Williams builds on this insight noting how dangerous the myth of a ‘real’ interior self can be, not least because what we are doing here is imagining an ideal other, an ideal interlocutor and observer, a listener to whom I am making perfect sense….
this imagined other, the perfect listener, blocks out the actual, less perfect, less sympathetic hearers with whom I am actually and temporally doing my business so that my self-perception belongs firmly under my control, (Williams, ibid., p.241).
Against this Williams argues for a necessary ongoing vulnerability to other accounts of myself from ‘outside’, and only through processes of encounter and exchange will my good, destiny or self-perception progress, not through the excavation of a buried hidden agenda. (Being ‘vulnerable to other accounts of myself’ should not be read as excluding that contemplative attentiveness which gazes steadily at the thoughts and emotions rising and falling and which give some indication of where our treasures lie, how our habits of mind and heart are patterned and can make us painfully aware of the crassness of much of our preoccupying concerns). It should be noticed that ‘other accounts of myself’ will inevitably involve adversarial moments and simply to reduce such difficulties to competition and rivalry (securing one’s agenda at the expense of another) will not allow for that self-becoming which requires movement beyond competition, opposition and negotiation if there is to be a fresh conscious self-appropriation. It is noteworthy that God, established by Jesus as the non-competitive other before whom we are vulnerable and responsible, is the One before whose radical and irreducible otherness we need not be threatened because the “radicality of that otherness is precisely what establishes my freedom from the necessity to negotiate with it”, ibid., p.249. (See Williams explication of God’s timelessness and the Creatio ex nihilo as doctrines underlining how God’s acts are undetermined by ours and how therefore we can never and need never succeed in establishing our position in the universe, p.249). This is important because only a self not under obligation to defend itself above all else will be free to grow in the terms outlined above. The Christian community is called to be a context for such human transformation;
the theological idea of the indestructible regard of God, with all its implications for a reconciled community, is capable of being perceived and learned as an historical matter through the perdurance of Jesus’ life in the life of the community and as the continuing source of judgement to which the community looks”, (ibid., p.252).
The development of selfhood emerging here is clearly at odds with a notion of a self already in existence which simply needs unearthing and it is much more akin to a journey towards selfhood with and through others, a journey requiring detachment from much which we may previously have taken to be at the heart of our identity. Merton puts it well;
Detachment from things does not mean setting up a contradiction between “things” and “God” as if God were another “thing” and as if His creatures were His rivals. We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God. This is an entirely new perspective which many sincerely moral and ascetic minds fail utterly to see. There is no evil in anything created by God, nor can anything of His become an obstacle to our union with Him. The obstacle is in our ‘self’, that is to say in the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egotistic will. It is when we refer all things to this outward and false “self” that we alienate ourselves from reality and from God (New Seeds of Contemplation, p.21)
Contemplation and the work of Christ We have already mentioned the need to ensure clarity on the Christocentric ‘backdrop’ to Christian contemplative prayer, and it is worth exploring some ways in the Christian tradition in which the redemptive work of Christ and contemplation have been understood to be profoundly connected. One approach is rooted in The Revelations of Divine Love written by Julian of Norwich. Julian argues that sin sets up a frightful opposition between our everyday, outward selves and the inward depths where we are one with God. The alienation of ourselves from ourselves in God is hell and the redemptive work of Christ is precisely about reconciling our outward historical selves and inward reality;
This bringing back (of humanity from depth) could never be until the time that the Second Person in the Trinity had taken the lower part of mankind (He to whom the highest was one-ed in the first creation) and these two parts were in Christ – the higher and the lower – which is but one soul. In Christ, the higher part was one in peace with God in full joy and bliss; the lower part, which is fleshly, suffered for the salvation of mankind, (Ch 55).
This approach suggests that contemplative prayer and the Church’s mediation in liturgy, sacrament, doctrine and scripture both focus on grasping our redemption in Christ, our reconciliation with God in Christ. While we are historical beings we must embrace those physical, outward, historical expressions of faith which acknowledge our reconciliation and are an outward expression of the contemplative life and simultaneously practice the way of contemplative prayer, this very combination of practices embracing the alignment of outward and inward effected in Christ. In this sense Christ is at the centre for the contemplative, the centre reconciling outward and inward, as well as being at the ineffable heart of the blissful oneness with God. But there is more – this Christ has primarily a cruciform shape and this shape is to inform our way of being. This is a particular challenge to the contemplative who might prefer to seek unity in an ahistorical, impersonal spirituality which is conveniently painless, a quest in danger of being somewhat selfish. Julian of Norwich in her ‘Eighth Showing’ struggled with this and the possibility of “looking up to heaven to His Father” rather than staying her mind and heart on suffering with Christ, only finally to commit to Jesus; “And this has ever been a comfort to me: that I chose Jesus for my heaven, by His grace, in all this time of suffering and sorrow”, (Ch 19). Fr. Gregory comments “this spiritual betrothal is
based not on interior consolations but naked self-forgetfulness in the context of great suffering. And, as if to confirm the depth and truth of Julian’s self-surrender to Jesus, immediately after her choice for Jesus as her heaven in well and woe, Julian is able to penetrate through the outward surface of suffering in the Passion to a series of four showings all revealing the joy that Christ has in us and in his own suffering, (ibid, p.18).
Furthermore as Julian suggests (cf Ch 55) her ability to abandon selfishness and choose Jesus for her heaven in well and woe was an intuitive awareness of the “inward substance” blissfully united with God, regardless of what we are suffering in our outward lives. It is out of this depth that Christ lived and suffered on the cross even as apparently abandoned by God and mocked by the world, and in this depth we find the suffering Christ, holding us to himself and to the Father in steadfastness. The contemplative way which puts us in touch with such depths unites us to Christ and enables our self-forgetting in the midst of mundane suffering, “the way which enables us to join Christ in his redemptive suffering through our own mundane mental anguish, physical suffering, social unrest” (Br. Gregory, ibid., p.20). For Julian through our contemplative prayer we are deeply in touch with our substantial life where we are everlastingly one with the Triune God and the suffering incarnate Christ, and also more and more informing a passionate outward self willing to be emptied and live out the way of the Crucified Lord in the suffering, pain, strife and brokenness of the world. Thus for Julian the actualization of the alignment and harmonization of inner substance and outer life realized by Christ and embraced by contemplation is manifested in outer lives that model Christ’s self-forgetful, other-focused loving. If Christ is the fullness of human being, that which it is to be truly human beyond negotiation and contingency, then Julian would see the cruciform nature of Christ’s being as part of that essential, redeemed and whole humanity.
An even more overtly Christocentric and cross-focused way of looking at contemplation springs from the Franciscan tradition. Merton wrote that “the root of Christian love is not the will to love but the faith that one is loved”, (New Seeds of Contemplation, p.71), and for Francis and Clare the disclosure of this love par excellence is Jesus on the cross, loving each of us in a unique and particular way. Francis’ biographer, Bonaventure, captures the spirit of this in his On the Perfection of Christian Life;
No sorrow was ever comparable to Yours, O Lord Jesus Christ. Your blood was shed so abundantly that your whole body was soaked with it. Not just a drop, O good Jesus, most sweet Lord! But a welling stream of blood sprang from five parts of Your body: the hands and feet in the crucifixion, the head in the crowning of thorns, the whole body in the flagellation, and the heart in the opening of Your side. Not an ounce of blood could possibly have remained in your veins. Tell me, I beg You, most beloved Lord: why did You let Your blood pour forth in a river when a single drop would have sufficed for the redemption of the world? I know, Lord, I know in all truth that You did this for no other reason than to show the depth of Your love for me! (Bonaventure, Perf Vit. 6.6 (VIII, 122).
(Interestingly, we find similar sentiments expressed by Julian of Norwich – see for example Ch 24, and also see Johnston’s Arise my love, pp.189-190 on Jesus agony in Gethsemene, understood best by mystics as resulting from that dark contemplation that brings no joy or comfort – for Jesus “had agreed that the light of the presence of his Father burn only in the innermost, the most inaccessible abyss of his Being without shining upon his intelligence, his will, his sensibilities plunges, as they were, in the most impenetrable darkness” p.190).
For Franciscan spirituality, gazing on the cross is the springboard for contemplation and action, such gazing revealing not only Christ’s love for us but also disclosing the kind of God Christians believe in. This is a God reckless in love, whose way of crucified love is to be our way if we are to be friends of God, if we are to be united with this God, if we are to be true to the humanity disclosed to us in Christ on the cross and if we are to be true to who we are in the image of God. This last point relates to the Franciscan emphasis on the question “how does Jesus live in me?” (rather than for example “what would Jesus do?”). Merton once commented in deceptively simple terms “God is not somebody else” (The Gethsemani Encounter, p. 214), while Archimandrite Sophrony said “we live Christ as our own life, not as someone we know from outside”. That Jesus lives in me we have considered earlier in the discussion, for example in relation to a point vierge and connected anthropologies (which seek to illuminate the contemplative experience of finding and being found by God in the centre of our being). The Franciscan tradition goes on a stage and asks, how then does and will Christ live in me? One of the attractions of Franciscan contemplation is that it is rooted so firmly in the narrative of Christ, the imitatio Christi taking its cue from God’s self-emptying love seen in the incarnation and cross. Furthermore;
the word “image” means a pressing outward of an inward content in all forms of “expression”. To imitate is to image. As image of God we are created in such a way as to imitate God””, (Ilia Delio, Franciscan Prayer, p. 147-148).
The self-gift of Christ on the cross is not only the gift of unconditional love, forgiveness and a mirror held up to our violence, but also a gift of vocational calling. As Delio puts it, commenting on Clare of Assisi’s spirituality;
we cannot help seeing - gazing – on the crucified God for long without being changed. And this change, this gazing on the God of self-giving love, must eventually impel us to love by way of self-gift. In this way we realize the greatness of our vocation that is to bear Christ and become a “Christic person”, (Ilia Delio, Franciscan Prayer, p.138).
St. Clare speaks of the cross as a mirror, revealing us in our capacity to love and in our brokenness. But dwelling in the mirror, being moved by the love there, leads to freedom and a union with the Beloved involving a transformation whereby one “puts on Christ”, re-presents Christ; as Delio puts it, “transformation is imitation insofar as Christ “comes alive” in one’s life”, (ibid, p.130). Such themes find a resonance in the centering prayer approach, Thomas Keating writing of how in the paschal mystery there is not only a story of the forgiveness of sins, but also an invitation to embrace the “abundant life” of Jesus, a life of union with the divine whose cipher is precisely Jesus on the cross – that complete self-donation in the cause of love which is eternal loving union with God. (Thomas Keating and others, Spirituality, Contemplation & Transformation, p.70-71). In terms of the Centering Prayer tradition, the Franciscan approach could be looked at as stressing the death of Christ as the lectio divina subject par excellence, leading us into contemplation and action. Barnhart suggests that the understanding of contemplation has undergone a change in the past 50 years or so because of the influence of Asian religions so that, while previously the language may have been most frequently about “gazing with love upon God” such as we find in Francis, Clare and Julian, now there is more weight put on the unitive or nondual experience of contemplation (Barnhart, Purifyingthe Heart, p.304). Barnhart finds such nondual experience adverted to in the New Testament, implicitly in statements about new identity in Christ, one with Christ, (cf 2 Cor 4.6, Phil 3.7-8, Eph 1.17-23, 3.17-19, Gal 2.20, Phil 3.7-11). Thus contemplation here becomes the (often momentary) awareness of this non-dual inner self, realized in faith and love by divine grace. Barnhart however points out the distinctiveness of the Christian dynamism here in that there is a movement from this non-dual centre out of which the person emerges; “participating in the energy of the Christ-event, the person is actualized not only by a rooting in the unitive divine Ground, but by a creative movement into the world”, (ibid., p.307). There are echoes here of Delio’s sense of personhood involving another “sounding through” oneself. For Barnhard contemplation here is the realizing of a non-dual inner self which is also the beginning of transformative and incarnational action rooted and grounded in this self. The movements Barnhart describes can be seen in both the life of Francis and the writings of Clare, both the uniting with Christ and the outward movement which is part of this union’s expression being crucial to Franciscan spirituality.
To summarise, the way of Julian and the Franciscan way place the cross at the centre, and contemplation and action arise from engagement with the God disclosed there. The contemplative opens up to this self-giving God by gazing on the cross, and also by removing those obstacles that can prevent reception of the gift and call disclosed there. The Franciscan way encourages the embrace of a poverty which is about having nothing that can prevent us from being wholly open to the grace of God, a detachment from outward possessions and inward ones too. But vitally, the Franciscan approach challenges us to consider what kind of God we are desiring union with, what divinity are we surrendering to? The ineffable at the heart of our “inward substance”, “true self” or emergent subjectivity has been revealed historically in the outer world, and our way of being in life and prayer must look to harmonise with that revelation. The Christian contemplative approach is framed by the narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and while at the time of contemplation there is a putting aside of images, thoughts et al, nevertheless that which prompts us to pray in this way is our desire to allow the God revealed in this narrative to conform us to His way of being.
Is the cross simply the idiosyncratic choice of Francis, Julian and others (as opposed to say Resurrection, Incarnation or Ascension?) or is there something distinctive about this particular moment in the Christian narrative which offers a fecundity which demands special consideration? Certainly the cross has a particular significance in that here we find God’s question to us and the Church concerning religion’s perennial temptation to obscure God by the individual and community’s need for control and self-enclosure. As Rowan Williams points out the history of Jesus is about being prepared for the loss of a God defined as belonging to us and our interests, (with all the dubious tribalism, possessiveness and potential authoritarianism that goes with that defining), and contemplation is part of the practice of this dispossession and engagement with a God whose “difference is beyond all the words and institutions in which it is (inevitably) articulated, and through which it may be turned into a means of control”, (“The Finality of Christ”, in On Christian Theology, p.106). The cross is that moment when we are most deeply challenged concerning our attachments, assumptions, control and all the rest and so it is hardly surprising that a variety of writers in the Christian tradition have found it to be the defining inspiration for contemplative action and active contemplation.
Strictly speaking however the path of Julian, Francis (and others such as Henry Suso) relate to a version of ‘contemplation’ for which “the revelation of God comes through visions, symbols thrown up from the deep levels of the mind, which are meditated on until their meaning has been extracted”, (C.Smith, ibid., p.12). Following Stanton’s distinction between contemplation and meditation quoted above (ie “meditation is a detachment from things of the world in order to attend to the things of God. Contemplation is a detachment from the things of God in order to attend to God himself”), the Franciscan and Julian approaches are perhaps finally more accurately described as meditative rather than contemplative, although they undoubtedly inform the contemplative approach. In contrast the approaches of John of the Cross, Eckhart, Evagrius, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing and others aim at the deepest layer of the mind, where the imago Dei resides, the point vierge etc, an approach ignoring the images and symbols arising at the time of such prayer and attending to the ineffable centre, where we can become rooted and grounded in God. Then, as Cyprian Smith puts it,
Strengthened and enlightened by that, we can ascend slowly to the light, unlocking caverns and treasures on our way, if that seems right. But the first prerequisite is to find God in the deepest core of ourselves, and this is done by detachment, by letting go of all in us that is not God, until a spark of awareness awakens in us, which Eckhart calls ‘the Birth of God in the soul’, (C.Smith, The Way of Paradox, p.12-13)
It is this tradition of contemplation we will explore further here, and while the Christian revelation and especially the cross is indispensable to our understanding of “who” we are attending to in contemplation and crucial in informing the meaning, understanding and purpose of such prayer, nevertheless this tradition stresses that at the time of prayeralone all thought regarding this revelation is put gently aside.
Beyond Thinking Contemplative approaches emphasize communing with God and this is difficult while we are focused on thinking about God; as Laird puts it
because our attention is so completely riveted to what’s playing on the big screen of our thinking mind, we can live completely unaware of the deeper ground of the heart that already communes with God that knows only communion, as branches know the vine (Jn 15.5) (ibid., p.28).
The focus of attention needs to move from what Laird calls the screen of the thinking mind to “the ground of the heart, this immense valley of awareness itself in which thoughts and feelings appear” (M.Laird, ibid., p.28), the descending of the head into the heart in classical terms. The temptation is always to move back into thinking, carrying on interior dialogues which distract and divert from this communion. One key tool in retaining focus is the use of a mantra or prayer word, silently repeated and returned to when one becomes aware that one’s attention has been diverted. As outlined below there are differences in how this word is used, but for now suffice it to say that this does not provide a foolproof way of realizing communion with the divine; rather it is a means of clearing those obstacles and junk which prevent our being receptive to the self-giving God. Teresa of Avila provides the fine symbol of a silk worm spinning its own silken cocoon as a metaphor for contemplative practice – so too we are to be diligent in spiritual practice as we seek to cooperate with the initiative of divine grace in transforming our awareness. Diligence means regular daily practice, and attention to posture, physical stillness and breathing are all important contributory factors mentioned frequently in the literature. The prayer word builds recollection and detachment and the guidance from most schools of thought is that this word should be said longingly and faithfully; so for example Theophan says “its power comes from faith in the Lord, and from a deep union of the mind and the heart with Him”, (M.Laird, ibid., p.59). Not all contemplative approaches use such a word however, and St.John of the Cross is but one example of a Christian mystic who advocated sitting in loving awareness, without the assistance of a prayer word. However, where a prayer word is used, wide experience suggests that over time the prayer word will become second nature and the internal noise will become easier to ignore, and progressively the thoughts and emotions making up the noise will begin to be met not with commentary that steals presence from us, but with stillness where we let the thoughts and emotions be. Laird uses the image of a shield for the prayer word initially which gives way to the image of a riverbed at one with the river, making no comment on the river’s contents but just letting them flow by, (ibid., p.64). Beyond this stage there is encounter with the ineffable, when the present moment opens up and is not describable as an object of attention but rather is the aware-ing itself. As Laird poetically puts it, “this Silence washes onto the shores of perception, making it stretch to receive in metaphors of light, union, calm, spaciousness” (ibid., p.66). It is not a question of realizing a particular experience or set of experiences here, and indeed wise guides point out that one of the dangers with contemplation is that people embark on this path assuming they will do so, only to be disappointed. The fruits of contemplation are seen in living out of an identity that is progressively more grounded, confident and peaceable, an unselfed self whose description finds scriptural resonances in the Old and New Testaments (e.g. moving from image to likeness (Gen. 1.26); no longer living my life but Christ living in me, cf Gal 2.20). Bourgeault suggests that whatever contemplative method we are using (be it with a mantra, Jesus prayer, surrender etc) there is a loosening of the ties or attachments associated with our “smaller self” and a growing awareness of a “greater Self”, which issues in our beginning to “live like the Good Samaritan, the woman at the well, or the generous father in the parable of the Prodigal Son”(Bourgeault, ibid., p.82). The kenotic “losing of one’s life” here includes losing those fears, anxieties and defenses which prevent wholistic perception and deeper understanding of what is required of us in our mundane lives.
Distractions One of the challenges of contemplation can be distractions but distractions are also gifts which reveal just where one’s heart and mind are so regularly set (e.g. fantasizing about how one will report back one’s contemplative experience to others!) Noticing what has happened, and happens time and again is the gift, and slowly, with practice, one can begin to move from being always a victim of such thoughts to being witness to what is happening. The author of the Cloud of Unknowing counsels “looking over the shoulder” of such distracting thoughts during prayer, or surrendering to God in the hands of our enemies “for I think that if you try it out it will dissolve every opposition”, (Cloud of Unknowing, C 32). Robert Llewelyn states that we should endeavour not to be distracted during the time of prayer as the author of The Cloud instructs, nevertheless we might find, particularly as we emerge from prayer, that our mind has been focused elsewhere. According to Llewelyn there is a distinction to be drawn here between voluntary distractions (which are always a weakening of prayer) and involuntary distractions which may be the Holy Spirit enabling our growth towards wholeness;
More specifically, such moments might be for the dispelling of a fear, the resolving of a doubt, the healing of a memory, the weakening of a prejudice, the scattering of a vanity, the deepening of a relationship, (R.Llewelyn, The Positive Role of Distraction in Prayer, p.4).
Discerning the different kinds of distraction is not straightforward, but in all likelihood the involuntary distractions will return until engaged with if regular and living surrender to God is our way of prayer.
In terms of distractions outside of specific prayer time, Evagrius counsels observation;
..let him keep careful watch over his thoughts. Let him observe their intensity, their periods of decline and follow them as they rise and fall. Let him note well the complexity of his thoughts, their periodicity, the demons which cause them, with the order of their succession and the nature of their associations, (Laird, ibid., p.82).
Such advice is echoed today by cognitive therapists, and there is no doubt that naming what is being thought (cf awareness practices) and perhaps even better, feeling it (cf welcoming prayer or focusing) can distance one from the thought-feeling before being lost in it, (before one ‘goes over the waterfall’ as Bourgeault puts it or before it ‘whips itself into a video’ as Laird puts it). It can be tricky because of the speed with which our commentary moves and the shift from thought to thought (e.g. “I’m upset by his lack of affirmation” switches like lightning to “I’m contemptuous of his ineffectiveness in managing”). But again distractions can be a gift here, engendering insight, humility and truth.
There are some common thought-feelings that crop up in contemplative practice which can be the source of distraction and diversion and Laird outlines three common ones; judging the quality of our own prayer, attempting to recreate positive experiences and ego backlash. The third of these is particularly pertinent, in that a breakthrough can be followed by the re-emergence of patterns of behaviour one thought one was beyond(!), and the counsel of Gregory of Nyssa, Shunryu Suzuki and others is to always assume that one is just beginning (Laird, ibid., p.87). We will look further at the ego’s potentially negative influence in a moment, but in order not to be taken hostage by the thought-feelings Laird mentions there is a need to ponder the nature of the thoughts and feelings and who is aware of them, (relating to the question of ‘selfhood’ and ‘who am I?’), concluding that they have no substance, that they are empty, just “so much weather appearing on Mount Zion”, as Laird puts it. Again, who is aware of these thoughts? Laird suggests that
…there is not a separate self who is afraid or angry or jealous. Clearly anger, fear, jealousy may be present, but we won’t find anyone who is angry, afraid, jealous etc, just luminous depth gazing into luminous depth. Now we see all this clearly, but years ago we would have taken this experience of being riven with anxiety and riveted to our inner videos as constituting who we are, and we would have grasped at joy in order to avoid pain and anguish. But now we see this no longer holds identity, and in the face of the same anxieties and videos there is a deeper calm, a tranquility that grounds both feelings of recollection and fragmentation, (Laird, ibid., p.92)