“Once you recognize the bright sun of awakened awareness, practising mindfulness can seem like shining a flashlight at midday in the hopes that it will make things brighter.” (1)
This post is about modern non-dual traditions and what I have learned from them in recent years. They have inspired me to practice a Druidry that recognises a ‘beyond mindfulness’ dimension of experience, in Western Mysteries tradition sometimes referred to as ‘causal’.
Stephan Bodian is a former Zen monk who went on to become a psychotherapist, mindfulness teacher, and a teacher in the Direct Path tradition founded by Shri Atmananda Krishna Menon. He says: “the act of being mindful is a portal to a deeper, enduring awareness that can’t be manufactured or practised. This deeper awareness is already functioning, whether we know it or not. Indeed, it is our natural state of spontaneous presence, without which there would be no experience at all. Instead of cultivating it like a talent or strengthening it like a muscle, we just need to recognize it and return to it”.
In my own inquiry, my ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’ came out working with resources developed by Direct Path teachers. I am now integrating this realisation into my Druid practice, supported by the modern tradition’s naming of a causal dimension in experience, akin to “our natural state of spontaneous presence”. It underlies both the physical and psychic levels. It is our original nature. It does not obscure or invalidate the stress and turbulence we find in the physical and psychic realms. It is not even a domain of peace, happiness, and love when understood as desired personal states. But it can act as an internal place of safety in difficult times.
In my awen work I am looking at pathways between the three dimensions, and what can be brought from the causal and psychic dimensions into the physical for both personal and collective wellbeing. For much of my contemplative inquiry I have looked at the link between the causal and physical dimensions of experience (the latter including world, body, feelings, thoughts and everyday self-sense) whilst relatively neglecting the psychic realm. I am changing and re-balancing this now, so as better to walk between these worlds.
(1) Stephan Bodian Beyond Mindfulness: The Direct Approach to Peace, Happiness, and Love Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2017
” The moon was the image in the sky that was always changing yet always the same. What endured was the cycle, whose totality could never be seen at any one moment. All that was visible was the constant interplay between light and dark in an ever recurring sequence. Implicitly however, the early people must have come to see every part of the cycle from the perspective of the whole. The individual phases could not be named, nor the relations between them expressed, without assuming the presence of the whole cycle. The whole was invisible, an enduring and unchanging circle, yet it contained the visible phases. Symbolically, it was as if the visible ‘came from’ and ‘returned to’ the invisible – like being born and dying, and being born again.
“The great myth of the bronze age is structured on the distinction between the ‘whole’, personified as the Great Mother Goddess, and the ‘part’, personified as her son-lover or her daughter. She gives birth to her son as the new moon, marries him as the full moon, loses him to the darkness as the waning moon, goes in search of him as the dark moon, and rescues him as the returning crescent. In the Greek myth, in which the daughter plays the role of ‘the part’, the cycle is the same, but the marriage is between the daughter and a god who personifies the dark phase of the moon. The daughter, like the son, is rescued by the mother. In both variations of the myth, The Goddess may be understood as the eternal cycle s a whole: the unity of life and death as a single process. The young goddess or god is her mortal form in time, which, as manifested life, whether plant, animal or human being – is subject to a cyclical process of birth, flowering, decay, death and rebirth.
“The essential distinction between the whole and the part was later formulated in the Greek language by the two different Greek words for life, zoe and bios, as the embodiment of two dimensions co-existing in life. Zoe is infinite, eternal life; bios is finite and individual life. Zoe is infinite ‘being’; bios is the living and dying manifestation of this eternal world in time.”
(1) Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993
INQUIRY NOTE: For me this modern interpretation of Bronze Age myth offers a good Pagan way of talking about ‘non-duality’, a strong thread in my inquiry in recent years. In its Sanskrit origin, advaita simply means ‘not two’. It speaks of a unity that is not exactly oneness in the sense of complete assimilation. It points to the sense that we are bios in our transient personal lives yet also zoe the life eternal, both the wave and the ocean. In Western theistic culture this view seems consistent with either pantheism or panentheism. It also fits modern understandings of animism and biocentrism. While I find it useful to know about these models and frameworks, I avoid strong identification with them. There remains an underlying mystery, which is where myth and imagination come into their own.
“I have been fascinated and waylaid by abstraction, painting the picture I would rather have instead of living the experience I would rather not have.
“What I abstract never comes to be, or only sometimes flickers into life like a watered-down approximation.
“My abstraction is a smoke-screen born from longing or frustration, and it offers me a holiday of dreams. It is always safe and predictable, and an indulgence in the known.
“When abstraction collapses there is what there is … my bodily sensations, the symphony going on. Not necessarily in tune, but nonetheless constantly changing and moving, coming and going. Something is happening here or there … it evaporates and something else takes its place. There is nothing that I can control or manipulate. It is immeasurable and unknown, being and then not being.
“In the same way, if I seem to let go and listen, touch, taste, smell or see, there is no way of knowing beforehand the exact quality of those sensations. I could say that I can anticipate the sound of a bird singing, but it is only on information based on memory.
“It is not alive, vital and unknown. The sound I actually hear, the sound of what is, will not be the same as my abstraction of it. When I first listen to the sound I will try to grasp it and label it in order to control it. When I apparently let go of that control, there is simply the listener and the sound. When the listener is dropped, there is only the sound. I am no longer there – there is simply the naked and vibrant energy of what is. Nothing is needed. All is fulfilled.
“It is within the very alchemy of this beingness that freedom resides.
“Life beckons me. It whispers, it calls to me and in the end it screams at me. The scream of crisis or disease is often what will bring the rediscovery of what I am, for it is difficult to abstract suffering.”
Tony Parsons The Open Secret Shaftsbury: Open Secret Publishing, 1995 (Updated 2011)
NOTE: Tony Parsons describes The Open Secret as “a book declaring that enlightenment is a sudden, direct and energetic illumination that is continuously available. It is the open secret which reveals itself in every part of our lives. No effort, path of purification, process or teaching of any kind can take us there. For the open secret is not about our effort to change the way we live. It is about the rediscovery of what it is that lives”.
This post looks at two sentences from the Gospel of Thomas and concludes a series of three posts about this text and how I read it.
“Yeshua said: When you bring forth that within you, then it will save you. If you do not, then that will kill you”. (From saying 70)
What is ‘that’? I could jump in and say the experience of ‘living presence’, in contact with the ‘bubbling source’ discussed in earlier posts on this theme, and this feels right to me. But I also find my understanding extended by translator and commentator Jean-Yves LeLoup, who offers two meanings for that, gnosis and love. Although he doesn’t fully spell it out, the sense I get from him is that they are co-arising and belong together. LeLoup understands gnosis, as Yeshua uses this term, to be “a consciousness that arises directly from knowledge of ourselves, of the ‘Living One’ within us”. He also describes it as “a transparency with regard to the ‘One who Is’ in total innocence and simplicity”. He adds: “this is why the qualities of the gnostic are said to be unconditioned, to resemble those of ‘an infant seven days old'”. Without gnosis, “the universe remains radically alien and incomprehensible”. With gnosis, love is free to flourish. LeLoup describes those who live in gnosis and love as “able to marvel at the vast richness in the tiniest manifestation of being”, graced with what seems like “unreasonable abundance”. In the absence of gnosis and love, we are vulnerable to experiencing life as stale, depleted and desolate. Yeshua is uncompromising on this point. This is the core of his teaching.
When encountering the Yeshua of this text, I have tried to let go of all other associations with the names Yeshua or Jesus. I have striven for a pristine response, as if I had not heard of this teacher before and knew nothing of the points of view claimed for him by the Thomas writer vast numbers of other people over the centuries. I haven’t found this easy. When I succeed, at least relatively, and respond to this text alone, I experience a fiercely and impatiently compassionate teacher who wants to shock people into an awakening to that – gnosis and love, in the sense understood in this text.
Yeshua’s compassion lies in his deep appreciation of the benefits of being awake, and the wish that others would share them. The impatience, perhaps a slightly wounded and bewildered one, comes from the way in which most people seem to be finding endless ways of not joining Yeshua in the sweet place where he dwells. So he uses a hyperbolic language in which that will either save you if you take it on or kill you if you don’t. Commentators say that, as a man of his place and time, Yeshua drew both on his Jewish inheritance and a Greek tradition of radical Stoicism, known as Cynicism (the modern definition is misleading) (2). Both had elements of exasperation with the public and lack of deference to the ruling class. People could be wiser and better than they are. So, why aren’t they? – and what can be done?
Hence the gospel of gnosis and love is not all about the inner life. Saying 3 of Thomas says; “the Kingdom is inside you, and it is outside you”. Jean-Yves LeLoup salutes this as “the wisdom of non-dualist language”: ‘inside’ alone “would give one-sided privilege to inner experiences and meditations. This would encourage us to flee the world, to disregard what is going on around us”. But ‘outside’ alone would encourage us to transform the world and convert others at all costs, “and it would be selfishness to sit in silence and listen to the song of the Living One in our heart”. We are asked to work with both dimensions, in this teaching, for gnosis and love to flourish.
(1) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005
(2) The Gospel of Thomas: the Hidden Sayings of Jesus (New translation with introduction and notes by Marvin Meyer. Interpretation by Harold Bloom). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992. “The Cynics emerged from the philosophical tradition of Socrates as social critics and popular philosophers who lived a simple life and employed sharp, witty sayings in order to make people raise questions about their own lives. The influence of the Cynics and other Hellenistic thinkers is evident in the Galilee of the first century; Jewish wisdom literature itself bears the marks of Hellenistic concerns.”
“I am no longer your Master, because you have drunk, and become drunken, from the same bubbling source from which I spring.” From Saying 13, Gospel of Thomas (1).
In the Gospel of Thomas, Yeshua begins to treat Thomas as his peer. Asked by Yeshua “to what would you compare me?”, Thomas has replied, “Master, my mouth could never utter what you are like”. This reply contrasts sharply with Peter’s “you are like a righteous angel” and Matthew’s “you are like a wise philosopher”. Thomas has understood. He has dropped all his presuppositions and expectations. He has been able to meet Yeshua in living presence, at source. Whoever wrote this text is asking us to emulate Thomas, and therefore his teacher Yeshua. We all come from the same bubbling source, and are invited both to recognise this and live from the place of recognition. Peter and Matthew may remain constrained by limiting traditional narratives, but Thomas has understood, and two other disciples, Salome and Mary, are portrayed as being on the way.
Recently re-reading this story, I was moved by the force of the words ‘bubbling source from which I spring’. I am grateful to Jean-Yves LeLoup’s translation for this, because the standard academic translation speaks of the “bubbling spring that I have tended” (2), which for me lacks power in comparison. ‘Bubbling source from which I spring’ exactly describes my felt sense of ‘living presence’, recognising it in myself. In my formal practice, I work within a circle framework and I quickly grasped that it should be recognised as the power at the centre. Liturgically, I now greet it is ‘the bubbling source from which I spring and heart of living presence’. This feels right and good. It helps that ‘bubbling source’ is not specifically a water image in this translation. I am free to experience it internally, through my act of recognition, as a shift in energy and attention.
I feel as if I have integrated, or perhaps re-integrated, a depth dimension into the practice, and it feels richer. Since the Winter Solstice I have been closely following the wheel of the year. It represents the inheritance and continuing life of my Druidry. In many ways this is a naturalistic undertaking. But I am now powerfully reminded that my existing commitment to the flowing moment as my true home, and out of which these recent insights came, is not simply about living a slowed down time in a conventionally naturalistic sense. It is that – but it also allows the taste of timelessness and the sense of a primordial nature. The Thomas text reminds me of it. That I can recognise it is also partly thanks to my work in recent years with the practices of the Headless Way (3), the Direct Path (4,5), and Jeff Foster’s community (6). Ultimately this primordial nature is no-thing, but as no-thing it becomes everything, I discover a ‘bubbling source’. I seem to have reached a point where I can both integrate this learning and keep simple. Indeed the one seems to lead to the other. I am grateful that it is so.
(1) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman). Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005
(2) The Gospel of Thomas: the Hidden Sayings of Jesus (New translation with introduction and notes by Marvin Meyer. Interpretation by Harold Bloom). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992
At this strange moment in my life, I want to make my contemplative work more focused and integrated. Communing with the image above led to a deepening, related to the experience of ‘living presence’, and reported in a recent post (1). The process of writing that post has prompted further developments. One of them is a renewal of engagement with ancient wisdom writing.
My favourite books in this genre are the Tao Te Ching (2) and the Gospel of Thomas (3). My work with them has two aspects. One is to understand their cultural contexts, assisted by editors and commentators and further reading. The other is my direct response to the sayings. I am currently focusing on Thomas because some it its sayings influence my practice. Below I summarise contextual information. Each of my next two posts will cover a specific saying.
As a text, Thomas has more resemblance to ancient Jewish Wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes/Sirach) than either the canonical gospels or most Gnostic literature. Numbers of the sayings do also appear in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and Jesus/Yeshua defends Mary Magdalene against Peter – a common Gnostic trope. So there is some relationship with the canonical and Gnostic literatures. But there is no biographical information and no presentation of the teacher as a saviour from a super-celestial realm. There is no sense of the material world as a fallen or evil creation whether undermined by a cosmic adversary or ruled by a false god. Indeed there is no sense of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ being somewhere else at all: rather, it is “spread out over the whole earth, and people do not see it” – Saying 113 (1). Thomas can be seen as Gnostic in its sense of self-knowledge (gnosis) as transformational and because the individual is asked to identify with Jesus rather than ‘believe in’ him (4). The text is about self-transformation through a wisdom teaching that points us to our true nature. This makes it very different in cosmology and emphasis from the Gnostic movement that coalesced in the decades after Thomas was written.
Thomas was probably written in Edessa (now Urfa, a city of two million people in south east Turkey, close to the Syrian border), with the Coptic Nag Hammadi version (our only complete copy) a translation from a Greek or possibly Aramaic original (4). At the time of writing, thought to be the middle of the second century C.E., it was the capital of a Roman satellite state, not counted as within the borders of the empire. It rivalled Alexandria as a centre for book production, but had a different cultural feel – ascetic, contemplative and devotional, less concerned with creative myth-making. Christianities influenced by a Thomas tradition (though not necessarily this text) looked east and for many centuries flourished in the Middle East, Central Asia, China and India. In contrast to Europe, they were not religions of power and had to negotiate with other faiths – leading to significant cross-pollination in ways unimaginable in Constantinople or Rome. For example, they are said to have been an influence on Islamic Sufism, and as late as the thirteenth century, Rumi enjoyed good relations with a local Nestorian monastery (5). These eastern churches have stood by a view of theosis, full participation in the life of God. This is understood to have three stages: first, the purgative way, purification, katharsis; second, illumination, the illuminative way, the contemplative vision of God, theoria; and third, sainthood, the unitive way, theosis.
Essentially, this is a gradual path non-dualism. The Gospel of Thomas itself reads to me like a direct path non-dualism, as it does to other people at the present time – like Douglas Harding (6) and Francis Lucille. However I wouldn’t want to go too far in appropriating this ancient text for the purposes of a modern movement. It should be met, as far as possible, as what it is. I am concerned to respect and respond to it. I don’t need to agree with it or (worse) to make it agree with me.
The saying I want to look at in my next post is:
“I am no longer your Master, because you have drunk, and become drunken, from the same bubbling source from which I spring.” (from Saying 13)
In the following post, I will turn to:
“Yeshua said: when you bring forth that within you, then that will save you; if you do not, then that will kill you.” (Saying 70)
(2) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way (A new English version by Ursual K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998
(3) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005
(4) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introduction to ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds New York & Oxford: OUP, 2013
(5) Philip Jenkins The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and How It Died HarperCollins e-books, 2008
(6) Douglas Harding A Jesus for Our Time. Chapter 14 in Look for Yourself: the Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust 2015 (first published the The Head Exchange in 1996)
Biocentrism (1) and the follow-up Beyond Biocentrism (2) are science-referenced explorations of cosmos and consciousness. Unusually, they present a ‘consciousness first’ view. In the first book authors Robert Lanza and Bob Berman work through the evidence and identify seven principles of biocentrism.
“If one removes space and time as actual entities rather than subjective, relative and observer-created phenomena, it pulls the rug from the notion that an external world exists within its own independent skeleton. Where is this external objective existence if it has neither time nor space? we can, at this point formulate seven principles:
“First Principle of Biocentrism: What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness. An ‘external’ reality if it existed, would – by definition – have to exist in space. But this is meaningless, because space and time are not absolute realities but rather tools of the human and animal mind.
“Second Principle of Biocentrism: Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined. They are different sides of the same coin and cannot be divorced from one another.
“Third Principle of Biocentrism: The behaviour of subatomic particles – indeed all particles and objects – is inextricably linked to the presence of an observer. Without the presence of a conscious observer, they at best exist in an undetermined state of probability waves.
“Fourth Principle of Biocentrism: without consciousness, ‘matter’ dwells in an undetermined state of probability. Any universe that could have preceded consciousness only existed in a probability state.
“Fifth Principle of Biocentrism: the structure of the universe is explainable only through biocentrism. The universe is fine-tuned for life, which makes perfect sense as life creates the universe, not the other way around. The ‘universe’ is simply the complete spatio-temporal logic of the self.
“Sixth Principle of Biocentrism: Time does not have a real existence outside of animal-sense perception. It is the process by which we perceive changes in the universe.
“Seventh Principle of Biocentrism: Space, like time, is not an object or a thing. Space is another form of our animal understanding and does not have an independent reality. We carry space and time around with us like turtles with shells. Thus, there is no absolute self-existing matrix in which physical events occur independent of life.”
Beyond Biocentrism summarises and extends Biocentrism. It does not repeat the principles, but elegantly summarises the perspective of biocentrism and takes the argument into new territory. An appendix to the book lists its major topics as: the exploration of time; the unreality of death; the nonreality of space; the nature of consciousness; science proofs of biocentrism; asking about awareness in machines (probably no) and plants (certainly yes).
When I contemplate biocentric thinking, I feel engaged and intrigued – without taking a stance on its truth claims. I can see how the universe of the space/time continuum, and within it the earth that I love, may be but a bubble of local, provisional reality. In the light of this narrative, simply experiencing life, being part of it, feels vividly magical. The effect is to ground me even more in my earth spirituality, gratefully celebrating the experienced here and now.
(1) Robert Lanza, MD, with Bob Berman Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe Dallas, TX: Benbella Books, 2009
(2) Robert Lanza, MD, with Bob Berman Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, and the Illusion of Death Dallas, TX: Benbella Books, 2016
This post summarises where I stand philosophically at this stage of my inquiry, and how my stance affects my practice. When investigating the Direct Path (1) I realised that one possible destination might be a radical scepticism about everything. Awakening to Awareness as ultimate ground of being is not the inevitable end point. The only Direct Path teacher who publicly discusses this is Greg Goode (2), who says: “Over the years, I had studied many philosophies and paths. I was aware of a variety of vocabularies. And now, unless I was explicitly playing the role of a direct path participant, none of these vocabularies seemed preferable in terms of truth or accuracy. When I was left to myself, experience didn’t show up as anything at all. There was nothing strictly true or strictly false to say about it”.
Goode reports a sense of confirmation on reading a privately circulated document attributed to Shri Atamananda Krishna Menon, founder of the Direct Path. According to Greg Goode, the gist is “that we can’t say anything at all … everything is paradoxical. We can’t even say that it’s consciousness or that anything exists! It’s a joyful, effusive case of saying without saying!” It helped Goode to get to his final position of ‘joyful irony’, which I have discussed in an earlier post. (3). His key point is that “the joyful ironist has found loving, open-hearted happiness without dogmatism”. For this to work “the joy and the irony must work together. If you’re joyful without being ironic, you’ll still have attachments to your own views of things. And if you’re ironic without being joyful, you may be bitter, cynical, sarcastic and pessimistic. Heartfelt wisdom includes both sides. Joy adds love to irony. Irony adds clarity to joy.” (2)
This sounds almost postmodern, but in fact echoes an ancient wisdom. Philip Carr-Gomm (4) shows its presence in Jain ethics, grounded in the three principles: ahimsa, aparigraha and anekant. Ahimsa is the doctrine of harmlessness or non-violence. Aparigraha is the doctrine of non-attachment, non-possessiveness or non-acquisition, Anekant is a doctrine of many-sidedness, multiple viewpoints, non-absolutism or non-one-sidedness. The three principles can be seen as completing each other, with non-absolutism as an intellectual aspect of non-violence and non-attachment, and hence a virtue.
Pyrrho of Elis, a Greek philosopher of the fourth century BCE, probably met both Jains and Buddhists, when accompanying Alexander ‘the Great’ to India. Indian influence is certainly evident the school of philosophy he created on his return home. In Greek culture this school was treated as a form of Scepticism, but unlike other Sceptics, Pyrrhonists “neither made truth claims nor denied the possibility of making them. Instead, they cultivated a deeply embedded attitude of suspension of judgement (epoche), allowing possibilities to stand open within the process of continuing inquiry. Such a turning away from the drive for intellectual closure enables peace of mind (ataraxia) in our engagement with the richness and diversity of experience” (5). This teaching seems to combine the Jain view of non-absolutism and the Buddhist view of equanimity and freedom from dukka, (suffering or dis-ease).
As my contemplative inquiry has progressed, I have grown increasingly attracted to the wisdom of this view. I name it as openness, to keep my inquiry process appreciative rather than deconstructive. I have written about it before and this post builds on others. What I notice now is a greater clarity and confidence in this view, reinforcing my stance of At-Homeness in ‘the flowing moment’. Although not perfectly reliable, this At-Homeness is as close as I get to a place of safety. Everything else is uncertain. Everything else can be taken away. I treat ‘flowing moment’ as a simple description of living experience. I find stillness there if I slow down and attend to it. Stillness can be a portal to spontaneous joy and appreciation if I open up and am present to them . It is a good basis for coming back to Earth. From this space I can better connect with other beings, the wider world and the wheel of the year.
(1) A name given to the teachings inspired by Shri Atmananda Krishna Menon (1883 -1959).
(2) Greg Goode After Awareness: The End of the Path Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2016
(4) Philip Carr-Gomm Seek Teachings Everywhere: Combining Druid Spirituality with Other Traditions Lewes, UK: Oak Tree Press, 2019 (Foreword by Peter Owen Jones)
(5) Arne Naess Scepticism Abingdon: Routledge, 2015 (First published 1968. Scepticism is the last book Arne Naess wrote as an academic philosopher, before going on to devote himself to the development of deep ecology, coining the term ecosophy to describe his stance.)
At this point in my inquiry I want to refine my understanding of ’emptiness’. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is a great help here, in his final commentary on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra .
Thich Nhat Hanh discusses Buddha’s teaching that everything is “a manifestation of causes and conditions” and that nothing is permanent or unchanging. This applies to the whole cosmos, and not just to the apparent world. “Whether you call it atman (the soul) or Brahman (ultimate divinity), whether you call it the individual self or the universal self, you cannot find anything there”. Buddha’s teaching was aimed at undermining both of these notions. Nothing has any ‘self-nature’ (we might use the term ‘essence’).
Thich Nhat Hanh pursues this right into the territory of emptiness. “There are still many people who are drawn into thinking that emptiness is the ground of being, the ontological ground of everything. But emptiness, when understood rightly, is the absence of any ontological ground. … We must not be caught by the notion of emptiness as an eternal thing. It cannot be any kind of absolute or ultimate reality. This is why it can be empty. Our notion of emptiness should be removed. It is empty.”
He goes on to say: “the insight of interbeing is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else … looking from the perspective of space we call emptiness ‘interbeing’; looking from the perspective of time we call it ‘impermanence’ … to be empty is to be alive, to breathe in and breathe out. Emptiness is impermanence; it is change … we should celebrate. … When you have a kernel of corn and entrust it to the soil, you hope it will be a tall corn plant. If there is no impermanence, the kernel of corn will remain a kernel of corn forever and you will never have an ear of corn to eat. Impermanence is crucial to the life of everything”.
This is one side of an age old controversy within spiritualities of Indian origin. In this blog, I have given friendly attention to the other side as well – particularly Direct Path teachers like Rupert Spira and Greg Goode and the Indian influenced Douglas Harding. In the end I don’t make an absolute judgement about it. My Sophian ‘At-Homeness in the flowing moment’ is compatible with both views. But I’m now finding greater energy and aliveness in the framework here presented by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Increasingly, when I do Direct Path exercises I experience a breaking down of assumptions about experience itself, and a tremendous opening out … but no container called ‘Awareness’ to fill a God sized hole. It’s similar for me with the Harding exercises. My experience is broadly the same, but my felt sense has shifted, and my narrative with it. I’m moving away from big picture truth claims about this, because I have become sceptical that exercises like this provide any grounds for them, one way or the other. Rather, I lean in to an evolving personal understanding, always provisional, of my contemplative experiences.
As a shorthand, I can talk about the tension between a ‘Oneness’ framing and an ‘interbeing’ framing of what people call non-duality. The difference can seem subtle – and it may be best to use ambiguous, open-ended words like ‘Tao’ and preserve a sense of mystery. But at this turning of the year, ‘interbeing’ is my preferred term. It fits better with the eco-spirituality which I take from my Druid journey, and affirms the relational basis of my Sophian Way.
(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017
This is 7 December where I live, a little after 8 am, itself a little after the moment of dawn. The sunrise is still early in its process, fifteen days before the turn of the year. I took the pictures on one of my regular canal walks, this time between Stroud and Brimscombe in Gloucestershire, England.
This year I am paying close attention to the dance of place and time. It is part of my re-grounding after my adventures in non-duality, yet retaining the learning they brought. I surrender to the experience of winter sunlight. I breathe it in, and it fills the world, enacting a primal awareness. At the same time I acknowledge the particularity of time and place, of movement and change in nature. I also know that my observation of this winter light, at this time and in this place, is unique. It will never happen again in quite this way. It makes me glad to be alive and here for it. This gift is all the greater, and all the more to be treasured, for that very vulnerability, personal and collective, of which I am also conscious.