contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Ramana Maharshi

INQUIRY AND HEART

Recently I have noticed a change in my notion of inquiry. I experience, at the same time, both a greater precision and a softening in my understanding of ‘inquiry’. Rupert Spira (1) makes a helpful point.

“This path is sometimes referred to as self-inquiry or self-investigation. However, these terms – translations of the Sanskrit term atma vichara – are potentially misleading. They imply an activity of the mind rather than, as Ramana Maharshi described it, a sinking or relaxing of the mind into ‘the heart’, that is, into its source of pure Awareness and Consciousness. The term may, therefore, be more accurately be described as ‘self-abiding’ or ‘self-resting’, and is the essence of what is known in various spiritual and religious traditions as prayer, mediation, self-remembering, Hesychasm in the Greek Orthodox Church, or the practice of the presence of God in the mystical Christian tradition.”

At the time of writing, I have three means of heart inquiry by this definition. The first is quintessentially Sophian – a repetition, synchronised with the breath, of the name Ama-Aima (pronounced ahh-mah-ahee-mah). In its tradition of origin (2). this Aramaic name for the Divine Mother brings together Her transcendental and immanent aspects, and the repetition of the name invokes Her light energy and presence, which is the light energy and presence of the cosmos. As I breathe the name, entering into its pulse and vibration, I begin to find that this presence-energy is breathing me, until the distinctions themselves disappear. I treat this work formally, as a sacrament or mystery, and part of a daily practice.

The second is Seeing, and the practices of the Headless Way, described as ‘experiments’ in that family. – see www.headless.org/. I use a variety of these practices depending on the circumstances. The advantage of Seeing is that I can drop into it at any time during the day.

The third is the rawer approach laid out by Jeff Foster (https://lifewithoutacentre.com/ ), which turns the ‘Light of Oneness’, back onto the experience of the struggling human. It flows from his own journey of “venturing into the darkness of myself” (3), before “breaking through the veil of dualistic mind to a   Light that had been there all along”. Here, we enter into a loving encounter with whatever experience is happening and finding a way to accept  – not the content of the experience itself, which may be horrible and need resisting – but the reality that this is the experience that is happening, the one demanding attention. Loving attention to our struggles may not stop suffering but can make them more workable. As with Seeing, I can drop into this meditation at any time – by slowing down, breathing and just being there, with loving curiosity and attention. It works with mixed and good experiences too.

I find that a combination of these practices serves me well. Reading, writing and digital media of relevance to the practices support my sense od direction and my understanding.

(1) Rupert Spira Transparent Body, Luminous World: The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

(2) Tau Malachi Gnosis of the Cosmic Christ: a Gnostic Christian Kabbalah Saint Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2005

(3) Jeff Foster The Joy of True Meditation: Words of Encouragement for Tired Minds and Wild Hearts Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019

THE SATSANG TEACHER STORY

In the story below (1), Greg Goode explores what he calls literal and non-literal meaning – though I would frame it as a tension between verbal and non-verbal communication. The context is the teaching style of the Direct Path some years ago. Greg himself is a successful student and teacher of the Direct Path and models a demystified and dialogical style of presentation in his own work. I find this type of reflection as a welcome sign of democratization in spiritual inquiry and teaching.

“Back then [in the early 1990’s] satsang was taught by a chosen few, who never got up in front of people without reporting their membership in a spiritual lineage stretching back in a lineage to Ramana Maharsi or Nisargadatta Maharaj. Among satsang students, the most valued goal was to become a teacher. The process of becoming a teacher was surrounded by mystery, celebrity and excitement.

“Imagine attending a satsang the way they were back in the 1990’s: the teacher sits in a plush armchair at the front of the room, while audience members sit on hard folding chairs. On the table next to the teacher is a row of three or four framed photos, showing a progression of spiritual teachers starting with Ramana Maharsi and ending with the very person sitting in the armchair. Imagine the satsang beginning with the teacher saying the following:

“’This is not about me. You may look at me sitting up here in this chair in front and wonder why I am here and you are not. I am just like you. Even though I am up here, and you are not, it doesn’t mean that I am special.

“’I don’t even consider myself to be a teacher. I never wanted to teach. It was my teacher who asked me to teach. He gave me the gift of satsang, and I am here giving it to you.

“’The gift of freedom in satsang is the highest that can be given. It is the most intense form of love and the profoundest happiness imaginable. I wish to share it with you. ‘”

“This is a classic example of non-literal meaning contradicting literal meaning in a way that rhetoricians call apophasis, or ‘affirming by denying (illustrated by the popular phrase ‘if you deny it, you supply it’). When a candidate for political offices says, ‘and I won’t mention my opponent’s financial problems’, you know what’s coming next!

“In our example of the satsang monologue, the literal interpretation of the teacher’s opening statements is that he’s just like his audience members. “But everything else about the situation, from the seating arrangements, to the row of photos, to the teacher’s self-consciousness as a giver of satsang, to his disavowal of teacher status -tells a different story. The teacher’s very first sentence isn’t about the audience or about the official satsang topics of consciousness or enlightenment. It’s about him. He goes on to mention himself a total of thirteen times in eleven sentences. This focus is squarely on him, and, according to the non-literal meaning of his speech, he emerges not the same as the others, but very different indeed. He becomes the teacher who has been specially selected to bear the most precious gift of all. This is a case in which being open to non-literal meaning provides access to a deeper and more subtle understanding of a situation.”

(1) Greg Goode After Awareness: The End of the Path Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2016 (Non-Duality Press is an imprint of New Harbinger Publications, Inc.)

POST INQUIRY: SACRAMENT OF THE PRESENT MOMENT

I don’t have to share a person’s cosmology and beliefs to learn from them. Right now, I am thinking of Martin Pegler’s book (1) on the modern Christian mystic Martin Israel. It was recommended to me by my Druid friend Rosa Davis and I realised that it helps me to articulate something important even though I do not share its faith framework.

Pegler and Israel both use the term ‘sacrament of the present moment’. This isn’t just about being awake and attentive. Talking about ‘contemplative prayer’, Pegler says: “Reality need not be attained since it is an already accomplished fact, but it still needs to be recognised and then made our own if it is to mean anything. With an open mind and heart, it is best to forget everything we have learned and begin again just where we are … we wait patiently in the stillness of attentive trust for Truth to reveal itself”.

Pegler is a former follower of Ramana Maharsi who came back to the Anglican Church, so he is speaking of a Divine Truth. But his approach does not require this understanding to make sense. “Making a solemn pledge to honour everything in our experience is enough to allow the waters of Life to flow unencumbered … To know the true self … requires a radical acceptance of ourselves as we really are, of our whole personality in fact. As the outer layers are recognised and put in proper perspective, so the core or centre of the psyche is revealed. How radiant and warm it is but how few of us know it! We are deterred from this knowledge by the surrounding layers of cold and darkness. Many people strive for this central place of warmth, of which they are intuitively aware and may even have touched momentarily during meditation or during some great aesthetic experience. But few will attain comfort until they have made the surrounding darkness their own possession also.”

I find these reflections helpful. Treating present moment awareness as a sacrament, rather than an attainment or skill is helpful. Allowing the ‘moment’ to be reflective – to have depth and interiority – is helpful. Recognizing ‘light’ and ‘dark’ alike is helpful: nothing gets airbrushed out.  The sacrament of the present moment is a full recognition of who I am and the context in which I find myself.

This radical acceptance paradoxically opens space for change. I find limited value in approaches that say, ‘don’t be like that. Be like this instead’. But the sacrament of the present moment is different. I think I’ve been celebrating it for a long time without naming it. Each experience is what it is, and remains sacramental in despair and joy alike. Cumulatively I have been finding it naturally easier to access a felt sense of inner freedom and peace. I recognize this heart space, or heart-wisdom space, as my true home. This place, or state, is also the centre from which I operate best in the wider world. It is my reason for maintaining a personal contemplative practice.

(1) Philip Pegler Meeting evil with mercy: an Anglican priest’s bold answer to atrocity Winchester & Washington: Christian Alternative, 2016 (Reflections on the Ministry of Martin Israel)

BOOK REVIEW: NOT I NOT OTHER THAN I

Not INot I, Not Other than I is an inspiring story of spiritual awakening. For me, the book has a skilful balance of biography and wisdom in which each throws light on the other. Highly recommended to people involved or interested in contemplative spiritualities.

Russel Williams left school aged 11. Both of his parents were dead and he was too old for Barnado’s.  So he was licensed to work for a living, though in 1932 and the years that followed it was hard to make ends meet. He describes himself in his teenage years as existing but not living. He was angry and aggressive, with no empathy, a quick temper, and prone to getting into fights. What frustrated him most was a sense of his own ignorance.

In 1939 war broke out and Williams joined the British army. He recalls that being a soldier “saved me from a bad end, kept me out of trouble – and most importantly it took away the worry of keeping myself alive. I had regular food and shelter for the first time since my parents died. It was easy, compared me to the life I had before. It also taught me self-discipline to control my emotions”.

After the war he went “walking, walking …” until he making contact with another man, who was starting up a small circus. Williams accepted the job of looking after the horses, and he began to feel a strong connection with them. He wanted to understand them better. “I set my mind to watching and observing every detail, every moment of the day, for days on end”. This process became “more and more concentrated”. He was “not thinking any more”. His mind had “gone quiet”. He was experiencing states of “spontaneity” and “living in the moment”. He began to “look through the horses’ eyes”, as the boundaries fell away, and he became notable for his calming and healing presence when working with them.

Still in his 20’s, Williams began to discern a path in life. Later he framed his life with the horses – 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 3 years – as a naturally occurring education in mindfulness meditation: his life a continual service, “with no thought of myself”. He still experienced frustration and disappointment, because he couldn’t find anyone to talk to about this who seemed willing to treat him seriously. But eventually he ran into a small number of kindred spirits, people with whom he could enter into close rapport, and this led to his joining the Manchester Buddhist Society in 1957.

Although the Society made a connection with Thai Buddhism in 1954 (one of their members trained as a monk) Williams himself has kept a distance from formal Buddhism. He has been President of the Society for over 40 years and he still doesn’t call himself a Buddhist. His life and work has included esoteric Christian influences and a resonance with Ramana Maharshi. One of his sayings is that whereas “Buddhism is a belief system … the way of the Buddha is a recognition system”. Acknowledging that Buddha didn’t go beyond dealing with suffering, never mentioning spiritual worlds as such or communicating with other entities, he added “but we do”. Williams’ way of the Buddha is also a way of the free spirit.

Russel Williams is now 93. He is still going strong. My contemplative Druid companion Rosa Davis mentioned this book at our last group meeting. Williams says that his life experience and practice have led him to a “natural state” of oneness with everything, and with the universe itself. “We are part of the unmanifest. We are part of the pure consciousness which has given rise to the whole universe. That consciousness is our true nature, and, when we rest within it, we feel a powerful sense of ease and contentment”. He believes that this is the only meaningful way of understanding the term ‘God’, and what Jesus of Nazareth meant when declaring “I and the Father are one”. This kind of experience, “stillness, pure consciousness, emptiness of being” is the inheritance of us all, and potentially available to us all. It is based on sense-feeling, and on filling the emptiness with loving-kindness.

Williams doesn’t support long meditation practices, though he does believe in frequent ones. He saying “once you get the process going” 10 or 15 minutes should suffice, and recommends doing it 7 times a day. For him, the way in to a full meditative state is through the realm of subtle feeling, and he invites us in with him about a third of the way through the book:

“Feel down here, a little bit above the navel you’ll find the right place. Centre yourself there, in feeling. Observe your breathing, in the sense of the expansion and contraction of the outer part of the body, as if it were a balloon …” From here we are guided to notice the calming and peaceful effects of this “gentle movement, this comfortable gentle movement … absence of agitation, peacefulness … a kind of heartfelt warmth of feeling … it feels homely, as though you belong there … And as though it were a light”.  We then move outwards from the “balloon” to include the whole physical body and then go beyond it. “It reaches out in all directions … and begins to feel at home with all its surroundings, whether it be animate or inanimate … of the same nature” …. And so on into silence for a few minutes. At the end of the meditation the practitioner is asked to draw back into the “very centre”, making sure it is “still peaceful and warm” before returning to normal consciousness.

What I learned from this was the flavour of ‘sense-feeling’, a specifically located warmth, a sense of quiet movement, qualities of gentleness and peace. Nurturing is another favourite Williams word. These qualities fill the body-mind and move beyond it, filling emptiness, engendering loving-kindness. In a group meditation, they can create a deep rapport and subtle meeting place between participants. The aim is to develop “such gentle perception that you could compare it to a finger, soft and warm, touching a snow flake, but so delicate that the flake doesn’t melt”. From there, we begin to see into the nature of things, becoming aware of a different reality, expanding into it until we become “boundless”. This is achieved not by any great effort, but by simply letting go.

‘Sense-feeling’ has already helped me in my own practice. It enriches my experience of ‘presence’ (a key word for me), placing it more clearly beyond witnessing awareness as normally understood. The meditative experience becomes participatory and nurturing in a more complete way, yet one that also seems easy, obvious, almost remembered rather than newly learned. I’m grateful for the recommendation and glad to be passing it on.

Russel Williams (2015) Not I, Not Other than I: the Life and Spiritual Teachings of Russel Williams (Edited by Steve Taylor) Winchester & Washington: O Books

 

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